ALASDAIR GRAY FEATURE
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Alasdair Gray’s latest fictional creation reveals his approach to the
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world is as playfully inventive as ever. Sue Wilson spoke to the Glaswegian writer-painter about Frankenstein, Fabianism and reasons to be cheerful.
was writing a book of short stories at the time, so was on the alert for new ideas, and I had a dream of being in a basement, in a Glasgow tenement of the older and larger kind, and seeing a woman sitting staring rather fixedly out of the window — some children were playing on the back green, or there was a Punch and Judy performance — and there was something slightly Victorian about the whole thing. A man came into the room and said something like — though these words don’t appear in the book — “It’s important that she see as many different things as possible, because she won’t be able to think until she has things to remember”, and I knew that the woman had been invented by this man. So I was thinking that this was quite an interesting idea. maybe a bit spooky, and wondered if there might be two or three pages of a short story in there , starting from the point of view of what kind of imaginary Glaswegian surgical genius could possibly have invented a human being?’
Such is the genesis of an Alasdair Gray novel; at least, such was the genesis of his latest oeuvre Poor Things. An ‘up-to-date 19th century novel’ set in Glasgow and on the Continent during the early 18805, it is a bold, exuberant and often hilarious reworking of the Frankenstein story, with a liberal dash of lighthearted socio-political satire thrown in. Gone, for the moment, are the strange fetishes, bizarre perversions and outlandish sexual fantasies of recent Gray works such as I 982, Janine and Something Leather, but still very much present is Gray’s prodigious, gleeful imagination, his distinctive blend of the freakish and fantastical with ideas of sparkling wit and 1nc151veness.
Poor Things relates the strange history of Bella Baxter, created by imaginary Glaswegian surgical genius Godwin Baxter from the body of a drowned, pregnant woman and the brain of her unborn child.
Gray extends his conceit considerably further than did Mary Shelley, however, as he playfully theorises about how such a character, with a brand-new brain in a 25-year-old body, would actually think and behave.
‘The problem with Frankenstein is that he’s not really a very convincing scientist, because having brought this creature to life, he doesn’t even bother to give it an education,’ says Gray, ‘though it’s a very intelligent creature, in that it gives itself a reasonable education by reading one or two books and eavesdropping on humanity. It’s just the idea of a creator being so careless of his creation — though of course that’s a kind of parody of most religious people’s idea of
Gray has reneged on his pledge to write no more and returned to the tray with a work as enjoyable and stimulating as any he has written.
God; somebody so much better than we are that he just left us to ourselves, apart from incarnating himselfonce as Jesus; but even then we take it less as a gesture ofloving kindness than as a kind of, “Right, now you’ve had your chance . . .”.’
If any such metaphor is present in Gray’s novel, then the deity in question is unquestionably of the kind and caring variety. Godwin Baxter is, if anything, excessively concerned with Bella’s well-being and education, systematically exposing her to new experiences and stimuli, more than once sacrificing his own happiness to hers. Thanks to his efforts, she ‘grows up’ a thoroughly wonderful character, retaining the eager receptiveness to the world of a child who hasn’t yet learned caution or cynicism, but combining it with an intelligent adult woman’s capabilities. When she does eventually come across evil and misery, her response is swift, simple and decisive.
‘Because she’s led a very protected life, but at the same time been brought up by a liberal-humanist-rationalist of a very humane kind, for Bella the shock of adolescence has nothing to do with sexual awakening, it’s finding that this is a world where poor children are horribly treated and there’s no one to stop it,’ Gray explains. ‘To her that’s the most shocking thing there is, whereas most children learn to take it in their stride. Someone who read the book said they slightly regretted Bella’s transformation, from being alert, hopeful, quite delighted with everything, to being a rather determined Fabian socialist with Scottish Nationalist and Workers’ Republican Party tendencies. but it struck me as a perfectly rational development.’ The book also contains the now familiar Gray addenda — Introduction , Notes Critical and Historical and A Letter To Posterity by Bella herself — all provocatively muddying the waters. His many fans can breathe a sigh of relief that he has reneged on his pledge to write no more (he planned at one stage to concentrate solely on painting) and returned to the fray with a work as enjoyable and stimulating as any he has written. One with a surprisingly optimistic air about it, too, in spite of the gloomy prognosis for many of the beliefs and institutions Gray holds most dear.
‘There’s a very good poem by Norman McCaig,’ Gray says, ‘quite a recent one; I can’t remember the exact words, but it’s about a discussion upon the condition of the world, the frequency of oppression , abuse, mutilation, hunger and so on, and about the next day going out into a beautiful morning, being greeted by your neighbours with sympathy and humour; about viewing the profits and losses of the world you occupy— the books cannot be balanced, you can’t say it’s good in spite of everything, but you can’t say it’s all atrocious because of everything. In the end it has to do with your work, with being able to find some excuse for believing that the work you do does more good than harm.’
Poor Things is published by Bloomsbury on 3 September at£14. 99
The List 28 August — 10 September 1992 83