Ian Sansom, '‘It didn’t seem like much fun at the time’' (The Guardian, 20/09/2008)
There is nothing that diminishes a writer quite so well as a biography, nothing as certain to turn our idolised Ms Triumph into a Little Miss Wretch, or the much admired Mr Wonderful into the absurd Boy Snivelly. Rodge Glass’s biography of Alasdair Gray could easily have become a classic work of biographical belittlement. Gray is, or has been, as heavy-drinking, as arrogant, as generally self-centred, as bearded, and as appallingly badly behaved as the rest of us, yet Glass manages to portray him without condescension or condemnation. He also manages, on the whole, to avoid the opposite of bio-miniaturisation, which is gross bio-puff-and-plumping and personality gigantism. The book just about keeps Gray in colour and life-size perspective: what we see is neither twit nor saint, but man.
Arguably, Glass is Gray’s perfect biographer, having been taught by him at Glasgow University and then employed as his secretary for a number of years. Thus he has had the dubious privilege of having “seen him first thing in the morning, last thing at night, sober, drunk, excited, depressed, asleep” and, alas, “naked (passing me in the hallway on the way to the bathroom)”. Glass is not unaware that this sort of close contact could also mean that he was “the worst person in the world to write his biography”. Not necessarily the worst, but clearly not impartial either. He states that he’s determined to avoid writing what he calls “A Sycophant’s Bible of Alasdair Gray”, but the book is inevitably, and not at all unpleasantly, suffused with a general tone of slight pleasantness: not a sycophant’s Bible, but a Good Friend’s Gemara.
The inside-track doesn’t excuse Glass from doing his homework. He dutifully chronicles Gray’s rather idyllic 1930s and 40s childhood in the Glasgow suburb of Riddrie, speaks to family members and friends, and catalogues his unique achievements as an artist and writer. Glass turns up various little nuggets, such as the Christmas 1947 issue of Whitehill School Magazine, with an early, typical Gray short story, and quotes diary entries suggesting that the beginnings of Gray’s masterpiece novel, Lanark (1981), lie as far back as when Gray was 17. Grayaholics - Grayites, Graysons? - will doubtless also enjoy Glass’s faithful account of Gray’s Glasgow School of Art days, his chronicle of Gray’s drifting in and out of teaching as a means of making a living, and his amusing retelling of the long saga of The Book of Prefaces, Gray’s masterpiece work of non-fiction, finally published in 2000 after many years in preparation.
The summaries and analyses of the novels and short stories are undoubtedly useful (in particular the glossing of characters in Lanark), and Glass’s sentence-length summary of what critics regard as Gray’s flaws as a writer perfectly neat and handy (“the quality of Alasdair’s output is limited by his need to pre-empt criticism, and bring socialism and Scottish nationalism into everything”), but it’s probably safe to assume that anyone reading the book will already have read, or will certainly want to read, Gray’s books for themselves and come to their own conclusions. What one really wants from a biographer, after all, is biography - a little taste of the juice in the fruit, or the gravy to go with the pie.
Glass does not stint on the juice or the gravy. He rightly probes Gray about his relationships with and portrayals of women, and returns again and again to discuss the long-term effects of Gray’s early marriage to Inge Sorensen. Interviewing friends he extracts quotes and comments, both good and bad, with considerable skill. “He’s the nicest man I’ve ever met - I just couldn’t take the drinking,” remarks Bethsy Gray, one of Gray’s former lovers, who tolerated his eccentric behaviour for years, but who found that when her own son became ill with cancer, Gray failed to offer any support: “It was almost as if he didn’t understand what was happening.” (The two, remarkably, remain friends.) Gray’s current and long-suffering wife, Morag McAlpine, Glass fairly reports, “sees faults where others see only the Gray-who-can-do-no-wrong”. Pride of place in the personal comments, though, goes to Rosemary Hobsbaum’s remark on Gray’s eczema: “You used to have to take a Hoover to the floor when he left the room: he neglected himself.”
But the real gems in Alasdair Gray of course come from Alasdair Gray. “When Alasdair has been concentrating on work,” remarks Glass, “and is given a good opportunity to speak about it, listening to him is like opening up his brain and watching the contents spill gloriously on the table.” The book includes plenty of glorious Gray brainspill in the form of reported conversation, letters and miscellaneous remarks. “I’ve found your life to be a lot of fun,” says Glass. “The point is …” replies Gray, “IT DIDN’T SEEM LIKE MUCH FUN AT THE TIME!”
“Alasdair will only be appreciated when he’s dead,” writes Glass, getting a little misty-eyed towards the end of what is otherwise a fairly moisture-free account, “and even then it won’t be what he deserves. We’ll get all the usual sentimental nonsense where commentators will cut out anything uncomfortable in the obituary. The usual parasites will say how ‘important’ he was.” Well, let’s just thank God he’s not dead yet. And that Glass isn’t just the usual parasite.