Alasdair Gray, RIP.

Back in 2013 I posted about Alasdair Gray’s blog, where he was posting his “Very Free New Version” of Dante’s Divina Commedia. I called him a “wonderful Scottish writer and artist,” and I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read of his, but I haven’t read very much; perhaps the sad news that he has died will impel me to remedy the omission. Richard Lea at the Guardian writes:

Gray came to fiction late, publishing his first novel Lanark at the age of 46 in 1981. A experimental, pornographic fantasy – 1982, Janine – followed three years later, with his rambunctious reworking of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Poor Things, appearing in 1992. As his literary reputation increased, winning both the Guardian fiction prize and the Whitbread novel award in 1992, the elaborate illustrations he created for his books began to draw attention to the pictorial art Gray had been producing all along. The stream of commissions for murals and portraits gradually increased, with writers such as Ali Smith hailing him as “a necessary genius”, and he finished his career as one of Scotland’s most admired and versatile artists.

I love reading about Glasgow (and wish I could visit it), and I can’t believe I’ve never read Lanark.

I won’t make a separate post on this because you have to know Russian to enjoy it, so I’ll tack it on here: Порфирьевич is a neural net (I think? this is all too new for my 20th-century mind) that has swallowed a library of Russian fiction and will provide continuations of anything you put into the box. Avva chose Pushkin’s “Куда? Куда вы удалились?” (from Eugene Onegin) and correctly called the result “especially successful”; he links to seminarist, who provides a whole set of examples, starting with “Все счастливые семьи похожи друг на друга. Только большая часть этих семей состоит из двух-трех людей, и в ней есть одна такая семья, рядом с которой все остальные представляются мелкими грызунами.” [All happy families resemble one another. Only the greater part of these families consist of two or three people, and includes one such family next to which all the rest seem to be small rodents.] and ending with three entirely different continuations of the start of Crime and Punishment. I myself gave it the first sentence of The Idiot and got “Наконец-то минул тревожный, душный июльский страх утраты родных улиц и дворов, соседствовавших с последними вотчинами Бориса Пастернака.” [At last the troubled, stuffy July fear of losing native streets and courtyards adjoining the last ancestral estates of Boris Pasternak passed.] Fun!


  1. Here’s a handy index to Dante’s Sublime Comedy:

    Title page

    Translator’s Introduction


    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34


    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33


    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33

  2. J.W. Brewer says

    I am vaguely distressed to learn that the Dearly Departed was translating Dante into English rather than into Braid Scots. (I think I tried to read some of Gray’s stuff back in the ’90’s, got stuck, and never returned to the project, FWIW. Probably my bad.)

  3. Perhaps he didn’t feel he was sufficiently a master (or servant) of literary Scots to do so, though judging by the reviews his Scots tongue was sufficiently apparent to the English to get mentioned, and he himself says this in the translator’s Introduction:

    The internet notes there have been at least 120 English translations of Dante; every year or two one or two others are published in English speaking nations, and I am sure nearly every one is truer to Dante’s sense than my paraphrase.

    This is because I have cut out all I could not put into my own speech without sounding complicated or pretentious. Dear reader, I promise this is no hint that Dante’s speech in the Comedy is ever complicated or pretentious. I believe the Italian scholars who tell me his language is always as direct and to the point as the speech of Shakespeare or Burns. But his language is lyrical, mellifluent Italian, as old fashioned to modern Italian ears as the speech of Chaucer and Henryson is to ours.

    So by retelling the Comedy in my everyday abrupt north British language [emphasis added] I have inevitably cut it down to the range of my own intelligence, which is certainly less than his, but more equal to your own, so more easy to understand.

    Per contra, he is also on record as saying that he wanted “to be read by an English-speaking tribe which extends to Cape Town in the south, Bengal in the east, California in the West, and George Mackay Brown [a poet and novelist of Orkney who, like Gray, worked in English] in the north.” Perhaps Scots would not have been universal enough for him.

    I don’t know what changes were made in the conventionally published versions, but the title became “Dante’s Divine Trilogy Part One/Two Decorated and Englished in Prosaic Verse.” The third will be published (Deo volente) in the New Year.

    I note that Gray was a civic nationalist who divided the English in Scotland into long-term “settlers” and short-term “colonists”: he was in favor of the former but concerned about the latter. He also wrote in his book Why Scots Should Rule Scotland this opening sentence: “The title of this book may sound threatening to those who live in Scotland but were born and educated elsewhere, so I had better explain that by Scots I mean everyone in Scotland who is eligible to vote.” and when he was attacked for anti-English sentiment, “English settlers are as much a part of Scotland as [South] Asian restaurateurs and shopkeepers, or the Italians who brought us fish and chips. The colonists look forward to a future back in England through promotion or by retirement.”

    I regret to say, however that in Purgatory 26 he simply leaves out Arnaut Daniel’s great final speech (the last spoken by a soul in Purgatory) altogether, presumably because it is written in Occitan, though in the translation Arnaut is still referred to by the previous speaker. Fortunately, we do have the speech in Scots translation, though written by an Englishwoman and spelled with the infamous “apologetic apostrophe”. As far as I know that is the only bit of Dante in Scots there is.

  4. That is a shame; I wonder what his reason was.

  5. Yes, do read Lanark. I downsized a few years ago and purged more than half my library, but kept both Lanark and Poor Things as I do intend to revisit them one day.

  6. Possibly because he could not understand it, or because he couldn’t see how to translate it so as to be neither complicated nor pretentious.

  7. Possibly because he could not understand it

    There have only been about a thousand other versions; I can’t imagine how he could ever have figured it out. And if you’re worried about being complicated or pretentious, translating Dante is probably not an appropriate activity.

  8. See the quote from his intro above, which I was paraphrasing here: Dante isn’t complicated or pretentious in language, and Gray didn’t want to be either.

  9. “Other excuses for mishandling Dante’s text will be in an epilogue to my Paradise translation.” from Gray’s autobiography “Of Me and others”

    I take it the 3td volume will contain that epilogue ands explain any omissions.

    Gray was hyper-aware of what he was doing – hence his many and exhaustive notes in his novels on sources, plagirisms etc, so whatever his reason for leavong out the afore mentioned lines it was likely to be intentional.

    And defintely read Lanark, but especially one with his illustration – while not essential, the illustrations are a major part of his artistic vision.

  10. David Eddyshaw says

    cut it down to the range of my own intelligence, which is certainly less than his, but more equal to your own


  11. Yeah that’s very likely a neural net (I don’t speak Russian, but that’s the design and the trend, so)

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