The Best of Brit Lit
A look at great reads from the editor of the Times Literary Supplement. This week: Scotland’s legendary Alasdair Gray has a autobiography, of sorts, Anne Enright presents a new collection of modern Irish fiction, and Gulliver’s Travels is due for reconsideration.
It is rare in the TLS office for a single book to be so singularly compelling that everyone who passes by has to stop to look. But Alasdair Gray's A Life in Pictures, reviewed this week by James Campbell, is proving hard for anyone to ignore. Gray’s Scottish life of extraordinary writing and painting, says Campbell, has “the quality of a fairy tale.” In simple terms: social toad is transformed after 25 years of obscurity into artistic prince, and kisses the hand of gorgeous renown with his novel Lanark (1981). But “fairy-tale narrative is rich in horror and cruelty and Gray’s transfiguration has been dogged by a variety of ailments, including eczema, which in turn contributed to periods of agonized sexual frustration.” An otherwise loving father administered severe “skelpings” which generated sadistic erotic fantasies.
Candor about these experiences has contributed to Gray’s public persona: the benignly nutty professor with thick spectacles and crazy hair who masks a Strathclyde Michelangelo capable of executing elaborate church murals; and a novelist whose work has had an influence on Scottish literature comparable to that of Ulysses in the wider European arena.
The new book brings together a bright swirl of little known drawings and designs in “acrylic and Tipp-ex” and shows too some paler black-and-white slides of works that have disappeared, a Glasgow mural lost to the bulldozer, a painting to the business failure of a photocopy shop.
The Booker Prize winning Irish writer, Anne Enright, has entered the crowded fields of Irish short story anthologies. Keith Hopper compares present with past and begins with Anthony Burgess' preface to Modern Irish Short Stories (Penguin, 1980), where he wrote that according to Freud “the Irish were the only race which could not profit from psychoanalysis.” This canard, says Hopper, “has been endlessly recycled across the Internet and elsewhere (most memorably, perhaps, by Matt Damon’s corrupt Boston-Irish cop in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, 2006).” It certainly shows the influence of short-story collections. In the end, Hopper decides, that The Oxford Book of Irish Short Stories remains the best historical survey, even though its canonical authoritativeness comes at a price, and too many of its stories are priest-ridden, overly masculine, and morbidly nationalistic. Enright's The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story is more cherishable than canonical, he judges, and refreshingly contemporary in its selection of writers and writerly concerns. As for Burgess, the truth is more interesting than the contrived claim itself: “Freud’s comment is almost certainly apocryphal; when you try to trace its provenance you inevitably circle back, hermeneutically, to Burgess himself.”
Misreading Gulliver’s Travels
Another misunderstood Irishman—according to P. N. Furbank, one of Britain's most distinguished experts on 18th-century literature—is the great 18th-century satirist Jonathan Swift. If Swift is famous for one thing, it's his novel Gulliver's Travels—but is the book as misanthropic as we've all been led to believe? Swift himself proclaimed to a friend, the poet Alexander Pope, "I have ever hated all nations, professions and communities . . . all my love is towards individuals." Does this personal view mean that the author wants us all to be less like the savage Yahoos that Gulliver encounters, and more like those coldly rational horse-folk, the Houyhnhnms? Furbanks argues that Swift was not so "far gone in sick misanthropy" as this conventional interpretation would suggest.
Peter Stothard's latest book is On the Spartacus Road: A Spectacular Journey Through Ancient Italy. He is also the author of Thirty Days, a Downing Street diary of his time with British Prime Minister Tony Blair during the Iraq war.