spring 2008: volume 7: issue 2
Oxonian Review of Books

Also in this Issue:

Still Learning

Sarah Webster

Alasdair Gray Old Men in Love Bloomsbury, 2007 320 pages £20.00 ISBN 978-0747593539

From most novelists, a title like Old Men in Love would be an unappealing prospect. It contains intimations of one of the more distressing sub-genres of fiction—the dirty novel by the aging writer, unaware that there are few things as unpleasant as an old man taking an interest in the sex lives of young women. John Tunnock, hero of Alasdair Gray’s most recent and possibly last novel, is an old man (and an aspiring author to boot) revelling in his late discovery of the joys of young flesh. Around this potentially pathetic hero is constructed a narrative of rare sensitivity, genuine comedy, and unlikely hope. That Gray, unlike so many of his peers, avoids foundering on sentimentality and the gynaecological grotesque is pleasing but unsurprising: Gray’s unusual intelligence about sex has been evident since his first novel, the epic Lanark (1981). Janine (1984) combines BDSM pornography with a narrative of descent and redemption that produces provocative and intriguing insights into the politics of fantasy.

Where other writers palm off their fantasies dishonestly through dislikeable characters, Gray possesses a decency about the indecent that impels him to claim responsibility for his erotic imaginings. Discussing Janine in an interview with Kathy Acker, he explained that “this particular story started discoursing on other things: sex fantasies I had meant to die without letting anybody know happen in this head sometimes.” Gray has long recognised that, while the contents of fantasy vary wildly between individuals, the fact of desire is common to most humans. As a brisk and kindly maiden aunt says in Old Men in Love, “Every woman who washes teenage boys’ underwear knows how often they masturbate”. Gray represents the avatars of his exploits sympathetically, and Tunnock emerges as the emphatically flawed object of compassion and criticism.

Gray’s attention to human physicality is matched by an attention to the physical appearance of his books. In Lanark’s “Epilogue” (strikingly positioned about 80 pages before the end of the novel), the eponymous hero meets a figure calling himself “the author” who tells Lanark that “Everything you have experienced and are experiencing […] is made of one thing […] Print.” The critic-persona Sidney Workman then intrudes in a footnote to declare that “‘Words’ would have been a better term than ‘print’, being less definably concrete.” Workman is mistaken: Gray’s novels, with their lavish and elegant illustrations (all by Gray, who was mainly employed as an artist and art teacher before the publication of Lanark) and their astonishingly inventive typesetting including marginalia and footnotes, really are performances in print. As with William Blake, the only way of reading Gray is to have the paper copy in your hands. In his affection for “thisness,” Gray creates wonderful new objects to contain the descriptions of the material things for which he feels so fondly. The opening of the novel mingles fiction with information about Gray’s printing options, which would be superfluous coming from most authors, but is wholly consistent with one whose literary production is so profoundly involved with the manufacture of his books.

And so it remains with Old Men in Love, which reprises many of the characteristic features of Gray’s earlier work, although generally in milder form. The marginal notes are more descriptive than querulous; the typesetting never approaches the virtuoso heights of Jock’s overdose in Janine, where the arrangement of text invokes the map of Dante’s Hell; the sex, while frequent and vital, is conspicuously gentle compared to the hardcore reveries of Janine and Something Leather (1990); and there is even an epilogue from Lanark’s hapless Sidney Workman. The main premise of Old Men in Love is a retread of Poor Things (1992), in which Gray plays the ostensible editor of a collection of obscure papers that have chanced into his purview. But whereas Poor Things expounds an audacious Frankenstein plot in nineteenth-century Glasgow, Old Men in Love pushes a fiction no more implausible than that a Scottish schoolteacher with literary ambitions lived quietly until a libidinous old age and a sordid death.

It is reasonable to see Old Men in Love as a summing up of Gray’s career. In fact, there is a clear invitation to read it as such—one of the plot strands of the historical novel over which Tunnock is labouring centres on the trial of Socrates, and imagines at length the ancient philosopher’s defence of his life’s work. But this is not to suggest that Old Men in Love is somehow disappointing or self-indulgent. Gray continues to see himself as a developing author. He says as much on the outside of the book: peel back the dust-jacket of Old Men in Love and you can see the title design embossed on the cover with the words “are still learning” tucked inside the “o” of “love”. The self-reference, the allusions to other works, and the textual games all continue the process of ongoing auto-critique Gray inaugurated in Lanark.

Although an occasional polemicist, Gray is primarily a satirist, like the writers with whom he incites comparison in the epigraph and on the fly-leaf—Flann O’Brien, Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, Rabelais, and Lawrence Stern. Like any great and committed satirist, Gray’s interest in effecting change through his writing leads him to test his reader severely. The form of the novel demands that we dismantle and reassemble the text, untwining the fictions that Gray has spliced together and reconnecting them to discover new interpretations. “I like widening my readers’ range of expectations,” he writes in the introduction. Old Men’s political concerns hint that expanded expectations of fiction could lead the reader to expand their expectations in non-literary ways, encompassing social justice and personal relationships: the fiction’s game of worlds becomes an invitation to redraw the rules of the reader’s real world. Lanark’s declaration of an alliance between aesthetic and social invention—“We have no nature. Our nations are not built instinctively by our bodies, like beehives; they are works of art, like ships, carpets and gardens. The possible shapes of them are endless.”—sets the pattern for Gray’s lifelong play with the forms of fiction. (It is typical of Gray that this impassioned statement should arise after the hero’s political intentions have been absolutely thwarted, and be made to an interlocutor who is stubbornly unmoved by it.)

Old Men in Love’s structure owes much to O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, in which the main character’s fictional efforts alternate with a record of his diurnal dealings. In Old Men in Love, John Tunnock’s diaries are similarly interspersed among fragments of his life’s work—a historical triptych portraying the lives and times of Socrates, Filippo Lippi, and Henry James Prince (Victorian leader of the Agapemone cult) to be titled Who Paid For All This? Tunnock’s ambitions for his work are, as his title implies, specifically political: he says of his three heroes that “each was too eccentric to be typical of their nations, but their effect on typical people showed how their nation worked.” Tunnock’s interest in how nations work is shared with his creator, as are his socialist and nationalist politics. But while Tunnock’s fictions expand on the thoughts and experiences he relates in his diaries, he himself is far from the charismatic leaders and seducers he writes about. Named after that icon of Scottish confectionary, the Teacake, and anonymous to most of his acquaintances, Tunnock is rather an everyman through whom Gray constructs a snapshot of Glaswegian life from the 1950s to the present.

That means living under English government, observing the death of domestic industry, the transformation of culture through immigration, and the inexorable shifting of social norms. The brightest scenes of the novel are those of Tunnock walking the streets of Glasgow. As a reluctant participant in a 2003 anti-war march, an unexpected access of group feeling gives rise to affectionate historical ruminations on the buildings of the city and the public who used them. Later, he recalls a sherry-fuelled childhood expedition to buy pornography, retracing his steps and remarking the changes since his youth—“a path that is now the start of the West Highland Walkway”—with a wistfulness for lost time that jars affectingly against Little Tunnock’s brazen simulation of adulthood. Gray has romanticised his home town before (as the fantastical Unthank of Lanark, for example), but the warm realism with which he portrays it in Old Men in Love suggests that Gray is himself somewhat in love.

But old men in love are apt to be disappointed and betrayed, like Socrates and Tunnock, if they do not become tyrants like Beloved Henry James Prince. Tunnock’s sorry surprise at the Blair government’s undermining of the pension system—“So New Labour will undo the Liberal Party’s People’s Budget of 1909? I am worse than an ostrich. I am Rip van Winkle.”—is surely an expression of Gray’s own disgust with the condition of politics. The last words Tunnock writes of his historical trilogy are a plea to the electorate of Scotland just ahead of the 2007 ballot to turn out “Blair, Brown and his crew”; the novel-proper goes out in a fractured whisper of mortality.

Although Gray shares his hero’s socialist and nationalist politics, unlike Tunnock, Gray is writing after the election and knows what came next for the Scottish parliament in the world outside the novel. Overshadowed though it is by the main character’s shabby demise, the electorate’s move away from Third Way politics by voting in a minority SNP government suggests that societies are themselves still learning, despite all signs to the contrary—for all that Gray is conscious of the failures of government and culture, his willingness to go on tenderly upbraiding his reader implies a conviction that humanity is capable of doing better. There is an open-eyed affection for people that makes Old Men in Love a convincing and fond goodbye. It can be hoped that the “last novel” claims are a hoax after the fashion of the “found papers” ruse, but it seems churlish to demand that Gray exceed the riveting achievements of his remarkable career in fiction, and difficult to imagine a more felicitous coda.

Copyright © 2008 Oxonian Review of Books