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Gray, Alasdair

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author, Theatre.

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(1934-2019) Scottish painter, playwright, poet and author who began publishing work of genre interest with "The Star" in Collins Magazine for Boys and Girls for May 1951, whose boy protagonist finds a transparent fallen star through which he sees other worlds; when a schoolmaster demands it, he swallows the star, gaining Transcendence but clearly dying. As Gray has acknowledged, the tale was inspired by H G Wells's "The Crystal Egg" (May 1897 The New Review). This and other stories were gathered, along with a wide variety of sf fables and Fabulations, in Unlikely Stories, Mostly (coll 1983), perhaps the single most remarkable of these stories being given separate publication as Five Letters from an Eastern Empire [for subtitle see Checklist] (1979 Words Magazine; 1995 chap). His first and most substantial novel was Lanark: A Life in Four Books (1981; exp 2001 4vols), a vast tale whose burly narrative voice shoulders aside questions of genre as impertinences; the protagonist is born, lives and dies in an intensely imagined Glasgow (see City), from which, having been transformed into an alter ego named Lanark, he is transported to the regimented Underground Dystopia of Unthank, a Hell raddled by transforming metaphorical diseases including one known as dragonhide, which leads to explosive disintegration through excess of bottled-up internal heat or emotion, and others whose victims' remains are exploited by the state for munitions and food; but Unthank also – as, after passing through an "intercalendrical" Zone of time distortion, the protagonist enters the "Epilogue" – becomes the text of Lanark, through which he wages his way.

1982 Janine (1984) is a metaphysical fantasy, with some of the same embedded entwinings of life and book. The Fall of Kelvin Walker: A Fable of the Sixties (1985) and Something Leather (fixup 1990) are associational, as are the tales assembled in Lean Tales (coll 1985), which also includes work by James Kelman and Agnes Owens. It is typical of the short works assembled in Ten Tales Tall & True: Social Realism, Sexual Comedy, Science Fiction, Satire (coll 1993), Mavis Belfrage: A Romantic Novel, with Five Shorter Tales (coll 1996) and The Ends of Our Tethers: 13 Sorry Stories (coll 2003) that they contain a stronger unguent of Equipoise than his novels, which tend deliberately to lurch from register to register – Gray is not a writer who could be described as hovering with any undue subtlety over his material. McGrotty and Ludmilla, or The Harbinger Report (1975 as BBC radio play; 1990) is a mildly poisonous Satire of UK life and politics set in a moderately displaced Alternate History; Poor Things: Episodes from the Early Life of Archibald McCandless M.D. Scottish Public Health Officer (1992; rev 1993) fabulates the Frankenstein story (see Frankenstein Monster) and Feminism; A History Maker (1994; rev 1995) sets an eccentric tale of border warfare with England in the Scotland of the twenty-third century; and Old Men in Love: John Turnock's Posthumous Papers (2007) refracts Scotland's history through a set of narrative analogies taken from a fabulated ancient Greece.

Though published by mainstream houses, most of Gray's books were designed by him in his own unmistakable style, and introduced his visual work to many readers. His four late retrospective collections also wore his brand throughout. A Gray Playbook [for full title see Checklist below] (coll 2009) assembles at least twenty plays and playlets, plus screenplays for unmade film versions of Lanark and Poor Things. His autobiography, A Life in Pictures (graph 2010), demonstrated for an international audience his long-established position as one of Scotland's most important (and most prolific) painters. All of his short fiction was assembled, with annotations, as Every Short Story 1951-2012 (coll 2012). And his short nonfiction was assembled as Of Me and Others (coll 2014; rev 2019).

Finally, close to the end of his life Gray completed and illustrated a new translation of Dante Alighieri's The Divine Comedy into characteristically unfrilled and demotic verse: Hell (2018), Purgatory (2019) and Paradise (2020) [for subtitles see Checklist below], the final volume appearing after his death. [JC]

Alasdair James Gray

born Glasgow, Scotland: 28 December 1934

died Glasgow, Scotland: 29 December 2019


collections and stories


nonfiction (selected)

  • A Life in Pictures (Edinburgh, Scotland: Canongate Books, 2010) [nonfiction: graph: autobiography accompanying comprehensive selection of paintings: illus/hb/Alasdair Gray]
  • Of Me and Others (Edinburgh, Scotland: Cargo Publishing, 2014) [nonfiction: coll: hb/Alasdair Gray]

works as translator

works as editor

about the author


previous versions of this entry

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