Book Review: Every Short Story 1951-2012, Alasdair Gray, Canongate Books
May 25, 2014 | 2:00 pm
With the near-destruction of the renowned Glasgow School of Art building designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, it’s a good time to celebrate one of its most famous alumni: Alasdair Gray, artist, author, polemical Scottish nationalist, and dyed-in-the-wool Glaswegian. He started writing in the late 1950s, although he only began seriously publishing in the 1980s, with his landmark novel Lanark appearing in 1981. And Every Short Story 1951-2012 collates every published story in his five published collections: Unlikely Stories, Mostly (1984), Lean Tales (1985), Glaswegians (1990), Ten Tales Tall and True, (1993), and The Ends of Our Tethers: 13 Sorry Stories (2005). The Endnotes, taking the reader through the various stories and collections, form a virtual guided tour by the author through his life and work: “vanity has made these endnotes tell more about my life as a fiction writer than I first intended,” he states.
According to the endnotes, Gray was telling stories to his younger sister Mora from his earliest years and tried to write the first one down at age eight or nine – “I meant to astonish the world with a book completed when I was twelve” – and by age ten was reading “a book in a few hours” four times a week or more at Riddrie Public Library. This book contains even his earliest written work, The Star from 1951, “written in the last summer holiday with both my parents on the island of Arran,” and every shorter work since, as well as his entire 1990 novel Something Leather, repurposed as a short story collection in the shape of Glaswegians by removing the earlier S&M fantasies from the book, to focus on standalone chapters that Gray rates “among my best stories in the realistic genre.” He also rescues stories otherwise unavailable: “To stop this Lean Tales section being absurdly thin I have fattened it with four stories from a book that is wholly out of print (Mavis Belfrage, A Romantic Novel with Shorter Tales, Bloomsbury, 1996).”
Gray the artist also gets a good showing in this book, especially with the illustrations for the first collection of stories. The later ones mostly have shorter vignettes, but these are all well reproduced even in ebook form, and look grand. This is not an easy book to read through straight from cover to cover, though – it’s huge. Gray has always been a really industrious author, as Lanark itself shows, and Every Short Story runs to some 800 pages in EPUB format and 934 pages in print. Every facet in his compendious talent, every stage in his creative development, is on display, from straight naturalism to erotic fiction through a lot of political rants and humor to magic realism bordering on steampunk. Also, not every story is of the same quality, so readers can be forgiven for not feeling they need to slog through the whole at one go.
Canongate Books was Gray’s publisher from the start of his career and the venue for the appearance of Lanark in 1977, then “a Scottish publishing house so small that I doubted if Lanark would ever be published.” They have certainly done him proud this time in the presentation. Even for an writer with such a strong visual flair, readers will miss very little in the ebook format. They also won’t miss, alas, typos that disfigured the print edition of the book. But warts, hairy moles, bristles, and general Glasgow rebarbativeness and all, this is a terrific summary of the entire career of one of the world’s greatest living writers, whose boundless inventiveness and Victorian zeal for work put most of his British contemporaries to shame. Indispensable.