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Alasdair Gray, Scottish author of daring prose, dies at 85
Gray peppered his narratives with illustrations, eccentric typography and unusual page layouts.

by Julia Carmel

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- Alasdair Gray, who wrote some of Scotland’s most celebrated — and strange — fiction, which he often interlaced with his own sharply etched illustrations, died Dec. 29 at a hospital in Glasgow. He was 85.

His niece Kat Rolley said the cause was complications of pneumonia.

Gray’s first novel, “Lanark: A Life in Four Books” (1981), wasn’t published until he was 46, but it came to be hailed as a masterpiece. He wrote six more novels and six collections of short stories, influencing a generation of writers. In a wide-ranging career, he also created artwork, much of it seen in the streets of Glasgow.

The narrative of “Lanark” unfolds out of order — it begins with Book Three — and the focus shifts between the parallel universes of postwar Glasgow and a futuristic, hellish universe called Unthank. As the two main characters, Duncan Thaw and Lanark, explore their cities — one mundane, the other fantastical — they fixate on the mechanics of their societies and the inefficient nature of their governments. Gray’s illustrations are interspersed throughout the nearly 600-page novel, accompanied by curiously formatted sidebars and indexes.

“Certainly it should be widely read,” John Crowley wrote of “Lanark” in The New York Times Book Review. “It should be given every chance to reach those readers — for there will surely be some, and not all of them Scots — to whom it will be, for a short time or a lifetime, the one book they would not do without.”

Gray peppered his narratives with illustrations, eccentric typography and unusual page layouts. A feverish mix of fantasy and realism runs through much of his work, with shifting timelines creating a sense of dreamlike confusion.

Much of his work is also semi-autobiographical, merging his socialist views and his affinity for Glaswegian culture and reflecting his sexual and social insecurities. In a 2016 interview with The Paris Review, he said these insecurities were one reason he had spent nearly 30 years working on other projects before publishing “Lanark.”

“I believed that as a writer I should have experiences of fatherhood and family life, more adult experience than that of childhood,” Gray said. “I was afraid those things might not happen to me. But they did.”

Although he often hid his meaning beneath layers of wit and experimentation, he wrote aphoristically when it came to his political and social beliefs.

“You suffer from the oldest delusion in politics,” a character in “Lanark” says. “You think you can change the world by talking to a leader. Leaders are the effects, not the causes, of changes.”

Alasdair James Gray was born Dec. 28, 1934, in Glasgow to Amy (Fleming) and Alexander Gray. His mother worked in a clothing warehouse, his father in construction.

Gray studied design and mural painting at the Glasgow College of Art. When he graduated in 1957, he was commissioned to paint murals around Glasgow, which he continued to create until 2014. He worked on freelance projects and also wrote plays before publishing his first novel.

The murals, which can still be seen around Glasgow, are testaments to Gray’s love of the city, where he lived his entire life aside from a four-year period during World War II, when his family was forced to evacuate.

Gray married Inge Sorensen in 1961, and they had a son, Andrew, who survives him. The couple separated in 1970 and later divorced. He married Morag McAlpine in 1991; she died in 2014. In addition to his son, he is survived by a sister, Mora Rolley, and a granddaughter.

Whether he was creating etchings for his books or a mural to adorn the ceiling of the Glasgow arts and entertainment venue Oran Mor, Gray created an unusual niche for himself encompassing Scotland’s literary and artistic spheres. While his murals can be found at subway stops and restaurants in Glasgow, some of his works are in the collection of the National Galleries of Scotland, and one of his most famous quotations, “Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation,” is chiseled on the Scottish Storytelling Center in Edinburgh.

His work influenced a generation of Scottish writers, including Irvine Welsh, Alan Warner, A.L. Kennedy and Janice Galloway. Anthony Burgess, the author of “A Clockwork Orange” and other works, said Gray was the most important Scottish novelist since Sir Walter Scott.

Galloway, in her introduction to the 20th-anniversary edition of “Lanark,” said Gray had made the local universal.

“Alasdair Gray’s big book about Glasgow is also a big book about everywhere,” she wrote. “Its insistence on the literal if mistrusted truth — that Glasgow and Scotland and every small nation and individual within it are part of the whole wide world — is something worth saying indeed.”

In addition to writing fiction, poems and plays — for the stage, television and radio — Gray published an autobiography, “A Life in Pictures,” in 2010. It combined photos, written descriptions and lavish illustrations to reveal that much of Gray’s personal life was embedded in his work.

Gray had simple explanations for his peculiar style. In a 2007 interview with The Guardian, for example, he explained why he had included so many illustrations in his second collection of short fiction, “Unlikely Stories Mostly” (1982).

“It was important to have a nicely decorated book,” he said, “so that when folk came to a bit they found boring, they could skip over it without resentment.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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