ALASDAIR GRAY has described himself as a 'maker of imagined objects'. In this 1990 interview with Jennie Renton he discusses his childhood experiences of literature, film and illustration and how his visual imagination was stimulated.
JR What sort of books particularly impressed themselves on your imagination when you were a boy?
AG The books that excited me dramatically also excited me visually – as did children’s comics, the Dandy and the Beano, and the early and greatest Disney films, Snow White, Bambi, Pinocchio, Dumbo Jumbo and Fantasia. I read Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass quite early and was very excited by these. Thinking in terms of the pictorial, I remember finding the Jabberwocky illustration from Through the Looking Glass so disturbing that, although I liked the book, I tried to turn over that page so that I wouldn’t see too closely the actual Jabberwock with its three-button waistcoat and spats and eyeballs protruding from the extreme sides of its head and its antennae. I was always fascinated by pictorial content and I realise, though I didn’t notice it so much at the time, that the books which most impressed me were the ones where the illustrations were by the authors. All right, Lewis Carroll didn’t illustrate the Alice books. But he dominated the illustration, that is he did his own sketches – and nowadays his own sketches would have been used direct, but in those days illustration was regarded as a highly refined art, an untrained author’s naive things weren’t regarded as particularly quaint and interesting. So you had this very unimaginative Victorian draughtsman, Tenniel, who made very careful drawings, and Charles Ludwig Dodgson would explain, ‘I’m not particularly satisfied with your dodo, the best specimen in Britain is a stuffed one which can be found in the Ashmolean Museum’ etc. The result was a weird combination, extreme visual detail and sheer fantasy.
The Doctor Dolittle illustrations were also of that kind. I enjoyed the Doctor Dolittle stories greatly, and I was fascinated by Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories. Kipling as an illustrator is in the professional category. I can still go back to his illustrations for the Just So Stories with satisfaction, though I hardly read any of his prose twice because I think he’s too flawed as a writer.
At my school in Wetherby in Yorkshire there was a quantity of books in a cupboard under a window, and on rainy days or the end of exams, when you didn’t need to go out into the playground, then you could take something out and read it. It was there I found some Victorian children’s books – George MacDonald’s The Golden Key and The Cuckoo Clock by Mrs Molesworth – I remember liking them a great deal. I particularly liked Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies because of the business of mixing genres - I realise that the works I liked were ones that brought in what seemed every possible genre. In one part of The Water Babies Kingsley turns Darwin’s theory of evolution on its head. He describes human beings living in a happy and prosperous region where nature gives them everything without striving; but they fail to take into account that they are in a volcanic region. When the volcano erupts and destroys everything they live upon, instead of devoting themselves to agriculture or constructing decent shelters for themselves, they use makeshift devices to get out of danger from day to day. When the climate begins to change, instead of making clothes for themselves, they shiver and start to grow hair, and the most strong and hairy develop because they’re the best adapted and the women want strong hairy men as fathers for their children. Kingsley ends with them turning into gorillas. The last one who still has a few traditions of speech lurking at the back of his memory is shot by a French explorer and brought back, stuffed, to Paris.
JR There’s a seductive notion that progress is inevitable.
AG One knows that isn’t quite true. It is only with concern about these things that even comparatively recent social gains can be maintained.
JR You mention George Macdonald’s Golden Key in your Index of Plagiarisms in Lanark. Macdonald’s family was outraged by an edition of Phantastes published by Chatto and Windus in 1894 and illustrated by John Bell without the author’s sanction, and in a spirit so at variance with the author’s intention, that Greville MacDonald secured the copyright and pulped it. But some copies of the suppressed edition had already been released. A new edition illustrated by MacDonald’s old friend Arthur Hughes was published by Dent in 1905.
AG I’d love to see both and compare them. Arthur Hughes’ illustrations are tremendously good. I read Phantastes with great pleasure the first time and I’d like to dip into it again, but apart from The Golden Key, I find MacDonald hard to stomach nowadays. There’s a certain moralism which I rather dislike. In At the Back of the North Wind the moral is please your betters and you’ll be pleasing God, and even the worst one can suffer is a test – you yourself will become better… and that kind of angle, whenever I detect it in a piece of writing, has the effect of driving me up the wall. They ought to fight back, they ought to form a trade union!
JR Someone once told me that every good deed was another brick in your house in heaven, which conjured up an image of an urban heaven with every sort of dwelling from palace to shack, and no way of putting on the roof because it was too late to do another good deed on earth.
AG A very comic presentation of that is in Arthur Waley’s translation of the Chinese classical novel Monkey. A Chinese emperor is killed before his rightful time and without the ceremonies proper to an emperor. He arrives in heaven and they have to treat him as a complete pauper. Nobody believes he was the emperor. In one of the poorer quarters of his city live an ancient very poor couple who in heaven have a gigantic bank account, because they burn every piece of money they get as an offering to the Gods. The emperor appears to them in a dream and asks them to lend him some, so that he can bribe the necessary officials and get the bureaucracy to work on his behalf. The official Christian heaven is presented as an absolute state, but the Chinese think things don’t need to stop there.
I’ve no memory of this, but my father told me that when I was four or five he read me Shaw’s The Adventures of the Black Girl in her Search for God, which first came out in 1932. It was rather a good fable. The landscape of it is very similar to Amos Totuola’s The Palm Wine Drinkard, in which somebody sets off through the African bush on a quest to discover a tapster, that is, somebody who can tap the palm tree in such a way as to draw good alcohol from it. The man on the quest is an alcoholic whose tapster has died, so he travels through the country of death to see if he can get him back - through an African wilderness where there are perfectly ordinary human villages interspersed with queerer places in which there are all sorts of strange spirits. In Shaw’s Black Girl in her Search for God, the black girl, who has been converted to Christianity by a missionary, asks how she can find God. The missionary says, ‘Seek and ye shall find,’ so she sets off into the bush to find God and meets a series of old men who claim to be the God of Genesis, the God of Job, etc. After a bit of conversation she decides they’re just nasty old men and that nobody should have any faith in them. She carries on and meets Ecclesiastes, Jesus Christ and Mahomet, then a scientific team that includes Pavlov, who believes that the universe is a gigantic, conditioned reflex. Eventually she meets Voltaire and Bernard Shaw himself, whom she marries. My dad told me that I kept saying, ‘Will the next God be the real one?’ I was quite intrigued by the notion of there being a series of pretenders and was interested to find out what the real one would be like. The copy we had was illustrated with splendid woodcuts by John Farleigh and when I was at Art School, looking back on some of my own work, I noticed how much it had influence me in the drawing of anatomy, the kind of outline I used.
JR That’s interesting. In Lanark, you have Lanark meeting the writer at the end of the novel.
AG That particular writer isn’t meant to be exactly me. But then again, come to think of it, the Shaw that was presented in The Black Girl in her Search for God wasn’t exactly Bernard Shaw.
JR Through your life, has that question of who is the real God continued to arise?
AG The notion of God is mixed up with a wish for life to have a rational reason for living it, in the sense that the good of it should lie in more than because it tastes nice. I’m not actually sure that there is a better reason for living than because it tastes nice, but there’s a bit of you that wants to feel, as Tennyson had it, that ‘Good will be the final goal of ill’. Eventually I became what the eighteenth century would have called Deist or Pantheist. The universe as a whole and nature in general is splendid and fine and fitting. Human beings are the only thing in which evil can be located, because there are several different notions of how we can be and we’re generally aware of not taking the best. The books that I found most interesting were those that concerned themselves with putting immediate and personal life into historical and universal context, dealing with the questions of: Who are we? How did we get here? and Whither are we bound? I was always very excited by notions of the past and future, particularly the more dramatic events. Reading popular book about astronomy and biology and evolution gave me the feeling that the past of the universe was as varied and grandiose as I would wish it to be! And reading science fiction, I got onto H.G. Wells, who wrote about 95 percent of the science fiction worth reading even today. Most science fiction works take bits of his plots and develop them with a few twiddles of their own. The War in the Air, which came out in 1908, isn’t one of his best novels, but it certainly is one of the most prophetic in the ordinary practical sense. In The Time Machine, The Sleeper Awakes, The War of the Worlds, The Island of Doctor Moreau, The Invisible Man, and First Men on the Moon (which is my favourite), he is both a critic of the society of his own time, and also a perceiver of its temporary nature. He has an immense interest in what it’s turning into and can turn into. His best works were prophetic in the Old Testament sense. The prophet isn’t somebody who says THIS IS GOING TO HAPPEN, the moral prophet says, IF THINGS GO ON ON THESE LINES WITHOUT MODIFICATION, THIS WILL HAPPEN. Of course, there are always modifications which can’t be foreseen.
JR Are you a bit of a moral prophet yourself?
AG I don’t think there’s anything in my books which isn’t absolutely contemporary, therefore I’m not.
JR Things change so rapidly. I would call a writer whose thoughts help to crystallise the nature and implications of these changes a prophet for the present day.
AG I only read and write for fun, and if matters of right and wrong are part of it, that’s because they are among the most interesting things there are to consider. No adventure would attract very much of anybody’s attention unless there was a sense of something good to be preserved by it or a sense of something better to be got by it. There’s definitely a public appetite for horror story romance, the sort of adventure that doesn’t seem to suggest any good that can be preserved or is worth preserving, in which this world is shown turning into something much more hellish (if it could), that doesn’t allow any way out, but maybe that sort of book works by shocking the reader’s sense of what is good, and those who’ve read one feel they’ve faced up to and overcome the worst, even though it’s an impossible worst. I tend to avoid them because whenever I envisage a thing I find it unforgettable, even though it’s totally unnecessary, and instead of getting a mild thrill I tend to get terribly depressed.
JR Imagination is a powerful motivator.
AG Once a thing has been imagined, shared, and given some credence, you can’t say that it doesn’t exist. A remote tribe gets the strange idea that the whole universe had been contrived by one man, a bearded one in the prime of life (of course), who suddenly imagined everything and made it solid. That was what the people who imagined Jehovah did. Quite a lot of human history is about the way that the idea of this particular character in fiction spread. He still is a mature man in the prime of life with a beard, liable to fits of temper when we don’t do what he wants. He tends as a fiction to have a lot more authority than Mr Pickwick – who would be a nicer person to believe in as having made the universe.