Old Men in Love by Alasdair Gray. Easily the best thing Gray has written since Poor Things, this is a novel full of the characteristics and twists we have come to expect. Including, of course, the self-reference (Gray is the supposed ‘editor’ of these papers, but his skills are vehemently called into question by at least two of the other ‘contributors’ to the book). He also, of course, defuses the most likely criticisms. Practically every novel that Gray has written (including Lanark) has begun life as a play, usually for TV or radio, generally dating from the 1960s or early 70s, sometimes unperformed or incomplete. In this case the origins are more obvious than usual, the various sections that make up the novel coming most alive in the dialogue. There is, for instance, a chapter devoted to the trial of Socrates that is almost a straight play as it stands, and a play I would love to have seen. So one of the ‘critics’ makes a point of decrying how the novel is all based on plays. The novel consists of the posthumous papers of a Glasgow schoolteacher whose memoirs are interspersed with extracts from three unfinished historical novels which were, together, intended to say something profound about the nature of humanity. The first is the story of Socrates, the second and weakest is that of Fra Filippo Lippi, and the third and longest tells of a curious, ecstatic extreme Christian sect that became established in southern England in the middle of the 19th century and that metamorphosed into a sort of free-love commune. But the counterpoint of the schoolmaster’s own narrow, stunted and curious life provides a context that casts a very different light on these three historical tales. Anyone who relishes Gray’s wonderfully idiosyncratic fictions is going to love this novel.
First published at LiveJournal, 5 February 2008.