Desperado Literature



Alasdair Gray
Peter Ackroyd
Julian Barnes
John Fowles
David Lodge
Graham Swift
Kazuo Ishiguro
Doris Lessing
Martin Amis
Malcolm Bradbury
Aldous Huxley
George Orwell
Anthony Burgess
Timothy Mo
Evelyn Waugh




Portratit by VIC (Cristina Ioana Vianu)


Essays on ALASDAIR GRAY in


British Literary Desperadoes at the Turn of the Millennium, ALL Publishing House, Bucharest, 1999; 

The Desperado Age: British Literature at the Start of the Third Millennium,

Bucharest University Press, 2004;




I have never wanted to confuse readers                                   

Interview with ALASDAIR GRAY (born 1934), Scottish novelist

Published in LIDIA VIANU, Desperado Essay-Interviews, Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2006

© Lidia Vianu




LIDIA VIANU: You write as you paint, forcefully. Your imagination compels your readers to forget everything and inhabit your world, unwilling to leave it when the novel is over. Do you feel any kinship with William Blake in the way you associate your gift with the desire of unlimited power over other minds? One of your heroes (Duncan Thaw) actually states he wants this.


ALASDAIR GRAY: I’ve loved Blake’s work from the age of 13 or 14. I do not want unlimited power over other minds. I want the limited power of entertaining them. I would not – if I could – force people to read my books in schools or universities. That would make too many bright students hate them. Thaw was an unhappy adolescent, so liable to fascist fantasies.


LV. Your first novel, Lanark (1981), turns the nightmare into overwhelming joy of life, dystopia into the most desirable of worlds. Was it your intention to shock or to charm? Fact is that you succeed both ways, which is really rare.


AG. A long story cannot hold a reader if it lacks surprising developments. Shakespeare, Dickens and Dostoevsky keep providing them. Raymond Chandler advised crime writers, if their plot had become predictable, to have a stranger with a gun burst in through a door. Of course if the surprise is too disgusting for most readers they’ll stop reading. When writing the pornographic parts of 1982 Janine I was deliberately shocking myself. Though I think it my best novel, I cannot now reread it – I’m back to being as old fashioned as I was before imagining it.


LV. The starting point of intensity in your novels is either death itself or a lethargy that precedes it. The exit of the novels, on the other hand, is a final victory over and above death, into a mood of jubilation. Love of life is stronger than the dark colours and images you use. You have described the death of death. Would you describe yourself as a utopic or dystopic writer?


AG. I don’t like describing myself at all, nor do I like describing my books. That is the critics’ job. I like how you describe my work, but any other favourable description would please me.


LV. One major feature of the Desperado writers is the imperious requirement that their books must be reread in order to be properly grasped. Rereading enhances the enjoyment of the carefully confusing text. Nothing is clarified, but everything is experienced. The end is more than an explanation, it is a shared experience of the unuttered. Do you expect the reader to approach your novels as puzzles or do you think of yourself as a clear writer of hard facts?


AG. The only puzzle novels I know are whodunnit crime stories, and if the characters and setting are of interest, the solution at the end always spoils the book for me. Life has no simple, single answer or solution to its problems. Only the crudest religious or political propaganda suggests otherwise.


LV. Loneliness is the one common feature of all your characters. Not tragic but reflexive loneliness. Your sensibility is always in hiding. What do you expect from your readers? To respect your isolation (which is only apparent, since the author’s love of life pervades even the most terrible tragedies) and give up probing, or to unveil your hidden compassion, which you hate to make visible?


AG. I try to remove my ego or personality from my books by splitting it between all the characters, though Duncan Thaw was given more of it than others. When writing in the third person I aim for a quiet, unemotional voice, whether describing what I think comic or pitiable. These events are sometimes both, and wise authors do not tell readers what they ought to feel about what their fiction describes.


LV. You are  a realist but you also come close to science fiction, to dark projections of fears into the future. Actually, your unsparing realism enhances dystopia to a strength of imagination that Orwell and Huxley could not afford. What matters most to you? This undefeated imagination which creates a new world, or the statement of a warning against a dark future for mankind?


AG. Nothing you find in my stories  seems to me more important than anything else you find.


LV. Is style important to you? You create new words (such as Unthank, Provan, Lanark). I could anagramate Lanark into carnal, which would make your imaginary world burst with physicality. On the other hand, novels like 1982 Janine start with physicality and lead to fantasy. Do you set great store on the word as such, in this process of switching from body to word?


AG. The names you mention are names of places in or near Glasgow. I enjoy enriching a text with suggestive names found in Scotland or in foreign literature. But my prose (with the exception of Logopandocy) mostly depends on short simple words.


LV. Another Desperado feature of your novels is their alogicality, if I may call it that. You do not defy logic, you simply ignore it and create your own rules for the narrative, the same as your novels create their own order of overwhelming details. What is the main thread of your beliefs, the golden rule of your imaginary world, of your ignoring logic, commonsense, common expectations?


AG. The main rule of my narratives is to put convincing people into realistic or fabulous situations and show how they deal with them. Most of my people act very sensibly, I think, however odd their circumstances.


LV. You are deeply in love with your text as you write, and the reader is educated to love  the ugly side of reality. You create a new sensibility, you devise an alchemy which changes whatever is fear, loneliness and darkness into a desirable fate. When T.S. Eliot and James Joyce started the stream of consciousness, this was their  major discovery, but you take it much further. The Desperado no longer fears dystopia, he inhabits it with delight. In view of this description, do you think you could be considered a Desperado (my way of avoiding the term Postmodern)?


AG.  Emerson said many people’s lives were lives of quiet desperation. Certainly Jack McLeishe’s is. But Thaw only finally despairs at the end of Book 2 and Lanark never really – his prayer to get out is answered. If a Desperado is someone driven by despair then I may be one, because my art is a way of avoiding it. I don’t mind being called one, though most folk think me cheery and harmless. (But most folk are saved from despair by their work.)


LV. What you write is, on the whole, a dystopia of old age. Your most desperate images of ‘dragonhide’ are actually the tenderest description of a body growing old. You use harsh words and terrifying images, but they all hide a more than vulnerable tenderness. Lanark shouts, ‘I want out!’ You shout that, too, when you part with both realism and innovation, in order to join the Desperadoes. Where would you place yourself in the contemporary literary landscape, where do you feel you belong?


AG. Dragonhide is (I thought) an exaggeration of eczema  I had when an infant and adolescent. The chapters describing it in Lanark were written when I was 34 or 35, though I was 45 when the book was published.

            The writers I feel closest to who still live are Kurt Vonnegut, Gunter Grass and Marquez.


LV. You are a compulsive painter and a compulsive writer, and your heroes are compulsive ageing creatures. In the process, they fall prey to bitter emotions, which they experience willingly. Do you deliberately enjoy confusing, then subjecting your readers? Do you mean your novel to be a puzzle that the reader will reshuffle till the final image emerges? Is this your attempt at imagining the unimaginable?


AG. I have never wanted to confuse readers: only to interest and surprise them. I can only do that if I interest and surprise myself first. I assume that emotionally I am like most people, though not identical with them, so I can never know exactly how I entertain them.


LV. Lanark could be associated with quite a number of books: Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s  Brave New World, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Kafka’s Trial, as well as with books by Sartre (the feeling of nausea), Wells (free flight of the imagination), Swift (see the Houynhnms), T.S. Eliot (the end notes). The Desperado novel feeds on literature. The Desperado spirit is an exacerbated awareness of past texts. You frustrate the readers’ sentimentality, but gratify their literary ‘dragonhide’, their love of the deja vu. You work magic with your emotions and words. Are you aware of your dominion of your readers? How do you usually plan to relate to them?


AG. I cannot know what power my stories have over readers because many react differently to them, even while being entertained. Others find them repulsive or pointless. But your question suggests a more hectic creative process than I am usually aware of. When a new idea dawned for a book I used to note it down  and, sometimes years later, set out to make something public out of it – usually a short story or  a play. Some of these swelled into novels because they stimulated or attracted other ideas that seemed surprising yet natural parts of them. The thought that the work was becoming astonishingly bigger was exciting; but ensuring smooth transitions, keeping the parts convincingly together, needed a lot of steady work which I found soothing because I could forget my SELF when doing it: just as a musician would play very badly if he mostly thought of how he seemed to the audience, instead of the sounds he made.


LV. Your novels are a crucial reading experience, they change the reader. When you end Lanark with the poignant ‘Goodbye’, the reader feels he has to go back and reread everything in a better way, since he knows better now. That means you change the whole idea of reading. Your road takes the reader from the appalling to the enthralling side of one and the same experience. His very power to articulate or understand what is articulated is placed under a huge question mark. Why do you never answer that question at the core of your literature? Would you accept the statement that you reject explanations because you are an enigmatic Desperado at heart?


AG. I do not know of any question at the core of my literature, though many people in them ask or answer questions. Lanark wants to know what he should do with his life – Sludden, Munro, Ozenfant, Noakes and some others give answers he mostly accepts, but not for long. Only folk with perfect faith in one god or one political system believe that they have the answer to every great question. I have not. So what (apart from pleasure) would I like my work to convey? Chekhov said his works were meant to say, ‘My friends, you should not live like this.’ If my writing has a deep meaning  it cannot be deeper than that.

            I fear that my replies to your questions show me similar to most authors. My Scottish writer friends (I have many) find me talkative, cheerful and not at all enigmatic. Like me they are Socialists who grew up with no faith in the USSR and USA governments, because we think single party dictatorships and uncontrolled capitalism undemocratic and corrupt. Like me too they are not members of churches yet have no strong anti-religious prejudice, though religious and racial prejudice, alas, exists in Scotland. The new Scots parliament, however, seems free of it so we can hope.

            I admire Vonnegut, Grass and Marquez for their ability to handle mundane and fabulous modes often, but not always, in the same book. I find Chronicle of a Death Foretold in some  ways greater than A Hundred Years of Solitude.



November 7, 2000