George Friel - Mr Alfred, MA (1972)
100 Best Scottish Books of all Time
Allan Massie once persuasively argued that the idea of a Scottish Renaissance in the 1990s was myopically unfair to writers such as Spark, Jenkins and Linklater, who had produced bodies of extensive work throughout the post-war period. He might have added George Friel's 1972 novel, the quiet masterpiece Mr Alfred MA. The eponymous character is an idealistic, middle-aged bachelor, schoolteacher and failed poet in an increasingly disaffected Glasgow. He sits 'in a common pub with common customers and a common barmaid' and has 'nothing in common with them'. His chaste, but unwise, infatuation with a female pupil, and the rise of gang culture, have a prescient horror as the plot darkens towards an inevitable catastrophe, and a confrontation with the mysterious, malevolent young Tod.
What impresses most about Mr Alfred MA is the linguistic daring through which Friel dissects the tragedy. Mr Alfred's murmured Miltonic quotations rub against the patois of the streets, the crossword puzzles of his frustrated colleagues and the curiously scientific, clinical tone of the narrator. There is a clear debt to Joyce in Friel's prose; particularly in the final catalogue of mania: 'The man's got pedophobia, homichlophobia, dromophobia, xenophobia, ochlophobia, haphephobia,' and on for another 17 diagnoses: 'He's in a very bad way'.
But it is the spirit of the French naturalist writer Emile Zola that seems to brood over the book, as the values of a previous age are eroded by a malign, and specifically urban, modernity. Thirty years before the word 'ned' entered the vocabulary, Friel was already analysing the despair and seething violence of the inner city which we like to think is contemporary.
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