Alasdair Gray prepares for a second reading of Fleck - interview
The Scots version of the Faust myth is to be performed at the Margins Book Festival
Alasdair Gray’s Fleck – a Scots take on the Faust myth – is being performed for the second, and perhaps final, time as part of Glasgow’s Margins Festival. Jen Bowden talks cash prizes, public art and devilishness with the 77-year-old polymath
Will Self described you as ‘a creative polymath with an integrated politico-philosophic vision’, but you say you're ‘a fat, spectacled, balding, increasingly old Glasgow pedestrian’. Which do you prefer as an official description?
I don't approve of official descriptions. Accurately, I'm now a 77-year-old, too fat, asthmatic, balding, Glasgow pedestrian.
In December you were awarded the Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year for A Life in Pictures but you refused it. They refused your refusal and announced you as the winner anyway, does that mean it's all sorted now?
I was awarded it for Lanark in 1981 and said I was grateful for the money, but no other monetary Scottish award should come to me. It should go to younger writers. It's not easy being a young writer in Scotland, I've been one myself and there's a general feeling that if you're not in London then you've failed somehow. So when it was offered it last year, I said I had to refuse. They posted me the cheque anyway, and I didn't tear it up.
Which city do you prefer, Edinburgh or Glasgow?
Glasgow. That's not because I think it's better than any other town, it's just the one where I'm at home. I do not take part in that rather silly, old, and very useless, Edinburgh/Glasgow rivalry. It may exist in some minds but not very intelligent ones.
Were you annoyed that so many theatres rejected Fleck? Did you feel like saying 'I told you so' after its successful debut at Edinburgh International Book Festival last year?
Well, it still hasn't received a truly professional production. It received quite a good professional reading, which I mainly arranged myself. I hope one day it will be put on by a professional theatre. I would like it put on by the Scottish National Theatre, or The Citizens or The Traverse. Any major theatre will do me.
Did you choose Will Self to play Fleck in Edinburgh because he uses big words? Or because you think he's easily corrupted?
I was trying to think 'who I could I get who is a friend of mine; a known writer who would take the strong central part of my hero', and it occurred to me that Will Self might do. He did it very well too.
Did the cast work well together?
They did, the only difficulty was we had practically no time for rehearsals. Everything was very hasty, it was quite a job getting the music and sound effects integrated.
Did you enjoy it?
Any job involves a certain amount of worries so you can't relax at any point of it. I'm habitually asked if I enjoy being an artist, or enjoy being a writer. The answer is, of course. If I didn't, I wouldn't be doing it.
You're performing under your own murals in the Oran Mor auditorium. Does that not make you feel more like God than the Devil? Sitting under a sky you created, reading the play you created?
I don't draw a great distinction between them. If God is the Supreme Being then the Devil cannot be his adversary; he must be his agent. If you read the Book of Job, the Devil is presented as one of God's sons, who works as, you could say, his head of the secret police, which is how I present him in Fleck.
Is it better to draw on walls rather than canvas or paper?
I prefer my works of art to be public rather than private property.
Why did you want to play Old Nick (the Devil) again?
He's the most talkative person, so he's the character I most identify with. He's also the most visibly intellectual. God's attitude towards the Devil is one of good-humoured amusement.
Will you have a bigger stage than the one in Edinburgh? You looked a bit squashed on that one …
We were squashed on it, and I think we'll be squashed on this one too.
Why did you think Faust would translate into modern day Scotland?
Every writer of a major work tries to make it contemporary. Initially I didn't mean to re-write it to the extent I did. The first act contains nothing that isn't in Goethe's Faust, just makes it more modern. In the later acts and in completing it I found that it was taking a completely different direction.
A version of Fleck is also available on your blog; do you find yourself using digital media more often to reach an audience?
I've never looked at it myself; I can't use a word processor. I decided to start one, but I have a number of friends, some of whom I pay money to, who type it for me. I don't really think about it much.
The Edinburgh reading was funny. Will you be aiming for that reaction again, or do you want people to take it seriously?
Oh good, I just want the audience to like it a lot. It has aspects that are as tragic as they are funny, but it's up to the individual to decide which they find more interesting.
Why did you choose Margins Festival for the second reading of Fleck?
I had scheduled a reading in the Oran Mor auditorium six days after the Edinburgh reading, but they didn't advertise it, and only sold four tickets. Cargo [Publishing, the organisers of Margins] got in touch and said would I mind if they organised a Glasgow reading in the Arches in February. I said I'd arrange it but would prefer it to happen in the Oran Mor.
Are you still hoping to get it into theatres?
I'm sure one day it will, but I might not be alive to see it … I'm 77 you know.