The writer, artist and passionate Scottish nationalist has been hailed for novels including Lanark and Poor Things as a ‘ necessary genius’
The writer and artist Alasdair Gray, who with his groundbreaking novels blazed a trail for contemporary Scottish fiction died at the age of 85.
The news was announced on Sunday by Gray’s publisher Canongate, saying he died early in the morning after being hospitalized in his home town of Glasgow for a short illness. The family of Gray thanked his friends and hospital staff in a statement, calling him “an extraordinary person; very talented and, more importantly, very humane.”
Among those who paid tribute was the author Val McDermid, who credited Gray for having, “transformed our expectations of what Scottish literature could be”, and Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon, who called him “one of Scotland’s literary giants, and a decent, principled human being.” “He’ll be remembered best for the masterpiece that is Lanark, but everything he wrote reflected his brilliance,”
On Twitter she added, “Today, we mourn the loss of a genius, and think of his family.”
Gray came to fiction late in 1981 and published his first Lanark novel at the age of 46. Three years later followed an experimental, pornographic fantasy – 1982, Janine – with his rambunctious reworking of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Poor Things, which appeared in 1992.
When his literary popularity grew, winning both the Guardian Fiction Prize and the Whitbread Novel Award in 1992, the elaborate illustrations he created for his books began to draw attention to Gray’s pictorial art being made all the time.
The stream of murals and portraits commissions gradually increased, with writers like Ali Smith hailing him as “a necessary genius” and finishing his career as one of the most admired and versatile artists in Scotland.
Gray followed it with 1982, Janine a complex sadomasochistic fantasy so typographically complex that the author demanded that his contract required provision for up to six rounds of proof before shifting to a more conventional realism for three novels exploring nationalism and power.
Poor Things, a patchwork of Victorian fragments, returned to trickier terrain, charting the rise of Bella Baxter from the development of Godwin Bysshe Baxter as a skilled surgeon to become her own wife. The Guardian praised it as “the postmodern precision paradise of a bibliophile” and awarded its 1992 fiction prize to Gray.
so as his public profile began to rise, Gray began to publicly support Scottish independence, publishing in time for the 1992 election a brief polemic simply called Why Scots should Rule Scotland. For the author, who agreed with Margaret Thatcher when she claimed Tony Blair as her biggest achievement, Devolution was never enough.
“Unlike U.S. citizens,” said Gray,“the UK electorate has no chance of voting for a party that will do anything to seriously tax our enlarged millionaire class that controls Westminster.”
The steady stream of novels, short stories and non-fiction continued, including a 2018-published illustrated translation of Dante’s Inferno. Yet Gray was working on painting alongside his writing.
Speaking to the Guardian in 2010 as he published a survey of his visual art, the author explained that since his parents gave him crayons and paper even before he could read, painting may have been more natural than writing, but “one is always a tremendous holiday from the other.”
He said, “I feel healthier painting than writing. because when you’ve been writing a lot and your head is full of words, you are still muscularly not exhausted, but you’re nervously exhausted, so in order to sleep you go out and drink heavily, unless you’re more disciplined than I am.”
Gray confessed himself sometimes rather surprised by his own productiveness, despite what he called “my alcoholism”, reflecting ruefully on how his life might have been changed if he had found financial success a little earlier in his career. “I think I would have painted much more than I did,” he added.


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