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the complete review - fiction
Old Men in Love
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||Old Men in Love
||Old Men in Love - UK
- John Tunnock's Posthumous Papers
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A : a bit of a pieced-together feel, but still very nicely done
See our review for fuller assessment.
|Independent on Sunday
|The Sunday Times
No consensus -- beyond that it's not really a 'novel' (and that the book itself is very nicely designed and produced). Otherwise reactions are all over the place, from great enthusiasm to disappointment.
From the Reviews:
- "Self is right to describe Gray as a writer, however, because one thing he is not is a novelist. Witty he may be, but Gray can’t do distance, and he can’t do depth. (…) Gray has amassed a farrago of scenes and reflections, which are often entertaining, but the engagement is mostly intellectual rather than emotional. (…) Part of the problem is the register; Gray was born in 1934, but often writes as if he had been born 70 years earlier, a Glaswegian cousin of Henry James. The fusty tone gives him some comic mileage, but again reduces the possibility of his characters being mistaken for people. Most of his creations sound like their creator. Apart from the stroppy women; Gray does stroppy women well. For me the most interesting part of the book is the epilogue by a Sidney Workman." - Tibor Fischer, Financial Times
- "Gray makes all this more enjoyable than it might sound by unpacking his box of tricks: amusing marginal notes, prefaces in the middle of the text, lots of pre-emptive self-disparagement and so on. (…) Tunnock himself is so eccentric and genial that it's hard to work out how to take his project's failure: if the history of high culture is also the history of exploitation, as his fictions all argue, what does that make him ? And what are we to make of his scooping up girls from the street? As in much of Gray's writing, a gloomy parable about the artist-outsider's dependence on the social order he criticises lurks in the background, and in this respect Tunnock seems to get off rather lightly." - Christopher Tayler, The Guardian
- "This is one of Alasdair Gray's best novels. (…) A preoccupation with the true meaning of democratic accountability is one of several themes uniting these linked stories. Freedom, including artistic freedom, is at the core of Old Men in Love. Gray is sly and witty, but also, and more impressively, he writes with stylish honesty. Presented as a schoolteacher's book, Old Men in Love has a didactic tone at times, but gets away with it. (…) Postmodern it may be, but this is clearly a work by a lover of Dickens, Scott, James Hogg and John Galt. Its rewardingly readable narratives owe as much to the narrative quirkiness of the great age of 19th-century fiction as to today's tricksiness. Old Men in Love shows Gray's old strengths confidently renascent." - Robert Crawford, The Independent
- "Old Men in Love is sophomoric at times, so-whattish at others, self-willed throughout --and a work of some genius. (…) Scottish nationalism, masturbation, curmudgeonly metafictional jokes, a wealth of beautiful illustration: if you like Alasdair Gray, this has it all. Old Men in Love may not be much of a novel, in the way that we traditionally speak of novels, and it's hard to argue that it's much of a non-novel, either, in the conventionally subversive sense. Whatever it is, though, no one else could have written it: and that alone should be reason enough to support Scotland's weirdest writer by going out and getting it forthwith." - Tim Martin, Independent on Sunday
- "In a more linear novel, the various political tracts would feel uncomfortably didactic and lumpen. But Gray is an old hand at turning his staunchly socialist world-view into entertaining prose. (…) Gray prevents Tunnock's diaries and literary projects from becoming too stodgy by switching from one to the other often, and injects knowing wit into the narrative through marginal notes. (…) What really holds the book together, though, is its slightly ridiculous anti-hero. (…) Tunnock is both pathetic and sympathetic. In other words, he's everything you would expect of a Gray protagonist (…..) But, for all its familiar themes and self-references, Old Men in Love feels less like an overview of Gray's past career, and more like the culmination of a lifetime spent honing his unique ideas and approach." - Alyssa McDonald, New Statesman
- "Old Men in Love is an Escher book, a book of recursions, a perverse self-parody. It is by Alasdair Gray, not much of it is new, and it's not a very satisfying novel. (…) Poor Tunnock ! And poor reviewer. It's impossible to write about Old Men in Love without being led into temptation. Actually, two temptations. The first is to praise the high production values that Gray is known for: this is a beautiful book, printed in black and saltire blue, with a silk ribbon bookmark, inlaid cover and the author's own striking illustrations. The second is to dismiss it as a cynical effort, a vehicle for publishing a selection of otherwise unprintable reworkings and unrecycled fragments, strung together as a self-conscious, prophylactically quotation-marked 'novel'. (…) As ever with Gray, there are clever things going on in the margins of the story." - James Purdon, The Observer
- "Nothing is as it seems except its good looks. OMIL is the most handsome, satisfyingly tactile, typographically adventurous, richly decorated £20 book that could be bought. In that respect, Gray and Bloomsbury have produced a masterpiece. The words are another matter. (…) Better to think of OMIL visually, as a display of objets retrouvés made into a unity by the artist’s sensibility. (…)OMIL fits into no proper category of writing. It is a beautiful blue and silver Graygraphy." - Andro Linklater, The Spectator
- "Tunnock’s diaries, from which much of this information comes, are endearing. His multiple tries at writing a tremendous historical novel are a harder proposition. The extracts are the work of a second-rate autodidact and are, therefore, not much fun to read. (…) (B)eautiful, inventive, ambitious and nuts." - Sophie Harrison, The Sunday Times
- "This ought to be reason enough for buying the book: its exuberance and its refusal to give a damn about the niceties of structure or what the reader thinks are urgently needed in the that age Gray (or Tunnock ?) examines for its own badness. And as ever with a book by Gray, the outside is splendidly designed, even while the inside is put together like crazy paving." - Tom Payne, The Telegraph
- "If only Gray could stretch his many interests to include the development of character and plot then the result would not just be a beautifully designed lecture, or an artful exercise in socialist flag-waving, but a novel that made your heart ache as well as your head." - Mark Sanderson, The Telegraph
- "Waywardness is central to this novel’s artistic vision; waywardness, rather than rebellion in the Romantic style. (…) Once again, in this ingenious, engaging novel, Alasdair Gray has struck a blow for an altogether more meaningful sort of freedom." - Michael Kerrigan, Times Literary Supplement
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
Old Men in Love is swathed in elaboration, from the ordinary -- a subtitle, John Tunnock's Posthumous Papers
-- to the extraordinary.
Remove the dust-jacket and you find the title embossed on the cover has been expanded into: 'Old Men in Love are still learning'.
The flap-jacket copy is a "short review" by Will Self.
The book itself purports to be assembled out of those posthumous papers of John Tunnock -- by Alasdair Gray, in the role of editor -- while also offering an Introduction by Lady Sara Sim-Jaegar, Tunnock's last relative and heir, a newspaper obituary of Tunnock, his "crossword testament", and then 'Sidney Workman's Epilogue', which is yet another review of ... Old Men in Love.
Interestingly, Gray pretty much stays out of it (or pretends to): there's no editor's introduction, and
the Workman-epilogue -- though all about Gray -- specifically states that Gray had promised to print it: "without comment or alteration".
Gray doesn't explain his editorial method himself, either, letting Lady Sara Sim-Jaegar explain it for him in her introduction -- where she recounts how he came to be hired and the other circumstances surrounding the book.
(There also readers learn that he sees 'men in love' as: "a major theme" of these papers -- and he explains why he employs marginal (rather than foot- or end-) notes: "I like widening my readers' range of expectations."
Of course, with 'Lady Sara Sim-Jaegar' an anagram of 'Alasdair James Gray', the author isn't really hiding too far away .....
The bulk of the book then is purportedly pieced together from the writings of
this John Tunnock, Gray alternating between entries from Tunnock's diary (from between 2001 and 2007) and his efforts at fiction (and explanations of that fiction).
A former teacher and headmaster, Tunnock's real ambition since his student-days was to write and over the years he was (on and off) convinced he had a great book in him.
The plan he settles on is for an historical trilogy:
I decided to select three historical periods and show both their virtues and the devil's bargain that created them from the viewpoint of real people.
The first period he selects is Periclean Athens, with a focus then on the story of Socrates, the second Renaissance Florence, the third Victorian England.
Yes, Old Men in Love is a novel about trying to write a novel, with much of the diary entries focussed on the difficulties he has.
But Gray is an old hand, and he manages this very well, and Tunnock -- convinced of his abilities, yet also often overwhelmed by his task -- is a convincing and very vivid figure.
Tunnock is fairly full of himself, but then also gets deflated, feeling especially frustrated when he thinks he can't capture the everyday reality of the past:
How can I write convincing speeches for ordinary peasants, shopkeepers and craftsmen without going to Italy and learning the language ?
Pieces of the trilogy are presented throughout the book, bunched together, interrupted not only by the relatively short diary-entries but also by the Prologue Tunnock is working one -- yet another excuse for autobiographical digression, though it also includes his version of 'My World History'.
As Tunnock explains:
If every history had a prologue describing the education of the writer's mind, readeres would know in advance why some facts dominate the narrative more than others.
Tunnock even begins his 'world history' at the very beginning: "A sudden endless gas explosion made all the material in the universe" .....
So there are quite a few different narratives being juggled here.
The personal tend to be the more compelling: Tunnock's descriptions of his childhood make for a fantastic memoir-tale, while the diary-entries from his late years -- describing the women (young women) he takes in, and his attempts at writing -- are also very sharp and enjoyable.
(Because we know that Tunnock came to an unnatural end there's also a bit of suspense as to what might have happened there, though considering the women he invites into his house and how he treats them it's not much of a surprise that he wound up with his head bashed in.)
The fictional tales are a bit more uneven -- in part also because of their somewhat fragmentary state.
Focussed on three different historical periods, Tunnock is all over the place here; he even re-stages the trial of Socrates (taking great historical liberties there, as he acknowledges).
But this allows him space for great varieties of invention, description, and dialogue, often pointedly political (democracy, capitalism, and religion figure prominently in all the fictional ized histories) and Tunnock (i.e. Gray) is damn good at that.
From the fanaticism of Henry James Prince to Pericles striding through Athens there's a lot of very accomplished writing here.
And though Tunnock reminds himself he is no "Glaswegian Brecht" there's a lot of sharp social and political commentary as well: occasionally rough, it's never oppressive -- and Gray doesn't shy away from anything: the first diary entry of Tunnock's that is presented (the first bit of his writing at all) is the entry recounting what happened to him on 11 September, 2001.
And, yes, the idea of men in love -- including Tunnock (who apparently had no sex life before 1998 but then "lashed out a bit" ...) is also addressed from a variety of angles, many of which are at least in some respects ... questionable.
If the assemblage of different stories makes for a somewhat unfocussed whole, Gray's writing is a pleasure throughout.
If anything, his firm (indeed, complete) command in the modern-day scenes -- Tunnock's diary and autobiographical prologue-chapters -- make the occasional sputtering or insecurity in the historical narratives seem worse than they are (and it must be said that Tunnock's repeatedly voiced concern that perhaps he's not doing justice to what he's writing about because he doesn't speak the language or know enough about the day-to-day lives his characters would have experienced makes any flaws more obvious again).
There's a lot to Old Men in Love, but it's also simply a very good read (and here perhaps the variety works out well, as the almost constant change of focus means it's never boring).
Very good indeed, and certainly recommended.
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Old Men in Love:
Other books by Alasdair Gray under review:
Books about Alasdair Gray under review:
Other books of interest under review:
- See Index of Contemporary British fiction
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About the Author:
Scottish author Alasdair Gray was born in 1934.
A noted illustrator and author, he has written a number of remarkable works of fiction.
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© 2007-2021 the complete review
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