Alasdair Gray, the infamous Scottish writer, is perhaps best known for his epic first novel Lanark, which was described as 'one of the landmarks of 20th-century fiction' by the Guardian. It is therefore surprising perhaps that this event is in a sense not at all about Gray’s own work. A while back, Alasdair Gray decided that he was going to make his own translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy; a task made rather difficult by the fact that Gray neither speaks nor reads Italian - the language in which the epic fable was originally written.
Alasdair Gray is joined by the BBC’s Head of the Arts, Jonty Claypole, to talk about this remarkably ambitious goal of his. With a gin and tonic in one hand and extracts from his project in the other, Gray reads to us from his translation of Hell - the first of the three cantos that make up the Divine Comedy. In his version - as is suitable for any work that Gray has laid his hands on - the monsters and creatures of Hell have all got Glaswegian accents, making this 14th-century fable strangely familiar to the people of Scotland.
Anyone who has seen Alasdair Gray in person knows that he is somewhat of an eccentric and being in the same room as him cannot be described as anything short of a pure pleasure. His readings are passionate and moving, leaving the audience baffled as the vivid images of Dante are transformed by the distinctive writing style of Gray.
Although Gray has a tendency to become a bit side-tracked when answering a question - in one way or another touching upon topics ranging from the Greeks and public libraries, to the Second World War and Pearl Harbor - one cannot help but be fascinated by the range of this man’s knowledge and, perhaps more importantly, his imagination. Jonty Claypole skillfully manages to guide his conversation back on track whenever things veer a little too far into leftfield and the two of them together manage to produce a satisfyingly full discussion within the single hour that they have at their disposal.
Gray’s translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy is currently being published in parts on his blog, making this ambitious project available for everyone to enjoy. The people attending the event at Hendrick’s Carnival of Knowledge got a wonderful first-hand preview and, complimentary cocktail in hand, enjoyed such a precious insight into a fascinating author.