About Alasdair Gray
Alasdair Gray is the author of many novels, short stories, plays, poems, pamphlets and works of literary criticism. He is also an accomplished artist who has painted many murals, and is the designer and illustrator of his own books as well as those of other writers. Gray's most acclaimed work is his first novel Lanark, published in 1981 and written over a period of almost 30 years. It is now regarded as a classic, and was described by The Guardian as "one of the landmarks of 20th-century fiction." His novel Poor Things (1992) won the Whitbread Prize and the Guardian Fiction Prize.
For a complete curriculum vitae and more information about Alasdair's work, see www.alasdairgray.co.uk.
Me and Faust
I was fourteen in 1949 when the BBC Third Programme celebrated the bicentenary of Goethe’s birth. In a fortnight of talks and dramatisations it presented Marlowe’s Dr Faustus (which partly inspired Goethe’s play) and operas by Gounod and Berlioz that Goethe’s play had inspired. Over several nights it broadcast a complete translation, by Louis MacNeice, of Goethe’s Faust’s five acts. I at once bought a Penguin translation of Goethe’s Faust Part 1 and 2 by Philip Wayne, and in the coming years bought Bayard Taylor’s and John Anster’s Victorian translations for a few shillings in second hand shops. Later my friend Archie Hind lent me Thomas Mann’s 20th-century novel on the same theme – the theme of how much creative energy has an evil source.
Marlowe’s Faust, two centuries before Goethe’s, is a simpler tale about a man who wants more knowledge than God intends men to have, so gets it from the Devil. He becomes rich and famous and seduces Helen of Troy before being eternally damned to Hell. Goethe enriched the tale with a preface partly derived from the Old Testament. In the Book of Job God lets Satan do what he likes with virtuous prosperous Job, to see if Job will still love God when reduced to misery. Goethe’s God – and Devil – test Faust, a Professor without active knowledge of the world. To gain it he needs union with his selfish animal nature – Mephistopheles – who brings him love and power, power that destroys the woman who loves him. Goethe was young when he wrote that start of the play, and in that form Gounod and Berlioz turned it into operas, but shortly before dying he made it three times longer, showing Faust create 19th century civilisation by inventing paper money, acquiring profitable land by forcibly evicting peasants who own it, and imagining he is building a new and better home for humanity by reclaiming desolate seashores. He is too old and blind to know Mephistopheles pays for all his grand schemes by violent military theft and piracy. In spite of which Faust is saved from Hell by an angelic host who conduct him upward through circles of Paradise partly cribbed from Dante’s Divine Comedy because (say the angels) “He who unwearily strives on we have the power to free.”
I thought this a rotten ending for the play, yet most of it haunted me ever after. I too thought all empires, Assyrian or Jewish, European or United States, were got by a Devil’s bargain dividing knowledge from sympathy so that technically masterful folk could exploit underlings and destroy those they could not exploit. And why does God allow such bargains? I think Him the most intriguing character in world fiction. Unlike Jesus (who was probably real) God the Dad is seldom convincingly described as good and loving. I dearly wanted God to be these for I thought Him the soul of the natural world, just as my mind is part of my body.
In 1999 the Citizens Theatre presented a version of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus by Edwin Morgan. Marlowe’s play combines passages of profound poetry with scenes of slapstick clowning so idiotic that every modern producer of the play has to more or less re-write it. I had enjoyed Michael Boyd’s production of it in Glasgow’s Tron Theatre, but preferred Eddie Morgan’s version, and told him how I would like to consider a modern translation of Goethe’s Faust. He rejected the idea, perhaps because he too thought the ending conforms to what many (wrongly) believe – that losses suffered by millions will be justified by the existence of a few. I understood why Edwin Morgan did not like a play with that untragic end.
In 2006 I began making rhymed couplets based on Goethe’s Prologue to Faust, and later wrote the First Act of what I hoped would become an imitation of the whole play. An imitation – not a translation! – because in the first place I cannot read German, and secondly, and more importantly, wanted to wrench the story into my own vision of the 20th and 21st century. My Prologue and First Act are almost wholly derived from Goethe’s earliest scenes. I hoped the National Theatre of Scotland would commission me to complete it, but learned that Theatre had just produced a new translation of Goethe’s Faust by John Clifford. So I changed the name to Fleck, and the last two Acts and Epilogue are wholly un-Goethean.