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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Mavis Belfrage

Alasdair Gray

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To purchase Mavis Belfrage

Title: Mavis Belfrage
Author: Alasdair Gray
Genre: Fiction
Written: 1996
Length: 160 pages
Availability: Mavis Belfrage - US
Mavis Belfrage - UK
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  • A Romantic Novel with Five Shorter Tales

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Our Assessment:

A- : dark but well-written slices of life

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian A 17/5/1996 Jenny Turner
The Spectator A 4/5/1996 Kate Hubbard
TLS . 17/5/1996 John Sutherland

  From the Reviews:
  • "(Gray's) writing encourages us to thrill to what is both good and terrible about our own political history and aspirations. Humans, he unfashionably seems to be suggesting, need a sense of a polis just as much as they need romantic love." - Jenny Turner, The Guardian

  • "Gray's playful façade and the curious atonal quality of his writing disguise a profound moral seriousness; these tales can all be read, to varying degrees, as parables." - Kate Hubbard, The Spectator

  • "Mavis Belfrage continues the curious diminuendo in Alasdair Gray's career since the monumental achievement of Lanark (1981) another step down towards the small but perfect Scottish novel." - John Sutherland, 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:

       Mavis Belfrage consists of six progressively shorter tales, the first -- the title piece -- a novella of almost seventy pages, the last ("The Shortest Tale") a three-page page filler. Tongue in cheek Gray offers a brief blurb on the cover of the book:

Mavis Belfrage is Alasdair Gray's only straight novel about love. This is the least fanciful of Gray's fictions and will amuse readers who do not find the world comfortable and don't expect to escape from it alive.
       The title piece describes an independent spirit, Mavis Belfrage, and the effect she has on a young lecturer at a teachers' training college, Colin Kerr. Colin is, in many ways, small-minded. He went to Cambridge but has no great ambition. He is not lazy, rather he is satisfied with humble success. He teaches his students the way the world works (stifling creativity and originality), recognizing that this is not ideal but accepting it and trying to get others to recognize it as well. He fails Mavis, who takes his course, because she doesn't answer his exam questions precisely in the manner prescribed.
       Colin falls in love with Mavis, and they have an affair. Mavis moves in with Colin, with her young son. Colin is happy, but restless Mavis seeks more. Eventually she tells Colin that there is another man she wants to have an affair with -- as she then proceeds to do.
       The breaking point of the relationship is finally reached, with Colin at least shaken out of his dullness, set to go lecture in Zambia. A somber story (though of course with some of Gray's wit), Mavis Belfrage is above all an excellent character study. Each of the characters, even those that only appear briefly, come alive. The situations, too, reek of the banality of everyday life, but Gray makes them arresting and interesting.
       A Night Off is another teacher's tale, following an unnamed teacher from his last act of the schoolday (punishing a child) through a "night off" which he spends apart from his wife, drinking with colleagues and going to a party. Mister Goodchild tells of a former school headmaster who goes to live in a boarding house. Much of the story is made up of the letters he types to his son, describing his life in the house, ultimately getting his son to give in and take him in in the family home. Money is a small piece about the role of money in society, a small, stark set piece. These tales are filled with the day to day trivialities of life, minor and major horrors, with dreary and miserable lives all about -- as well as moments of pleasure, happiness, and satisfaction. Very well written, they are still rather dark.
       Edison's Tractatus is a brief tale, with a longer epilogue explaining how the story came to be written -- including all the varied elements that played a role. A revealing account of the creative process, it is also a witty analysis of literary analysis.
       The Shortest Tale is ostensibly added just to fill the pages remaining in the book. Another schoolroom tale, it is only a brief episode that is described here. "Other tales in this book have sour endings but none as bad as this because the others are fiction," is the closing line of the story and the volume.
       Strong, dark stuff, and well-presented. There are no happy ends here, but it reads true-to-life, and there is a certain satisfaction to the collection. The volume, artfully designed by Gray, is also aesthetically pleasing. Recommended.

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Mavis Belfrage: Reviews: Alasdair Gray 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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