Lanark – a review of the Masterwork of Alasdair Gray, writer and artist
Although I’m totally unconnected to Alasdair Gray, one of Scotland’s most famous literary authors of the twentieth/twenty-first century, I have a great reverence for his masterwork, Lanark, which he began writing as a student and brought to completion over the course of some twenty five years writing, honing and refining.
There are few novels of such scope, depth and all-encompassing understanding of the human condition in modern literary fiction, so it’s not surprising that Lanark suffers comparison with the others.
Joyce’s Ulysses comes to mind, though the action there takes place on a single day. Indeed, who could forget the 16th of June 1904, a date forever enshrined and celebrated as Bloomsday on the 16th of June thereafter, when Leopold Bloom passed a single day in Dublin, but transcended both time and place with his stream-of-consciousness musings on and reflection of life as he knew it.
Experiences of Scotland
Gray’s Lanark is based around both a real Glasgow (beginning pre-war and a bad but not irredeemable place) and a dystopic vision of Glasgow (Unthank), both of which bear infinite expansion to anyplace, anytime in a similar way to Bloom’s Dublin of 1904. The grim realisation of Unthank though, from the detail of its dragonhide disease manifesting physically that darkness of the soul central to Gray’s concept of humankind, the petty and corrupting meanness and nastiness involved in existence and the ultimate hopelessness of its search for meaning and fulfilment, to the wide-canvas landscape of its disintegration and corruption, both moral and physical, extends far beyond anything that Joyce hinted at.
Joyce’s Ulysses, while a quest by fallible and unextraordinary humans, retained intimations of salvation and hope – albeit of not totally a satisfactory flavour – that Lanark’s bleak pages never approach. Gray permits no such luxury as hope – perhaps a conclusion eventually accepted over the quarter-century that this magnum opus took to come to fruition. It can be no coincidence that Book 1, the quasi-autobiographical story of growth and education was first written by Gray the young man in the first few of the twenty five years, and that the completed oeuvre was the work of a man in mature middle age who had experienced enough to reach the conclusions that led to Book 3 somewhat strangely opening the novel and books 1 and 2 moving to the core of it. And of course Book 4 and the novel’s ending where Lanark himself sits, unsurprisingly in a graveyard as metaphorically haunted as any of those sites of supernatural manifestation on a present-day ghost tour, while he calmly ruminates on the disaster around him and waiting for his own appointed death to overtake him. He is among the living dead, and or him at this stage, the entire world is a man-made graveyard in which the characters await their end in one way or another – the main distinction being that Lanark knows this and in particular knows when his own death will come. His calmness and resignation while fire and chaos reigned in the world and armoured vehicles wrought destruction on all sides, is beautifully depicted and a wonder to behold. But then life and death to him are of equal value.
Echoes of Kafka’s The Trial, among others resound in the unknowability of any form of truth in Lanark, especially in books three and four – though it is foreshadowed in the earlier books too – the distance and unreachability of what should be obvious facts even – and the characterless inevitability of events that happen seemingly regardless of what the cast of characters want or intend. And the physical transformations of people into scaly or other-limbed creatures cannot but remind one of Kafka’s Metamorphosis with the utter strangeness and repulsion engendered.
It has not without cause been compared with Thomas Hardy’s unfeeling remorseless Nature as a deterministic force that rides roughshod over people’s hopes and dreams as a theme throughout his canon of novels. But much worse. The bleakness and hopelessness that culminate in the climax of Book 4 of this novel are practically without parallel, and certainly not to be approached lightly by those of an already depressive bent.
Camus presaged the alienation permeating Gray’s view of life in l’Étranger – though Albert also happened to play in goal for the University of Algiers. The literary world is no doubt grateful that Camus had to pack in his football after coming down with tuberculosis, though who knows, but for that he may well have joined football’s greats and you might be able to see a plaque celebrating his achievements among the greats on a football stadium roll of honour.
Comparisons with Proust’s great novel A la Recherche du Temps Perdu are not totally without foundation either. Proust’s chef d’oeuvre, translated variously as Remembrance of Things Past (not a very good translation of the title and missing any of the subtlety of the original) or more recently as In Search of Lost Time (slightly more accurate, though missing the nuances of the French sense of temps perdu as wasted time) is far far longer than Lanark. Yet for all its length it enfolds the reader in a claustrophobic micro-world with a remarkably similar feel to that engendered in some of the more despairing passages of the latter. It would not be unfair to say that Proust’s is a more finely worked novel and the attention to cloying detail is far greater, but then Gray did not (as far as I know) spend years of his life in bed, in a cork-lined room to write the thing. There’s no evidence even of his having used one of those sensory isolating tanks that are incredibly popular at the moment – and if he had, it would not really be conducive to writing: it’s dark and his paper would get wet!
The techniques and stories used by the two are very dissimilar, but it’s surely fair to infer that A la Recherche and Proust are to the French novel what Alasdair Gray and Lanark are to the Scottish one. Proust’s work is so quintessentially French as to be practically impenetrable to the Anglophone without many years of immersion in Gallic ways and things. Gray’s is redolent of Scotland and things Scottish, though the Scotland of tenements and cities rather than the Scotland you’d associate with border collies and shepherding in the Highlands. Some of the language and phraseology are so peculiarly Scottish as to require translation – weans for children being one of the easier terms – and this may have limited his success overseas, especially in the USA – but then he was never attempting to be all things to all men, rather to depict in all its horrifying detail the futility and sheer nastiness of existence as he sees it, and to show that death is no worse in its way than life.
This is not the glorious Scotland of Sir Walter Scott, or even the pedestrian land of Iain Banks, but a Scotland centred on Glasgow as he lived through it and used as an allegory for anywhere you care to name – it was the Scotland of his youth turning into the Scotland of his middle and old age finally metamorphosing into a land pictured only in the book of Revelation, but without the inherent redemption that the Bible has to offer.
Lanark is not an easy book to read, not even a pleasant book dealing in such lurid detail with loss, despair and hopelessness. But it is arguably one of the seminal novels to emerge from Scotland in the twentieth century and amply rewards consistent and extended study. Readers would be well advised to intersperse sessions with some jollier pursuits to avoid becoming enmeshed ever more closely in its web of blackness.
Feed big cats by hand experienceShow all >>
Feed big cats by hand: feed a lion or tiger. The best animal experience ever.
American Monster Truck Driving ExperienceShow all >>
You can drive a monster truck in the UK – how brilliant is that? Look now to find the best deals.
Virgin Experience Days Promotion CodeShow all >>
Save 17% on all Virgin Experiences. We’ve saved Virgin customers £1,000s using this code. It’s so easy, just click, buy and save.
Meerkat experience daysShow all >>
Does someone you know love meerkats? Well why not get them absolutely covered in them? What am I saying? Everyone loves meerkats, and everyone would love this experience.
Extreme RIB experienceShow all >>
Extreme RIB experience is the water sports adventure experience they’re all...
Flyboarding experienceShow all >>
A Flyboarding experience is the absolute craziest water sport there is. It’s what...
Design your own perfume experienceShow all >>
Design your own perfume is not something just for the Stars. Now here is your chance to...
Mother and Daughter experience dayShow all >>
Enjoy your perfect quality time together with a mother and daughter experience day....
Cowboy experience dayShow all >>
Go back in time to the Wild West where men were men, women were women and horses were...
Horse riding experience daysShow all >>
Man’s passion for horses goes way back into the mists of time. And how often had...
Horse racing experienceShow all >>
For lovers of the turf everywhere, I’ve selected everything you need. From a...
Spitfire flight experienceShow all >>
Fly in a Spitfire, the iconic fighter from World War 2. Yes this is your chance to take...
Tiger Moth flightsShow all >>
The Tiger Moth is a superb little biplane, designed by Geoffrey de Havilland and...
Motorbike experience daysShow all >>
Here are some motorbike experience days – you could also try motocross experiences...
Wing walking experienceShow all >>
Wing walking experience days Wing Walk Oxfordshire £495.00 Wing...
Motocross and off-road biking experience daysShow all >>
Hours of skidding, jumping, muddy delight – motocross is like horse riding but on a bike!
Llama trekking experienceShow all >>
Do you know what’s more fun than a walk through the countryside? Walking with a llama, that’s what! Find the best one here.
Valentine gift experiencesShow all >>
It’s that time again. When you have to find something to show the One in your life...
Cupcake making and decorating experiencesShow all >>
You need more cake in your life, so take a look at the UK’s best cupcake experiences here! Nom nom nom.
View from the Shard experienceShow all >>
Enjoy a view from the Shard with great added extra like champagne, cream tea or three course meals.
Supercar driving experiencesShow all >>
Enjoy the roaring engines. driving Ferraris, Lambos and loads of other cars. I’ve found the best prices on the UK’s top supercar driving experience gifts.
Drive a Lamborghini experiencesShow all >>
Lamborghinis are clearly the coolest cars, and you can drive one for under£100. Find the best prices on the best UK experience gifts. They’re Lambo-tastic.
Drive a Ferrari experienceShow all >>
The best prices and information on the UK’s top Ferrari driving experiences. Make sure you get the best experience for your money.
Auto circus driving experience – wacky carsShow all >>
Auto circus is a fun driving experience that’ll have you splitting your sides from...