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.
James Bond experienceShow all >>
James Bond experience – tour the James Bond locations or see the iconic James Bond cars in real life.
Fighter jet experience days – simulator giftsShow all >>
Thanks to the latest technology, you can climb into the cockpit of a fighter jet and discover the tricks flying without leaving the ground.
Tiki lodge holiday – or try a Tiki vanShow all >>
If you haven’t booked your Tiki lodge holiday yet, then it’s not too late. Or why not try the brilliant new Tiki van? Alasdair’s recommended Tiki lodge experience Romantic Rover Tiki-van Summer Weekender Break On The Gower Coast £350.00 This is my very favourite and is the one that I recommend for you – it’s tried and tested. It’s what everybody’s doing for that short break, or the longer holiday. Have you tried Tiki yet?? Tiki originated in New Zealand as a superior outdoor activities cabin, where...
Hampton Court experience daysShow all >>
Hampton Court is really nice. You should go! And I’ve found the best prices for all experiences days around Hampton Court
Tiger Moth flightsShow all >>
The Tiger Moth is a superb little biplane, designed by Geoffrey de Havilland and introduced in 1932 that, although retired from active service with the RAF in 1959, stands the test of time and is a delight to fly in even today. Alasdair’s recommended Tiger Moth experience Tiger Moth 15 Minute Flight - Surrey £125.00 I’ve chosen this Tiger Moth flight because it’s from a great, reliable company and it’s a cracking price! But if you want to check out the full list, here are all the Tiger Moth...
Feed the penguins gift experiencesShow all >>
You probably don’t know this already, but let me tell you this now. You need to feed penguins at least once in your life.. Maybe even once a year! Alasdair’s recommended penguin experience Penguin Feeding Experience For One At Drusillas Park £75.00 There are penguins, there are fish, and it’s the cheapest price in the UK. What more could you ask? That’s why it’s my recommended penguin experience gift. So, a word first about penguins…. They’re brilliant, obviously. They way the waddle about on their back legs, looking all...
Lorry driving experiencesShow all >>
With 16 gears of raw power, these massive trucks are a handful to drive and a great experience. Find the best prices in the UK today.
Mini Cooper driving experienceShow all >>
Drive or race a classic British Mini Cooper. Find the best prices for this experience now.
Feed big cats by hand experienceShow all >>
Feed big cats by hand: feed a lion or tiger. The best animal experience ever.
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.
Ghost hunting experienceShow all >>
Spend a night in a haunted house with an expert ghost-finder. Dare you????? Alasdair’s recommended Ghost hunting experience Overnight Ghost Hunt In Stonehouse £69.00 This is the one that everybody is buying. Dare you? Do you guarantee I’ll see a ghost? No is the short answer. One of the things about ghosts is that they don’t take a lot of notice of what those of us on this side want. However, some of these experiences, especially the overnight ones, in really haunted locations, give you as good...
Extreme RIB experienceShow all >>
Extreme RIB experience is the water sports adventure experience they’re all talking about. Get on board with the top ones at the best prices. Alasdair’s recommended extreme RIB experience Extreme Rib Adventure For Two £89.00 This is the one that people like you are buying. What is an extreme RIB? Well it’s nothing to do with the story of Adam and Eve with Eve being constructed out of Adam’s rib. Though that could sound a bit extreme to some! RIB stands for Rigid-hulled Inflatable Boat, which is pretty much...
Flyboarding experienceShow all >>
A Flyboarding experience is the absolute craziest water sport there is. It’s what everybody is doing now, so why aren’t you? Alasdair’s recommended flyboarding experience Flyboarding Experience £99.00 This is the one everybody is buying. What is flyboarding? It’s the most amazing flying experience you can imagine. Or is it a water experience? Well it uses water and you get wet, but you could get ten metres or more in the air while you’re doing it. So you decide. It involves you putting on special boots that generate powerful...
Mother and Daughter experience dayShow all >>
Enjoy your perfect quality time together with a mother and daughter experience day. Alasdair’s recommended Mother and Daughter experience Click here > For more information This is the perfect twosome for mothers and daughters of all ages! How often have you said “I just don’t spend enough time with my mum”; or how often have you said “I don’t spend nearly enough time with my daughter”. With all the demands of today’s modern busy lifestyles, it’s easy to let relationships slide – even that most precious of relationships between...
Learn beekeepingShow all >>
Beekeeping is a hobby that is really taking off in the UK. Learn bee keeping and find out how easy it is in this fun and fact-filled day. Alasdair’s recommended bee keeping experience Bee Keeper For A Day £99.00 This is a brilliant introduction to bee keeping – an ideal way to learn if you’re thinking about going into apiculture yourself Beekeeping is a wonderfully satisfying hobby, with the benefit that you get loads and loads of lovely free honey for you to eat and to sell. As you’ll...
Cowboy experience dayShow all >>
Go back in time to the Wild West where men were men, women were women and horses were horses! Alasdair’s recommended cowboy experience day Cowboy Riding Trail £80.00 I’ve selected this for you as it gives you a good introduction to riding cowboy-style and it’s nice and cheap too. Here is a complete list of cowboy days for adults available in the UK today. Prices are bang up to date too so you can compare with confidence. Cowboy Riding Trail £80.00 Cowboy Trail Riding Adventure £85.00 Cowboy Trail Riding...
Horse riding experience daysShow all >>
Man’s passion for horses goes way back into the mists of time. And how often had you wished that you too could ride one of these elegant creatures? Well here’s your chance to learn from the best. Alasdair’s recommended horse riding experience day Western Horse Riding Break For Two £299.00 I’ve selected this special experience for you as it combines the best of both worlds – a getaway break with horse riding. Give it a go. Wherever you live, you’re not far from a fantastic horse riding experience where...
Horse racing experienceShow all >>
For lovers of the turf everywhere, I’ve selected everything you need. From a behind the scenes look at a top stables to days out at your favourite track where you can have a great day out and a bit of a flutter too. Go on, fill your boots! Alasdair’s recommended horse racing experience Horse Racing Behind The Scenes With Charlie Mann Racing £99.00 I’ve picked this special day for horse racing enthusiasts – spend the morning at the Lambourn stables of top trainer Charlie Mann, have breakfast with a...
Spitfire flight experienceShow all >>
Fly in a Spitfire, the iconic fighter from World War 2. Yes this is your chance to take to the skies in one of the last remaining examples of this rare but incomparable airplane. Alasdair’s recommended Spitfire flight experience Click here > For more information The Supermarine Spitfire, to give it its full title, is the British fighter plane that was responsible for so many Allied victories during the Second World War and although over 20,000 of these machines were manufactured and put into service, there remain a mere...
Classic Car driving experienceShow all >>
Classic Car enthusiasts can drive some of the best, for an hour or two or all day long. Alasdair’s recommended Classic Car Driving experience Double Classic Car Driving Blast For One In Oxfordshire £99.00 I’ve chosen this Classic Car experience for you because you get to drive two fabulous Classic Cars and it lasts for the whole day! Most of us love Classic Cars and some of us can’t get enough of them. Modern cars are fine for getting from A to B, for keeping warm in, impressing people...
Motorbike experience daysShow all >>
Here are some motorbike experience days – you could also try motocross experiences here. Visit To The National Motorcycle Museum For Two Adults £17.90 Visit To The National Motorcycle Museum For Two Adults And Two Children £24.95 Introductory Off-road Motorcycle Riding £99.00 Full Day Ladies Only Off Road Kawasaki Motorcycle Riding Experience For One £150.00 Wiltshire Off Road Motorbike Experience £225.00 Full Day Off-road Motorcycle Trail Riding Adventure £239.00 Motorbike Supertrack Day At Knockhill £249.00 Scottish Highlands Motorbike Experience £249.00 People who bought this experience also looked at: Tank...
Wing walking experienceShow all >>
Wing walking experience days Wing Walk Oxfordshire £495.00 Wing Walking Yorkshire £495.00 Wing Walking Essex £499.00 People who bought this experience also looked at: Top Gun flying combat experiences Fly with a fighter pilot experience Aerobatics experience days Spitfire flight...
Falconry experience days and birds of prey giftsShow all >>
Falconry experiences are one of the most popular experiences in the UK. It’s not every day you get to hold an eagle or an owl, but it’s a surprisingly affordable experience.
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 how much they mean to you. And why should that mean petrol-station flowers when we’ve found so many different ways to say I Love You!! Alasdair’s recommended Valentine’s Day gift For those who have trouble finding the right gift, something original, that will be remembered for a long time, and you can buy whatever your budget, we have no hesitation in recommending a gift experience. You can tailor your gift experience to...
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.