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.