How do I begin to sum up Alasdair Gray? Writer of fiction and non-fiction, painter, illustrator, dramatist, poet, cultural and political commentator, and even, as part of the ‘Ballad of the Books’ project, songwriter. Most people would be happy to have mastered one of these things. Alasdair Gray is not most people. And ‘Lanark’ is not your average novel.
In hindsight ‘Lanark’ is the book with which I should have started ‘Indelible Ink’. It is not only the most impressive Scottish novel of the last 40 years (which is a different thing to the best) it is the novel that has taken the greatest influence from, and in turn made the greatest impression on, Scottish literature. It connects the modernism of the early part of the century with the predominately urban sensibilities of the second half, but its influences are many and more varied than that suggests. There are nods to James Joyce and to T.S Eliot, but it also harks back to the 19th century with echoes of James Thompson’s ‘City of Dreadful Night’, dips into Freudian and Jungian theory, and there is a hefty influence from ‘Leviathan’, Thomas Hobbes 1651 socio/political treatise that gave the world the sobering thought that life is ‘nasty, brutish and short’. The illustrations in the book are surely a nod to William Blake, and, like the text, he uses them to marry the real and everyday with the fantastical. There are many other influences and quotations, more than I can mention here, and uncovering them is part of the joy of ‘Lanark’. It is a novel written by someone who, by his own omission, knows when, where and from whom to ‘borrow’; it is constructed by someone with impeccable taste, but it is a vision that is absolutely unique.
I use the term ‘constructed’ deliberately. In the TLS in 1996 John Sutherland wrote: ‘Where other novelists write fiction, Gray creates books’. Perhaps the easiest way to convey that ‘Lanark’ is unusual is to look at its structure, one which means that the often asked rhetorical question of ‘where do I start’ becomes a genuine concern. The novel is carefully constructed, with an almost architectural precision, as follows:
Book 3-Prologue-Book 1-Book 2-Book 4-(Epilogue)-Book4
Books 1 and 2 deal with the story of Glaswegian Duncan Thaw. They are a portrait of the artist as a young man and Gray has openly admitted that these books are thinly disguised autobiography. Thaw is a man who, like Gray, grows up to suffer illness, most notably from eczema. After a happy childhood his life becomes an unsatisfying one, particularly in terms of his relationships. You don’t need to read too far to soon realise this is all about Gray, and it is not a particularly happy story. What many people don’t realise, as the fantastical Books 3&4 are often focused upon by critics, is that 1&2 have as much ‘grit and realism’ as anything written by his contemporaries, although the fact that this is such a personal tale gives it an extra, more humane, dimension.
Books 3 and 4 are about the eponymous Lanark, a man who finds himself in the often Kafkaesque nightmare that is Unthank, a place which resembles a Hieronymus Bosch painting. His journey is reminiscent of Dante’s, and when you consider the Thaw books, you could also say that he is through the looking glass. It would be a mistake to think that Thaw’s and Lanark’s are separate stories, they are closely intertwined. Lanark begins to develop ‘Dragonhide’, the eczema like disease that begins to cover his body with scales, another clue to the close links between Thaw and Lanark, and Gray, but also a ‘nasty and brutish’ metaphor for modern life. ‘Lanark’ is subtitled ‘A Life in Four Books’, in fact it is a life in two books, told twice but from a different perspective.
The Prologue and Epilogue see the author himself appear, firstly to instruct the reader, and Lanark, as to how and why the story must unfold as it does, and then to give further explanation and to defend the book. To this end the Epilogue comes with an ‘Index of Plagiarisms’, a stylistic flourish that was to become typical of Gray. By setting out his novel as he does Gray sets the reader a challenge right from the beginning, but it is more out of playfulness and love of perspective rather than an intellectual exercise. This is a novel to enjoy, not one to work at.
I consider Gray in a similar way as I do Mark E. Smith. With both these men it appears to me that they have to produce art. It is as much a compulsion to them as breathing, and is not about fame or reward (at least not predominately). They may both like a little attention and certain notoriety, but they will do it their way, and damn the consequences. Smith once said that he didn’t dislike his audience, as many claimed was the case, he just didn’t consider them at all. He may not admit it, he would be too well mannered, but my hunch is that Alasdair Gray feels much the same way. This is not an accusation. In fact I think it may be a necessity for the very best artists.
In the 2002 revised edition Janice Galloway wrote the foreword and said that ‘Lanark’ is:
‘A novel full of voice and voices, of Art concealing and revealing Art at one and the same time, it makes multiple invitations to its reader to reject distanced analysis and enter, “headfirst and naked,” into the story itself,’
The point that Galloway is making is that you should put aside the mythology that has built up around the novel (through columns such as this one) and simply read it. Everything that you may have heard about it suggests that it is going to be a difficult read, but that is not the case. ‘Lanark’ rightly has a reputation as a great novel, but that reputation should not put potential readers off. Here’s a clip of Alasdair Gray interviewing Alasdair Gray. I hope you’re beginning to get the picture:
As part of Philip Hobsbaum’s influential creative writing group, Gray’s direct peers are Liz Lochhead, James Kelman, Tom Leonard and Jeff Torrington. But, in another sense he is peerless. I don’t mean to say that he is better than the others named, just that he stands apart by having a different aesthetic sensibility. It’s a difficult difference to pin down, but if his peers are distinctly ‘Glasgow’ writers, then Gray is more of an ‘Unthank’ writer. His view of the city and its people, including himself, is askew. ‘Lanark’ is the great Glasgow novel in a similar way that ‘Ulysses’ is the great Dublin novel. Both books are recognisable in terms of people and place yet completely alien at the same time.
Scottish novelists can be accused of being parochial, and this is not about what or where they write about, but is more a state of mind. It is a narrowing of focus that concentrates on the local or national, which is perfectly understandable, and sometimes desirable, but which became the standard for Scottish fiction for many years. The idea of writing an epic novel seemed anathema to modern Scottish writers, yet that is what ‘Lanark’ is. Strangely, perhaps, for a novel which is so feted, its direct influence is perceived to be slight. There are other novels of Gray’s that are more influential. Perhaps this is not surprising. Who could comprehend such an undertaking?
If Alasdair Gray had never written another thing he would be acclaimed for writing ‘Lanark’. As it is he has a back catalogue that is to be admired. At least two other genuinely great novels in ‘1982 Janine’ and ‘Poor Things’, six others which are simply very good (and which most writers will never come close to) some of the best collections of short stories from any Scottish writer, and many underrated plays. Sometimes people who are as prolific as Gray, or who have had the audacity to have longevity, get taken for granted. His last play ‘Fleck’ has still to be produced by a major theatre company, which considering some of the plays that get commissioned (I’m looking at you National Theatre of Scotland) is absurd.
Perhaps it is because he is not ‘just’ a writer that Gray stands apart in Scottish fiction, but I think that too simple an answer. I go back to where we started and point out that Alasdair Gray is an artist in every sense of the word. Dean Martin once said about Sinatra that ‘this is Frank’s world, we just live in it’. Well Alasdair Gray has his own world, and we should be grateful that he chooses to share it with us.
The books that we deal with in ‘Indelible Ink’ can be bought from the Dear Scotland shop:
Next month’s novel: Jealousy is something I generally try and steer clear of, but if there is any current writer who I envy it would be James Robertson. He is someone who is probably better known, although not well known enough, for his superb third novel ‘The Testament of Gideon Mack’, and in the space of four novels has proven to be one of Scotland’s most versatile and involving writers.
Like many of the novels dealt with so far, Robertson’s ‘The Fanatic’ is a debut and is a terrific introduction to his work. It manages to bring together old and new Edinburgh, and, by extension, ancient and modern Scotland, something that can be found in all his fiction, either implicitly or explicitly. Like Alasdair Gray, James Robertson demands concentration from his readers, but it is always worth the effort. He educates as he entertains, which is surely what we want from a novelist.
Next 5 books:
1. James Robertson The Fanatic (Nov)
2. James Kelman Kieron Smith, boy (Dec)
3. Suhayl Saadi Psychoraag (Jan)
4. Ron Butlin The Sound of My Voice (Feb)
5. Duncan Mclean Bunker Man (Mar)