Gray, Alasdair: Lanark

Introducing “Lanark” (1981) the proposer said that Alasdair Gray was born in Riddrie in East Glasgow in 1934. His parents had met on a rambling holiday, and his father worked in a cardboard box factory. Gray, together with his mother and sister, was evacuated from Glasgow to Perthshire in 1940, and then rejoined his father in Wetherby in Yorkshire in 1942. After the war his father could not get a professional job in Glasgow and had to take work as a wages clerk. Gray’s mother died in 1952, the same year he entered the Glasgow School of Art.

 In 1954 he started writing sections of what became “Lanark”. He also wrote and published some of the stories collected in “Unlikely Stories, Mostly” (1957). In the decade after leaving art school, Gray sometimes worked as a teacher, sometimes as a scenery painter for the theatre, and sometimes lived on the dole. But he was always painting, and always writing. He painted many notable murals, not all of which had survived. An example could be found in the “Ubiquitous Chip” restaurant in Glasgow. It was odd that, amongst all his published work, there was not a book of his paintings.

 In 1960 he joined the CND, with which he was still associated. In 1964 his son was born, and he made a television documentary, to be followed by a number of television and radio plays. In 1977 he was employed on a Job Creation Scheme as artist for the Glasgow People’s Palace, from which he soon moved to become “Writer-in-Residence” at Glasgow University.

 “Lanark” was a “big’ book – big in ideas, big in reputation and big in weight. It was the longest of Gray’s works, and not the easiest. It was immediately seen as a great event in Scotland’s literary life when finally published by Canongate in 1981. Scotland’s resurgence of literature could almost be dated from the moment of its publication. Gray had been described as “the grand old man of the Scottish renaissance”, and it had been said that the book “detonated a cultural time-bomb which had been ticking away patiently for years”.

 The proposer had chosen the book because he had read it when it first came out and felt that it had never quite settled with him – therefore he wished to re-read it. This time it had seemed more coherent.

 So what did the Group make of “Lanark”? The discussion revealed a large number of contradictory views, and there was no real movement towards consensus. So a confusing – if not confused – discussion, perhaps rather like the book. Or was the problem that in Scotland we were too close to the book, and less inclined to grandiloquent judgements such as Anthony Burgess’ a “shattering work of fiction in the modern idiom” that Scotland “needed” by “the best Scottish novelist since Walter Scott”?

 So it was a difficult (“unthankful”?) task for yours truly, the luckless discussion summariser.

 A few, in addition to the proposer, were re-reading the book. Some found it more coherent and that it made more sense, fitting in with the less linear style of modern literature; others found it less coherent. Some felt Gray had been prescient in raising issues – such as globalisation, the role of multinationals and the environment – that seemed even more topical now. And he had captured the oppressive nature of large bureaucracies with which we were all too familiar.

 Some in some moods got fed up with Thaw/Lanark  – his inability to seize opportunities, his self-pity, his rejection of those who tried to help him – but in other moods sympathised with him. One who had found the book absolutely brilliant the first time round still found it still pretty good, with its imagination and range, but was more aware of the self-indulgence of sections such as the Epilogue, and the tedium of others. (Whereas another liked the Epilogue!).

 Some were reading it for the first time (or completing it for the first time, after falling asleep during the opening section the first time). Amongst them there was the full spread of opinion.

 One felt it was an outstanding book, containing everything you could want in a modern work. He could relate to the portrait of his early life as someone with whom nobody sympathised at school. The book dealt with the alienation of the individual and the destructive side of capitalism. It was also entertaining and witty. However, he acknowledged its inaccessibility, which limited its popular readership. It was a book more popular with the literati than the common reader, and perhaps not a book you warmed to.

 One thought it was really pretty poor. Indeed he had decided to give it up if it did not improve by page 110, and had only kept going because of the relative improvement of the autobiographical Thaw story. But over the piece he did not like it all. It was absurd, for example, that a writer should need to spell out in the middle of the book what his work was meant to be about (the passage about it being about the inability to love at both personal and societal levels).

But the views of most fell in the middle. Generally they liked the autobiographical Thaw section, but were less enamoured of the confusing fantasy sections (the same view taken by William Boyd in his introduction to the 2007 edition). 

 However, they recognised the book would be pretty ordinary without the fantasy “bookends”. These amplified and echoed Thaw’s problems in the imaginary world of Lanark. The character of Lanark was “Thaw on speed”. Eczema became dragon-hide, and he had (somewhat) more success with women. And portraying Glasgow as a sun-less world of nightmare was imaginatively convincing (but then a Book Group based in Edinburgh would think that).

 For one it was a sad book – about a sad person, unable to engage successfully with the world, and escaping from the drabness of life on benefit in Glasgow into art and fantasy.

 What then of the specifics? As autobiography, the book was distinguished by its honesty. It was an unflinching portrait of a misfit, of a dysfunctional individual with problems in relating to people, particularly to women and people in authority. Where so many autobiographies would boast about the protagonist’s remarkable charms with the other sex, this did quite the opposite, and even confessed to his sadistic urges towards women. It was also interesting as a historical record of West of Scotland life during and immediately after the Second World War.

 The book would have been an easier read if it had started with the autobiography rather than the fantasy, but Gray’s ambition to follow the structure of classical epic and start “in medias res” gave the book a whiff of obscurity that impressed some (and depressed others).

 The book was lightened by some welcome shafts of humour – for example portraying the Intercalendrical Zone as having signposts in the form of Scottish Motorway signs (with New Cumbernauld as hell). However, the science fiction sections were fairly derivative.

 One reader found the second slab of fantasy much less powerful than the first, and felt the whole book  went into a tailspin after Lanark meets the author. Meeting the author was an amusing idea – in a trendy, deconstructionist sort of way – but it shattered the coherence of the book. This disruption was compounded by the pretentious list of influences that followed, as the author became dazzled by the fool’s gold of his own brilliance. Before long the sombre, Kafkaesque intensity of Lanark’s life in Unthank had given way to a burlesque of international conferences and a Red Clydeside rant about the evils of the politico-economic system. The novel had lost its focus and fell apart as much as ended. (Hmmm…bit of a rant there too, perhaps?)

Ah well, but for someone else the critique of governments and businesses was the whole point of the book. The book was essentially a vehicle for a critique of capitalist society. And someone else found it particularly interesting to see what the influences on the writers were. Still no consensus!

 However, most agreed that some rigorous editing would have helped the book – perhaps a book of about 400 pages would have been right. But who could imagine Messrs Thaw/Lanark/Gray accepting any editing whatsoever?

The artwork (particularly for the original dust-jacket, reproduced as the cover of the 2007 edition) found several fans. One member had found himself reading the book in the same Glasgow hospital that Thaw had gone to, and reported that the (male) nurses had licked the striking female nude on the cover (or did he say “liked”? Your correspondent’s hearing has been deteriorating due to the unusual noise levels at Easter Road this year…). Another member speculated that Gray’s greater talent was for art rather than fiction, and there was general dismay that his artwork and murals had received little attention and respect.

 The book was conventionally described as a seminal work of fiction, which had sparked off the Scottish literary Renaissance. But, argued one, in what sense was it really a work of fiction at all? It was more like an autobiography – one half literal, the other half fantasy, but all about one person – Alasdair Gray. There was hardly an invented character of substance and complexity. For the hero to meet the author during the book took self-absorption to new and giddying heights, and the ill-judged “Tailpiece” in the new edition gave us a whole extra Q and A on the subject of me, me (and me)………Well, but wasn’t it in the nature of science fiction – and the Pilgrim’s Progress style of plot – to be more interested in ideas than characters? And weren’t Sludden and Marjory interesting characters?

 And what was the influence of the book on subsequent Scottish literature? Who else was writing in a mixture of fantasy and realism? No one we could think of –other than that Ian Banks did so, but in separate books. Perhaps the influence was more indirect – “Lanark” had encouraged publishers to take up the work of new Scottish writers. And to be fair to Gray his role might have been better acknowledged if he had been the sort of relentless self-publicist some of his contemporaries were.

 And did Gray achieve his ambition of giving Glasgow an imaginative profile to put it on a par with Paris, Rome or San Francisco? Well….err…………………no.

 So were we left with a conclusion? Well, some – but not all – might sign up for describing the book as:

 derivative in many of its building blocks but brilliant in its construction, in its blend of fantasy and reality;

  • but inaccessible because of its  construction, despite being pretty readable in reality;
  • strong and honest in its autobiographical section;
  • very imaginative;
  • yet self-absorbed and self-indulgent;
  • very ambitious in its scope, but over-long;
  • in summary, a work of flawed genius.

And now for some critical footnotes, in the best “Lanark” tradition.

 1.   Our empirically-minded scientific adviser notes that, while theses may have been written about the meaning of “Unthank”, and while some of us wondered if to “unthank” someone was a peculiarly Scottish form of put-down, there is a real place called “Unthank” not too far from Lanark. It is one of three such in the UK. The name has nothing to do with thanking but means “without leave” (from the old English “unpance”) and describes a piece of land occupied unlawfully. It was used in the context of pieces of borderland fought over between the Scots and the English. Therefore the name is perhaps appropriate in the context of the novel.


2.   Meanwhile our medical expert reports that Gray refers to stasis asthmaticus when he should have said status asthmaticus. The root of the problem is anxiety, and m*st*rb*tion would be a good way to reduce anxiety. There is evidence that testosterone produced in m*st*rb*tion also helps in the transport of a hormone DHEA which might help relieve asthmatic symptoms. Certainly low levels of DHEA are associated with asthma. There is scope for further research.

 3.   One of our number reports that he was responsible for programmes for the unemployed in the West of Scotland at the time of the publication of “Lanark”. Was he therefore head of the Institute and thus Lord Monboddo?

 4.  Our musical adviser reports that “The Unthanks” are an English folk group from Northumberland, and include two sisters with the surname “Unthank”. Does this mean, he enquires, that the sisters have been unlawfully taken?

 5.   Our medical expert reports that, notwithstanding footnote 2, there is as yet no evidence that m*st*rb*tion cures blindness.

6.   Our internet adviser reports a post on an Alasdair Gray website from a lady with dragon-hide legs. Far from being a disadvantage, she says that her dragon-hide legs have proved very popular on the Hounslow sex scene.

 ??…..Run that last one by me again…