Alasdair Gray - Lanark (1981)
100 Best Scottish Books of all Time
Alasdair Gray’s Lanark is one of the finest novels written in English. Its unique blend of realism and wild surrealism was greeted with great acclaim when it was first published, especially abroad. In France, for example, it sold out within four weeks and had to be immediately reprinted. In the US, it was originally marketed as sci-fi and flopped: Lanark is no more sci-fi than is the work of Dante or Blake. American publishers rebranded it for their second edition, and it is now recognised there as a major 20th century classic. In Scotland, it towers over all other contemporary fiction.
Arranged in four books, the novel opens with Book Three, set in the ever-darkening Unthank, a city not so far removed, spiritually speaking, from Glasgow. Here, in a wonderfully evoked present-day hell, Lanark emerges – a man without a past, it seems – to begin his search for love in a loveless place. Time and again he tries to remember the concept ‘hope’; even the memory of ‘dawn’ takes on a near-heartbreaking poignancy. The message is clear: the more Lanark refuses to be crushed, the greater will be his suffering.
Books One and Two are realistic, set in post-war Glasgow. In straightforward flashback they relate the very Scottish upbringing of young Duncan Thaw and his subsequent struggles as a would-be artist. Struggles that end in tragedy. Gradually we learn that Duncan Thaw and Lanark are two stages of the same person, a kind of death and resurrection. Then, with an almost miraculous inevitability, the novel begins to fit together. The whole works magnificently, carrying us from the personal to the universal, culminating in a searing satire that is surely one of the finest political allegories ever penned.
Thanks to the power of Gray’s vision, image becomes narrative, allowing him to tell a greater truth than mere events. The dragonhide, the mouths, the flesh-eating are perfect metaphors for what it is to be human; Unthank is sunless Glasgow, and the psychological and spiritual darkness is real and physical. Lanark is a masterpiece and, though very serious, it is also very, very funny. At one point the author himself appears and is asked to explain himself. Most of all, it is a testament to the human spirit. Alasdair Gray shows us the moral courage that is our only hope in this increasingly despairing world.
Further reading: 1982, Janine (1984) is one night in the life and lonely sexual fantasies of Jock McLeish; Poor Things (1993) is a feminist reworking of the Frankenstein myth.
View the complete list of the 100 Best Scottish Books.