Lanark by Alasdair Gray

Q: What is Lanark?

A1: A former Scottish county containing Glasgow and also the town of Lanark

A2: A strange great epic book

A3: The hero (or anti-hero) of the aforesaid book which is set in the aforesaid area (or a weird variation of it)

Intrigued? I was!

Although I’ve spent most of my life living in England, I was born in Edinburgh, and periodically my Scottishness comes out with a vengeance! I don’t quite recall where I heard about “Lanark”, but it struck me as sounding like something big and epic and Scots that I should read, and so I picked up a copy. I’m unsure what provoked me to read it now, though it might have something to do with a certain Mr. Capaldi making his Whovian debut recently….. Not that I’m visualising Capaldi as Lanark or anything, but the former did present a rather wonderful documentary on Glasgow art some years back – and Glasgow is most important to Lanark…..


At nearly 600 pages “Lanark” is no casual read, and its unusual structure means it’s even less likely to attract the uncommitted.  Of author Alasdair Gray, Wikipedia says: Alasdair Gray (born 28 December 1934) is a Scottish writer and artist. His most acclaimed work is his first novel, Lanark, published in 1981 and written over a period of almost 30 years. It is now regarded as a classic, and was described by The Guardian as “one of the landmarks of 20th-century fiction.” His novel Poor Things (1992) won the Whitbread Novel Award and the Guardian Fiction Prize. He describes himself as a civic nationalist and a republican. Gray’s works combine elements of realism, fantasy, and science fiction, plus clever use of typography and his own illustrations.

Basically, the work is subtitled “A Life in Four Books” and it opens with Book 3. It then goes on to Books 1 and 2 and then finally Book 4. Interspersed at points are a Prologue, an Epilogue and an Interlude. Despite this strangeness, the chapters are numbered sequentially. If the book sounds confusing, surprisingly enough it isn’t!

“Lanark” begins at Book 3 with us meeting the title character in a city we later learn is Unthank, a man with no memories of the past and no idea who he really is. Unthank is a strange not-Glasgow, decaying and permanently dark and grey, and here Lanark falls in with Sludden and his motley crew of followers. All is not well in this city – people disappear without warning, there are strange diseases around, and Lanark himself is troubled by an increasing amount of dragonhide growing on his arm…. As he deteriorates he’s suddenly whisked into darkness himself, to a strange underground institute where the dragonish growth is cured. But who runs the place and will Lanark, who only wants to be alone and see the light, be able to escape?

Book 1, which follows, introduces us to young Duncan Thaw, a boy growing up in wartime and post-war Glasgow. Thaw has parents and a sister Ruth, and suffers from crippling asthma and ill-health. As he stumbles confusedly through childhood, we get a wonderful picture of what it was like to grow up at the time, pulled between religion, politics, the thoughts of school friends, the desires of the body. Thaw’s father is a hard-working man with left-wing tendencies, his mother the anchor in his life. But neither can really cope with or understand Thaw, and his unsettling behaviour often ends in a thrashing or being thrown into a bath of cold water.

Alasdair Gray photographed before speaking at the Edinburgh festival

As we move into Book 2, Thaw’s talent for art, which we saw earlier in the story, has come to the fore and he manages to get into Glasgow’s prestigious art school. However, despite making new friends and falling in love, he’s incapable of knuckling down, toeing the line or playing the game. Instead, his need to create a huge, radical, individual piece of art forces him into conflict with the school’s authorities and even the people he’s making his artwork for don’t understand it. Whatever Thaw tackles seems doomed to failure owing to a combination of his continual ill-health and his stubbornness.

Book 4 takes us back to Unthank where the connections between Lanark and Thaw have become clearer. We follow Lanark through the later stages of his life as he travels to the city of Provan to try to save Unthank from its doom. But the controlling powers are strong and Lanark shares a tendency to failure with Thaw, so things don’t look optimistic to say the least…

That’s by necessity a skimming of the surface and a very brief hint at the scope of this book, because it really is quite massive. I deliberately don’t want to give too much away because I would hate to spoil the discovery of the richness of this work for anyone. Basically, I haven’t got lost in a work of literature like this for a long time, and it was truly stunning. I’m hesitant about revealing a lot of the plot, because for a first read I would definitely recommend approaching “Lanark” with a clear and open mind. Gray apparently originally wrote the Thaw sections, which are somewhat autobiographical, but then decided that he needed to create a really huge, epic piece of art and so the work expanded. The central Thaw sections, the coming of age tale of a Glasgow child, could certainly stand on their own; but they would be much less powerful without the framing Lanark story, with its shifts and changes, its allegories and its parodies of reality.

If I’m honest, I’m still assimilating much of the book, but it seems to me to be very much a cry out for the individual, for humanity against the huge forces that control us. Published in 1981, “Lanark” is even more relevant today, in a world where the individual matters for very little. It’s as if Gray wanted to take the epics of the past, where heroes made journeys, fought against strange monsters and forces, finally reaching some kind of resolution, and bring them up to date with a modern Scottish epic of his own. Certainly, Glasgow takes centre stage, and possibly Provan is meant to represent Edinburgh (although I’ve seen that debated).

Glasgow School of Art

Glasgow School of Art

Lanark is full of profound thought, shooting out phrases that make your brain go into overdrive and question everyday life:

Faint sounds came from the kitchen where his father prepared a breakfast. Hundreds of thousands of men in dirty coats and heavy boots were tramping along grey streets to the gates of forges and machine shops. He thought with awe of the energy needed to keep up a civilization, of the implacable routines which started drawing it from the factory worker daily at eight, from the clerk and shopkeeper at nine. Why didn’t everyone decide to stay in bed one morning? it would mean the end of civilization, but in spite of two world wars the end of civilization was still an idea, while bed was a warm immediate fact.

Thaw struggles to express his art and his emotions, but he’s out of step with so much and unable to complete what he started, ruing his failure and returning to his constant questing for answers about religion, another recurring theme in the book:

Why didn’t you give me a railway station to decorate? It would have been easy painting to the glory of Stevenson, Telford, Brunel and a quarter million Irish navvies. But here I am, illustrating your discredited first chapter through an obsolete art form on a threatened building in a poor province of a collapsing empire. Only the miracle of my genius stops me feeling depressed about this, and even so my brushes are clogged by theology, that bastard of the sciences.

What I loved also was the cleverness of the writing. Gray is remarkably inventive and the fantastic elements, though almost sci-fi in places, are somehow believable. The twists and turns in the plot, the constant surprises and action, made for a very compelling and surprisingly quick read of a long book – I couldn’t wait to get back to it! Gray’s writing is also very funny, and he plays around with the genre, even breaking the fourth wall at one point and having author and character have a discussion! Gray also provides the occasional illustrations to the book and he’s obviously something of a polymath. I also loved the Scotticisms, so many of which brought back memories of the language of my childhood… The writing is beautiful and evocative, conjuring up people and places so clearly:

His dark skin, great arched nose, small glittering eyes, curling black hair and pointed beard were so like the popular notion of the devil that on first sight everyone felt they had known him intimately for years. (Aitkin Drummond, one of Thaw’s art school friends)

They crossed the shallow arch of the wooden bridge and climbed past some warehouses to the top of a threadbare green hill. They stood under an electric pylon and looked across the city centre. The wind which stirred the skirts of their coats was shifting mounds of grey cloud eastward along the valley. Travelling patches of sunlight went from ridge to ridge, making a hump of tenements gleam against the dark towers of the city chambers, silhouetting the cupolas of the Royal Infirmary against the tomb-glittering spine of the Necropolis.

“Lanark” is very much a sum of its parts, containing myriad allusions and influences; in fact, the author is honest enough to list all of these ‘plagiarisms’ as he calls them at one point in the book, but I’m not going to say where! And what matters most is the synthesis, the story that Gray has woven together from all these disparate parts of his life and his influences, turning them into this fascinating, fantastic tale.

Is Lanark/Thaw hero or anti-hero? Probably a bit of both, if I’m honest. He tries to do good as much as he can, and fight against what he perceives as wrong, even while questioning why he’s doing so.

I don’t care what happens to most people. All of us over eighteen have been warped into deserving what happens to us. But if your reason shows that civilization can only continue by damaging the brains and hearts of most children, then… Your reason and civilisation are false and will destroy themselves.

“Lanark” is a work that deserves numerous re-reads to pick up the references and the subtleties, and work out all that Gray was trying to say – but my first reading of this epic book was certainly dazzling. It’s a huge great sprawling undisciplined rebellious brick of a book and I loved it!