LANARK by Alasdair Gray (Canongate, 1981)


If anybody denies that Lanark is a work of genius, that man or woman is not be trusted. If that same person says that it is a work of madness, you might concede that he or she has a point.

It is, by now,  common knowledge that the line between the two concepts – genius and madness – is a fine one. Navigating life can be defined in terms of such a fine line. Imagine a tightrope walker moving between two points without the security or consolation of a safety net. On false step could prove fatal and the safest option of all is not to start the walk from point A to point B in the first place.

Fortunately, enough humans have an inbuilt drive to do things that  have not been done before.  Convention tends to stifle such urges but the risk takers and iconoclasts of this world may embark on journeys that no-one has contemplated.

Lanark is such a journey. It was written over the course of 25 years and eventually published in 1981 when Gray was 47. It is a work of diversity and perversity and is to Glasgow, Scotland what Jame’s Joyce’s Ulysses is to Dublin, Ireland.

lanark2In her introduction, Janice Galloway writes that Gray’s novel “is still, and always will be, an act of resistance”. Canongate Books call Lanark “a modern vision in hell” and this is intended as a compliment!

The resistance Galloway refers to is towards anything/anyone which/who consciously or subconsciously represses free thought and/or argues against liberated action.

The random, rebellious and non linear nature of Alasdair Gray’s unique mindset can be gleaned from the novel’s idiosyncratic structure. It is subtitled ‘A Life in Four Books’ but these don’t come in a logical sequence. It opens with Book 3 and thereafter Book 1 follows a Prologue. Then we get Book 2 and Book 4. An Epilogue comes in the middle of Book 4.

In the prologue the author speaks through the persona of an oracle and explains to the protagonist : “By describing your life I will escape the trap of my own. From my station in nonentity everything existent, everything not me, looks worthwhile and splendid; even things which most folk consider commonplace or dreadful. Your past is safe with me. I can promise to be accurate”.

The story alternates between the characters of Lanark and Duncan Thaw who are essentially two sides of the same person. Lanark inhabits a dystopic universe and his narrative in Books 3 and 4 takes us into a fantasy world that helps explain why the novel has sometimes been marketed as Science Fiction.

Thaw’s story is more conventional and seems to mirror the life of Gray himself. We follow his frustrations with women (despite his “genital eagerness”), his dreams of becoming a painter and his habitual reluctance to follow the path of conventional education.

The single-minded pursuit of his own artistic vision means that he has an innate resistant to studying other subjects like mathematics. Thaw likens the content of algebra and geometry books to “a land without colour, furniture or action where thought negotiated symbolically with itself”.

The constant alienation from faceless authority and the “creature clusters” of self-serving powermongers means that, when asked where the idea of Lanark came from, it’s no great surprise that Gray replied: “From Frank Kafka”.

Gray openly admits to stealing from other writers and even includes an index of plagiarisms, a detail which itself mimics Flann O’Brien’s liking for “irrelevant erudition through grotesquely inflated footnotes” in ‘The Third Policeman’.

Gray comments that “spending a lifetime turning your soul into printer’s ink is a queer way to live” but we can only be thankful that he make this commitment.

One Good Reads critic describes Lanark as “a glorious, sprawling mess” which I think is quite accurate. It’s a mess that you can lose yourself in and emerge from feeling both lighter, freer and glad you undertook this particular journey.