Lanark 1982
an unofficial Alasdair Gray website

Lanark: a life in four books (1981)

What can I say about Lanark that hasn't been said already? Anthony Burgess, in his list of the 99 greatest novels written in English since 1945, called it the "shattering work of fiction in the modern idiom" that Scotland needed, compared the book itself to James Joyce's Ulysses and proclaimed Alasdair Gray "the best Scottish novelist since Walter Scott". It is hard to understate its importance in the recent renaissance of writing in Scotland.

Worked upon, on and off, for 25 years (chapter 12, with very few differences to what was finally published, was runner-up in a short story competition organised by The Observer, an English newspaper, in 1958) Lanark was eventually published in 1981 by a small Edinburgh-based publisher called Canongate. A publisher to whom Gray has returned several times in his subsequent career. It was immediately seen as a great event in Scotland's literary life. The country's resurgence of literature as something to be proud of, can almost be dated from the moment this novel hit the bookshops. The New Yorker, in 1996, called Gray "the grand old man of the Scottish renaissance", and the editor of The Scottish Novel Since the Seventies says that the 1981 publication of Lanark "detonated a cultural time-bomb which had been ticking away patiently for years".

But enough of its reputation, what of the book itself?

First off, it's a BIG book. Big in ideas, big in reputation, big in ambition and big in weight. At close to 600 pages long, it's certainly the longest of Gray's works and it's not the easiest. Although, being his debut novel, Lanark was many people's introduction to Gray, it is not the one I recommend reading first. If you're the sort of person who isn't going to like Gray's writing, Lanark and 1982 Janine are the books that are most concentrated in their Grayishness. If you aren't sure you're going to like Gray, start with Poor Things or, the one I always lend people (I've lost several copies), the short story collection Unlikely Stories, Mostly.

But don't let this put you off Lanark. Like all mountains, you might need to prepare for the climb, but the view from the top takes your breath away.

Lanark defies description. Like Slaughterhouse Five it is both outlandish science-fiction and obvious autobiography, like The Third Policeman it makes use of lengthy footnotes that say absolutely nothing, it begins with book three, has a prologue halfway through, and it includes a long index of plagiarisms in the middle of a discussion between the author and his lead character. Like many difficult books it is probably better appreciated on subsequent readings, but it is likely to grab you from the off. Books 3 and 4 (which you read first and last) are about Lanark, a man who arrives by train in a strange town. Having no name, he takes one from a sepia-tinted tourist-photograph he saw on the compartment wall. The city has no daylight and the inhabitants do no work, living off subsistence-level grants from an unseen power. Many people suffer from oddly symbolic diseases. Lanark develops 'dragonhide', a physical manifestation of Wilhelm Reich's emotional armouring, which smothers his arm in thick heavy scales and claws where his fingers were, one of his friends develops 'mouths' the symptoms of which involves mouths opening like wounds over the body which then speak independently of the sufferer. Lanark commits suicide and comes round in 'The Institute'. The Institute is devoted to curing those it can, but uses the hopeless cases as fuel (dragonhide sufferers eventually 'go nova' if uncured, when their pent-up emotions cause their bodies to explode, which energy is harnessed to power generators) or as food (the glutinous 'softs' are turned into a processed blancmange-like substance which Lanark refuses to eat when he discovers its source). This is only part of the opening book. The novel later trips back to Glasgow just after the war, where we meet Thaw (who it would appear is Lanark in a previous incarnation) for books 2 and 3. I will stop the description here, because it cannot do the book justice.

In the USA, the novel was due to be published 6 months or so after the original UK issue, to use whatever promotion had been garnered. As it happened, management changes at Harpers and Row meant that they were issued at the same time, it was marketed as a straight science-fiction novel in the States and disappeared without trace. In the UK, it remained a cult classic, but began the career of 'Gray, the novelist' and meant that after just a few more books, Gray could live by doing what he wanted, and not what he had to. Along with Unlikely Stories, Mostly it is the only one of Gray's book never to have fallen out of print in the UK, and its status as 'cult classic' seems assured for a while yet. If only Danny Boyle could be pushed into directing the film version, staring Ewan McGregor as Lanark/Thaw, Gray could live a wealthy retirement.

Alasdair Gray's books are sometimes difficult to get hold of. Where they are available, I have included links below to the amazon sites in the UK and the USA. Where a record is on their database, they will usually include links to used-book sellers who can offer the title, even if it is not available direct from amazon themselves.

Special 20th anniversary edition

Alternatively, you can try emailing Morag McAlpine, who can send you a list of available titles. She usually has a variety of out-of-print books, often signed, and also a selection of prints of Gray's artwork, also signed.