Lanark – Alasdair Gray

LanarkThe Scottish Ulysses

Based on a list of twelve “novels that have been described, whether by critics or the authors themselves, as the Ulyssi of their respective cultures”, compiled by writer Joshua Cohen, late last year I added a post “A World of Ulysses”.

I did extend the listing of twelve adding a number of novels that other readers have claimed fit the Ulysses tag. At that time, I was encouraged to add Alasdair Gray’s ‘Lanark’ as the Scottish Ulysses, as apparently Anthony Burgess had referred to it as such.

I know only a little about Anthony Burgess, famous because Stanley Kubrick made a film based on one of his books, or that he spat the dummy and refused to turn up to the Booker Prize in 1980 because William Golding had written a better book, or that he wrote a LOT of reviews. Attempting to find the Ulysses reference by Burgess has been part of the ‘Lanark’ journey, I never found the alleged reference, maybe he never compared the two, however I have found a lot of references comparing Gray to Joyce, and the oft dragged out quote:

 “It was about time Scotland produced a shattering work of fiction in the modern idiom. This is it…the first major Scottish novelist since Sir Walter Scott”

It’s a bummer really as I was going to write a whole piece about how ‘Lanark’ is nothing like ‘Ulysses’…

Let’s start with the book’s structure, something that is out of the ordinary, a structure best described by the author, in the book itself;

“When Lanark is finished (I am calling the work after you) it will be roughly tow hundred thousand words and forty chapters long, and divided into books three, one, two and four.”
“Why not one, two, three and four?”
“ I want
Lanark to be read in one order but eventually thought of in another. It’s an old device. Homer, Virgil, Milton and Scott Fitzgerald used it. There will also be a prologue before book one, and interlude in the centre, and an epilogue two or three chapters before the end.”
“I thought epilogues came after the end.”
“Usually, but mine is too important to go there. Though not essential to the plot it provides some comic distraction at a moment with the narrative sorely needs it. And it lets me utter some fine sentiments which I could hardly trust to a mere character. And it contains critical notes which will save research scholars years of toil. In fact my epilogue is so essential that I am working on it with nearly a quarter of the book still unwritten. I am working on it here, just now, in this conversation….” (p483)

Books three and four, the bookends, take place in a futuristic setting and feature a character named Lanark in the city of Unthank, books one and two, in the centre of the novel, is a coming of age story about the Glaswegian artist Duncan Thaw. Glasgow not just the setting but also a “character”;

“Then think of Florence, Paris, London, New York. Nobody visiting them for the first time is a stranger because he’s already visited them in paintings, novels, history books and films. But if a city hasn’t been used by an artist not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively. What is Glasgow to most of us? A house, the place we work, a football park or gold course, some pubs and connecting streets. That’s all. No, I’m wrong, there’s also the cinema and the library. And when our imagination needs exercise we use these to visit London, Paris, Rome under the Caesars, the American West at the turn of the century, anywhere but here and now. Imaginatively Glasgow exists as a music-hall song and a few bad novels. That’s all we’ve given to the world outside. It’s all we’ve given ourselves.” (p243)

To counteract this imbalance of foreign culture and awareness, Alasdair Gray paints an intricate picture of the city, a place where the sun doesn’t shine a lot;

Sliding patches of evening sunshine mingled with flurries of so warm a rain that nobody thought of sheltering from it. Drummond led them round Sighthill cemetery, across some football pitches and up a wilderness of slag bings called Jack’s Mountain. From the top they saw the yellow-scummed lake called the Stinky Ocean, then came down near a slaughterhouse behind Pinkston power station, along the canal towpath, between bonded warehouses, across Garscube Road and into a public house. The customers sat on benches against the wall, staring at each other across the narrow floor like passengers in a train. (p329)

Whilst a futuristic dystopian novel, interrupted by a coming of age story, that highlights Glasgow, this is also a political work:

Many hard workers make noting but wealth. They don’t produce food, fuel, shelter or helpful ideas; their work is just a way of tightening their grip on folk who do.” (p409)

Using several interesting techniques throughout as a reader you are always pitched into a new realm to discover, for example instead of repeating a route or the scenery;

Consider him passing along the route described at the start of Book One, Chapter 18 only he dozes most of the way and gets out at Glencoe village. (p351)

Creating loops for you to follow, skipping back and forth as Lanark is being told the life of Duncan Thaw. The Epilogue, as referred to above by the writer himself, and not appearing at the end, was for this reader the highlight of the book. Does Alasdair Gray pre-empt the world’s issues by fifty years (‘Lanark’ was published in 1981 however some parts are “copyright 1969”)? Here Lanark is attending a meeting as the representative of Unthank to plead the case to ensure the city’s longevity;

You move about discussing the woes of Unthank with whoever will listen. Your untutored eloquence has an effect beyond your expectations, first on women, then on men. Many delegates see that their own lands are threatened by the multi-national companies and realize that if something isn’t quickly done the council won’t be able to help them either. So tomorrow when you stand up in the great assembly hall to speak for your land or city (I haven’t worked out which yet), you are speaking for a majority of lands and cities everywhere. The great corporations, you say, are wasting the earth. They have turned the wealth of nations into weapons and poison, while ignoring mankind’s most essential needs. The time has come etcetera etcetera. You sit down amid a silence more significant than the wildest applause and the lord president himself arises to answer you. He expresses the most full-hearted agreement. He explains that the heads of the council have already prepared plans to curb and harness the power of the creature but dared not announce them before they had the support of a majority. He announces them now. All work which merely transfers wealth will be abolished, all work which damages or kills people will be stopped. All profits will belong to the state, no state will be bigger than a Swiss canton, no politician will draw a larger wage than an agricultural labourer. In fact, all wages will be lowered or raised to the national average, and later to the international average, thus letting people transfer to the jobs they do best without artificial feelings of prestige or humiliation. Stockbrokers, bankers, accountants, property developers, advertisers, company lawyers and detectives will become schoolteachers if they can find no other useful work, and not teacher will have more than six pupils per class. The navy and the air forces will be set to providing children everywhere with free meals. The armies will dig irrigation ditches and plant trees. All human excrement will be returned to the land. (pp490-491)

I believe this is an uneven novel, one that soars at times, but meanders along with a simple narrative plot at other times. The references to the African delegates (in the meeting above) as the “blacks” and their speech punctuated with “man” made them caricatures not characters. And the representation of females?

The gallery was filling with older people who were clearly delegates or delegates’ wives, and other in their thirties who seemed to be secretaries and journalists. There were more red girls too, though few of them now wore the whole red uniform. (p504)

In the future women still aren’t delegates, they are simply wives, or secretaries….and the whole novel does overly hinge on male bravado, women simply exist to adorn the men, even in the future the “princess” is rescued by the “prince”.

Enjoyable, clever, but at times tedious (frequent visitors here would know how I hate coming of age stories) and now somewhat dated, the structure is one part that is interesting. No ‘Ulysses’ sorry.



4 thoughts on “Lanark – Alasdair Gray

  1. Interesting… Looking back at my review, I certainly was very enthusiastic about Lanark and I’m reminded how much I loved the book. I would never compare it with what I’ve read so far of Ulysses, but I think it’s a wonderful and unique work of art and actually I’m now thinking I want to revisit it. And I’m with Lisa – comparisons are odious, actually, and I think trying to equate major works like this is doomed from the start! I guess we can say something has the same cultural impact, but they’re never going to be the same book! 🙂


  2. The comparison with Joyce is more accurately with Portrait of an Artist – which is what Books 1 and 2 are. I suspect ‘Ulysses’ is being used a shorthand for a novel which is both local (to a small country of course) and universal.It’s difficult to overstate the shear bravado of Lanark.
    Gray is not a great stylist but I love the playfulness of Lanark and still feel he got more right than wrong. Parts were originally published in 1969 and Book 1 and 2 submitted to publishers at one point as a standalone novel.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad this post has raised some debate, better than disappearing into the ether. Yes Books 1 & 2 are Portrait’ish.
      I think the Ulysses comparison can be used in a number of ways, style, importance, catalyst for change, owned but unread, set in a single day, portrait of a city etc.
      You’ll all be pleased to know that next up for review is “All About H. Hatterr” by G.V. Desani, a novel Anthony Burgess referred to as “planned as Ulysses”.


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