Tournament of Books 2015

Saturday, November 16th, 2002


Lanark: A Life in Four Books


A review by Gerry Donaghy

There is a traditional genre in literature called the Bildungsroman, or the novel of personal development. Its origin is generally credited to German writers of the eighteenth century such as Goethe and Wieland. The Bildungsroman charts a protagonist's (almost universally male) transition from youthful flights of fancy to becoming a productive member of middle-class society. These are novels that justify conformity for comfort's sake, and bohemian lust for life is exchanged for conservative values. These novels are meant to be reassuring. In them, a reader is comforted by discovering that their journey to respectability is reflected on the printed page, making it one of the universal truths that all great literature shares.

There also exists in the canon, the inverse of this ideal, or the anti-Bildungsroman. Probably the most well-known of these is Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, in which the protagonist spends seven years in a Swiss sanitarium, surrounded by characters who represent the pinnacle of European idealism and intellectual achievement, only to leave even less informed than when he went in.

Alasdair Gray's novel Lanark very much fits the latter mold, written with a verve and finesse that flies off the page. Its eponymous character is a resident of Unthank, a dark, nearly deserted city, whose inhabitants live in constant fear of disease and abduction by unknown forces. Lanark is in perpetual pursuit of sunlight and love and isn't successful in capturing either. Despondent, he chooses to depart from his world. Here the novel takes a turn into the fantastic. After arriving at an otherworldly realm called The Institute, Lanark is allowed to view his previous life, and the novel becomes a naturalistic tale of a boy named Thaw growing up in post-war Glasgow, struggling to become an artist with disastrous consequences. After this revelation, Larnark, now carrying the title Lord Provost, returns to Unthank in an attempt to save it from destruction.

This novel is a successful fusion of elements from The Divine Comedy, Ulysses, and the illustrations of William Blake, wrapped up in a way that anybody who has been scared of reading Gray's literary antecedents can find accessible. While Gray employs an arsenal of modernist literary tricks (starting the novel with Book Three, imaginative use of typeface, illustrations that parody those in political and religious texts and best of all, the critic-silencing "Index of Plagiarisms") it's his humor and his honesty that make this work resonate. Once, in an interview, Gray stated, "Life has no simple, single answer or solution to its problems. Only the crudest religious or political propaganda suggests otherwise." There is no single answer in Lanark, but the labyrinth of possibilities contained within are endless.

Lanark has been recently updated in honor of its twentieth anniversary. Welcome additions to a novel that invites and rewards re-reading include a new introduction by Janice Galloway (fellow Scot and author of The Trick Is to Keep Breathing) and an afterword in which Gray attempts to answer the many questions readers have had about the book and its author over the years. It's an absolute delight that this book is back in print and deserves to be on the shelf of every serious reader of literature.

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