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.