Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Lanark by Alasdair Gray

This is the first book I have read for the 2013 TBR Pile Challenge. I bought it several years ago at a second-hand bookshop in Wigtown in Scotland, and it has been on my TBR shelf ever since.  I think I bought it because it seemed a quintessentially Scottish novel, a good choice to buy while on holiday in Scotland. But in truth I've felt a bit daunted by it, and now I've read it I feel I was right to be daunted.

It is 'A Life in 4 Books', and it begins with Book 3. So right from the start I'm confused. The main character, Lanark, arrives in the city of Unthank by train. He is the only person on the train, and he has no memory of how he got there, or of his life before the train. He is greeted at the station and it appears that there is a process, that everybody arrives at the city as he has done. The city has a post-apocalyptic feel to it;

The city did not seem a thriving place. Groups of adolescents or old men stood in occasional close mouths, but many closes were empty and unlit. The only shops not boarded up were small stores selling newspapers, sweets, cigarettes and contraceptives. After a while we came to a large square with tramcars clanging around it. The street lamps only lit the lowest storeys of the surrounding buildings but these looked very big and ornamental, and people sheltered between pillars on their facades. Some soot black statues were arranged round a central pillar whose top I couldn't see in the black sky. In spite of the wet a man stood on a high part of the pillar's pedestal and spoke to an angry crowd. We passed through the edge of the crowd and I saw the speaker was an anxiously smiling man with a clergyman's collar and bruised brow. His words were drowned by jeering.

Lanark finds a room to rent, and he is given regular money to live on. He meets people at a local cafe but they couldn't really be called friends. The atmosphere is grim and hopeless. People disappear without reason. There is a strange disease, dragonhide, which Lanark contracts. Its symptom is hard, black skin which spreads over the body, leaving the sufferer numb. His landlady, Mrs Fleck, says that the only cure is hard work. Idleness and hopelessness hasten its advance.

Lanark finds his way to the Institute, a hospital where he can be treated. While there he finds out about his life before his arrival in Unthank. This is the realist portion of the book. His name was Duncan Thaw, a working class boy in Glasgow who has a real talent for art. Through a bit of luck and the kindness of others he gets into art school. But Duncan is the kind of person who is never satisfied, and never accepts responsibility for his own actions.

Once out of the Institute and back in Unthank Lanark is much more proactive, he wants to change things and make things better. But somehow he never manages it. His life is always subject to the whims of other people and he is carried this way and that without ever seeming to get a grip on the situation. Just when he thinks he has understood something the whole political landscape changes and he is adrift again. He is always alone and there is no-one he can trust.

I think this book is about a great industrial city losing its industries, life without useful work, being at the mercy of planners and politicians and corporations. The nuclear threat hangs over this book (it was published in 1981), there are poisons in the air and on the land, and always the sense of doom.

Despite the fact that I'm not sure I fully understood this book, I did for the most part enjoy it. The language was easy to understand, where I struggled was with the ideas and I had the feeling that there were references and allusions which went over my head. I would definitely read more by Alasdair Gray. I felt that his book took me to places I wouldn't ordinarily have gone, and let me think about things I wouldn't ordinarily think about.


  1. I wonder if these books have anything to do with the Scottish town of New Lanark and the new ideas of urbanism and work efficiency that started there.

  2. I did read a book by Alasdair Gray many years ago, I think it was A History Maker, and found it very strange. He's a bit of a cult author though isn't he?

  3. Joanne, I admire your patience and open mindedness regarding this book. I probably would have put it down after 50 pages or so and then would have lost out on learning about the things you mentioned. Thanks so much for letting us know about another interesting author and book.

  4. This book has been lurking in my TBR for a long, long time. I've loved Alasdair Gray's short stories - which, as you say 'took me to places I wouldn't normally have gone" - but I'm not sure I've brave enough to tackle a thick novel, even though I love his style.