25 February 2021
Thinking about Alasdair Gray and Lanark, forty years since
a guest blog by Alan Riach, Professor of Scottish Literature, University of Glasgow. 25th February 2021 is the first GRAY DAY, a celebration of the writer and artist ALASDAIR GRAY, on the 40th anniversary of his masterpiece Lanark.
I’ve been wondering about Lanark as the work of a physical human being, a man, about how it was thought of, imagined and planned, and then how it was made, literally, written with paper and ink and pens, leaning on a desk, and its transformation and creation as a book, published, launched at an event, and bought and taken away and read by other individual human beings, women and men, in the forty years between then and now.
I’ve been thinking about Alasdair’s hands, how he would handle things like pens, brushes, books and easels, how the touch of his fingertips and the hold of his fingers enabled the contact between pages and eyes and minds, between what ink is made of and the phenomena of words, how language works in writing and in speech. How his eyes would move from object to object, or look at you with curiosity and penetration, defensive yet open, curious yet respectful. How his voice worked, how sometimes something would trigger a wild guffaw and paragraph after paragraph of unpredicted verbal extrapolation, exhilaration, exaggeration, arms moving in all sorts of directions. Then also how intense and concentrated he might be, and at the same time, self-reflective, thinking about his own experiences and the words he was using to describe them as he was saying them, as he was talking to you. How brush and paint, the sweep and precision of nib and line and point, full stop, the division between chapters, the spaces between sections, the indent signifying new paragraphs, how all these are deployed. And the way separateness and connection are both represented, and consequently the way inter-dependence and independence are related.
I’ve been thinking about how his voice worked, how and what he valued, and how these things are made evident, both in his writing and his painting and drawing and in his understanding of the archive, the phenomenon of the good labyrinth. Some labyrinths are always good to be lost in. Some you might never wish to come out of. But you must, for the world is the greatest of them all. Then you can go back in.
There is a lasting firmness in his vision, his drawing a line, his sense of how perspective changes, depending on where you stand. His work and life hold a lasting clarity. Above all, he helps you to see. Which is also why he wanted independence for Scotland. Not only for social justice, which is true, but also to keep the lines clear, between what’s valued and what’s hostile to such value.
Like Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair in the 1930s, and James Robertson’s And the Land Lay Still in 2010, Lanark was a planned work. The Quair takes us from farm to small town to industrial Scotland. It starts in prehistory and ends in Gibbon’s contemporaneous early 1930s. And the Land Lay Still covers half-a-century of Scottish life, from regeneration just after the Second World War to the affirmation of the potential for Scotland’s self-renewal, circa 1999. The historical chronology was determined and planned. The structure in both works was designed. So was that of Lanark. The three works are epic visions of Scotland, past, present and possible.
It’s well known that Lanark was deliberately planned as four ‘books’, two written in realist form, depicting a young artist growing up in Glasgow in the 1950s and 1960s, two in a parallel universe in which Glasgow and its characters are transformed into a dystopian, nightmare vision of an industrial city named Unthank, where all the vicious liabilities of capitalist exploitation are highlighted or exaggerated and portrayed in non-realist, nightmarish, sometimes surrealist forms. And more than this, Lanark was designed to be read in a deliberate sequence, beginning with the non-realist ‘Book Three’ then following that with the realist ‘Book One’ and ‘Book Two’ and then ending with ‘Book Four’. Thus the bewilderment of Lanark (the character) at the beginning (Where is he? Where am I?) is ‘explained’ in the central Books before returning the reader to the strange world of Unthank for the conclusion. The proposition that the novel makes and delivers so powerfully is that life is a constant renewal and renegotiation of imagination and reality, connected by a Moebius strip of twisting, turning consequence. This structure was deliberate and intended.
The word ‘epic’ is one of the woolliest of literary terms. It usually just means a long poem with some fighting in it. It’s often also used to describe a foundational narrative which depicts events leading to the creation of something new, a city, a society, a confirmation of belief and development, a rising from ruins. And it also suggests scale: something big.
Well, Lanark is an epic novel.
Read it in its era, in the aftermath of 1979, when a referendum on Scottish devolution was confirmed by a majority in favour but the result was torpedoed by the Westminster government, and when Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government was elected by a majority of voters in England, not Scotland. In the 1980s, Lanark (1981) in prose fiction, alongside Edwin Morgan’s collection of poems Sonnets from Scotland (1984), and Liz Lochhead’s play Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off (1987) might be taken as one of three literary paradigms of self-determination, each enacting the same principle that reality cannot do without imagination and imagination helps transform reality.
Towards the end of his great play The Last Days of Mankind, Karl Kraus depicts himself, ‘The Grumbler’ or ‘Kraus the Grouse’ at his desk, reading this: ‘The desire to determine the exact amount of time it takes to convert a tree in the forest into a newspaper prompted the owner of a paper mill to conduct an interesting experiment. At 7:35 A.M. he had three trees felled in a nearby forest and, after the bark was removed, had them shipped to his pulp mill. The trunks were converted into pulp so quickly that the first roll of newsprint left the machine at 9:39 A.M. The roll was taken by truck to the printing press of a daily paper, four kilometers away, and at 11 A.M. the newspaper was sold in the streets. Thus it had required only three hours and twenty-five minutes before the public could read the latest news on material made from trees in which the birds had sung that very morning.’
Kraus’s work is a condemnation of the debasement of language, the corruption of information and the deliberate spread of contagious misapprehension at unstoppable velocity in the modern world, through newspapers. His play was first published in 1922. One hundred years later, the cost and purpose of the production of newspapers is an even more urgent question: Is it for this the trees grow tall? But in the 2020s, the production of bad news is much more quickly made and its rates of infection far higher, more widespread. Kraus was talking about consequences like the First World War. We have much more serious consequences to anticipate in the 2020s. And the arts of Alasdair Gray are an antidote, a permanent prescription for what good can be made of languages and paper.
Gray’s voice comes through in the words spoken to Dante in Canto 17 of his version of the Paradiso:
The light from which my grandsire smiled now blazed
like golden mirror in the brightest sun.
He said, ‘Consciences dark with their own sin
or shame at another’s guilt will indeed
feel pain, but do not nurse hypocrisy!
Make the truth plain! Let them scratch where they itch.
Your verses may taste bad at first; digested
they will be nourishing. Write like the wind,
hitting high mountains hardest. What more
can poet do? That is why you have been shown
only the famous down below in Hell
and up Mount Purgatory. Folk ignore
examples set by those they don’t know well.
That’s the question, and the command: ‘What more can poet do?’ It’s at the heart of the famous line from Lanark about Glasgow being a place where many people live but ‘nobody imagines living’: that leads us to a universal human truth, and poetry – all the arts – is the answer. The closing lines of Gray’s rendition of Dante’s Paradiso deliver the vision of a world we’re always trying to make:
As my eyes dwelled in it I seemed to see
a human form. Like the geometer
battering his brain in vain to find how
circles are squared, I tried to see or feel
how such a human form could live in light
eternally. The wings of my fancy
could not fly so far, until in a flash
I saw desire and will: both are a pair
of finely balanced wheels kept turning by
love that revolves sun, sky and every star.
When I first met him, at a party given by friends, Italian translators, in a Glasgow flat, we were standing next to the drinks table, saying hello in a hesitant way as you do when you’re in a company you don’t know very well. For some reason our conversation quickly arrived at the prospect of China and we both somehow lit up, speculating on what that country was once long ago, what it was now and what it might yet be, what its ethos might mean, what we knew of it, how we could imagine it. Neither of us had ever been there. We talked of translations, their extent and possibility, their necessity and limitation. Of all writing as translation of some sort. Of Ezra Pound and Hugh MacDiarmid, cabbages and kings. We paused after three hours. Almost everyone else had left. It seemed no time had passed. I knew him over those forty years since then, not as a close friend but as one with whom I could pick up the conversation wherever it had last been left, and he’d remember it as well as I.
Diary from my days as a PhD student, playing cards, watching cowboy films -- and visiting the Third Eye Centre
And I remember the launch of Lanark at the Third Eye Centre, in Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow, on 25 February 1981. The book stays with me, a hard fact, a symbol of its era, always ready to be returned to, and advanced from once again. It’s Yeats’s stone ‘in the midst of all’, Stevens’s Tennessee jar, Frost’s glimpse of white at the bottom of the well: ‘For once, then, something’?
Something, for sure.