Is Alasdair Gray's Lanark now considered a classic?

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WHEN James Robertson's And The Land Lay Still was published last year, critics wondered if it was the most significant Scottish novel since Alasdair Gray's Lanark, published 30 years ago this week.

When Andrew Crumey's Sputnik Caledonia appeared in 2008, critics wondered if it was the most innovative Scottish novel since Lanark.

Momus's Book Of Scotlands, James Kelman's How Late It Was, How Late and Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting have all had that ubiquitous tag "since Lanark" stapled to their laurels.

For valid and self-serving reasons, contemporary Scottish literary history is divided pre- and post-Lanark. Given the anniversary, it is perhaps time to put the achievement back into context. Why Lanark?

When it was published, the most laudatory review came from the novelist Anthony Burgess.

"It was about time," he wrote, in a tone mildly reminiscent of a tetchy schoolmaster upbraiding a recalcitrant pupil for overdue homework, "Scotland produced a shattering work of fiction in the modern idiom. This is it." Burgess, never one to stint on hyperbole, called Gray "the first major Scottish novelist since Sir Walter Scott".

It was perhaps the most brilliant stroke of obstinate luck that prevented Gray publishing Lanark in 1976, when most publishers were keen to go ahead on the condition the book was split in half (it famously has two narratives: the realistic story of Duncan Thaw, a Glaswegian artist, and the fantastic story of Lanark in the surreal city of Unthank, welded together).

By the early 1980s the literary scene was very different and far more amenable to this kind of novel. When Burgess wrote of the "modern idiom", I can't help but suspect he meant the "Burgessian idiom". The year before Lanark was published Burgess had been famously piqued that his novel, Earthly Powers, lost out to William Golding's Rites Of Passage for the Booker Prize.

Earthly Powers was extravagant, baroque, full of stories and counter-stories - just like Lanark. 1981 also saw the publication of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, an extravagant, baroque novel with the Realpolitik merged with magical shenanigans.

Putting Lanark alongside a host of novels from that period - Robert Nye's Faust, D M Thomas's The White Hotel, Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Chronicle Of A Death Foretold, Peter Carey's Bliss (where the narrator realises he is in Hell), Robert Coover's The Public Burning and Angela Carter's reworking of fairy stories, The Bloody Chamber - it becomes clear that Gray caught the current of interest in novels that blended the mythical and the realist. It was a trend that was variously called maximalism, magic realism or more generally "postmodernist". Lanark chimed with the zeitgeist. It also did not hurt Lanark that it had become something of an urban legend among the literati: a massive achievement which had languished for nigh on a decade without a publisher.

It was also, as Burgess realised, defiantly Scottish. In the novel's most famous, and famously misinterpreted scene, McAlpin says to Thaw: "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 a golf course, some pubs connecting streets. That's all. No, I'm wrong, there's also the cinema and 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 to ourselves."

Lanark was itself the retort to McAlpin's diagnosis. McAlpin is an egotistic student, and we can forgive him for not having read Archie Hind's The Dear Green Place, Alan Spence's Its Colours They Are Fine, William McIlvanney's Laidlaw, George Friel's Mr Alfred MA and Gordon Williams' Booker shortlisted From Scenes Like These.

It is more difficult to forgive the academics who took McAlpin's contention at face value. Lanark activated an anxiety that Scotland did not have a Modernist novel that excavated the city.

While Joyce was mapping Dublin in Ulysses, or Bely was staking out St Petersburg in Petersburg, or Dos Passos was braiding together New York in Manhattan Transfer, Scotland's novelists were still dealing with the transformation of the rural world. Lanark was us belatedly joining the Modernist club.

Lanark wasn't the only Scottish novel published in 1981, and a comparison with some of the others is telling.

That year also saw the publication of Muriel Spark's only Booker shortlisted novel, Loitering With Intent, William Boyd's debut, A Good Man In Africa and Allan Massie's elegant unpicking of terrorism, The Death Of Men. They are all exceptional books, whose achievements are overshadowed by Lanark - though not abroad: all were translated before Lanark.

None of them, though, answers that perennial question of Macduff that echoes down so much discussion of Scottish literature: "Stands Scotland where it did?" Massie's inside-out thriller deals with Italian politics and wider moral issues around the assassination of Aldo Moro.

Boyd's carnivalesque comedy about the fictitious African state of Kinjanja (which won the Whitbread First Novel award) is about the faltering colonial British. Spark's novel - in which an aspiring novelist either meets or is the Devil - is set in London.

In the wake of the failure of the 1979 referendum on devolution, Scottish culture was, for some, in trauma. Lanark provided answers about Scottishness while Massie, Spark and Boyd were asking very different questions. Perhaps the biggest difference between Gray's work and these others is in the books' moral algebra.

Lanark is a novel of white and black hats, heroic artists and villainous capitalist time thieves. It is morally unambiguous. The palettes of Spark, Massie and Boyd are far more complex: "shades of grey" seems too colourless to describe them adequately.

Lanark remains an influential and entertaining novel, though its science-fiction elements have not perhaps aged well.

It is not Gray's best book - both 1982 Janine and Poor Things are superior, an opinion Gray himself holds. For many younger writers, from AL Kennedy to Alan Warner, it was a blast of something wholly and fundamentally new, and inspired them to write in novel ways.

This article was first published in Scotland On Sunday, 6 March, 2011