Edinburgh Festival revisits Alasdair Gray’s Lanark

Picture: Robert Perry
Picture: Robert Perry
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IT IS fitting that one of the ­highlights of this year’s International Festival is a dramatised version of Alasdair Gray’s novel Lanark. Gray is himself a playwright as well as a novelist – his collected plays were published in 2009. He has been as innovative, and generous, in the form as he is in his novels – I remember seeing Working Legs (A Play For Those Without Them), a savagely satirical piece about “Able McMann” who, after a car crash, is condemned to being able to walk in a world where almost everyone is in a wheelchair, commissioned by Birds of Paradise Theatre Company, when it toured Scotland in the late nineties.

A semi-dramatised interpretation of Gray’s version of Goethe’s Faust – Fleck – was performed at the Edinburgh International Book Festival a few years ago, with Will Self in the title role alongside AL Kennedy, Ian Rankin, Janice Galloway and an eerily convincing turn by Aonghas MacNeacail as God. But although Gray has written short stories, radio plays, polemics, non-fiction, poetry and even (whisper it) sometimes better novels as well as producing visual art – notably his murals for Oran Mor and Hillhead Subway Station – Lanark remains his most famous work.

The publication of Lanark in 1981 has come to be seen as a creative watershed in the history of Scottish writing. It’s not a wholly fair burden to put on one novel – it is not as if, given that William ­McIlvanney’s Docherty, Muriel Spark’s Loitering With Intent and Allan Massie’s The Death Of Men had all been recently published, Scottish literature was somehow in the doldrums. But Lanark chimed with the zeitgeist.

Famously, it begins with Book III, loops back to Books I and II, and returns to Book IV, starting as the story of Lanark, an amnesiac man in the eerie sunless city of Unthank, who is succumbing to a disease called Dragonhide – a scaly carapace is covering his body. Other citizens have a variety of illnesses where their ailing psyches manifest as corporeal horrors: some have mouths growing on them, others are reverting to gelatinous ooze.

Lanark eventually reaches a hospital – a monstrous version of capitalism where patients who cannot be treated become food and fuel for the staff – and has a ­vision that “man is the pie that bakes and eats himself, and the recipe is separation”.

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His treatment means remembering a life he had before, as the aspiring artist Duncan Thaw, in Glasgow. This broadly realist “portrait of the artist as a young man” is the first two books, and when Thaw/Lanark returns to himself, he takes the fight to the corrupt controllers of Unthank, eventually meeting his creator, the author Nastler – neither the first nor last of Gray’s self-portraits – and even being presented with an index of the plagiarisms in Lanark (where the novel’s true ending is hidden away). Although Gray wittily admitted the influence of Lewis Carroll, Charles Kingsley and others in the index, he also used it to showcase some of the earliest published work by James Kelman and Tom Leonard.

Lanark was capacious, fantastical, self-conscious, experimental and politically outspoken. As such, it was clearly in the same literary vein as other notable works of the same period, such as Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years Of Solitude and Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. The novelist and critic ­Anthony Burgess caught this when he gave Lanark a rave review. “It was about time,” he wrote, “that Scotland produced a shattering work of fiction in the modern idiom. This is it.” It was, he claimed, the most significant work of Scottish literature since Sir Walter Scott.

This review has always troubled me, with its vague sense of reprimand. But it highlights an anomaly. Modernism in Scotland had been predominantly a ­poetic revolution, not a prose one.

When painter Sandy Moffat immortalised the Scottish Modernists – MacDiarmid, ­Morgan, McCaig, Maclean and others – the painting was called Poets’ Pub, not Novelists’ Bar. Although there were great Scottish novels of the Modernist period – by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, George ­Douglas Brown, John MacDougall Hay – they were rural and anti-romantic. Even ­McIlvanney’s Docherty – a bold attempt to “give working class life the vote in the literature of heroism” – was set in the fictitious town of Graithnock rather than Scotland’s capital or the Second City of Empire. There was no Scottish equivalent of the great urban Modernist novels such as Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, Conrad’s The Secret Agent, Joyce’s Ulysses, Bely’s St Petersburg, Döblin’s Alexanderplatz, Aragon’s Paris Paysan or Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. MacDiarmid had, for a time, championed his friend Sydney Goodsir Smith’s interesting failure Carotid Cornucopia as doing for Edinburgh what Joyce did for Dublin, but to little avail.

That Lanark was so clearly about ­Glasgow aligned it with the Modernist experiments of the early half of the century – with a dash of postmodern shenanigans in terms of the book as physical object, à la B S Johnson, the playfulness of a writer writing about a writer as with Flann O’Brien or Gilbert Sorrentino, and a merging of fantasy and realism similar to Kurt Vonnegut or Umberto Eco.

It is one of literary history’s ironies that Scotland appeared to get a postmodern literature before a Modernist one – Gray’s friend James Kelman’s The Busconductor Hines is far more “Modernist”. Lanark fitted exactly with the novelist John Barth’s definition of postmodern author: “He neither repudiates nor merely imitates either his Modernist parents or his 19th century premodernist grandparents. He has the first half of the century under his belt, but not on his back. The ideal postmodernist novel will somehow rise above the quarrel between realism and irrealism, formalism and contentism, pure and committed literature, coterie fiction and junk fiction.”

One measure of Lanark’s importance is how influential it was. Its innovations in typography had a direct impact on Janice Galloway’s The Trick Is To Keep Breathing while its fusion of the actual and the absurd informed AL Kennedy’s novel where Cyrano de Bergerac is alive in contemporary Glasgow, So I Am Glad.

The late Iain Banks cheerfully admitted that his novel The Bridge was a deliberate attempt to “out-do” Lanark, featuring a protagonist split into three rather than two. Likewise, Andrew Crumey – one of Scotland’s most criminally overlooked novelists – paid homage to the structure of Lanark in his Sputnik Caledonia, using quantum physics to elaborate on the idea of alternate realities. The “doubleness” of Ali Smith’s award-winning How To Be Both can be traced back to Lanark. In terms of writing about sexuality, mental health, and disadvantage, Gray paved the way for writers such as Louise Welsh, Ewan Morrison and James Robertson.

This dramatisation of Lanark is not the first time the novel has been translated into another form. Two years after publication, Gray was approached by producer Ian Brown and director Sandy Johnston with a view to making a film of the novel. Gray wrote three-­quarters of the script, including storyboards but – in his words – it “pleased and interested many film technicians, but no financiers”. Scottish Book Collector later published many of the storyboards. Perhaps this stage version will inspire yet another version of Lanark.

l Lanark: A Life in Three Acts, Royal Lyceum Theatre, 23-31 August, 7pm, with 1pm shows on 25, 27, 29 and 31 August.