Readers develop unique histories with the books they read. It may not be immediately apparent at the time of reading but the person you were when you read the book, the place you were where you read the book, your state of mind while you read it, your personal situation (happy, frustrated, depressed, bored) and so on – all these factors, and others, make the simple experience of reading a book a far more complex and multi-layered affair than might be thought. Moreover, the reading of a memorable book somehow insinuates itself into the tangled skein of personal history that is the reader’s autobiography: the book leaves a mark on that page of your life — leaves a trace — one way or another.
The history of my reading of Lanark is exemplary in this regard — typically complex. Twenty-five years ago I was paid to read Lanark by the Times Literary Supplement (I forget how much I received — £40?) and the review duly appeared in the issue of February 27 1981, entitled The Theocracies of Unthank. It was a long review, some 2000 words, leading off the fiction section that week, and it shared its page with a short poem by Paul Muldoon and an advertisement for Heinemann’s spring list (Catherine Cookson, R.K. Narayan and Violet Powell amongst others).
Looking back now it seems even more interesting that I came to review Lanark — Alasdair Gray’s first novel — a month after my own first novel, A Good Man in Africa, had been published. A Good Man in Africa had been reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement on the 30th of January that year, somewhat patronisingly (‘engaging’, ‘amusing’), by someone called D.A.N. Jones, in a review that was one-third the length of my review of Lanark. However, I can detect no trace of professional jealousy, bitterness or chippiness in my analysis of Gray’s novel. Indeed, as a tyro novelist myself, I was flattered to be asked to review it at such length (by the then fiction editor of the TLS, Blake Morrison). I still have the diligent notes I made on that first reading – they run to three and a half closely written pages (I have tiny, near-illegible handwriting). Clearly Lanark had already been designated an ‘important’ novel by the TLS (even now it would be virtually unheard of to grant a full page to a first novel) and it had been decided to give it due prominence.
Why was I asked to review it? I was already an intermittent reviewer of fiction in the TLS but I suspect that the Lanark commission arose because of two factors – my nationality (Scottish – colonial version) and because I knew the city of Glasgow, having spent four years there at university. But Blake Morrison could have had no idea, I think, that I had heard of Lanark long before he gave me the opportunity to read it.
In the early Seventies (1971-5, to be precise) when I was studying for my MA degree at the University of Glasgow there was occasional talk of Lanark amongst my circle of friends. Alasdair Gray was someone known to me by sight (we had mutual friends) and by reputation as a painter and muralist. Doubtless we drank in the same pub – The Pewter Pot in North Woodside Road – from time to time but I don’t remember ever meeting him properly. However, Lanark had something of the whiff of legend about it, even then: it was reputed to be a vast novel, decades in the writing, still to see the light of day. Rather like equally heralded masterworks-in-progress, such as Truman Capote’s Answered Prayers or Harold Brodkey’s Runaway Soul, Lanark was talked about as an impossibly gargantuan, time-consuming labour of love, a thousand pages long, Glasgow’s Ulysses – such were the myths swirling about the book at the time, as far as I can recall.
And so, finally, to have Lanark in my hand a few years later was something of a shock: it was indeed long, 560 pages, it bore Gray’s highly distinctive black and white drawings on the cover and inside. My abiding sensation as I began to read was one of intense and excited curiosity.
One final anecdotal digression to do with the tangled skein. It is unusual, as a young novelist/critic, to possess some years of apocryphal familiarity with a novel you are sent to review. Even more unusual, in the case of Lanark, was that I was also familiar with its publisher, Canongate – then a very small, Scottish, independent publisher almost wholly unheard of outside Edinburgh literary circles. I knew about Canongate because I had met its then owner/publisher, Stephanie Wolfe-Murray.
In the early summer of 1972 (age 20) I was living alone in my parents’ isolated house in the Scottish borders – about three miles from the town of Peebles. I was working as a kitchen porter in the Tontine Hotel in Peebles trying to earn some money to pay for a trip to Munich (where my German girlfriend lived). Not owning a car or a bicycle I used to hitchhike to and fro from work. I was quite often given a lift by a young woman who drove a battered Landrover (she often drove this Landrover in bare feet, I noticed, a fact that added immeasurably to her unselfconscious, somewhat louche glamour). This was Stephanie Wolfe-Murray and she lived further up the valley in which my parents’ house was situated. In the course of our conversations during the various lifts she gave me I must have told her – I suppose – about my dreams of becoming a writer. She told me in turn that she had just started up (or was in the process of starting up) a publishing house in Edinburgh, called Canongate. I filed this information away (thinking it might be useful). I have never met or seen Stephanie Wolfe-Murray since that summer of 1972 (I did get to Munich, though, in time for the Olympics and the Black September terrorist disaster) — and I’m wholly convinced she has no memories at all of the Tontine Hotel’s temporary kitchen porter to whom she was giving occasional lifts that summer — but for me it was a strange moment to see ‘Canongate Publishing’ on the title page of Lanark and realise the unlikely connection – and stranger now to think that Lanark was the book that put Canongate squarely and indelibly on the literary map.
Such are the complexities of personal history that enfold the simple reading of a book. I haven’t readLanark since that 1981 review (though I have read and reviewed other of Alasdair Gray’s novels and stories – and have since met him on a few occasions) and to re-encounter a closely-read and greatly admired novel twenty-five years on is not necessarily to be encouraged – I abandoned a recent re-reading of Catch-22 because my growing dismay was seriously tarnishing the memories of my rapt late-adolescent engagement with what I thought was one of the great novels of all time. However, revisiting Lanark was both a fascinating and revealing experience. When I reviewed the book in 1981 it had no reputation; now its immense freight of reputation is impossible to ignore. What can one say about Lanark that hasn’t been said already (most eloquently by Gray himself in his tailpiece How Lanark Grew)? Re-reading my review I can see how much I enjoyed the novel but my appreciation was not unequivocal. I particularly relished the two books about Duncan Thaw in Glasgow but I was less taken with the allegorical counterpoint of the eponymous Lanark in the city of Unthank. I wrote: ‘Thaw’s story – Books One and Two – forms a superb, self-contained realistic novel about a disturbed child’s education and his uneven growth towards manhood’. But the Unthank sections drew less praise: ‘The bizarre machinery of the world of fable reasserts itself…’; ‘The final scenes of Lanark’s rise to power (he becomes Provost of Unthank)… are amongst the least successful parts of this long and demanding novel… Lanark is, in effect, made up of two novels, one traditional and naturalistic, the other a complex allegorical fable.’ My conclusion, though, was genuinely positive: ‘For all its unevenness Lanark is a work of loving and vivid imagination, yielding copious riches, especially in the two central books of Thaw’s life which, had they been presented on their own, would surely have been hailed as a minor classic of the literature of adolescence’.
I know now why I didn’t respond with wholehearted enthusiasm to the allegorical story of Lanark in the city of Unthank. I was positioning myself, as all writers unconsciously do – and particularly as a first novelist whose first novel had just been published — using criticism of others to evaluate and proclaim what I myself stood for. I was and am a realistic novelist and I felt strongly then that fable, allegory, surrealism, fantasy, magic realism and the rest were not my literary cup of tea. But I think that in my 1981 review I unconsciously prefigured aspects of my recent, late reading of the book. The structure of Lanark – the small naturalistic novel embedded in a large eclectic one – is, it seems to me now, precisely the reason for the book’s enduring success. I realize now that, for Alasdair Gray, the last thing on earth he wanted to achieve in Lanark was to write, and be hailed for writing, ‘a minor classic of the literature of adolescence.’ As we have since come to know that was indeed what he had done first – Thaw’s story was written initially and discretely and is a re-imagining of a life close to Gray’s own. But it could never have been enough: every ambition that Gray had for his long-gestating book obliged him to create something larger, more complex, more difficult, more alienating. Gray needed the overarching machinery of allegory and fable to make Lanark transcend its origins.
And here we come to the thorny – the thistly – question of Lanark’s Scottishness. Gray has said that he ‘[wants] to be read by an English-speaking tribe which extends to Cape Town in the south, Bengal in the east, California in the west and George Mackay Brown in the north.’ This seems to me very just: it should be the form of wishful thinking that every writer in English should indulge in. Having reread Lanark twenty-five years on I still prefer Thaw’s story to Lanark’s but I recognise now what I didn’t see then: namely that it was Lanark’s very awkward bulky scale, its ostentatious manipulations of structure, its extra-parochial pretensions, its allusiveness and its overt and purposeful invitation to exegesis and literary comparison that raise the book to another level. Just as Joyce fitted an ordinary day in Dublin into the armature of the Odyssey so Grey reconfigures the life of Duncan Thaw into a polyphonic Divina Commedia of Scotland.
The Joyce comparison is valid on many levels and I think provides an insight into Gray’s approach and methodology as a novelist. However, a passing mention of Joyce’s Ulysses – to explore the tangled skein motif again — provoked me in 1981 into a further comment on Gray’s novel (and a defence of myself as reviewer). A couple of weeks after my review appeared the TLS published a hostile letter from a reader in New Lanark – coincidentally — one Rose Arnold who took me angrily to task for identifying the city of ‘Provan’, in the Unthank books, with Edinburgh. She saw Lanark as being entirely about Glasgow and declared that, ‘to deny the interest of the Glaswegian theme is rather like suggesting Ulysses might as well have been set in London.’ Answering her letter I defended my review robustly two weeks later on the letters’ page, citing Gray himself as the authority for a possible Provan/Edinburgh identification, but, as a Parthian shot, I also pointed out that ‘to read Lanarkthroughout as a “loving analysis” of Glasgow is seriously to limit and confine the effects and resonances of the novel: rather like reading Ulysses solely for what it can tell you about Dublin.’ I think I inadvertently hit a key nail on the head, here. What I was saying to Rose Arnold was that Gray had made sure – and had taken enormous pains in so doing — that we could not read his novel as a bildungsroman, or thinly disguised memoir, or science fiction, or a Bunyanesque allegory, or a loving analysis of Glasgow. He managed to make Lanark all of these things and more and that is why it has been read and will continue to be read: reading Lanark will leave its trace on your life.