Friday, February 29, 2008

In praise of Lanark

For all that I'm addicted to words (even the writing on a matchbox will hold my attention in the absence of more interesting prose), it is a rare thing for me to open a book and know, from the first page, that it is going to stay with me for life. Lanark, the first novel and arguably the masterpiece of the artist and writer whom Will Self has called ‘a small, bespectacled, grey bearded deity’, is one of those books which gouges a dwelling place in your imagination and leaves it forever altered. Though comparisons were immediately made, upon its publication in 1981, with masterpieces as famous and daunting as Dante's Inferno and the works of Kafka, it retains a uniqueness and particularity which adds to, rather than merely reflects, the major imaginative milestones of our civilisation.

These may sound to you (they do to me) like absurdly lofty claims to make for anything that came out of the 1980s. Writing the above paragraph, I considered toning it down a little; yet, damn it, Lanark knocks the socks off almost everything written on this little island in the past fifty years, and I know many people who, like me, carry its hooks in their imagination and are unwilling or unable to shake them out.
Literally at the centre of the novel is the naturalistic coming-of-age story of Duncan Thaw, a working-class Glaswegian artist like and unlike Gray. Profoundly engaging in itself, this ‘straight’ narrative is sandwiched between fantastical misadventures in the nightmare city of Unthank, where our hero (who for want of a name takes that of the town) tries to make sense of self, love and politics while struggling with, amongst other things, the threat of apocalypse, frightening metamorphoses, and the depredations of the leviathan that is the deep state. The eponymous character, Lanark, is almost certainly Duncan Thaw in his afterlife; yet if the universe of Unthank at first seems like hell, it gradually comes to look more like a parallel Earth, its ruthless power games and diseased body politic an amplified, bewildering and speeded-up version of the present.

With a book so strangely divided, there is inevitably a danger that one section will please more than the other; yet I find both compelling, and it is a wrench to leave them. At the same time it would be fair to say that Lanark never really comes to an end. It is so huge in scope and so various in content - fantasy, polemic and history - that one has only to start reading again, or to dip in at random, to discover new things and put off, for a time, the sweet desolation of ending.

As this brief attempt to give a taste of Lanark to those who haven’t yet experienced it suggests, it is impossible to summarise or paraphrase this novel. I hope it will suffice to say that, to writers torn between naturalism and the fantastic, Lanark points out ways of achieving not a compromise but a rich fusion between the two. It is a novel that increases the scope of fiction's possibilities. To garble the words of T.S. Eliot on Ulysses: it is a book to which I am indebted, and from which I have no desire to escape.

(This article first appeared in The Independent, Feb 8th 2008)


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