Wednesday, October 22, 2008

My Favourite Books: Number 1: Lanark: A Life In Four Books - Alasdair Gray

Some works of art amuse the viewer, listener or reader for a few minutes - most pop songs last barely five minutes, paintings are generally looked at then passed by.

Even books can have a limited effect on the reader - I've read hundreds if not thousands of books, but I couldn't begin to recount the plotlines of most of them - once read, they're consigned to history, never to be thought of again.

But then there are works of art so sprawling and so absorbing that they command full attention and draw you into their world, demanding repeated revisits and setting a benchmark by which all others must subsequently be judged.Alasdair Gray's debut novel, Lanark, published when I was only a year old, is one such work of art.

Attempting to sum the book up concisely would, I think, prove to be impossible - it's futuristic, almost sci-fi novel, half of which is set in pre-war Glasgow and half in the mysterious town of Unthank, which may be heaven, hell or neither. It's four books in one, where none of the books makes complete sense as an individual entity - but the books are read out of chronological synch (Three-One-Two-Four). There's an epilogue four chapters before the end.

The titular character suffers from a disease called Dragonhide before he is swallowed by the Earth. And in the Epilogue, he meets the author. The novel also draws comparisons with the Bible, for reasons I won't divulge for fear of spoiling it for those of you who haven't yet read it. (And if you've not read it yet, do so now.)

I first read the book, which took more than 20 years to write, on the recommendation of my sixth year English teacher in 1997, and it formed a major part of my CSYS English dissertation that year. I've since read it once again in its entirety and dipped in and out of it on an almost constant basis over the past 10 years.

No other book has ever had the effect on me that Lanark did the first time I read it, and I'd be very surprised if another ever did. Quite simply, it's the greatest book I've ever read.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Did you know Unthank is a farm between Brechin and Trinity?

Groanin' Jock said...

Now you mention it, Anonymous, it does ring a bell. Maybe that's where Gray got the name....

stu who? said...

And ... Think I remember that Cumbernauld figures in it?

Loved it when I read it many years back, and your excellently written, and quite passionate, wee review has made me rather keen to do so again

Have you tried some of Ian M Banks, or Ian Banks, or Brookmyre, or McIlvaney, or Meg Henderson?

I'm a bit of a sukker for local writers