Festival preview: Lanark

This article is from 2015

Festival preview: Lanark

credit: Alasdair Gray

Alasdair Gray's supposedly unstageable novel gets the theatrical treatment at the Edinburgh International Festival

Citizens Theatre is attempting the near-impossible task of bringing Alasdair Gray’s Lanark to the stage. Mark Fisher asked those close to both the original book and the new EIF production what that classic of Scottish literature means to them.

Author and artist

When I was about 17, I began to get the idea of the novel which became the ‘Thaw’ section of Lanark. It was going to be my Glaswegian version of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I decided it was going to end not with the hero leaving his native city to ‘forge the conscience of his race’. Instead, he would find that making himself a great artist in Glasgow was impossible, he would go mad and commit suicide. I was going to make a tragedy of it. I had no intention of becoming a tragedy myself, but that was going to be my plot.

When I was about 18, at the end of my first year at art school, I set out to write that story and managed the first chapter of the ‘Thaw’ section. I had also conceived a notion of a second novel, a Kafka-esque one, which would start with the arrival in this city that was a version of Glasgow that was close to being hell. I’d begun imagining the ‘Lanark’ novel.

Then I read a book called The English Epic and its Background, which was a study of epic literature, by EMW Tillyard. It gave me the idea that the epic form, as he described it, unified every possible kind of literature, and so I came to the conclusion that my ‘Lanark’ novel and my ‘Thaw’ novel were two different aspects of the same thing and therefore I conceived the necessity of uniting them.

It was about 1964 or 1965 that the need to unify these two stories occurred to me and it was 1979 before I believed I’d completed them and got Canongate to accept them. It wasn’t until 1981 that it was published. I was boosted by a vast amount of vanity. There were times when I thought I would be dead before it was published.

Like Milton, I was trying to write a book that the world would not easily let die and I thought, ‘perhaps after I’m dead, it will make its way’. I didn’t expect it to do so quite so fast. I’m pleased. Mind you, I don’t think it’s as good as my second novel, 1982, Janine which does the things that Lanark tried to do but in a shorter space. And the central character is more genuinely an ordinary man.

SORCHA DALLAS (Art agent for Alasdair Gray)

Festival preview: Lanark

Like a lot of students, I read Lanark when I went to Glasgow School of Art. Walking in the footsteps of that character was inspiring and it really did alter my way of thinking. Growing up in Glasgow, I’d been in the Ubiquitous Chip, I’d seen the murals, and seen bits of his artwork around. The discovery for me was the breadth of his visual work. Even if he was just a visual artist, it would be pretty incredible, never mind the fact that he writes plays, novels and poetry, and is politically outspoken.

Because of the scope of his work, you realise the amount of people who value him. He is a figure who made it OK to stay in Glasgow and have an international career. Particularly for that Transmission generation of artists, that was very inspiring. The production of Lanark came out of the Alasdair Gray retrospective at the end of last year. It is such a seminal text and it seemed an important time to revisit it.

GRAHAM EATOUGH (Director of Lanark)

Festival preview: Lanark

When we did our first Edinburgh Fringe in 1990, David Greig gave me a copy. He said, ‘read this, it’s the best Scottish novel of the past decade’. It had a profound effect on me, just as it had on him. When I moved to Glasgow, it acted as a bit of a guide book. Although it presents a very dystopian version of the city, it rang true for me when I arrived. I came in winter and it was just grey all the time, with these looming tenements that I’d never seen before.

Going back to it, what I was impressed by was how much it seems an autobiography. It’s emotionally raw in its exploration of personal feelings and history. He wrote it when he was going through difficult times and struggling to find his place in the world artistically. The book is about finding your place in the world, connecting with others and finding a role. The book did that for Alasdair.

DAVID GREIG (Adapter of Lanark)

Festival preview: Lanark

I can’t overestimate how important Lanark was to me. It felt like a huge door of possibility opening. If someone who came from the place where I’d come from could write this extraordinary thing, then the place where I’d come from could be the entire world. Until that point, I hadn’t really known you were allowed to do that. Suddenly it was possible. Once you know a door’s open, you can go through it, but it takes an incredible act of imagination and labour to go through the door.

Now I’ve adapted it, I realise there’s more to it than even people who study literature degrees know. Sometimes you adapt a book and it’s a great book when you first look at it, but as you get in close, you reach the bottom of the pool. With Lanark, you could go in any direction. I could adapt it in 27 different ways and it would be justified. The pool has no ending because he’s created a real world and you could just go off exploring. It’s an astonishing achievement.

NICK MCCARTHY (Franz Ferdinand guitarist and musician on Lanark)

Festival preview: Lanark

image: (Nick McCarthy far right)
I moved to Glasgow from Bavaria, which is Sound of Music country, and it was definitely a shock to me. I didn’t come to terms with it for about a year. I was living in a flat and right above me was this bohemian old lady called Carole Gibbons. It turned out that she was a really good friend of Alasdair’s and someone told me that she was a figure in this book. So I bought it and, sure enough, there was this stunning red-head in the Elite Café who was part of the gang. That’s Carole.

A few years later, my wife was at the art school and she did this exhibition in our flat and asked Carole, who’s also an artist, to exhibit as well. Alasdair came over to do a little speech and tell us about how beautiful she used to be and how everyone was in love with her. I thought Alasdair was amazing and I totally loved the book, it was so modern and so grim and went off into these terrible worlds. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. It made me start to really like Glasgow. Now I totally love it.

Lanark: A Life in Three Acts, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Grindlay Street, 0131 473 2000, 23 Aug, 6pm; 24–30 Aug (not 26), 7pm; 25, 27, 29, 31 Aug, 1pm, £10–£32. Preview 22 Aug, 7pm, £15.

Preview: Lanark

A young man arrives in a dying city with seashells in his pockets. He doesn’t know who he is, or how he got here. He goes by the only name he can think of: Lanark. This theatrical re-imagining of Alasdair Gray’s seminal work takes us from the Dragon Chambers to the Cathedral of Unthank, from post-war Glasgow School of Art…

Lanark: A Life in Three Acts

  • 4 stars

A young man arrives in a dying city with seashells in his pockets. He doesn’t know who he is, or how he got here. He goes by the only name he can think of: Lanark. This theatrical re-imagining of Alasdair Gray’s seminal work takes us from the Dragon Chambers to the Cathedral of Unthank, from post-war Glasgow School of Art…