The Prophet of Lanark: Alasdair Gray and William Blake

The news today of the death of Alasdair Gray, the Scottish writer and artist most famous for experimental novels such as Lanark and Poor Things, is cause for reflection on a trailblazer in Scottish fiction who once described William Blake as his “favourite artist and author”.

Born in Glasgow in 1934, Gray turned to the novels which would make him most famous relatively late in his career, having previously worked on scriptwriting and painting. Lanark: A Life in Four Books, was published in 1981 when Gray was 46, to be followed by his erotic reworking of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as the book 1982, Janine, three years later. Lanark, for me still the most striking of his works for very personal and idiosyncratic reasons, won him various awards and led Anthony Burgess to call him the “best Scottish novelist since Walter Scott”. Scott’s contemporary, William Blake, was much nearer to Gray’s ambitions not least in that both of them sought to combine image and word in a kind of illuminated book.

Lanark follows the journey of a young man, the eponymous hero of the book, who arrives in a strange version of Glasgow, Unthank, which owes more than a little to Dante’s visions of Inferno (as with Blake, Gray was working on a version of The Divine Comedy at the time of his death). Falling in with a group of young men and women, Lanark begins to feel alienated and to suffer from a disease whcih turns his skin into dragon hide. Between the story of Lanark in Unthank, Gray then tells the tale of a precocious man, Duncan Thaw, born into wartime Glasgow who suffers obsessive visions and eventually commits suicide.

Thaw and Lanark are linked in some way (as Thaw suffers from eczema, so Lanark is covered in dragonhide), and it may be that Unthank is a kind of hell in which Thaw finds himself after his death. While the journey through Unthank owes much to Dante, it is Blake who is perhaps the artist in whom Thaw is most interested, citing him at many instances throughout the novel. At the beginning of Chatpter 19, “Mrs. Thaw Disappears”, for example, we are told:

Thaw opened his diary and wrote:

“Love seeketh not itself to please Nor for itself hath any care But for another gives its ease and builds a Heaven in Hell’s despair.” So sung a little Clod of Clay trodden by the cattle’s feet, but a Pebble of the brook warbled out these metres meet. “Love seeketh only Self to please, to bind another to Its delight, Joys in another’s loss of ease, and builds a Hell in Heaven’s despite.”

Blake doesn’t choose, he shows both sorts of love, and life would be easy if women were clods and men were pebbles. Maybe most of them are but I’m a gravelly mixture. My pebble feelings are for June Haig, no, not real June Haig, an imaginary June Haig in a world without sympathy or conscience. My feelings for Kate Caldwell are cloddish, I want to please and delight her, I want her to think me clever and fascinating. (p.190)

Blake runs as rich seam throughout Lanark. Thaw spends a lot of his time at the Mitchell Library, looking at facsimiles of the Romantic’s illuminated books, indicating the influence of Blake and Beardsley – the two most important artists for Thaw – and he tells his father that he wants “to write a modern Divine Comedy with illustrations in the style of William Blake” (p.204). This alone suggests strongly that Unthank is a vision of the underworld after Dante (with a little of Milton and Bunyan thrown in as well), but that it is the Romantic poet rather than Virgil who is the guide to understanding this fantastical novel. Another key are the references to that incredibly Blakean novel, The Horse’s Mouth, by Joyce Cary: Gray cites Gulley Jimson, the Blake-quoting artist-protagonist of Cary’s book, in his Epilogue, clearly drawing on the Anglo-Irish writer as a precursor to his own experimental fiction.

The comment regarding Blake being Gray’s favourite artist came from an interview with The Scotsman in 2014, given at the time of publication of his collection of essays and occasional pieces, Of Me and Others. In it, Gray tells the interviewer, Susan Mansfield:

William Blake, my favourite artist and author, was used to people admiring his work saying: ‘Ah, it would never have been as great as this if you hadn’t suffered all these tribulations.’ And he said: ‘I’d have produced a lot more if I’d not suffered these tribulations.’

While admiring the strange and extraordinary in Blake’s work, then, Gray had little time for the stereotype of the suffering Romantic artist. Burgess was wrong to compare him to Walter Scott: aside from a shared interest in Scottish nationalism, Gray had little in common with his fellow countryman and mentions him only briefly in passing – as something to be endured in school. Scott was, in the end, too Tory for Gray, and his enduring interest in socialism made William Blake a much better fit.

Gray did indeed have much to say about the issues of Scottish nationalism as well as the ideals of socialism. Throughout Lanark, Thaw and his contemporaries discuss the possibilities of a Scottish parliament as well as ironic asides to the relative failures of the Scottish Arts Council to support an arts proper to the north of the border. Yet this is no appeal to jingoism – indeed, he is critical of the Scottish arts scene in general as well as declaiming against “Scottish chauvinism” more generally. In contrast to the more traditional romanticism of Scott, this seems to have been something that Gray has picked up from Blake: Albion is Blake’s vision of his homeland where he was born, but it is as much a perfidious as glorious country. Like Blake, Gray wished to use novels such as Lanark as a means to restore his country to their greater arts.