Alasdair Gray's "Lanark. A Life in Four Books". A truly postmodern work?

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2011

19 Pages, Grade: 1.3



1. Introduction

2. Postmodernism – An Outline

3. Lanark
3.1 Metafiction
3.2 Typography
3.3 Intertextuality and Intermediality

4. Concluding Summary

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Lanark. A Life in Four Books was published in 1981 and brought a considerable amount of recognition to its author Alasdair Gray, who was born in Glasgow in December 1934, and graduated from Glasgow Art School in 1957. By that time, he had already begun writing the story of Duncan Thaw, yet between that and the final date of publishing lay more than two decades, in which he wrote plays for TV and the radio and also dedicated himself to painting, at which he himself gives special emphasis to his murals.1 The publishing of his first novel, Lanark, was followed by other major works like 1982, Janine (1984), A History Maker (1994), and his adventurous undertaking The Book of Prefaces (2000), as well as the political pamphlet Why Scots Should Rule Scotland (1992), to name a few.2 Along with minor novels and plays, the works mentioned procured Gray a significant role in Scottish literature as well as the reputation of being the “universally acknowledged founding father“ of the renaissance in Scottish fiction.3

Due to this level of recognition, quite some research has been done dealing with Lanark as well as Gray’s biography and his major (and minor) works as a writer4, especially Phil Moores’ versatile collection of Critical Appreciations of the author and Stephen Bernstein’s analysis of Gray’s major works. Further insight to Gray’s literary worlds is given in Carola Jansen’s dissertation as well as in Luis de Juan’s very detailed analysis of postmodern strategies in Lanark.5 As the discussion about the concept of postmodernism has been going on for decades and still does not seem to have come to “a universally agreed understanding of the phenomenon”, as Böhnke introduces his very insightful essay on Gray’s use of postmodern techniques, one can draw on various opinions on this theoretical subject, for instance in Thomas Docherty’s compilation of essays by Lyotard, Habermas and Jencks, among others, or Hans Bertens’ comprehensive account of the development of the concept.6 Considering Gray’s life and work, it has to be mentioned as well that he is not the artist in the ivory tower, but readily gives detailed information about his life, his ideas and the writing processes themselves, as in the Tailpiece which occupies the last few pages of Lanark.7

Although Alasdair Gray has often been considered “the postmodern Scottish writer par excellence“8, he does not necessarily fit that description, nor does he intend to fit it. In this paper, I will try to show how his famous Lanark. A Life in Four Books lives up to a postmodern label, and where it differentiates from it. For this purpose, I will begin with an outline of the concept of postmodern, paying special attention to developments in Great Britain. This outline can by no means provide a definition and shall only serve as defining guideline, to which I will then compare the most striking aspects of Lanark after giving a brief overview of its structure and the progress of its development.

2. Postmodernism – An Outline

In vague words, postmodernism can be understood as a current generally open to experiment and dominant in postmodernity, which began around the 1960s.9 This information merely serves as a starting point, however, and does not yet reveal a great deal about the concept, which is said to have several differing currents within itself.10 In this chapter, I will thus try to avoid extensive name dropping and lengthy summaries of opinions on the matter, and instead compile a list of characteristics on which a number of theorists and literary critics have come to agree. Before that, however, the basic meaning of the term has to be clarified:

The prefix “post-”, meaning “after”, refers to “modernism” and hints at something that happens after the (literary epoch of) modernism, which can be allocated roughly between the 1890s and the 1930s.11 Yet, placing a “post” in front of modernism does not mean that what characterises the era’s writing is not taken into account at all, but rather that the style of the writing following it takes those characterising aspects and consciously deviates from them in order to draw attention to them, a process commonly known as defamiliarization.12 Thus, postmodernism in literature exists partly on the basis of the 19th century realistic novel and its conventions,13 and its most defining aspects are those that deviate the most from what readers know and are used to.

Among these basic characteristics of the realistic novel of the 19th century is firstly the focus on the so-called histoire, which denotes a story that is unambiguous, its characters are consistent and follow a causal, coherent plot, and it is understood easily. This in turn calls for a level of discourse (discours) which is exclusively used to allow the reader to take in the story without any literary obstacles. Thereby, the text supports the illusion that the reader is, to a certain degree, experiencing events himself, even if he or she is just a silent observer of events.14 If these most important elements of the “conventional” way of writing are inverted, one arrives at some defining elements of postmodern literature: It does not need a straight, entertaining plot and well-developed characters, although it may well have these features. More important seems the discourse, the very act of writing the novel, which is often foregrounded (instead of the plot). Thus, it reveals to the reader the actual fictionality of the text and breaks the illusion he or she is used to dive into when reading a book. This is very often done by means of self-referential comments, where literature refers to itself as it is being written, its strategies, effects and problems.15 These aspects are often summarised under the term metafiction, which is just as often considered the criterion for postmodern literature.16

As self-referentiality and illusion-breaking cannot remain the only important distinguishing marks, I would now like to add the very common device of intertextuality: By referring to, quoting from or inserting various other texts, the author plays with the reader’s knowledge about and expectations of those texts. Furthermore, he can use the reader’s associations with them to create a certain context in which his own text is perceived, or at least leaves the reader wondering where (or if at all) there is a connection between the texts read and referred to.17 Lastly, one might add topography and typography, including illustrations and the like, as interesting criteria, although they are not necessarily exclusively associated with postmodernism – it has already been done in the second half of the 18th century, in Tristram Shandy, for example.18 However, if the main aim is defamiliarizing and diverting from the traditional way of writing, then also the way of presenting this writing has to be considered. The conventional way is to offer the reader paragraphs which are to be read beginning on the first page, moving from top left to bottom right, page after page, is often regarded as restricting the reader, so this, too, must be questioned and changed.19 This does not necessarily call for words haphazardly scattered all over the page to be read in any order, but rather points at the fact that “where and how [words are] placed on the printed page makes a difference in what the novel is saying.”20 So can not only the style of writing, but also its presentation – in columns or geometrical forms, for example – denote a certain meaning, as can a certain type or complete lack of punctuation, bold print, italics and the like.21

After naming some distinguishing marks on which I will focus my analysis, I will now briefly return to the historical development of the postmodern, which separates into two currents in the 1950s. During modernity, English literature was a crucial constituent of a highly experimental phase,22 yet the general tendency towards realism and the so-called “Reaction Against Experiment” lead to a thoroughly anti-modern current, which remained untouched by the experimentalist tendencies around and which returned to the realist novel.23 It would be wrong to assume that this already put an end to English experimental (i.e. postmodern) literature, which had its peak in the mid 1960s and 1970s, although it occurred much later and was a great deal less radical than currents in France or the United States. This, of course, does not mean that there were no highly experimental works written at all – think of Christine Brooke-Rose – but the core of English postmodernism consists of a moderate way of deviation. Also, it sets value on literature that is supposed to be fun for the author as well as the reader, which by the mid 1970s paved the way for a return to conventional narrating.24

Of course, postmodernism has developed further after the 1970s, yet I will end the historical account of that development right here, as the novel to which I am going to apply its features was finished by the end of that decade, and thus is not likely to have undergone further changes.

3. Lanark

Parts of Lanark were written as early as 1954, when Gray was still at Art School: “Having decided to write a tragic novel about Duncan Thaw, and knowing the start and end, I tried to do so in the art school summer holiday and finished The War Begins chapter, and [the] hallucination episode in The Way Out.“25 From then on, it took twenty-four years of writing and revising, sometimes working on two books at the same time, moving “from completing a chapter in one to a chapter in the other with an increasing sense of running downhill” (p. 576) to actually finish the book, which then enclosed the two seemingly unconnected tales of Lanark in the city of Unthank, and the one of Duncan Thaw.

As the title suggests, both stories describe the life of but one person, “a Glasgow artist who would be very like me [i.e. Gray] but commit murder and suicide because nobody loved him and he felt that he could never make the great art work he imagined.”26 Gray meant to “describe some of the worst and best things that can happen to a man”27 and did so on the basis of his own experience, thus giving Book One and Two a very strong autobiographical note, as “Book 1 […] is very like [his] life until 17 ½ years, though more miserable […]. The second half of the Thaw book is true to friends [he] made at art school and some of [his] dealings with the staff […]” (p. 568/569). The realistic way in which Thaw’s growing up in the Glasgow of the 1940s and 50s is described almost denies the mere possibility that Lanark’s life description may as well be based on Gray’s life. The city of Unthank appears like a fantastic, nightmare-ish “modern vision of hell”28 in which Lanark is thrust – reborn, as the reader may imagine after knowing the end of Book Two, and which mirrors Gray’s bleak vision of his hometown. The four books themselves are written in chronological order, although not arranged in the expected manner, but in the order 3 – 1 – 2 – 4, with the story of Lanark framing the memory of Thaw’s growing up. The still logical order of Lanark being told Thaw’s (i.e. his own) story is interrupted by a Prologue after Book Three, and an interlude after Book One. Furthermore, there is an Epilogue in which Lanark meets his creator a few chapters before the end of Book Four, which in turn is followed by a Tailpiece in which Gray explains the coming into existence of Lanark.

After this rather brief overview of the novel, I will now try to give an insight in Gray’s employment of postmodern devices by describing features of Lanark in accordance to the defining aspects named in the previous chapter.

3.1 Metafiction

The drawing of attention to the discourse, the act of writing, is, as mentioned before, often considered the most important feature of postmodernism. In Lanark, it is most evident in the Epilogue, which comes a couple of chapters before the actual end of the novel, as it is felt too important to come at the end (p. 483). Lanark, who is looking for somebody to save Unthank, is taken “to Nastler. He knows everything about everything and he’s expecting to see you in the Epilogue room” (p.478). This ominous person is said to be a “king. In a way. But he’s not at all grand”, “a joker” and “an invalid” (ibid.). Lanark is willing to do anything by this time, so he enters the room. The description “As Lanark pressed the surface he noticed a big word on it” (ibid.) is followed by exactly this – a surface with the big word “EPILOPGUE” on it, which allows the reader to see with Lanark’s eyes as in a certain camera angle in film when Gray connects the level of story with the layout of his novel.

In a room full of easels and pictures, Lanark meets “[t]he king of Provan […]. And Unthank, too. And that suite of rooms you call the institute and the council” (p. 480). With this “stout man”, whose “face, framed by wings and horns of uncombed hair, looked statuesque and noble apart from an apprehensive, rather cowardly expression” (ibid.) Gray describes a person very much like himself.29 Nastler explains to Lanark that he has created and peopled this world, but that he has no influence on events as governing is left to others. Only as Lanark is about to end their conversation does he reveal who he really is by handing him a page of what he has just written, whereon Lanark is able to read the future as it is unfolding, and with a sentence that bears an amusing link to a certain Science Fiction film series: “I am your author” (p. 481). To justify this breaking of the logical boundaries between the level of discourse and the level of the story, Nastler, now called “the author”, refers to a long tradition of metalepsis in literature.


1 Gray, Alasdair: “Personal Curriculum Vitae” in Phil Moores (Ed.): Alasdair Gray. Critical Appreciations and a Bibliography. The British Library: Boston Spa & London, 2002, p. 33-40.

2 Ibid., p. 41-43.

3 Rennison, Nick: “Alasdair Gray“ in Contemporary British Novelists. Routledge: London & New York, 2005, p. 76; 78.

4 Gray is originally a painter, yet including the great number of his pictures, murals etc. would go beyond the scope of this paper. However, his artistic accomplishment shall not remain entirely unmentioned.

5 Moores, Phil (Ed.): Alasdair Gray. Critical Appreciations and a Bibliography. The British Library: Boston Spa & London, 2002. Bernstein, Stephen: Alasdair Gray. Associated University Presses Inc.: London, 1999. Jansen, Carola M.: Disnaeland. Die Welten und Mikrokosmen des Alasdair Gray. Scottish International Studies Vol. 31. Peter Lang: Frankfurt am Main et al., 2000. De Juan, Luis: Postmodernist Strategies in Alasdair Gray’s Lanark: A Life in 4 Books. Scottish International Studies Vol. 33. Peter Lang: Frankfurt am Main et al., 2003.

6 Böhnke, Dietmar: “Shades of Gray: The Peculiar Postmodernism of Alasdair Gray” in Klaus Stierstorfer (Ed.): Beyond Postmodernism. Reassessments in Literature, Theory, and Culture. Walter de Gruyter: Berlin & New York, 2003, p. 255-267. Docherty, Thomas (Ed.): Postmodernism. A Reader. Harvester Wheatsheaf: New York et al., 1993. Bertens, Hans: The Idea of the Postmodern. A History. Routledge: London & New York, 1995.

7 Gray, Alasdair: Lanark. A Life in Four Books. Canongate: Edinburgh, New York & Melbourne, 2007, p. 563ff. In the following, quotes from Lanark will be shortened to page references only.

8 Böhnke, p. 255.

9 cf. Wolf, Werner: “Radikalität und Mäßigung: Tendenzen experimentellen Erzählens.” in Annegret Maack and Rüdiger Imhof: Radikalität und Mäßigung. Der englische Roman seit 1960. Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft: Darmstadt, 1993, p. 37.

10 Nünning, Vera: “Beyond Indifference: New Departures in British Fiction at the Turn of the 21st Century” in Klaus Stierstorfer (Ed.): Beyond Postmodernism. Reassessments in Literature, Theory and Culture. Walter de Gruyter: Berlin & New York, 2003, p. 235.

11 Zima, Peter V.: Moderne/Postmoderne. Gesellschaft, Philosophie, Literatur. A. Francke Verlag: Tübingen & Basel, 2001, p. 24ff.

12 Shlovsky, Victor: “Art as Technique” in Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan (Eds.): Literary Theory: An Anthology. Second Edition. Blackwell: Oxford, 2004, p. 16.

13 cf. Wolf, p. 34/35.

14 Wolf, p. 35.

15 Ibid.

16 cf. Wolf, p. 46.

17 Wolf, p. 38.

18 Carter, Ronald and McRae, John: The Routledge History of Literature in English. Britain and Ireland. Second Edition. Routledge: London & New York, 2001, p. 169f.

19 cf. Federman, Raymond: “Surfiction – Four Propositions in Form of an Introduction” in Raymond Federman (Ed.): Surfiction. Fiction Now... And Tomorrow. The Swallow Press Inc.: Chicago, 1975, p. 9.

20 Federman, p. 10.

21 Wolf, p. 38/39.

22 cf. Wolf, p. 36.

23 Wolf, p. 37.

24 cf. Wolf, p. 41-51.

25 Gray, p. 37.

26 Acker, Kathy: “A Public Interview at the ICA, London” in Critical Appreciations, p. 46.

27 Ibid, p. 47.

28 Ibid, p. 46.

29 The painting equipment adds to the suspicion.

Excerpt out of 19 pages


Alasdair Gray's "Lanark. A Life in Four Books". A truly postmodern work?
University of Heidelberg  (Anglistisches Seminar)
Postmodernism - Theory and Fiction
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"A very good paper: Concise, to the point, very well written and thoroughly researched."
Postmodernismus, postmodernism, Alasdair Gray, Lanark
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Hedy Mühleck (Author), 2011, Alasdair Gray's "Lanark. A Life in Four Books". A truly postmodern work?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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