1) Books as Beautiful Artefacts
For those who lament the possible death of printed novels, look to Alasdair Gray. There’s no one who makes owning books such a worthwhile enterprise. On occasion, I take my copy of Lanark down to just look over his drawings and illustrations. Each work is a thing of beauty, his illustrations sewn through the pages, pictures suggestive of a nightmarish Rudyard Kipling. In his collection of poems, Old Negatives - itself riddled with images of winged foetuses curled up in skulls – he writes a poem in which lines are rendered in varying colours.
Alasdair Gray, a working artist, makes books the beautiful artefacts that ensures a desire for their survival.
2) Experimentation, neither difficult nor pointless
1982, Janine, his second novel (and the one the author regards as his best), takes the various sadomaschostic sexual fantasies of its alcoholic middle-aged protagonist, and turns them into a conduit by which he remembers his life, his loves, his failures. And then he tries to commit suicide. The prose disintegrates and we are in a typographic maelstrom of inchoate words, stuttered images, and shapes. You don’t find these in most books. For those who may think experimentation in literature means impenetrability, look here. It is masterful and beautiful and makes complete sense.
Poor Things feels for its vast majority to be standard narrative with echoes of Frankenstein daubed with romance. If it were just that, it would still be a wonderful book. But there are two further parts, much shorter. To speak of them would ruin the gut-punch, forcing everything we’ve read into a new light, until one is sitting in bed, not daring to switch off the light, agog and contemplative, wondering about the truth of love and how a book can undermine itself in a way that drags it into the masterpiece club. Then this supposed person would eventually sleep, and although the book’s immediacy will wane, the book haunts many years after its reading.
3) The Things Themselves
As mentioned, Poor Things had a profound effect on this here amateur scribe. But not as big as, well, the Big One.
Lanark: A Life in Four Books is exactly what it sounds like, but also nothing what it sounds like.
The four books are out of chronological order.
Two are told in a relatively straightforward bildungsroman about a young Glaswegian artist, struggling to get by in life.
The other two are set in a hellish city, Unthank, where it’s never day and skin often turns into scale.
This is probably my favourite book. I’ve bought several copies to foist on the unfortunate souls that drift into my orbit. At least they will have this masterpiece of a novel to console them, long after I’ve disappointed and contact is broken.
It took Gray almost thirty years to write. Those who read it become fierce in their love.
In a just world, Gray would be mumbling through a Nobel acceptance speech.
The very best books instill a simultaneous elation and despair, despair that oh, someone’s done this and it does it better than anyone ever could. The despair melts away eventually. Then we are left with something like gratitude.
If you haven’t read it, it is waiting.
An introduction to the man: