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Book of the Month

May 2002

Drafts and papers of Lanark: A life in four books

by Alasdair Gray

Sp Coll MS Gen 1595

This month's feature from the Special Collections Department is the drafts and papers relating to Alasdair Gray's most famous novel, Lanark: A life in four books. This book was published in 1981 by Cannongate Publishing,  having taken almost 30 years to be completed.

Alasdair Gray was born in the Riddrie, Glasgow, in 1934. From an early age he showed a flair and interest in both writing and art, at the age of eleven winning a BBC competition and reading some of his verses on Scottish radio children's hour. In 1948, Gray was the editor of the school magazine at Whitehill primary school in Glasgow, to which he also contributed pictures and stories. 

In 1952 Gray began his degree at Glasgow School of Art, where he was a student until 1957. After this, he made a living in numerous ways - teaching, painting, being an "artist recorder" at the People's Palace museum in Glasgow, and also undertaking a post at the University of Glasgow as a writer in residence.  Thirty years later Gray has returned to the University and is presently one third of the chair of creative writing, alongside James Kelman and Tom Leonard. During this time Gray wrote numerous works, such as The Fall of Kelvin Walker, which was broadcast by the BBC in 1968, and McGrotty and Ludmilla, a play written for BBC radio. However, it was the publication of Gray's first novel Lanark in 1981 that brought Gray and his work to the public's attention.  

Lanark was immediately greeted with critical acclaim, being heralded as a ground breaking work in Scottish literature. The novel marked the beginning of a renaissance in Scottish fiction, from which new styles of writing developed and grew - influencing writers such as James Kelman and  Irvine Welsh.

Illustrations from the front of a notebook. MS Gen 1595/1/1

Draft manuscript pages from MS Gen 1595/1/1

Lanark is an unusual book, employing techniques seldom used by other authors, although parallels have been drawn with literary greats such as Dante and Blake. There  are four books in this volume which are sequenced book three, one, two and four, and they must be read in this order. The volume contains two interwoven narratives with books one and four dealing with the life of Lanark and his time in Unthank and Provan. These books are written in a fantastical manner in a Kafkaesque style, introducing nightmarish notions such as characters growing mouths on their bodies and a disease called "dragonhide". 

In  contrast to this, books two and four are written in a much more realistic and down to earth style. These two books follow the life and troubles of Duncan Thaw, who lives in Glasgow. This section of Lanark is very much autobiographical, mirroring numerous events in Gray's life such as his evacuation during the war to Perthshire, the occasion of a dance at the Glasgow School of Art, and Gray's continuing health problems with asthma and eczema. 

In book three, Lanark cannot remember his past, and so in the prologue (at the end of book three) Lanark asks an oracle to tell him who he is, with the oracle stating he will tell him about Duncan Thaw. This ends book one and takes the reader to Thaw's story, thereby suggesting that Thaw and Lanark are perhaps the same person. There are also marked similarities between Unthank and Glasgow, again suggesting that both places are the same. Both localities are dystopian and both are ultimately apocalyptic for the characters - ending in destruction and death. However, numerous interpretations of this book and its characters have been suggested.

This collection of work was donated by the author in 1984 and is made up  of numerous and varied papers relating to the writing of Lanark. Consisting of 412 item entries in all, this collection tracks the development and writing of the novel from its inception through to the first bound uncorrected proof. The papers range from manuscript notebooks and fragments written as early as 1952 to typescript drafts. All of the papers illustrate Gray's unique writing technique, the text being interspersed throughout with sketches, line drawings, doodles and the occasional letter. 

Many of the drafts have also been significantly changed during writing. As illustrated in the image on the right, taken from one of Gray's early notebooks, these changes would sometimes take the form of simply scoring out words; however, Gray often employed much more laborious and time consuming techniques such as very carefully and precisely pasting over sections or singular words and intricately pasting in new words or sections with adhesive tape. These techniques are found throughout the collection both in manuscript and typescript material. 

Many of the drafts include instructions to Gray's typists, such as Flo Allen, on the layout and pagination of the pages and, given the complicated lay out of the volume, especially the list of plagiarisms in book four, this is to be expected. Other unusual features of the volume include the hybrid drafts of  manuscript and typescript text. These are  found frequently as Gray would often continue writing a draft from the end of a typescript draft.

Draft manuscript pages from MS Gen 1595/1/1

From MS Gen 1595/4/5

From MS Gen 1595/2/2/21a

From MS Gen 1595/2/2/21f

Page 224 of Lanark

Moreover, as is illustrated in the images above, many of the drafts are very similar to their final published versions, often with only very minor changes made from the original manuscript draft through to the published work. (Click on the image to see a larger version of the page and then use the back button to return to this page.) These pages illustrates the writing of an episode from chapter twenty one, book two. In this section of the novel, Thaw's father gives him money to buy materials for Art school, with Thaw consequently buying the articles only to have them stolen. The pages show the story from its beginning, with Duncan Thaw being named Gowan, through to the final printed version in the book. Notably, the second image of a manuscript draft does not vary greatly from the final printed version of the page.

Draft manuscript page from MS Gen 1595/1/

There have been numerous interpretations of Lanark with varying explanations of what it means and who the characters are, and also what has influenced Gray and his writing. The novel can be described as a bildungsroman - charting the psychological growth of both Thaw and Lanark. From the outset, Lanark has been described as a post-modern novel. This notion has been postulated for a number of reasons, including the fragmentary and "illogical" order of the volume. Unusual devices used in the Epilogue (which is notably four chapters before the end of the novel) are often cited as an illustration of the novel's post-modern character, with Gray's list of plagiarisms acknowledging influences and their amount of influence, ranging from block plagiarisms where another author's work has been directly quoted, to diffuse plagiarisms where general ideas or scenery has been stolen. 

 Drawing of the Elite café, from the cover of MS Gen 1595/1/13.

This collection provides a valuable insight into the methods and techniques used by Gray when writing this epic novel, from the original ideas through to the publication of this important Scottish literary work.


Return to main Special Collections Exhibition Page

    Lynne Dent May 2002