Ninety-Nine Novels: Lanark by Alasdair Gray
In 1984, Anthony Burgess published Ninety-Nine Novels, a selection of his favourite novels in English since 1939. The list is typically idiosyncratic, and shows the breadth of Burgess’s interest in fiction. This podcast, by the International Anthony Burgess Foundation, explores the novels on Burgess’s list with the help of writers, critics and other special guests.
In this episode, we’re exploring a parallel universe Glasgow as we talk about Alasdair Gray’s Lanark with writer and biographer Rodge Glass.
Lanark is a strange, experimental book that immediately thrusts the reader into a weird world with glimmers of familiarity. It’s a novel with two stories, that weave around each other but don’t quite come together in an obvious way. The book is structured so that the two stories are not sequential. It begins with the story of a man called Lanark, whose lonely existence in the city of Unthank is eventually disturbed when his skin begins to grow dragon scales. Seeking a cure, he ends up falling down a bizarre, fleshy portal to The Institute, a sort of hospital where the doctors seem to be former patients. This story is interrupted by that of Duncan Thaw, who remembers his journey to become an artist, studying at the Glasgow School of Art and struggling to get by painting murals around the city. As Thaw’s existence becomes more and more strained, he succumbs to madness. Here we pick up Lanark’s story, as he escapes the Institute and tries to save the city of Unthank from destruction.
Alasdair Gray was born in Riddrie, Glasgow in 1934. He began studying at the Glasgow School of Art in 1953, where he started writing Lanark. He graduated in 1957 and painted murals around Glasgow. Many of his murals have been lost, but some can still be seen around the city. Most famously, his mural at the Òran Mór theatre is the largest public artwork in Scotland. Alongside his career as an artist he wrote nine novels, five collections of short stories, and several works for the theatre. He died in 2019.
Rodge Glass is the author of seven published books across fiction, the graphic novel, the short story and nonfiction, including Alasdair Gray: A Secretary’s Biography, which won a Somerset Maugham Award for Nonfiction, and his new book Michel Faber: The Writer & his Work, published by Liverpool University Press in August 2023. He is a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow and was the Convener of the 2nd International Alasdair Gray Conference hosted in Glasgow in 2022. He works closely with the Alasdair Gray Archive on creative commissions, academic work and on building Gray’s legacy internationally.
Books mentioned in this episode
By Alasdair Gray:
- ‘The Star’ in Unlikely Stories, Mostly (1983)
- 1982, Janine (1984)
- The Fall of Kelvin Walker (1985)
- Poor Things (1992)
- A Life in Pictures (2009)
- Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes (1651)
- ‘The Crystal Egg’ in The Country of the Blind and Other Selected Stories by HG Wells (1897)
- Finnegans Wake by James Joyce (1939)
- Alasdair Gray: A Secretary’s Biography by Rodge Glass (2009)
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In Series One and Two of Ninety-Nine Novels, we learnt about authors including James Joyce, Thomas Pynchon, Iris Murdoch, Ian Fleming and William Golding, among others. These episodes are available at your favourite place to get podcasts.
You can join the conversation and tell us which 100th book you would add to Burgess’s list by using the hashtag #99Novels on Twitter.
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The theme music for the Ninety-Nine Novels podcast is Anthony Burgess’s Concerto for Flute, Strings and Piano in D Minor, performed by No Dice Collective.