Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Guardian book club

Text as illustration

Alasdair Gray declares his vision for his novel Lanark with his cover illustration, says John Mullan writing in the Weekend Guardian.

You can begin where Alasdair Gray begins: with illustration. "Cover artwork by Alasdair Gray" declares the inside back cover of Lanark, for its jacket is covered with the author's own pen-and-ink drawings. These illuminate the book's copiousness and its allegorical purposes. Lanark is made from two stories, the one enfolding the other. A partly autobiographical Bildungsroman tells the story of Duncan Thaw, a would-be artist growing up, like Gray, in Glasgow in the 1940s and 50s. This is contained within a fantastic, anti-realist narrative of what seems to be a visit to Hell by a man named Lanark, who appears to be Thaw after his death; Hell is a city much like Glasgow, now renamed Unthank.

Gray's cover illustration catches the mix of realism and allegory. The doleful old man
pictured in a cap, for instance, is surely Duncan Thaw's father, made lonely
by the death of his wife and sadder still by his son's endless reserves of
truculence. This is humane "realism". Yet angels and dragons
disport themselves among these weak humans. A naked, muscular woman, holding
aloft the light of the sun, rises from what you know are the waters of the
River Clyde. For the background to the fiction is always Glasgow, and here
its shipyard cranes and bridges, its cemetery and its baleful memorial to
John Knox crowd into the gaps of the picture.

Lanark is subtitled "A Life in Four Books", and each of those books has an elaborately
designed title page. Gray takes us back to the renaissance tradition
(revived by one of his heroes, William Blake) of opening the reader's route
into a text through an allegorical illustration. Ambitious works - the King
James Bible, Ben Jonson's writings, Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy -
laid out their topics in emblematic form. (The final book of Lanark has a
title page parodying just such a 17th-century book, Thomas Hobbes's
Leviathan.) The inventiveness of the author was, you should see, being put
to the service of some larger purpose. Readers who had been educated to
recognise the visual emblems of abstract ideas would know in advance how
these were being brought to life in the text.

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