I bought you a copy of Alasdair Gray’s novel Lanark for your 24th birthday. In fact I bought two copies; one for you and one for me. In the front of yours I wrote a trite little note to do with love and life. I wanted to create something memorable. It was the first time that I’d come to visit you in Glasgow and I thoroughly enjoyed the city, mostly because I was with you. To be shown around it by a native who had lived and loved it for several years, especially someone whom I cared for, was a real treat. However I was also painfully aware of how far away it was from my home in London.
We agreed to read Lanark together. By knowing that the other was reading it, and discussing it nightly, it would be something to make us feel closer together in the intervening weeks before your next visit to London.
We’d message about it daily to tell each other which chapter we had just read, or a small highlight that we had enjoyed that we hoped the other had too. Then in the evening we’d discuss it more fully. We’d talk about the motives of the characters, how Glasgow informed the hellish city of Unthank, and how the same darkness that lurks in Gray’s paintings could be felt more tangibly through the prose giving life to his protagonists’ realities.
I’d always wanted to be a part of a book club and all of a sudden I was in the most exclusive and best one in the world: just you and me. This meant that I had plenty of time to hold the floor and express my feelings on the plot’s development, the themes and the overall direction of the story. I expressed my sympathies for Lanark and his mortal alter-ego Thaw, although they were both fairly unsympathetic characters. Both protagonists are Gray under a different name, and I was fascinated by how unflinchingly he presented their often heinous actions as well as their downright distressing inner earnestness and longing.
However, I mostly just wanted to listen and learn from you. You told me about how you loved the story, how the imagery of the horrors of Unthank delighted you and how it pleased you to read a story set in Glasgow (and its fictional evil twin).
You explained to me your beliefs on men’s tendencies to idolise women, especially in art and literature. This was certainly true in Lanark, wherein both versions of its protagonist – Lanark and Thaw – have deathly, tortuous infatuations with women in their lives. You pointed out to me how it crops up time and again, this idea of the ideal woman for whom the man feels he is not worthy while simultaneously feeling outraged by the woman’s lack of interest in him. I agreed that that was the case in Lanark and in several others of my favourite stories. I explained that in fact this was something that often caused me to grow an attachment to a story, since this unworthiness is something I’ve felt so often in my own life. You didn’t have much to say to this, except that it wasn’t a healthy way of looking at things.
We finished Lanark’s not insignificant 600 pages in a couple of weeks. I would have liked to have stretched it out a little longer, but you read much quicker than me and had no qualms about rushing over the last portion of the book in little more than a day. This meant that by the time I finished a few days later, the story wasn’t as fresh in your brain and your initial thoughts, whatever they may have been, had mostly fallen away. I tried not to be bothered by it. And at least we did have a good debate over whether having a chapter wherein the protagonist meets and has a full conversation with the author in media res was foolhardy. I agreed with you that it was indulgent (obviously), but I admired the sheer audacity of the inclusion, and the conversation helped to sharpen some of the themes and motives of the book in my mind. I guess I just like it when things are spelled out for me.
Once we were done with Lanark it fell from our conversations and like everything else we consume was ushered into the back of our brains with the rest of our long-term memories. It never fully faded from my mind though, since my copy sat there on my bookshelf not inconspicuously with its spine illustration of bare-breasted angels and a naked newly-born baby.
Sometimes when I’d look at that spine I’d think of your own copy sitting there on your bookshelf, boobs bared and all. This transported me back to your room in Glasgow and opened up a stage in my mind for thoughts of you.
Often these thoughts, prompted by the book, took me down the same rabbit hole. I had this projection of a time when our two copies of Lanark would sit side by side on a shared bookshelf. Our family bookshelf. We’d have a daughter, who in my mind was essentially just a miniature version of you; same black hair with fringe framing an adorable pale face warmed by full cheeks and big shining eyes. One day we’d catch her ogling the bare-breasted angels on the spines of our books, maybe she’d even pull out one of them and see the nude large-breasted, hairy-muffed woman holding up the sun that adorns the front. She’d ask me what they were, and I could perfectly envision in her eyes the same hint of mischief darting around her irises as I often saw in yours. After a brief pause where we’d look at each other and smile at the memory we’d have to laugh it off as a “grown-up book” and move them to a higher shelf where they were invisible to nosey little children.
But the vision didn’t end there. When I let myself indulge in this fantasy for longer I saw our daughter growing up, getting tall enough to the point where she couldn’t have books hidden from her anymore. And of course she’d also grown in maturity and curiosity. In her teens she’d quiz us as to why we had boobs on our books, with that typical adolescent ‘my parents are so weird’ tone, and show not much interest beyond that. Again we’d laugh it off and explain that it was a book that we’d both read and enjoyed when we were much younger. I imagine us doing this awkwardly; we’d mostly be looking at each other while we made this lame explanation, inside remembering the connection it had forged between us in the early days of our love.
But my vision didn’t end there either. Continuing down this path I then saw our daughter moving out, going to university and becoming a woman of the world. One holiday when she came back from university she’d have enough curiosity and interest to look closer at our bookshelf and actually pull out one of the copies of Lanark and thumb through it. It would be your copy that she pulled out and she’d come across the note I had left for you. She’d probably laugh or feel a little embarrassed, but mostly she’d be intrigued. That night at dinner she’d ask us about it, and through careful questioning and poise that she’d never had before she moved out of the house she’d skillfully extract the whole story of our courtship, the periods of long-distance we went through in our first couple of years and how we dealt with it. In the retelling my eyes would meet yours over and over again as we shared details of memories we hadn’t brought to mind for decades.
At the end of the dinner our daughter would proclaim her desire to read Lanark. After a brief wordless consultation, you and I would agree that she felt she was mature and intelligent enough to enjoy it. She’d insist that we read it again too, so that we could discuss it as a family. I’d immediately be enraptured by the idea and you’d only need some minor prodding to admit that you weren’t “too busy” to take part.
I’d buy our daughter her own copy of the book and together we could read it and discuss it as a family. Just as it had brought you and I closer together all those years ago when we lived in separate cities, it would bring us closer to our daughter, now living so far away at university. Through our re-reading I would re-experience not only the overwhelming emotions of the book’s characters, but would be transported back to a time when you and I were young and newly in love. Together we would remember how we had reacted to the plot contrivances then and how they struck us again now. Through the comparisons of these versions of ourselves from our past to those of our present, we would see all the ways in which we had both changed – and stayed the same. Through deeper discussion we would notice that over the years subtly our world views had morphed together to the harmonic state we now found ourselves in, the one that made our family home so warm. And we would see it resonated in our daughter and her fierce, intelligent, independent affirmations.
In those moments when our conversations about Lanark would touch on love, religion, death, the afterlife, art, fantasy, sex and more I would take a step back and see how perfect my life was. I would be able see how the emotions and actions of scarcely remembered decades had clarified and culminated into this idyllic bubble of family life. It was a vision of a future that I couldn’t wait to reach.
After you dumped me I burnt my copy of Lanark to ash.
As I watched the flames lick the book’s bulk and swallow it into its fiery maw I thought of how our relationship had been incinerated, how all the wonderful memories had now gone up in smoke like the pages of the book we once shared so intimately. I felt like I was burning our fantasy family at the stake.
Foolishly, I thought this act of catharsis would lay down a barrier between the time we were together and the moment we suddenly were no longer, a barrier between me and the painful-to-recall recent past. Looking at the embers of the burning book I felt I was casting all those memories to hell. I felt like Duncan Thaw throwing himself into a river to drown after his anguish over his failed attempts at love had driven him down into madness.
But of course that didn’t work for Thaw, who wakes up in hell, desperate to know how he got there. The past haunted him. Similarly, despite casting my own memories of our relationship to ‘hell’, I couldn’t escape them either. Seemingly my mind had fallen down into the fiery pit with them. Every time I closed my eyes I thought of you and the delicateness of your body, but to touch it in my mind, knowing that I’d never do so again in real life, just gave me the feeling of a dull ache through my core. And yet I still couldn’t pull away.
In the weeks that followed, those memories of us continued to project themselves on to my mind, and the dull ache started to clarify itself. It was no longer pain that I felt, it was loneliness.
Once again I felt like Lanark’s protagonist Duncan Thaw, as he attempts to create his masterful Genesis mural inside a church. At first he’s enthusiastic, he has a vivid and bold idea of what his creation would be, and he’s surrounded by excited helpers. Gradually, as the weeks turn into months, the help stops coming, the completion of the project seems further and further out of reach as the reality overtakes the fantasy. Thaw begins talking to himself as he works alone, and he begins to paint over, adjust and re-do whole parts of his mural, trying to get it just how he envisioned it.
For my own part I was alone in my mind surrounded by the memories of our relationship. It had been idyllic when I envisioned us together; beautiful and breathtaking. Now I knew that it would never reach those heights that I had projected upon it.
Eventually the ache sloughed off my mind enough for me to actively engage these memories on a less fantastical level. Looking at it again in this new reality I could see I had, like Thaw, covered up several things that didn’t quite live up to the grandiose love that I had imagined. Over here I’d covered over that argument we once had, there were certain patches of time that I’d completely whitewashed, and the small but not few rifts that were between us had been subtly tucked away in a corner.
It was in this closer, unromantic re-examination of the relationship that I’d built up in my head that I realised all of these defects. It came to me then just how naïve I had been. Life is not fantasy, it’s not even art. We can use art and literature to inspire us or to help us process something in our lives, but in the end real life is what we live and breathe every day. Through envisioning myself as the sad, broken Duncan Thaw I had taken myself deep into a place of self-loathing and self-pity, but by taking a step back from my masterpiece – our relationship – I also stepped out of Thaw’s shoes and into my own, real ones.
I see now that our relationship is what it is; maybe not a masterpiece as I had envisioned, but one that is unique, beautiful and real. It may now be finished, but that doesn’t mean that its gone or that its power is any less significant, and its impact upon my reality is tangible every single day.
I, of course, didn’t really burn my copy of Lanark. I have a tendency towards the dramatic in my fantasies, but my reality is exactly that: reality. Art and reality are undeniably interwoven, but they are separate, and a great piece of work doesn’t deserve to bear the brunt of foolish human emotions. It’s there to help you process, understand and heal.
My copy of Lanark will remain forever on my bookshelf. Within it will be not only Alasdair Gray’s masterpiece, but the memories of my own attempt at achieving something great with you. In there is a tapestry of my own creation that only I can access. It revolves around you, our fantasy child, and my own heart. Once I thought it had been prematurely ended and would remain forever incomplete. Today I see that it had to be finished there for it to become what it was always meant to be. The memories of our love, in which I now see and cherish the imperfections, are an invaluable resource in my real life. They inspire me as I move onwards.
Now it’s time for me to start on my next work.