THE working-class characters in the fiction of Agnes Owens and Archie Hind contrast sharply with the military officers in James Kennaway’s most famous novel, Tunes of Glory, but all are, in different ways, trapped. Comedy and tragedy are interconnected in the work of these novelists, and the idea of the family is central to each of them. When we come to Alasdair Gray, the conflict is also between materiality and the imagination and the result is a triumph and breakthrough.

Tunes of Glory (1956), the first novel by James Kennaway (1928-68) was an immediate success and the film made of it (1960) ensured its wider appreciation. Its impact comes from lucidity, intensity, brevity and dramatic structure. Its claustrophobic atmosphere in a Highland regiment’s army barracks builds towards a violent conclusion.

Two opposed main characters, a colonel from Eton and Sandhurst and another who has worked his way through the ranks, increasingly develop their rage against each other. The latent chaos and suppressed emotions bulge beneath the clean prose, suggesting the farcical, but distorting human potential until its tragic ending. Kennaway’s later work is more experimental. Household Ghosts (1961) is a suspenseful exposition of neurotic family relations in a claustrophobic country house, haunted by the past. It was followed by The Mindbenders (1963), The Bells of Shoreditch (1963), Some Gorgeous Accident (1967), The Cost of Living like This (1969) and Silence (1972), published posthumously and set in America, centring on the relation between a white man and a black woman in another kind of threatening atmosphere of sexual tension and social hostility. Essentially, these works anatomise power and prejudice, and show them for what they are, acted out in human relationships.

Agnes Owens (1926-2014), in her first work, Gentlemen of the West (1984) and with continuing humour, pathos, curiosity and determination in later novels and stories, explores and extends the perspectives and enquiries of working-class families. Her depictions of mothers are in themselves a singular achievement. She continued with contributions to Lean Tales (1985), a collection shared with James Kelman and Alasdair Gray, then with Like Birds in the Wilderness (1987), A Working Mother (1994), People Like That (1996), For the Love of Willie (1998), Bad Attitudes (2004) and The Complete Short Stories (2008). Class conflict acted out in a different social strata from that depicted by Kennaway is her forte but the redemptive self-sacrifices sometimes brought forth in her characters heighten both the pathos and the comedy of her stories. Indeed, the comedy itself sharpens the tragic sense of human potential lost in the social circumstances imposed upon her characters. Her work is a register of sympathy depicting unrequited need.

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The realism of these stories testifies to their conviction, yet realism is also its own constriction. Archie Hind (1928-2008), in The Dear Green Place (1966) delivered one version of a definitive “Glasgow novel” as a young man struggles to complete a novel while working in a slaughterhouse. The symbolism is understated.

Mat Craig fails to fulfil his artistic ambitions but in the determination of its unrelieved realism Hind’s writing pointed forward to the counterpoint that would be delivered by Alasdair Gray’s equally determined depiction of Glasgow in Lanark (1981), yoking together realism and fantasy. Hind left unfinished one further novel, Fur Sadie, which was published posthumously in 2008 in an edition with an essay, “The Men of the Clyde” and an introduction by

Gray himself.

Alasdair Gray (b.1934) takes things further. He’s the author of novels, stories, plays, poems, and a visual artist of major distinction. Consider a mere selection of his books: Unlikely Stories, Mostly (1983), in which the Erratum slip reads: “This slip has been inserted by mistake”; 1982, Janine (1984), the quintessential vision of abject despair and reawakening with its searing introspective portrait of a character working through his own worst aspects to emerge on the other side of degradation; The Fall of Kelvin Walker (1984), a provocative parable in which a young Scotsman travels to London to find his career and confront his nemesis: patriarchal authority (it’s a version of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: funnier, but no less fearful); Something Leather (1990); Poor Things (1992), a neo-Gothic-quasi-Victorian-satiric-pastiche self-discovery mystery story that also manages to deliver Carlylean moral authority in its presentation of the social, political and personal constructions of identity, our relations with others and with ourselves; A History Maker (1994); Mavis Belfrage (1996); Old Men in Love (2007), a compendium of stories crossing European history, from an ancient civilization to modern Glasgow (both built on slavery). The stories are connected by the fictional (?) executor of the author’s estate and brought into existence by Alasdair himself, with the assistance of various mysterious interventions and fortunate local assistance. And in 2010, the long-awaited collection of his drawings and paintings, A Life in Pictures.

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But the key work is Lanark: A Life in Four Books (1981), a major landmark in modern Scottish fiction. Gray had been working on it for years and parts had been published in tantalising tastes of what was to come.

The completed work did not disappoint but it baffled some readers because of its structure: we begin like the central character in a state of bewilderment, are taken back through time into a different world and a different literary convention, from fantasy to realism, then returned to the world of imaginative fiction to begin to see how the two worlds interconnect.

This structure deliberately achieved two things: first, it revised the convention of linear sequence; second, it demonstrated conclusively that realism without imagination, or, life without the arts, is hopelessly inadequate. The Moebius-strip-like rewinding of the narrative and the difference between the two literary modes took the sense of possibility in modern Scottish fiction into a new dispensation. In this respect, its cognate works from the same decade were Liz Lochhead’s play, Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off (1987) and Edwin Morgan’s sequence of poems, Sonnets from Scotland (1984).

IN Lanark, the aspiring artist Duncan Thaw sets out to draw the Blackhill locks on the canal near Glasgow:

“He knew how the two great water staircases curved round and down the hill, but from any one level the rest were invisible. Moreover, the weight of the architecture was best seen from the base, the spaciousness from on top; yet he wanted to show both equally so that eyes would climb his landscape as freely as a good athlete exploring the place.

“He invented a perspective showing the locks from below when looked at from left to right and from above when seen from right to left; he painted them as they would appear to a giant lying on his side, with eyes more than a hundred feet apart and tilted at an angle of 45 degrees. Working from maps, photographs, sketches and memory his favourite views had nearly all been combined into one when a new problem arose.”

The “new problem” is how to depict people in this landscape. Realism is a term bound up with the matter of perspective, and it is a key term in the transition from 19th-century realism to modernism. Lanark takes you through two narratives, one pretty much strictly realist and the other fantastical, mysterious, dream-like.

The constraints of realism and the violence it enacts upon not only the main character (who seems to be almost suicidal by the end of the second book), but also upon the other characters (by insisting upon their limitations, personal, social, national and imaginative) – these constraints and tensions are generated by realist narrative. Yet they are also viscerally connected to the dynamics and pressures in the “fantasy”-story.

Thus, it is not that one story precedes the other or predicates it, but rather that the work of the imagination liberates itself from the imprisonment of realism.

Another crucial aspect of Lanark is the long story of its composition over decades, which many people in Scotland’s literary world were well aware of. And crucial to that is the novel’s connection with Archie Hind’s The Dear Green Place. Hind’s main character abandons and destroys the novel he’s writing, yet Hind’s novel itself is a refutation of that defeat, while, doggedly, its resolution acknowledges the authority of realism. Gray is different. In Lanark, when we read that Glasgow, like most modern cities, is the place where many people live but few imagine living, we have one of the essential assertions of the value of imagination in modern literature.

In The Dear Green Place, Mat Craig attempts to live up to that intuitive assertion of value and Hind courageously records his struggle and his failure. Hind’s success in the novel resides in that courage. He gives us an artist, a writer, struggling with his own imagination, ultimately failing to complete the novel he so dearly, desperately wants to realise. Gray takes one incredibly transforming step further: he breaks through the confinements of realism and demonstrates with absolute certainty how reality and the imaginative life interpenetrate, how one helps change the other, and the former fuels the latter, in a kind of eternal recharging. What had blocked Mat Craig in Hind’s novel, Gray blasts away, forever. To quote Marshall Walker’s words, “a narrow material world, unlit by imagination, is inadequate to human experience.”

There is an optimistic purpose here. At the end of the novel, Lanark is given the knowledge that he will die soon and a sense of his own mortality is strong in his mind, yet three unobtrusive things indicate continuing life, life that Lanark has been and remains part of, and by which he is comforted and the value of his life confirmed. There is the life of Lanark’s son, Alexander, who evidently survives the end of the novel and goes on to live and work in a future Lanark himself will not see. Then the panoramic ending of the novel itself describes a tidal wave engulfing the city, washing away the familiar buildings and landmarks in violent demolition. It seems like an apocalyptic vision, but yet the tide begins to recede in the last pages of the book: “Drunk with spaciousness he turned every way, gazing with wide-open mouth and eyes as light created colours, clouds, distances and solid, graspable things seemed close at hand. Among all this light the flaming buildings seemed small blazes which would soon burn out. With only mild disappointment he saw the flood ebbing back down the slope of the road.”

After this devastation, something will rebuild itself. And finally, there is the last sentence itself, which depicts the title character: “He was a slightly worried, ordinary old man but glad to see the light in the sky.”

The novel ends with a simple act of seeing and an affirmation of appreciation. Which is where we all need to begin.