James Kelman

The Man Booker Prize is 50 years old in 2019. In that time, only one Scottish author has won. In 1994, in the prize’s 25th anniversary year James Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late became the most controversial – and least likely – victor.

The Booker Prize (as it was then called) is sometimes unfairly portrayed as championing Anglocentric “quality”, middle-class novels. Kelman’s work ticks none of those boxes:

  • Anglocentric? Kelman’s characters are Scottish and more often than not, Glaswegian. On the odd occasion that they aren’t – Translated Accounts, some of his more recent shorter fiction – they are outsiders: the periphery that Anglocentrism defines itself against.
  • Quality? His work is outstanding, but the “quality” I mean is the type of smooth style perfected by Ian McEwan (akin to the “well-made” type of cinema that Godard and Truffaut rebelled against in the 60s).
  • Middle class? Kelman concerns himself with the consciousness of an almost exclusively male working class.

Rosemary Goring recently proposed that Kelman was a deserving recipient of a more prestigious award. I agree with her: he should be Scotland’s first literature Nobel laureate.

***

James Kelman’s profile is nothing like that enjoyed by certain Scottish writers, but then his sales don’t compare to the likes of Ian Rankin. Additionally, he has a suspicion of the London-based media, which limits his press coverage.

However, he is arguably the most influential – and greatest – living Scottish writer. In simple terms: no Kelman, no Trainspotting. His influence, and that of other Glaswegian writers of his generation (Liz Lochhead, Alasdair Gray, the late Tom Leonard) cannot be understated. Their writing in the 1980s helped to shape the discourse within Scotland, and helped it find its form as a modern European nation. It’s only a small exaggeration to say that they helped to pave the way for devolution.

To go back to Ian Rankin, in an interview in the Observer in 2001 the Fife crime writer said:

“I took the first James Kelman novel, The Busconductor Hines, home to my dad. I thought, my dad will like this; it’s written in Scots. But my dad said: ‘I can’t read that.'”

Which of course brings us to the bone of contention; the first thing anyone mentions when talking or writing about Kelman’s work: language.

It’s erroneous to label Kelman’s work as “phonetic”. Although ‘Nice to be nice’ in Not not while the giro is an early story written phonetically, it stands out among Kelman’s work for that reason. It’s harder work than his later fiction: “A hid tae stoap 2 flerrs up tae git ma breath back”. It “took dozens of drafts” but Kelman admitted later that if he’d read Tom Leonard’s poetry beforehand (Leonard was a true master of phonetic Scots), he would have approached the story differently¹.

What Kelman’s prose at its best captures is the rhythm of thought rather than that of speech. He has a wonderfully acute ear for how the inner voice – the (straight, white) male Glaswegian inner voice – perambulates.

That Booker panel self-combusted over the award (one of the judges called it “crap”). Right-wing Fleet Street journalists counted the swear words in How Late It Was, How Late. In his Booker acceptance speech, he retorted with scorn:

“vernaculars, patois, slangs, dialects, gutter-languages etc. etc. might well have a place in the realms of comedy… but they are inferior linguistic forms and have no place in literature. And a priori any writer who engages in the use of such so-called language is not really engaged in literature at all.”

A few years earlier, he wrote in ‘The Importance of Glasgow in My Work’

“the advice you get in the early days of any writers’ workshop or writers’ group “write from your own experience”…easier said than done…looking around me, it had never been done. Whenever I did find somebody from my own sort of background in English Literature there they were confined to the margins, kept in their place, stuck in the dialogue. You only ever saw them or heard them. You never got into their mind.”

One lazy journalist asked if he ever revised his work, “or did it just come out?” Kelman responded drily, “It jist comes oot, ah says, it’s the natchril rithm o the work klass, ah jist opens ma mooth and oot it comes.”²

On the contrary, James Kelman is a writer working in the modernist tradition, an heir of Beckett and Kafka:

“for Kelman, these writers…[assert] the primacy of the world as perceived and experienced by individual human beings”³

A less commonly acknowledged influence is the superb Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola, author of The Palm-Wine Drinkard and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. If with the former writers he shares an attitude towards the world and the individual’s place in it, with the latter he shares a local diction and syntax which stands in opposition to “Standard” English.

***

Kelman’s first books were short story collections, of which he is a master. His best-known is undoubtedly ‘Acid’, a gothic tale (from an author unsympathetic to genre fiction) short enough for Alasdair Gray to include it among the myriad footnotes to Lanark.

His stories often turn on a misunderstanding: something has been poorly expressed – language has failed – and the mood turns sour. Stories end with the situation collapsing, the mental edifice in the protagonist’s mind crashing down.

Many of the short works in his collections have been cannibalised and reworked from an unfinished work of the 1970s, surely the great lost Scottish novel. Parts of A Chancer had likewise appeared in development in Not not while the Giro.

His debut novel The Busconductor Hines was published in 1984. The next year saw the outstanding A Chancer (which he’d written first). It features scenes from the life of compulsive gambler Tammas, a young man with no prospects beyond the next race meeting. It has a very European sensibility: there is no psychology, none of Tammas’ thoughts or emotions or reasons but (like Robbe-Grillet’s The Voyeur) moments of heightened emotional intensity – such as a winning streak – are slowed down and given a disproportionate emphasis and forensic level of detail. Kelman makes no allowance for a reader’s ignorance of betting terminology: we are in Tammas’s world; there is no hierarchy which sets the author above his creations.

“Tammas had cupped his hand to his mouth and was roaring EEeeeessaaaayyyyy!” – this is the closest we get to emotion, and as with everything else, is seen from the outside: there’s nothing here an external observer wouldn’t see.

“if he had backed the dog as a straight win on the tote he would have received more than four quid, but so what, it was irrelevant, it had nothing to do with it – a mistake to even think it. He had £1.50 in his pocket and it had come from nothing, and that was the only point”

This attitude is the key to all Tammas’ decisions. Each action – or inaction – seems the result of playing the percentages; life is a game of chance in which he will lose as often as he wins.

So, Kelman as Scotland’s nouveau-romaniste? That might be a stretch (and Muriel Spark’s The Driving Seat can justly claim to have broken that particular ground), but only a little.

1989’s A Disaffection, the story of a secondary school teacher rapidly losing his grip, woke London critics to his talent, and won Kelman the world’s oldest literary prize, the James Tait Black Memorial. The narrative voice hovers half in and half out of Patrick Doyle’s head, a move to internalisation of which How late it was is the culmination

How late it was, how late is the last of Kelman’s three “imperial phase” novels, brilliantly realised, and unfolds almost entirely in Sammy Samuels’s consciousness.

Sammy is a small-time crook, another chancer, who loses his sight after a beating by plain-clothes police (“sodjers”: like the military, essentially armed tools of the state: “it’s the system, they just take their orders”). The novel details his Kafkaesque progress – or lack of it – through levels of bureaucracy. Kelman brilliantly uses this to explore the role that language plays in suppression: at all turns Sammy is defeated by language because he doesn’t use the “correct” terminology and has his own words turned into traps against him.

Sammy builds a carapace of white lies to protect himself. At the end he moves on, getting into a taxi and is described as “out of sight”: literally, but also for the first time since his “doing”, nobody knows where he is. He finally attains a form of freedom.

Mary McGlynn writes that Kelman’s work undermines the “prevalent expectation that fiction about the working class will be formally conservative…realist, not experimental”4.

For Kelman, rendering “working class” or “regional” voices in the traditional manner – all apostrophes and glottal stops – and separating their words from the rest of the text by speech marks, immediately creates a hierarchy. It automatically places the writer and reader above the level of the people in the story. Additionally, the concept of “regional” is itself problematic, as it presupposes a centre (i.e. London) to which all other places are peripheral.

As Adrian Hunter writes,

“his stories may narrate the surface of things…but that is Kelman’s way of remaining within the world he creates, rather than assuming a superior viewing position outside it. [He strips] away the generic falsifications of plot, narrative determinacy and structural coherence”5

Only these first four novels conform to the popular stereotype of Kelman. Hereafter his novels would take place either elsewhere (America, an unspecified – possibly African – country), feature women (Mo said she was quirky) or children as their protagonist (Kieron Smith, Boy and the most recent, wonderful Dirt Road).

These recent works do much to extend Kelman’s focus and to that extent they’re a welcome flexing of his muscles but the remain less groundbreaking than his earlier work. In truth, few artists continue to innovate once their initial breakthrough is made, and fewer still manage to innovate in more than one way: Kelman has done this with his early works on one hand and Translated Accounts6 on the other. It doesn’t matter if he no longer pushes the boundaries: his work is still fascinating so let’s enjoy him while we still have him.

 

Notes

  1. Paul Shanks: ‘Early Kelman’ in Hames, Scott (ed.) The Edinburgh Companion to James Kelman
  2. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/apr/12/featuresreviews.guardianreview22
  3. Scott Hames: ‘Kelman’s Art-Speech’, ibid
  4. Mary McGlynn: ‘How late it was, how late and literary value’ in Hames
  5. Adrian Hunter: ‘Kelman and the Short Story’, ibid
  6. Translated Accounts is one of the most startling pieces of 21st century fiction so far. 54 “accounts” of brutality and life under a repressive regime (“There were bodies strewn throughout the building” it begins, there is constant talk of ‘securitys’ and curfew) are rendered in a neutral, official language in which all emotion has been diluted. There are no names, no places, nothing specific. As a short story written in order to make a point, it would be merely of interest. To maintain the voice for over 300 pages is a hugely impressive feat. That said, it’s hard going.

 

Booker speech: http://www.rastko.co.uk/kelman/

Hames, Scott (ed.): The Edinburgh Companion to James Kelman (Edinburgh University Press, 2010)

Kelman, James: Not Not While The Giro (Polygon, 1983)

Kelman, James: The Busconductor Hines (Polygon, 1984)

Kelman, James: A Chancer (Polygon, 1985)

Kelman, James: A Disaffection (Picador, 1990)

Kelman, James: Some Recent Attacks (AK Press, 1992)

Kelman, James: How Late it Was, How Late (Minerva, 1994)

Kelman, James: Translated Accounts (Secker & Warburg, 2001)

Kelman, James: Mo Said She Was Quirky (Hamish Hamilton, 2012)

Kelman, James: A Lean Third (Tangerine Press, 2014)

Kelman, Jamies: Dirt Road (Canongate, 2016)

Kelman, James: That Was a Shiver and Other Stories (Canongate, 2017)

 

James Kelman illustration quite clearly (C) Alasdair Gray

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