James Kelman Essay - Critical Essays

Kelman, James


James Kelman How Late It Was, How Late

Award: Booker Prize for Fiction

Born in 1946, Kelman is a Scottish novelist, short story writer, essayist, and dramatist.

For further information on Kelman's life and works, see CLC, Volume 58.

How Late It Was, How Late (1994) concerns an unemployed, working-class Glaswegian named Sammy, an exconvict who runs into trouble with the law while on a drunken binge. After being arrested and beaten by police, Sammy wakes up in a jail cell to discover that he is blind and unable to account for all the events that occurred between the onset of his binge and regaining consciousness. Described as both Kafkaesque and Joycean, the novel employs stream-of-consciousness and third-person narrative techniques, relating Sammy's passive attempts to deal with his blindness and his ruminations about his life and Scottish society. Although the work does not overtly concern itself with political themes, the relationship between the Scottish government and its working-class constituents as well as the relationship between Scotland and England are central to Sammy's observations. While praised for his psychological portrait of a working-class Scotsman and his focus on oppression, Kelman has been both lauded and castigated for his use of obscenity and dialogue in the novel. Noting that Kelman's excessive use of vulgarity and sexual references occasionally results in "a piling up of inarticulacies," Adam Mars-Jones has nevertheless asserted that "Glasgow speech and the attitudes it embodies are holy to this writer. To describe the local tongue as the language of resistance would be to understate [Kelman's] view of it; it is a language of truth in revelation."

Principal Works

Not Not While the Giro, and Other Stories (short stories) 1983
The Busconductor Hines (novel) 1984
A Chancer (novel) 1985
Greyhound for Breakfast (short stories) 1987
A Disaffection (novel) 1989
The Burn (novel) 1992
Some Recent Attacks: Essays Cultural and Political (essays) 1992
How Late It Was, How Late (novel) 1994


Brian Morton (review date 18 March 1994)

SOURCE: "Out of Sight," in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 7, No. 294, March 18, 1994, p. 56.

[In the following, Morton offers a favorable review of How Late It Was, How Late, discussing Kelman's use of language and his focus on the dispossessed.]

If fantasy is to be something other than mere wishfulfilment, it requires a measure of resistance: either some collision with the boundaries of the actual, or else the resistance of language itself. Hubert Selby Junior's The Room offers an extreme example. A prisoner incarcerated in his own unconscious spins violent sexual fantasies in language that remains morbidly inchoate, without hope of redemption or escape.

James Kelman's new novel [How Late It Was, How Late] works fascinating variations on the same basic situation. The difference is that Sammy enjoys a measure of ambiguous freedom. He is sprung from custody in a cat-and-mouse exercise designed to get at something juicier than the mild duck-and-dive recidivism that has been Sammy's livelihood for years. The fundamental irony is that, while in the care of the "sodjers", Sammy has become blind.

One Sunday morning he wakes up, down a lane with a two-day hangover. Pulled in, he takes a routine kicking and a token spell in the lock-up before being released into a world that quite suddenly has been stripped of all familiar reference points: pubs,...

(The entire section is 535 words.)

Adam Mars-Jones (review date 1 April 1994)

SOURCE: "In Holy Boozers," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4748, April 1, 1994, p. 20.

[Mars-Jones is an English critic, editor, and short story writer. In the mixed review below, he offers a thematic and stylistic discussion of How Late It Was, How Late, noting Kelman's political and linguistic focus.]

When Julius Caesar taught himself to read without reading aloud—to safeguard military secrets—it was regarded as a troubling innovation. The general had taken language inside his head and made it private. Since then the scars of separation have long healed, but there persists at the back of some minds a fantasy of reunion: writing returning to the womb of speech.

In James Kelman's fiction, this fantasy of a defiant wholeness has a political agenda superimposed on it, which seems compatible but actually clashes: that of giving a voice to the voiceless, those whom society and literature ignore. Even this ambition is more alienated than it seems, since giving someone a voice implies the same power relation as taking a voice away, and restoring a voice to its throat is not a possibility but a dream of healing. Still, it's the way Kelman's two projects, the linguistic and the political, work against each other on the page that makes his writing so hard to enjoy—being brutally frank, so hard to read—and so much easier to praise instead.

It is no news that Kelman is an outstandingly negative writer, whose instinct is to fight deprivation with deprivation (a characteristic that colours even titles like Not not while the giro and A Disaffection), but with How late it was, how late, the hefty new instalment of Strathclyde arte povera, he has set a new standard for himself.

His hero, Sammy, has no job and no home. He stays with his girlfriend Helen, but for the length of the book she is missing. This absence may be a judgment on Sammy or something more sinister (we never learn which). Sammy is missing something even more crucial to his welfare—his eyesight, lost perhaps for ever in the course of police interrogation. He was arrested after picking a fight on the street, while on the rebound from a drunken binge which cost him the memory of an entire day.

Missing Saturday, missing Helen, missing sight. This narrative of subtractions comes perilously close to being a subtraction of narrative. With sensory deprivation added to social, Sammy's unilluminated head, which is where we spend the whole book, is only fitfully a stimulating place to be. The most striking absentee, the most mourned by the reader, is ambient Glasgow, present only in shadowy memories, or muffled episodes of abrasive kindness.

Interior monologue is a highly artificial way of representing the mind's activity as speech, most effectively used as one element of a compound style. Served up raw and in quantity, unsustained by the world, it is highly indigestible. Kelman's dialogue positively skips along under the reader's eyes but there's not a great deal of it; Sammy's monologue is a long and weary trudge.

There is plenty of third-person in the book, but it brings with it no supplementary perspective and amounts to an alienated first. Cheating...

(The entire section is 1641 words.)

Eric Jacobs (review date 2 April 1994)

SOURCE: "Eyeless and Legless in Glasgow," in The Spectator, Vol. 272, No. 8647, April 2, 1994, pp. 33-4.

[In the review below, Jacobs provides an unfavorable assessment of How Late It Was, How Late.]

[How Late It was, How Late] is not reader-friendly. Its 374 pages are not divided into parts or chapters. The only intervals in the text at which to take a much needed breather are infrequent double spaces between paragraphs, which mostly end with full stops, but sometimes don't.

Not that this joined up format is inappropriate, for we are in stream-of-consciousness country here. Sammy is a Glaswegian in his thirties with a long stretch in prison...

(The entire section is 481 words.)

Andrew O'Hagan (review date 26 May 1994)

SOURCE: "The Paranoid Sublime," in London Review of Books, Vol. 16, No. 10, May 26, 1994, pp. 8-9.

[In the following, O'Hagan offers a mixed assessment of How Late It Was, How Late, discussing the book's relationship to Kelman's other works and noting Kelman's preoccupation with politics, oppression, and the Scottish working class.]

It was getting dark one sulphurous evening in Glasgow in the winter of 1990, when a pop-eyed cultural apparatchik—almost breathlessly ripe from a Chinese paper-lantern parade she'd just led through the naked streets of Carntyne—sat down beside me in a bar to the side of the City Chambers, to gab about the glories and horrors of...

(The entire section is 3893 words.)

Sarah Lyall (essay date 29 November 1994)

SOURCE: "Booker Prize Winner Defends His Language," in The New York Times, November 29, 1994, pp. B1-B2.

[In the essay below, Lyall comments on the controversy surrounding the Booker committee's decision to award Kelman the 1994 prize. She also discusses the impact of the prize on Kelman's life and relates his views on writing, literature, England, and the Scottish language.]

No sooner had James Kelman's novel How Late It Was, How Late won this year's Booker Prize for fiction than a full scale furor erupted. One of the judges, Rabbi Julia Neuberger, declared that the book was unreadably bad and said that the awarding of the prize, Britain's most important, was a...

(The entire section is 1168 words.)

Michiko Kakutani (review date 16 December 1994)

SOURCE: "Profane Wandering within the Idioms of Glasgow," in The New York Times, December 16, 1994, p. B8.

[In the following, Kakutani offers a negative appraisal of How Late It Was, How Late, lamenting Kelman's reliance on profanity and portrait of a passive character.]

How to describe James Kelman's new novel, How Late It Was, How Late? Think of one of Nathanael West's black comedies without the humor, combined with one of David Mamet's obscenity-laced plays without the poetry, combined with one of Samuel Beckett's novels without the philosophical subtext, and that should give you a pretty good idea of what this year's winner of the Booker Prize in...

(The entire section is 977 words.)

Further Reading


Bausch, Richard. "Auld Sammy After a Two-Day Binge." The New York Times Book Review (5 February 1995): 8.

Offers a positive review of How Late It Was, How Late, contending that the British controversy concerning its "salty" language is irrelevant since the prose precisely reflects the reality of a place and time.

(The entire section is 71 words.)