Brian Morton (review date 18 March 1994)

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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...

(The entire section contains 8695 words.)

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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, people, the sure connection of words and things. The flat is empty, his girlfriend gone with only the dim recollection of a row, and Sammy is unable to give a "satisfactory" account of his whereabouts on given days.

Unusually for Kelman, Sammy's CV is kept pretty thin. It is a recurring feature of his contacts with authority (both judicial and medical) that he is only "written up" in accordance with roles assigned to him by them. Kelman is unwilling to overplay the "Kafka" hand (a fashionable designation again), but there is a bleak comedy in Sammy's situation and sufficient vagueness in background events to suggest a grim futuristic scenario. Are the police only "soldiers" colloquially? Who are the "politicals" being sought?

Blindness offers a predicament in which language becomes more than usually sensitised. The tenor is much as usual for Kelman. Paragraphs drift away with a muttered "fucking" and an unpunctuated silence beyond. In the interrogation room, Sammy often fails to realise he is being addressed. The dialogue is peppered with silent ellipses. Questions are pursued in the brutally condescending third person ratified by police procedurals: "Mr Samuels doesn't seem to remember", "he", "him", "the customer". Even people who haven't been inside know the cops talk like this.

Dickens repented sharply of depriving his narrator of her sight. Kelman pushes it as far as it will go. His political agenda concerns social invisibility, the gaps in the netting through which people fall, the jeopardies of casual self-definition. There are brilliant cameos of form-filling, laden with jobsworth literalisms like "now what it says here" or "you've got to be one or the other".

Kelman is a passionately humane writer and a natural libertarian. The two don't always occur together. In all his fiction so far, and here centrally, he champions the dispossessed and the overlooked with unsentimental urgency. The novel's last words are "out of sight".

Adam Mars-Jones (review date 1 April 1994)

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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 slightly, Kelman introduces the lyrics of country and western songs, laid out as poetry, for borrowed emotional resonance.

The few incidents of the novel could easily be accommodated in a short story; it can hardly be said that Kelman exploits the possibilities of the ampler genre. He establishes the seriousness of his project by brute duration, as if any invocation of the formal resources of the novel would sell Sammy into the slavery of writing.

For Kelman, authorial distance seems to be a form of literary imperialism. It is certainly an illusion, but so to be sure is the supersession of the author by his creature. In the first sentence of How late it was, how late, for instance, Kelman uses six semi-colons and a single colon, a near-exquisite piece of stopping that belongs to a different world from Sammy's. This other world is one which, among other things, would make political analysis possible. All Sammy can do is exemplify the sufferings of his region, his history and his class. The fact that his stoicism, a virtue on the personal level, is from a different point of view a guarantee that he will remain in his place, is an irony the book refuses to house.

Sammy drinks only a few pints in the course of the book, but whenever the characters refer to drinking establishments, their names (and nothing else in the book) are put into italics, like saints' names in a family Bible, or churches in Baedeker. It seems a curious form of bad faith for the author to vanish stridently from his text, while lingering slyly in nuances of punctuation, and in the respectful alcoholism of his italics.

For the first 200 pages of the book, before Sammy starts to re-enter the world around him, the reader has little to engage with beyond the authenticity of his language. Sometimes the effect is deliberately flat: "So all in all he had entered a new epoch on life's weary trail." Sometimes there is a dark flicker of wit: "Waiting rooms. Ye go into this room where ye wait. Hoping's the same. One of these days the cunts'll build entire fucking buildings just for that. Official hoping rooms, where ye just go in and hope for whatever the fuck ye feel like hoping for. One on every corner. Course they had them already: boozers."

Most often, though, the language is half-dead, half-alive, undeterred by the speaker's sudden sobriety (Sammy's blindness imposes a virtual house arrest) from bar-room philosophizing. Too much of the book is only kept by the prestige of dialect from sounding like banality or Beckett: "Ye just battered on, that was what ye did man ye battered on. What else can ye do? There's nothing else"; "Life, man, full of misunderstandings; nay cunt knows what ye're meaning"; "Ye blunder on and ye blunder on. That's what ye do"; "Life. Life could have been worse"; "Ye made wrong moves in life. It couldn't be denied"; "It was an effort. Life. That was how ye had to keep going."

On one singular occasion Kelman seeks to demonstrate that the acrid tang of Glasgow speech is not synonymous with benighted social attitudes. The subject is women:

Ye wonder what they see in as well I mean being honest; men—christ almighty, a bunch of dirty bastards, literally, know what I'm talking about, sweaty socks and all that, smelly underpants. Course they've got nay choice, no unless maybe they're lesbian, then ye get tits bouncing against each other and it's all awkward and bumpy; same if it's guys, cocks and legs banging—that was what happened inside once, this guy that fancied Sammy trying to give him a kind of cuddle christ it was weird, fucking rough chins and these parts of yer body knocking the gether, yer knees as well man ye were aware of it, how ye didnay seem to merge right, maybe for the other thing but no cuddling, the guy actually said that to him he says, Sammy ye're holding me like a woman, I'm no a woman. Fine; fair enough, but how were ye supposed to do it, cause he hadnay wanted to hurt the guy, he liked him, know what I'm saying, he was a nice guy and aw that. Fucking hell man, life, difficult.

This passage of surrealistic liberalism from a narrator of considerable reflex belligerence can be put down to authorial wishful thinking, the strained neutrality of the word "merge" in this register its give-away.

In general, though, 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 his view of it; it is a language of truth in revelation. To most readers, admittedly, the words "bampot", "clatty" and "bammycain" will seem superior to the words "tosser", "dirty" and "nuthouse", either for reasons of regional loyalty or novelty. But are they really reliably superior, a million times better, enough to justify their constant incantatory repetition?

It is a paradoxical position, to feel that everything about people's lives can be corrupted or fouled except their speech, particularly when their speech is so freighted with fucks, adjectival fucks, adverbial fucks ("as x as fuck", "like fuck"), interpolated fucks ("enerfuckinggetic, enerfuckinggetised"), fuck cadenzas; "lonely, just fucking lonely, lonely lonely fucking lonely, lonely; that was his wife, lonely"; "That was the fucking story. Just as well she had went afore this, afore this fucking shit man this fucking blind shit, fucking blind blind blind fucking blind man blind a fucking blind bastard."

At moments like these, Kelman's aim as a writer—which might be imagined expressed as no authority but in authenticity—leads him into producing something curiously unaffecting, a piling up of inarticulacies. His prose becomes something to be consumed dutifully, not emetic or stimulant but good for you: cod liver oil. In his theology, the opposite of England/book/death is Scotland, voice and life. Yet a voice on the page is no longer a voice. Strange that he leaves it there stranded, and the reader stranded too.

Eric Jacobs (review date 2 April 1994)

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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 and some shorter stretches labouring on building sites behind him. He is currently living off social security, plus whatever else he can lay his hands on, including the flat of a girlfriend called Helen who is continuously expected but fails to show up throughout the length of the book. Wise woman.

Sammy goes on a two-day drinking binge, comes to in surprisingly good nick, picks a fight with some passing soldiers—'sodjers' to Sammy—and winds up in a police station, from which he somehow emerges blind. For the remaining 300-odd pages he struggles to cope with this unexpected disability.

The physical side of things Sammy, in fact, handles rather well. In no time at all he is rolling his own cigarettes, making himself cups of tea and opening tins in Helen's flat. It is life he can't handle. Sammy is a hopeless case, a loser for whom blindness seems not much of a handicap on top of all the others.

By rendering Sammy sightless, and therefore even more at the mercy of circumstance than he would ordinarily be, Mr Kelman surely invites us to apply the dread adjective 'Kafkaesque' to his situation. And by letting most of the action happen inside Sammy's head he just as surely invokes that other adjective to make one wary, 'Joycean'. One of these is enough for any novel to live with; two undoubtedly a surfeit.

There is a novel to be written about the Glasgow no-hoper: drunken, feckless, wandering, unable to hold on to a job or a woman, doomed to live off the meagre pickings of crime and the social services, and Mr Kelman is probably the person to write it. He understands his man. What he has actually written, however, is all too like an encounter in a Glasgow pub when you are sober and the man who buttonholes you is seriously drunk. He jabs you in the chest, blows smoke in your face, dribbles his drink all over and rambles incoherently on. F—is the most used word in his vocabulary, serving promiscuously as noun, adjective, verb and adverb. He laughs wheezily at his own jokes, which leave you cold when you can follow them. After not much of this, like Sammy, you want to run.

Andrew O'Hagan (review date 26 May 1994)

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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 Glasgow's reign as European City of Culture for that year. The city's better writers, it seemed, would have nothing to do with it. The £50 million jamboree, led by the municipal council, set its sights on ridding the city once and for ever of its razor-slashing, wife-battering, whisky-guzzling image; all to be blown away during a year-long bonanza; of painting and singing and exotic tumbling; with street-sweeping Bolivian choristers at the crack of dawn; with face-painting schools and afternoons of community theatre on Glasgow Green; and an evening of carry-on in the company of Pavarotti at 75 quid a throw. My bar companion flushed as she coasted through the vodkas, saying how pointless and infuriating it was that the better writers—whom we may as well call James Kelman, Alasdair Gray and Tom Leonard among others—wouldn't join in on the song. 'It's their loss,' she said. 'I mean, what do they want?'

A fairly good idea of what they wanted could be gleaned at that time from a visit to the Scotia Bar in Stockwell Street, where the dissidents met now and then to read their work and shout down the official festival. The group adopted the name Workers' City—which spelled out their opposition to that recently developed area around Black-friars and Ingram Street known as Merchant City—and set about picketing some events and speaking and writing against them, convinced that most were a costly irrelevance and an insult to the real cultural and economic concerns of the majority of people living in the city. The producers of 'Glasgow's Glasgow', a hi-tech exhibition intended to celebrate Glasgow's social history, erected video displays in neon-lit cabinets, voice-responsive computers and the like, and installed them in a warren of renovated arches under a railway bridge by Central Station.

Workers' City reserved particular scorn for this place (which proved in the end to be a financial fiasco) and saw it only as an attempt by the Labour-run council to paint out Glasgow's less glossy history, the history, and actual situation, of most of its population. For their part, the festival organisers—like my tottering friend on the bar stool—came to believe the inhabitants of Workers' City were just unruly bores, spoil-sports and pains-in-the-arse; James Kelman later noted how he and his pals were described as 'misfits, dilettanti, well-heeled authors and critics; professional whingers, crypto-communists, self-proclaimed anarchists' and so on.

This animus is never unusual in Glasgow. In fact it's rather typical there—many of the worlds within Glasgow have spun, and continue to spin, on popular resentments to do with what kind of team you prefer or school you went to or street you live in or jumper you wear. And James Kelman, in his fiction, has concentrated on lives fully burdened with as many constantly disabling dislikes. But Glaswegian animus is not his subject; he would appear to have bigger fritters to fry.

Kelman's sense—his public position, if you like—is that his people, the particular underclass he writes about and has been part of, is a class of people whose internal differences melt away under the one Great Anglo-American Conglomerate of Establishment-and-Institutionally-Vested-Interests on Behalf of Imperialism. Racism and Associated Bad-Eggery. The message has been constantly, and often magically, clear: what the ex-working classes do to each other is one thing and bad enough—but nothing could ever match for badness what the big 'They' do to all of us together. Kafka's notion of the omnipotent state which could dispense with the nameless as a matter of whim, seems almost cosily camp next to Kelman's brutal Conspiracy of Universal Authorities bent on oppressing the Glasgow poor.

Sammy, the semi-wino whose person and consciousness lie at the centre of Kelman's new novel [How late it was, how late], wakes up in a police cell with a pounding head, a bruised one that carries no memory of how he got there and what the hell happened to his shoes. And he's stone blind. He sort of remembers a slippery scene, some altercation, out in the street, where he belted a copper ('a beautiful left cross man he fucking onered him one'); the coppers got a hold of him, and they most probably cuffed him and beat him, though he's not so sure of that. He knows he's lost a complete day, all day Saturday, since he went out on the razzle on Friday and was jailed Friday night. Once released, he starts groping his way down the road, slapping the walls with his palms to get some sense of where things are, though he has no clear idea of how to get home. He can hear, he thinks he can hear, people gibbering as they walk past:

Mutter mutter. Somebody next to him. People going by. Fuck the people going by.

Dear o dear he was stranded he was just bloody stranded. Bastards. Fucking bastards. Fucking joke. Fucking bastards. Sodjer fucking bastards. Sammy knew the fucking score. He knew the fucking score. He gulped; his mouth was dry, he coughed; catarrh; he bent his head and let it spill out his mouth to the pavement. He was still leaning against the window, now he pushed himself away. A groaning sound from the glass. He stepped sideways. He needed a fucking smoke, he needed a seat, a rest. This was crazy man it was fucking diabolical.

Once back in his flat, Sammy gets to grips with his new condition quicker than you might expect. (But then his demands are few: he maps out in his head the journeys he will have to make: 'the minimarket, the betting shop, the chemist. All the necessities. The local boozer stood by itself round the corner from there.') His girlfriend Helen is nowhere to be seen, and there's no sign of her even at the novel's end. He plays country tapes when feeling sorry for himself, makes a blind stick by cutting the head off a mop; still talking to himself in the old familiar way, he gasps for a fag, thinks of bumming one off his neighbour, hears music coming through the ceiling.

This stuff is close to perfect: Kelman identifies with characters like Sammy, he always has done, and he can slip first-person perceptions and psychological tics into a third-person narrative in an astonishing way. For someone who's made such a palaver about ways of talking, about speech I mean, he's actually not so very good at dialogue (not when you think of Peter McDougall or Roddy Doyle). It's the way people talk to themselves that he gets so brilliantly, so matchlessly. While the peripheral characters in his stories often exchange words in a pretty featureless manner, his central characters have always had a wonderful way with words, with parts of words and myriad inflections of the same word, as they form themselves inside their own heads.

The best bits of How late it was, how late contain a kind of mental vaudeville that brings Kelman's way with interior monologue to a point of precision beyond any he has reached before. Those who see what he does as a continuation of a European and existentialist tradition of fiction-writing will find the evidence for it here, among the talking mirrors embedded in those parts of the narrative most closely to do with Sammy's mind:

He lay there all warm and comfy, the world gone, all the trials and tribulations, out the fucking window, just him existing in the middle of a massive big ocean, a wee toty island, just lying there, a whale drifting by, the mind getting set off by the music, it was some kind of christian thing for christ sake that was the fucking problem with country man it was like the sally army ye had to put up with god for a fucking half hour, ye heard good fiddles and banjos and it turned out to be a jesus-love-me effort

never mind, never mind; ye let it go and ye stop fucking

ye stop

Aaahhh—the only problem being how ye're so vulnerable, just so relaxed, the ideal time for some cunt to reach ye—how easy it was, the ideal time, the ideal place, and he didnay have one weapon to hand; not one.

The narrator in Kelman's story "By the Burn", a man on his way to an interview who stops on the bank of a stream and just stands staring, overcome by a cold tremor which brings to him the memory of his daughter, who died in a sandpit over by the other bank, is not unlike Sammy. Nor is Tammas, the signing-on gambler and lover and leaver in Kelman's second novel, A Chancer, or Patrick Doyle, the floundering schoolteacher in A Disaffection, who blows into a pair of industrial pipes he finds at the back of a club, captivated and comforted by their moaning. Like all these others, Sammy is the kind of man Kelman can commune with unreservedly—a very particular kind of Scottish man, of Kelman's age (48) or somewhere near it, who might steep his feet, then cut his toe-nails onto newspaper laid out on the living-room carpet; someone who will place a bet; who'll drink halves of whisky mixed with water, sometimes pints; one who'll be proud, who'll be on the dole or else hate the work they do; who'll loathe the police; who'll roll their own; who'll be good with money when they've got it, like Charles Donald in "An Old Pub near the Angel", who gets some unexpected back-money from the broo and goes off smiling and waving to everyone, and buying them drink. It is the kind of man many of us grew up beside: one who's cantankerously knowing about what he knows, who's scornful of what he doesn't, and who never tires of telling people—especially people who also happen to be the wife—about the nature of other people's stupidity. Helen, who'd been giving Sammy the silent treatment before getting off her mark and leaving him, was, you might imagine, the kind of woman who has lived exclusively in step with her man's moods, habits and prejudices, one of those women whose lives are constituted by the paranoid behaviour of their men.

The Kelman man is a regular type, a person from Glasgow life, who comes to embody his author's political concerns. Both the type and the concerns are specific: they don't stand, as they're often called upon to do, for any contemporary group or new universality. Kelman has long been imagined, and has sometimes imagined himself, to represent and give voice to a whole class of the poor, located in Glasgow, who'd never effectively made it into fiction before. As far as such a thing suggests the kind of man I've been talking about, that is certainly true: Kelman has found a way into those heads in sometimes frighteningly original ways.

But Kelman-man is a working man from the days when the working classes could find work. Though his characters might also be out of work, and often hate what they do, the 'out of work' culture is clearly something quite different from what people leaving school now in Glasgow's housing schemes could recognise. Kelman brings to his writing priorities from another time, a time when working-class people worried about trade unions and overtime, demarcation and the futility of the work that they did. He mostly writes about a quite particular man of his own generation, someone who grows detached, gets disaffected, who might drink in the old way (who might even drink the old thing, like the infamous 'vino collapso' Lanny). He's a person who remembers the not-so-far-off days when hating your job and fucking off to Australia were the two biggest preoccupations you had.

Since 1980 (four years before the publication of Kelman's first novel, one year into Thatcher), drug-taking in housing schemes around Possilpark and Drumchapel—the very places you might find in Kelman's writing—has gone up by 700 per cent. Drugs are there to be seen, or got, in the playgrounds of some Glasgow schools. The growth of Aids in those places, the run of repossessions, the gangsterism, are all things that don't exist in the Glasgow of Kelman's underclass. The Glasgow housing schemes, and those which spread out around Glasgow, are not really the places of his writing, though they're generally thought to be. The experience of people who never expect to work again, of people, indeed, who leave school never having known what it's like to expect a job—these are people for whom Kelman's workerist lament might seem idealistic and alien even in the modes of its regret. Of course, no writer's to be blamed for their failure to write of things that don't concern or interest them. But Kelman in his paranoid essays, and his champions in their delirious reviews, too often deal in generalities when they speak of the denizens of working-class Glasgow: there is something spuriously lumpen about the groupings Kelman refers to, and something inattentive in his reckoning of their needs as far as he chooses to address them. It's not that he misrepresents the new non-workers or renders them in clichés as some writers do, it's simply that he doesn't see them in his fiction, though he chooses to speak on their behalf in his essays.

Some of the polemical dullness, at its most paranoid and ill-written in Some Recent Attacks: Essays Cultural and Political, unfortunately finds room in the novels. An indiscriminate loathing and distrust of officialdom, of inspectors and doctors, in The Bus Conductor Hines is very funny and very much part of the way the character Hines speaks in general, the way he describes himself and the world, especially when speaking to his son. But the DSS spooks, headmasters, pen-pushers and anyone-in-a-tie in his most recent fiction have been less and less funny, mere stooges, illustrations of an authorly idea. In How late it was, how late, Sammy—who comes loaded with nuance as one of Kelman's multi-dimensional traditional men—encounters a number of bureaucrats, all of whom are inordinately and absurdly irritating and unhelpful. He feels he's under surveillance since his mysterious doing-over by the police, someone might be keeping tabs on him, he may be bugged, the DSS bureaucrats note down everything he says—as does his doctor, a cardboard cut-out of a character whom Kelman figures as a kind of baby-eating monster from the CIA.

Sammy might have a claim for damages if he can prove he lost his sight in the police cells. He's pursued by a weirdo even more paranoid (again, with slightly less life) than himself, a guy with some typically vague way of obtaining private information, who aims to represent Sammy's claim against the dark knights of the state. The difference between Kafka's view of the state, or William Burroughs's or even George Orwell's, and that of James Kelman, is that Kelman believes his fiction offers a more or less literal depiction of how the state operates—it's not a surreal thing or a symbolic thing or a thing in the mind, for him it's an actuality. All the conspiratorial business in the new novel (the cover reproduces the sign you see on motorways to indicate that police cameras are in operation) takes us away time and again from Sammy's inner life and the way it alters and inflects the worlds around him.

Kelman wants to characterise the political antagonisms, the unknown powers, which oppress Sammy, but he can't come near to doing it convincingly, since Sammy's mysterious opponents are not people, not in the way he is; they are not from Glasgow or from anywhere else. They are deadening, posh-sounding caricatures, emanations from some malignant conglomeration of oppressive authorities. There is no energy or detail in the way they're represented—an absence the more remarkable in a novel where these things are so splendidly in evidence elsewhere. Kelman would appear to believe that his enemies, who are naturally the enemies of his central characters, are too inhumane to be rendered as regular humans committing inhumane acts.

James Kelman's most effective political act was, and is, his singular adaptation of the prose sentence to meet the demands of place and speech and, to a limited extent, economic reality on the west coast of Scotland. That's what he does best. At his worst, he indulges a series of paranoid fantasies—vague generalities which draw credibility from cases of negligence, fraud, mis-diagnosis, censorship and the like, all of which have firm bases in reality, but no relation to each other. He brings together any number of these institutional horror stories and fuck-ups, and banalises them to death. All this is done, we're to trust, on behalf of one or other of his favoured groupings, and done without much clear understanding of the evil institutions' specific natures or procedures or functions. You might be hard pushed to find anyone these days who didn't think the DSS and Scotland Yard and the BBC and the Times and the Department of Health, to name a few, are sometimes corrupt and irresponsible, but that's not the same as imagining them all to be in cahoots with each other, keen to oppress and flagellate and disenfranchise. This conspiracy guff—much like the habit of lumping a city's poor under one heading to be uniformly spoken for—comes about through a lazy philistinism and an illusion of subversion where the detail doesn't matter because it's all for the liberation of something good in the end. These broadsides, which Kelman drags out of his polemical essays and into his novels, contribute to a diminution of the complex lives actually being glanced off. This is from an essay titled "English Literature and the Small Coterie", where Kelman writes of the failings of Salman Rushdie, in a way which might cause us to pause on his own technique:

In a literary context one of the limited ways of using the stereotype technique creatively is to turn a prejudice on its head: the 'stereotyped' character is then revealed as an ordinary human being, with the specific qualities thereby demanded. Here the author of The Satanic Verses seems to me to fail too often for comfort and a case for 'insult' if not 'outrage' might conceivably be made by Afro-Caribbean black people, white working class people, people who have never received the benefits of higher education, people who 'do not speak properly' and people who look 'rat-faced' or 'piggy'. The work therefore contains a number of the stock characters and situations any politicised student of the English literary canon is well used to, and it places the novel in this mainstream. At schools and colleges and universities, in general, our students are taught not to question that such is the stuff of art. And if we genuinely demand free expression in our society then such stuff very often will be 'art'. It is within these terms that The Satanic Verses can be described as a good novel; perhaps ultimately, some would say, even a great one.

… Apart from those who have described the novel as 'excellent', 'major', 'terrific', 'important', 'boring', 'bad', 'unreadable' etc, very little was heard from the literary establishment apart from spurious stuff to do with need to protect 'freedom of speech and expression'. This unwillingness or inability to examine the work in public is nothing short of pathetic. Yet it is quite understandable and not at all surprising. By implication such an undertaking would have been to examine not only the very ordinary human prejudice of the critics themselves, it would have been to expose the endemic racism, class bias and general élitism at the English end of the Anglo-American literary tradition.

At least when Hugh MacDiarmid published his late, late laments he could see the funny side, and had the good taste to call them things like 'England is our Enemy'.

The most interesting 'small coterie', incidentally, currently boiling its mighty stock in the literary hell-fires of London and Glasgow and Edinburgh, is the one which serves to promote Scottish writing. The much-hated 'literary establishment' could doubtless learn a thing or two about how to look after its own from the small crew of Scottish or Scots-loving novelists, poets, critics, publishers, journalists, booksellers and the rest, who enjoy nothing more than to pipe for their pals, with a wee blurb here and a dedication there (and don't be stuck if you need something drawn up for the cover, doll).

Kelman exists in close proximity to the people he sees himself writing about: he shares, as far as he can, in their struggles and speaks as they do. That's the kind of writer he is. So Kelman, you might think, is one who would recognise the folly in trying to shadow his people's sorry relationship with their non-elected government, in trying to shadow it, as he does, by claiming himself to be marginalised and excluded by a Literary and Cultural Government he neither knows nor sees, except when its derided representatives stand up to offer him prizes or praise. A writer who is compared, by all manner of people, to Beckett and Dostoevsky and Zola, who is nominated for literary prizes and published by mainstream publishers; who is on reading lists in universities all over the place; who'd be welcomed on many a cultural platform and be published by any good paper—such a writer, you might think, pays little respect to the reality of marginalised lives, to say nothing of censored artists, by so easily claiming for himself the status of underdog and enemy.

I recently took part in a television production devoted to Kelman's work. I arrived at the Glasgow production office when the film was more or less ready. There was a young woman there who was red-eyed and depleted from weeks of work on the programme; she'd clearly knocked her pan in trying to get it into some sort of decent shape, under the usual pressures. As I looked at her scurrying and typing and phoning and thinking, a guy told me of how they'd been fighting the executive, who'd only allow 17 'fucks' to be aired in the show. The tired woman and her colleagues had clearly fought for every one of them.

Then he told me of Mr Kelman, who gave the impression he was annoyed by the number of non-Scots working in the production office; so to save any trouble a Glaswegian boy was brought from downstairs, from another office, said my informer, just to sit and answer the phone in case He rang. Sometimes, when you ponder the power of the marginalised artist in this down-treading kingdom of ours, you have to laugh.

Sarah Lyall (essay date 29 November 1994)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1168

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 "disgrace." Simon Jenkins, a conservative columnist for The Times of London, called the award "literary vandalism." Several other critics sniped that the book should have been disqualified because of its heavy use of profanity.

Meanwhile, the British literary establishment huddled together defensively as Mr. Kelman appeared in a business suit at the black-tie Booker affair and, in his heavy Scottish accent, made a rousing case for the culture and language of "indigenous" people outside of London. "A fine line can exist between elitism and racism," he said. "On matters concerning language and culture, the distinction can sometimes cease to exist altogether."

Part stream of consciousness, part third-person narrative, sparsely punctuated, devoid of chapters and written entirely in the words and cadences of working-class Glasgow, How Late It Was, How Late does make for hard reading, which seems to explain some of the objections. But other critics have greeted the novel, the story of a down-and-out Glaswegian former convict who has a run-in with the police and wakes up to discover that he has suddenly gone blind, as a literary triumph.

Writing in The Independent, Janette Turner Hospital called Mr. Kelman a "poet and magician" and said the book was a "passionate, scintillating, brilliant song of a book."

It is nothing new for Mr. Kelman's work—which includes four other novels, a number of plays and about 100 short stories—to generate strong reactions, both for and against. He has been compared to James Joyce, to William Kennedy and to Samuel Beckett, but when the first Kelman short story was accepted by a magazine at York University in 1972, the printer refused to print it because of the profanity.

And in the mid-1970's, one publisher urged him to write more accessibly, saying, Mr. Kelman recalled in an interview in his home in a suburb of Glasgow, that "work written in Glaswegian dialect doesn't sell in America."

For the author, a slight man with haunting eyes and a grave manner that gives way easily to sardonic humor, the central issue is cultural imperialism through language. Recalling times when Glaswegian accents were banned from the radio, or when his two daughters were reprimanded in school for using the Scots "aye" instead of the English "yes," he said it was wrong to call the language of his work "vernacular" or "dialect."

"To me, those words are just another way of inferiorizing the language by indicating that there's a standard," he said. "The dictionary would use the term 'debased.' But it's the language! The living language, and it comes out of many different sources, including Scotland before the English arrived."

As angry as he might be about the criticisms, Mr. Kelman said that the Booker Prize had given him a useful opportunity to air his views about language and about the disenfranchised people who are his subjects. It has helped the book sell more than 20,000 copies in hard cover in Britain, and it certainly has raised the author's profile among publishers in the United States, where How Late It Was, How Late is to be published by W. W. Norton on Dec. 12.

The $30,000 prize has also had happy financial consequences for the often broke Mr. Kelman, who left school at the age of 15 and worked at a number of manual jobs even as he began writing some 20 years ago. Having spent his life in a series of apartments, he was able to move six months ago to a large house with its own garden. He has also invested in a new computer to replace his creaky grime-covered one, and his wife, a social worker for homeless people, has been able to reduce her working hours. What's more, Mr. Kelman said, the Booker brings a special kind of prestige to someone like him, one of a group of strong writers to emerge from Glasgow in recent years, including Jeff Torrington and Alasdair Gray.

"The meaning of the prize comes from other people," said Mr. Kelman, who chain-smokes cigarettes that he rolls himself. "I was aware of its importance from writers both from this community in Glasgow and the extended community in Scotland, and also other communities that you could say were in similar situations. Friends of mine who are Afro-Caribbean or from India or Pakistan, or Irish or American people, said they were amazed, astonished and delighted that this statement could have been made from the center of the city of London."

Particularly annoying to Mr. Kelman (although Mr. Kelman does his best not to look annoyed) has been the renewed criticism that his writing is shoddy and somehow subliterary. Referring to Mr. Kelman's protagonist and narrator, Sammy, Mr. Jenkins of The Times, for instance, said the book represented "the ramblings of a Glaswegian drunk." And another journalist took it upon himself to count how many times a particular obscenity appeared in How Late It Was, arriving at the impressive number of 4,000.

"Some people say my work has no value," Mr. Kelman said. "They find a way of saying it's not literature, just oral tradition. Or perhaps that because you write from the point of view of people whose language is debased, then your language is debased, and therefore you're a debased writer, or really not a writer at all."

"I've won a major prize before," he went on, referring to the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, which he won in 1989 for his novel A Disaffection, "and one of the people associated with it asked me if I ever revised my work."

Yes, Mr. Kelman said, he does revise, even more so because the language he uses is so singular. Well into his cigarette, perhaps his 10th in two hours, he launched into a fierce defense.

"In order to fight against the house style you have to justify every single comma," he said. "Every comma in my work is my comma. Every absence of a comma or full stop or semicolon or colon is my absence. You have to be much more precise and bloody pedantic. You have to revise and revise and proof at every bloody stage to insure that everything's spot on, especially because you're working in what other people regard as inconsistent ways, so you have to be really sure."

He stamped the cigarette out and began to roll another one. "You have to trust the fact that you're a writer."

Michiko Kakutani (review date 16 December 1994)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 977

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 Britain is like.

When the novel won that prestigious award this fall, there was an uproar in London, where detractors assailed the book's heavy use of profanity and its highly discursive narrative set down in Glaswegian slang.

As its critics claim, How Late It Was does indeed boast an amazing number of variations on a certain four-letter word: a word used, as many as 25 times a page, as all-purpose noun and adjective, adverb and verb. Take, for instance, the following expurgated passage:

"[Expletive deleted] Charlie! Yedidnay [expletive deleted] need Charlie to tell ye may ye kidding! Get to [expletive deleted]. [Expletive deleted] bastards. Sammy had [expletive deleted] seen it, he had seen it. All he wanted was his due, that was all man his [expletive deleted] due. He had copped for it; copped for this and copped for that. [Expletive deleted] alright, O.K., O.K.; [Expletive deleted] yez!"

The novel's liberal use of such words and its willfully idiomatic narrative, however, have little to do with its more fundamental problems. As writers from James Joyce to Mr. Mamet to Patrick McCabe have demonstrated over the years, slang, vernacular and profanity can be turned, in the right hands, into a kind of poetry that delineates a world and a place as well as character and mood. Indeed the problems with Mr. Kelman's book have nothing to do with his raw materials; they have to do with his failure to use those materials to create a compelling voice, a sympathetic protagonist or a convincing story.

The narrative methods employed by Mr. Kelman in How Late It Was will be familiar to readers of his earlier books. As in A Disaffection (1989), a third-person interior monologue is used to depict a couple of days in a man's life, as he wanders aimlessly about the bars and streets of Glasgow. As in many of the stories in Greyhound for Breakfast (1987), the predominant mood is one of depression and vague anxiety, a sense of being trapped by circumstance and fate.

In fact the hero of How Late It Was often comes across as a parody of Mr. Kelman's earlier protagonists. Sammy, as he's called, isn't simply fond of drinking, as are so many Kelman characters; he has just spent a lost weekend that has left him lying in the gutter, with no memory of how he got there. Earlier Kelman people have been forced to cope with poverty, unemployment, lowered expectations; Sammy, an ex-con, has to cope with police arrest, a brutal police beating and a sudden case of blindness that may or may not be permanent. He responds, as most Kelman characters do, with a shrug: he is blasé about going to see a doctor, reluctant to press charges against the police, loath to seek any sort of compensation. "Look miss," he tells a woman inquiring about his condition, "what I'm saying is the polis didnay intend to make me lose my sight I mean if they went at me with a blade and then dug out my eyes then I'd be straight in for compensation, know what I mean, but they didnay, they gave me physical restraints, and I wound up with a dysfunction."

Sammy's first thought is that his estranged girlfriend, Helen, would find his predicament amusingly absurd; his second thought is that his blindness will prevent him from having to take most jobs offered by the unemployment commission.

In the course of How Late It Was a few things do happen. The police question Sammy about some of his ne'er-do-well acquaintances; they imply that Sammy knows more than he is telling; Sammy insists that he was drunk the previous weekend and can't remember a thing. When Sammy returns to the apartment he shares with Helen, he discovers that she has disappeared. Later, he spurns the efforts of a man who says he can help Sammy get compensation and help for his condition.

For most of the book, however, Sammy simply wanders around Glasgow, like many Kelman characters before him, stumbling from one bar to another, using a homemade walking stick to help him find his way. As he does so, his mind wanders from topic to topic. The reader learns a little about Sammy's childhood and his dabbling in petty crime; one learns considerably more about his difficulties in sleeping, his desire for cigarettes, his failure to bathe, all of which are mentioned time and time again. Sammy's bank of images and ideas feels depleted; so does Mr. Kelman's.

The reason it's impossible to sympathize with Sammy or his plight is that Mr. Kelman depicts him as an utterly passive creature devoid of any real inner life. The reader cannot comprehend his bizarrely nonchalant attitude toward his blindness, nor his lack of anger or confusion. One tires of his banal musings about men and women, his tiresome and repetitious observations about taking "it as it comes."

Perhaps Sammy's story is meant as some sort of metaphor for the existential predicament of modern man or the human condition in general, but as delineated by Mr. Kelman, it's little more than a tired tale about a foulmouthed blind man looking for a drink and trying to avoid getting run over by a bus.

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