Archive for the ‘James Kelman’ Category

Dirt Road

September 4, 2016

dirt road

Dirt Road is James Kelman’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. While Stephen Dedalus, at the end of Joyce’s work, decides he must leave Ireland to flourish, Kelman’s protagonist, Murdo, leaves Scotland behind in the first few pages, heading to America with his father, Tom, to visit relatives. Murdo has no plans to forge the uncreated conscience of his race; though never stated, the trip is a reaction to the recent death of his mother:

“Mum died of cancer at the end of spring. This followed the death of Eilidh, his sister, seven years earlier, from the same disease, if cancer is a ‘disease’. He could not think of cancers like that because of the way they hit people. One minute they were fine but the next they were struck down. More like a bullet from a gun was how he saw it.”

Murdo’s road trip is a tale of two encounters: with a young girl, Sarah, who serves him in a small shop while they stop-over in Allentown, Misippippi on the way to his Uncle’s, and with the music of her Aunt, Queen Monzee-ay, which he hears the next day when he returns to the shop hoping to see Sarah. Murdo falls for both, and before he leaves he’s invited to join them for a gig in Lafayette in two weeks. The road of the novel is the road to the concert, which will represent both Murdo’s coming of age and his choice of music (art), impractical and precarious as it is, for his future.

H.G. Wells said of Joyce’s novel that “one believes in Stephen Dedalus as one believes in few characters in fiction,” and in this Kelman is Joyce’s successor. Dirt Road is so finely crafted as to appear without craft; so beautifully written that the writer disappears. You cannot prove this by quoting Kelman: immediately the quotation will clash with the language of the review, not unlike the comments of the ‘general public’ in a news report. Kelman’s prose works because only the language of the character, in this case Murdo, is allowed; once we are immersed in the rhythms of that language, Murdo may as well be real, one reason, perhaps, the ending feels a little as if someone has simply pressed pause.

Yes, Kelman’s novels are political, but he is as likely to capitalise that p as he is to begin using quotation marks for dialogue. Criticism of America permeates the novel, but is subsumed into the narrative. Race is one example. When Sarah’s brother, Joel, sees Murdo watching Queen Monzee-ay play he says:

“This aint your place. What you doing round here? What you spying on us!”

It’s the fact that Murdo is white which lies behind “This aint your place” but trace doesn’t impinge on Murdo’s consciousness unless placed there by others. Later a friend of Uncle John’s will comment on their stop-over:

“One night huh. You see a white face?”

Similarly, labour conditions in the US are alluded to when we discover that Uncle John has not been allowed any time off for the visit:

“After twenty-two years! Huh! They wouldn’t give him no proper time off! His family from Scotland!”

Kelman’s main theme, however, is immigration. Looking though a road atlas, Murdo is amazed to find numerous place names which he recognises:

“Look! Gretna! Imagine Gretna! Elgin! Jeesoh, Elgin! McKenney! Cadder! Aberdeen! Aberdeen, actual Aberdeen. It’s all Scottish names Aunt Maureen. Glasgow!”

Queen Monzee-ay’s name, written down, is Menzies. As Kelman has said:

“The absurdity of this whole thing about immigration gets shown up in these characters. The idea of any culture being homogenous, which is nonsense.”

This, in turn, is reflected in the music: in the folk songs, passed on, often with words adapted to new lands, in musical styles, and in the musicians playing together.

Dirt Road is a wonderful novel – perhaps Kelman’s best. It is worth reading for its portrayal of the relationship between Murdo and his father alone. Shorn of all romanticism, it is the best argument you will ever read for art.

A Disaffection

June 24, 2013


If Mr Alfred M.A.’s examination of the education system can be described as cynical, then where does that leave James Kelman’s A Disaffection? In it, English teacher Patrick Doyle is immediately characterised as “sickened” by his job; he wonders if he is “The Staffroom Cynic” or just “embittered,” viewing education as a tool of the state:

“You are here being fenced in by us the teachers at the behest of the government in explicit simulation of your parents, viz. the suppressed poor.”

Like many of Kelman’s characters, Doyle lives his life in quiet desperation:

“…all those failed plans and principles and ideas for the future, all those ways ahead. And now here he was, a teacher – still a teacher! What was to be done. Nothing.”

Whereas in most novels a basically happy character is acted upon or takes action in such a way as to threaten their happiness, in Kelman’s early novels a basically unhappy character frets about their unhappiness while nothing changes: there is no inner decisiveness or fortuitous outer circumstance to alter their life. Often Kelman teases us with plot devices from conventional fiction which come to nothing. Two of these are used in A Disaffection: Doyle’s announcement that his is going to quit his job and his attraction to fellow teacher, Alison. Doyle’s exclamation in the staffroom – “That’s how I’m bloody leaving” – is more a cry of despair than a decision to direct his life in a new direction.

“He was finished with it, finished with it; he was just finished with it.”

These sentiments appear as early as page 15 but, at the novel’s conclusion over 300 pages later, he is still a teacher. The only change which might actually occur is a transfer to another school which he cannot remember requesting.

Similarly his relationship with Alison seems rooted in despair rather than affection:

“Because what would happen if he broke down! What would happen if he laid his head onto her lap! Into her lap. Snugly.”

Hope comes in the form of a pair of pipes that he discovers abandoned at the arts centre – “ordinary pipes like the sort used by plumbers and electricians.” Only in his desire to play them does he find any kind of fulfilment:

“What could it be? …This astonishing accomplishment he would achieve on a pair of discarded pipes, found dumped behind the rear fire escape of the local arts centre.”

The pipes encapsulate Doyle’s desire for expression – with a link to his working class background which he worries about having abandoned and an ironic nod towards the Pied Piper. Needless to say, his hopes they will somehow articulate his feelings – for example, towards Alison – are unfounded. They cannot counter-act Goya’s late, dark paintings which also fascinate him and best encapsulate the mood of the novel.

This, then, is not a book to make you feel good about life – but it is also not at all cynical. Kelman is a writer who never shows contempt for his characters, a vital ingredient of cynicism. If anything, Doyle cares too much, made inarticulate by the rawness of his rage against the cynical world he lives in.

Kieron Smith, Boy

September 23, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously – James Kelman

Looking back, the 1980s were a golden age for Scottish literature. Following the publication of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark in 1981, James Kelman’s first volume of short stories (in the UK), Not Not While the Giro, was released in 1983; both came from small Scottish publishers. By the end of the decade we had also seen first volumes from Janice Galloway (The Trick is to Keep Breathing, 1989) and A. L. Kennedy (Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains, 1990). All four writers continue to produce important work and arguably have never been succeeded by a new generation of equivalent talent in Scotland.

Kelman has since published seven novels, the latest, Kieron Smith, Boy, in 2008. Although Kelman is often caricatured as a narrowly Scottish, or even Glaswegian, writer, his work has actually shown a remarkable range from the working class protagonist of The Busconductor Hines to the teacher of A Disaffection. His follow up to Booker winning How Late It Was, How Late purported to be a series of translated statements from an unnamed country under military rule. This was followed by a novel set in the United States. Kieron Smith continues to explore new territory as, although Kelman returns to the Glasgow, we view it through the eyes of a child, the four hundred pages covering the years between age 10 and 12 in Kieron’s life. This is particularly important with Kelman, where the entire narrative is immersed in the consciousness of his character.

From the opening sentence, we are in Kieron’s mind, and it is not by any means an outstanding mind: one of the tricks Kelman plays with the Scottish tradition of the clever working class boy encouraged to better things by a teacher is to suggest that this is happening off-stage with Kieron’s brother, Matt:

“His books and jotters were there but just scattered about. One thing he done was a foreign language, Latin.”

As for Kieron:

“My teacher said if I just stopped frittering, frittering, frittering. I was good at my lessons except I did not try.”

Kieron prefers climbing, playing football, and going out with his pals. For much of the novel he is concerned with fighting (he does not actually fight anyone – unusual in a young boy and possibly a deliberate avoidance of anything that might seem like action on Kelman’s part). His granda teaches him to box:

“Never mind if he is a big boy son ye just box him, boof, boof, boof. Ye box the mitts off him, that is what ye do.”

His Uncle Billy has different ideas:

“That was what Uncle Billy said, and once ye got them down, ye did not let them back up, ye just carried on till they could not hit ye back. Ye had to stop them else they would stop you. Even if they were decked, ye still had to fight them.”

He frequently speculates whether boys are ‘best fighters’, and his friendships, for example with Podgie, are often partly based on fear. Kelman convincingly recreates the threat of violence that permeates the life of boys, perhaps best exemplified by the alley that Kieron must walk down to get the train home from school where a gang are always waiting. His other choices are a lengthy detour, or a short cut through back gardens which will inevitably lead to trouble at school.

Of course, there is no plot to speak off, and the same topics come round again and again. Kieron’s character develops (for example, he becomes interested in girls) but this development is not marked by key moments. (Though it is, amusingly, by his attitude towards swearing, which he self-censors throughout until near the very end) There are a few events that in another novel would create plot (his granda’s death, the move from primary to secondary school), but they are simply absorbed into the narrative. There is no description – a park is simply ‘the park’.

Michel Faber has described the novel as “both very revolutionary and very, very dull.” However, though I did find the narrative voice a little tedious at first, there came a point when I fell so entirely into Kieron’s world that its ordinariness simply felt real. Kelman presents Kieron’s life without pathos or irony (the special effects the novelist applies to his story); in fact we might simply say: Kelman presents Kieron’s life.

Danger rating: do not expect ‘action-packed’, or indeed any adjective that might apply to multiplex viewing. Or any adjective.

If it is your life

June 16, 2010

James Kelman’s seventh collection of short stories shows no change of direction: swearing, colloquial language (not always Scottish) and interior monologues abound. But then, Kelman’s relentless pursuit of creation without compromise has always been one of his most admirable features, at least to those of us who regard him as Scotland’s most significant living writer.

Isolation remains a strong theme throughout. As the narrator remarks in ‘I am as Putty’:

“There are people in this world who exist in a state of siege. They construct a moat round themselves and are continually raising the drawbridge.”

In many stories, the lack of connection Kelman explores is between the sexes. Kelman has commented, “For most men, females are mysterious; the converse is also the case,” and this is shown in story after story, a number of which feature couples. In ‘talking about my wife’ (the ‘about’ immediately signposting a distance in a story in which the narrator in talking to his wife) this can be seen in a succession of sentences like, “She ignored this,” and “She did not answer.” Instead emphasis is placed on the wife ‘watching’ and ‘studying’ her husband. The shorter story ‘Vacuum’, also about a married couple, ends with the lines:

“Even the way she was looking at me. How come she was looking at me? I looked at her. I stared at her. It was not hard to do.”

‘A Sour Mystery’ is about a man and the ex-girlfriend he resents for suddenly treating him as a non-sexual being (“Maybe she mistook me for a monk”):

“Jennifer had stopped talking to me in an honest and true fashion.”

In the title story, a student returning home to Glasgow considers his various relationships, friends and family, but particularly with Celia, a middle-class English girl he has met at university:

“I did not know women, I did not know them at all.”

It should not be assumed, however, that Kelman portrays this lack of connection simply as a bleak reminder of our essential aloneness. As anyone who has read his first novel, The Busconductor Hines, knows, he can present nuanced, loving relationships in this solipsist manner. This is often shown through physical attraction, for example in ‘talking about my wife’:

“Cath’s hand is a really sort of pleasant thing, it is soft and warm. I always found it pleasing in an aesthetic way.”

The narrator of ‘as if from nowhere’ is similarly attracted to his nurse:

“Even more astonishing, that a woman should allow such a hand to touch her skin, stroke her skin, to trace, these lines and surface of the skin whoever drew the surface of the skin, had any artist ever managed that.”

Both refer to drawing the hand, distrusting the ability of words to capture the emotion. One of the most moving stories, ‘death is not.’, tells of a dying man who is unable to speak to his wife:

“I wanted to explain to her I did not not answer intentionally. I did not care about the others. Only her, and even to her I found I could not answer.”

Here the silence becomes a closer bond than words.

Kelman also continues to portray the conflicts between the individual and the “greatbritishsocialsystem”. There are stories set in hospitals, an employment exchange, and a court. More than once, however, there is a sense that the appetite for the fight has gone:

“Why did people not fight? It was the same in Scotland. People didn’t fight, not like in the old days.”

That this is followed by the expression “Scots wha hae,” reminds us not to take the narrator’s nostalgia for Kelman’s, but the topic is touched on again in ‘Man to Man’ when a man abuses his wife in a bar:

“How come they were letting it happen?”

Ageing itself is a preoccupation, with three of the stories set in hospitals and many of them featuring an ‘old Jimmy’ or ‘old Mister McGuire’. The grandfather in ‘The Gate’ refers to himself as having the “typical elderly male role”, and in ‘The Third Man, or else the Fourth’ the homeless narrator is feeling the cold:

“Auld age; the blood gets thin.”

Even the young man in ‘Ingrained’ comments;

“That was you getting old when your memory went.”

But Kelman is neither bleak nor cynical. Much dark humour is to be found, for example when the narrator of ‘Tricky times ahead pal’ finds that the wrong leg has been removed from his trousers:

“So now I had to wear the trousers back to front.”

Interestingly, characters are frequently seen to be smiling. This is not to suggest that you would turn to Kelman for laughs; but if you are interested in contemporary writing at all you should be reading him.