Archive for the ‘James Kelman’ Category

God’s Teeth and Other Phenomenon

September 20, 2022

One of the most fascinating aspects of James Kelman’s development as a novelist has been the increasing range of his use of first-person narration, from a child narrator in Keiron Smith, Boy to a woman in Mo said she was quirky. His most recent novel, Dirt Road, saw him return to the America of You Have to be Careful in the Land of the Free, but, rather than the existential loners that populated his early novels, we find instead a beautiful examination of a father-son relationship. With his latest novel, God’s Teeth and Other Phenomenon, published by an American small press, he breaks new ground again in what seems, on the face of it, his most autobiographical novel yet, featuring a writer as the central character.

The novel tells the story of Jack Proctor, a Sottish writer largely known (if at all) for winning the ‘Banker’s Prize’ a number of years ago (“Fifteen years ago I was awarded the damn prize and the buggers were still picking over the bones”), who is invited to a residency at the Orwellian sounding ‘House of Art and Aesthetics.’ The novel works on two levels: on the one hand it offers a satirical account of the writer’s life, while on the other it proposes a serious argument for writing as an art form. “I was at the computer trying to finish a sentence,” it begins, establishing from the outset that this is a novel about the act of writing, as Proctor will frequently remind the aspiring writers he works with:

“The writing is the thing.”

As he also makes clear, it is not a financially rewarding profession:

“People dont buy your books and ye canny fucking force them man imagine it! waiting outside the bookshop with yer Winchester rifle: buy the bastard’s book or I’ll blow yer fucking heid aff!”

Proctor’s need to write (“I’m one of those writers who wrote all the time”) leads to his first difficulty with the residency before he has even arrived as he cannot face the thought of a week in a bed and breakfast:

“Stuck in a solitary room for six weeks. God’s teeth!”

Instead they offer him an isolated cabin – ideal, apart from the fact he has no transport for the first few days. When a vehicle does arrive, it seems more appropriate for the inner city than the country roads Jack must navigate:

“It was just so wee. Pitiably so. In an emergency stop ye would be liable to castrate yerself.”

This is only the first of a series of difficulties Jack has to manage: “Strange eventualities take place on reading tours,” as he says. Sessions are cancelled or cut short with no notice – or sometimes without Jack having even been told about them in the first place. When only a small audience turns up for an evening reading, the organiser comments, “It’s a pity you cancelled the school session…We might have built up the figures.” Far from cancelling it, Jack has no knowledge of it in the first place. The readings he performs are not treated any better – from an announcement he will read from ‘the book’ (That is, his ‘Banker’s Prize’ winning novel) when he does not even have a copy, to publicity which states he writes in ‘Lallans’ and calls him ‘Jock’:

“’Jock’ but man it was totally racist… Lallans, what the hell is Lallans?… Definitely libellous shite man.”

This is partly, as Jack thinks to himself at one point, “being an ordinary human being in a society structured on inhumanity,” but it is also, more ironically lack of understanding of Jack as a writer from those who proclaim to love literature.:

“People expect ye to tell jokes and regale them with previous-life anecdotes.”

Jack’s performances are carefully planned and rehearsed, as well as fluid and responsive. He realises at one point that one of the arts officers “presumed I was saying the same thing to each crowd of folk on each occasion.” To the House of Art and Aesthetics, Jack is simply a commodity:

“She appeared unable to grasp I was a human being.”

If this were Kelman’s first novel it might feel like special pleading for writers, but the theme of treating others as human beings has long been present in his work. Take, for example, the story ‘No longer the warehouseman’ from Not Not While the Giro where the narrator wonders about having to have his tea break standing up: “Surely there are chairs I said to the foreman.” Here, we also have the benefit, in the form of his talks with different groups, of his thoughts on writing, as he asks us to “think in terms of more physical art forms.”

“Artists fight to regain freedom through the base materials which in my case is language.”

These suggest the novel is more than comedy. While the satirical element might be a plea to take writers more seriously, the novel as a whole asks us to take writing, and art in general, more seriously. Kelman’s work has always been both funny and serious, and this might just be both his funniest and most serious novel yet.

What I Do

March 5, 2021

Although James Kelman’s latest collection of essays, What I Do, is subtitled ‘Memoirs’ it is mainly about other people. As Kelman explains, these pieces were generally written as “obituary, memorial or eulogy,” in most cases for individuals which he “considered a friend.” However, they are also people who have had some influence over Kelman’s life – his writing, his politics – and thus the inclusion of African writers such as Amos Tutuola and Alex La Guma whom he has never met. Along the way we learn a little about Kelman’s life – his time as a bus conductor and, later, a bus driver; working on a building site in London; and (new to me) setting himself up as a ‘man with a van’ specialising in transporting artworks (until the van caught fire…). There’s nothing romantic about these jobs, they are an economic necessity, as Kelman often reminds us:

“Soon after this I was married and my wife stopped working; we were expecting a child. On one wage we couldn’t find a place to stay in London…I quit the building trade and we returned to Glasgow. Back on the buses again, this time as driver, there was no other work.”

He makes a similar point when writing about fellow writer Agnes Owens, with whom he and Alasdair Gray published the collection Lean Tales:

“Agnes had no option but to work, and work she did in factories and cleaning the home of wealthy people and she went on doing it even as a published writer.”

Kelman’s work was first published in the US and it’s unsurprising that a number of the writers he mentions here are American, though perhaps less expected that they are all women: Mary Gray Hughes, Tillie Olsen, June Jordan. In writing about Hughes, who was instrumental in An old pub near the Angel, his first collection, appearing, and with whom he regularly corresponded after meeting her in Glasgow in 1972, he says, “A writer was a writer, gender was relevant but only slightly,” though he later acknowledges:

“Necessity is relative and for many writers and would-be writers, especially women, the mixture of necessity and domestic is crippling.”

Not one of these writers published extensively, for various reasons, and in each we see that, for some, the struggle is not entirely artistic, but also against the worlds of publishing, criticism and those the state charges with gate-keeping the arts. When Tillie Olsen is in London to promote Silences she is interviewed by a broadsheet journalist:

“Perhaps it was her unwillingness to enter into a self-deprecating irony that most upset the journalist whose finished feature ridiculed the great American writer in a most extraordinary show of upper middle-class English elitist prejudice.”

Kelman has his own well-documented problems with the publication of How Late It Was, How Late, for example on a reading tour with June Jordan in Oxford:

“Even during my reading, there were heckles.”

In this case, he turns the story against himself when, at an American reading, he is about to treat a question as an “elitist attack” only to be disarmed by hearing June laughing from the audience.

Kelman has no time for the Scottish establishment either, as we see when he discusses the artist Alasdair Taylor in ‘An Artist Lives in Scotland’:

“The way I saw it the situation faced by Alasdair Taylor is the extent to which Scottish society values its own culture. The neglect of an artist such as Alasdair Taylor borders on the wilful.”

Instead, Kelman speaks fondly of artists’ cooperatives such the Print Studio Press which published, as well as Kelman, Alasdair Gray, Tom Leonard and Alan Spence amongst others, though he freely admits, “doing everything ourselves was a pipe dream.” We see something similar in the chapter on John La Rose who was a founder member of the Caribbean Artists Movement. Kelman sees a similarity between his own writing and the writing of some Caribbean and African writers:

“The struggle against the imposition of the Standard English literary form was a class issue but there was another context, a wider context, that of imperialism and the fight for indigenous survival.”

Thus we also have chapters on Amos Tutuola and Alex La Guma: “In common we had language. Not any language but a language thrust upon us; an imperial language that had colonized just about every area of our existence.” For Kelman writing is, first of all, language. And also, as he says in the final chapter, an address he gave at Tom Leonard’s funeral, “The local is primary… the local is the universal.”

The remaining essays in the collection, on left-wing radical figures known to Kelman who in many ways represent a lost past, may be of less interest to those who are primarily interested in his writing. They do, however, provide an interesting context, and share the same values of resistance and an independent mind. Worth pointing out that ‘left-wing’ does not mean the Labour Party (“people here know it is corrupt”), which is often the enemy, attempting to remove Elspeth King as curator of the People’s Palace museum or sell off Glasgow Green. Kelman and other writers were famously involved in protesting Glasgow as ‘city of culture’ in 1990:

“The phrase ‘cultural product’ indicates the value placed by the Labour Council on the city’s cultural heritage and tradition which was no value at all other than as a business commodity; and to what extent its parts might be sold to tourists and visitors.”

These may be, in a sense, historical documents, but they provide an important reminder that politics, as well as art, is local and universal at the same time.

James Kelman is arguable the UK’s greatest living writer, if that means anything. It seems both sad and appropriate that these essays are published by a small print in Glasgow, but that doesn’t make them any less vital for anyone, anywhere, who is interested in writing.

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.