'James Kelman' by Simon Kövesi
A review by Alan McMunnigall

Essay originally published in:
The Drouth magazine, issue 27 'Pure'
Throughout the 1990s, as new academic surveys of contemporary British fiction appeared, I would flick to the index of the latest work to see if James Kelman was mentioned. On many occasions his name was absent, and I would immediately return the book to the shelf, considering the omission to be so serious as to render the work invalid.

Such a stance created the potential to miss out on several well-written assessments of British literature. But I chose to take a position. It wasn’t simply that too many essays and reviews glorifying the likes of Amis, Rushdie and McEwan had already been published. Instead, I rejected those books that ignored Kelman as there was something in the writings and arguments of Kelman himself – with his own particular thought-out political, aesthetic and literary positions – that inspired me (and many others) to see an explicit debate raging at the heart of British literature, and as a result, to feel compelled to decide which side of the fence to be on.

James Kelman by Simon Kövesi examines Kelman’s first six novels (his seventh, Kieron Smith, Boy is published in March 2008). After an introduction, providing the reader with critical and cultural context, the book contains separate chapters on the first four novels and concludes with a single chapter dealing with the more recent Translated Accounts and You Have to be Careful in the Land of the Free (YHTBC). The one major disappointment in Kövesi’s excellent book is that both Translated Accounts and YHTBC are not given more space. When it was published in 2001, Translated Accounts provided a difficult read for many, and a more detailed analysis of this text would have been welcome. This issue aside, the monograph as a whole is an essential addition to recent scholarship on Kelman, not least because it reacts against many of the negative assumptions unfairly directed his way.

Kövesi considers the narratives of Kelman’s novels and finds each to be distinct and complex in terms of approach and structure. He details the reasoning behind A Chancer and regards the ‘limited’ viewpoint of the narrative in relation to works by nouveau roman writers and theorists Robbe-Grillet and Sarraute. Throughout this study Kelman is seen as a writer of philosophical and psychological depths, whose work is worthy of comparisons with the likes of Beckett and Camus, and to whom the philosophical models of Heidegger and Sartre can easily be applied. Aspects of YHTBC are likened to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. And the point is that Kövesi regards Kelman within distinctly international contexts and traditions of writing. Therefore, mentioning Chaucer in relation to The Busconductor Hines, or Gogol in relation to How late it was, how late (How late) makes absolute sense. Here Kelman is freed from a limited Glaswegian or Scottish context. This is fitting, as the author, just like the heroes of his novels, avoids sentimental nationalism.

The publication of Kövesi’s study is a testament to the continuing relevance and importance of Kelman thirteen years after the backlash that followed How late winning the 1994 Booker Prize. It is clear from the first page that Kövesi is extremely aware that his subject inspires an extreme critical division amongst readers: in his empathetic appreciation of the literary output, he explicitly takes the view that, based on the scale of his artistic achievements, Kelman is a major novelist.

Kövesi’s route to understanding his subject comes firstly through an engagement with those who have dismissed him. Indeed, the fallout from the Booker episode provides one of the major contexts of Kövesi’s book, in which he examines why an undeniably committed writer seems to have attracted such an incredibly wide spectrum of critical opinion. Writing in 1994, critic Simon Jenkins describes How late as being ‘like an encounter in a Glasgow pub when you are sober and the man who buttonholes you is seriously drunk’ (p 156), while Max Davidson views the novel as ‘the ravings of a Glaswegian drunk’ (p 157). It is clear that Kövesi wishes the reader to see the redundancy of such obviously class-biased and borderline racist sentiments. Jenkins’ tirade against the novel now stands as a reminder of why Kelman became so vital for a generation of readers and writers who wished to react against the narrow-mindedness of the literary mainstream in London.

Kövesi skillfully maps out the range of arguments of those academics, critics and writers who have consistently attacked Kelman over the years, from perspectives such as that of Janet Todd, Professor of Literature at Aberdeen University, who feels she ‘ought to admire’ Kelman (p 1), but who nevertheless can’t quite bring herself to approve of him, to Alexander McCall Smith’s more generalised condemnation of what he perceives as a Scottish school of miserablism. McCall Smith states:

"I feel that those who portray an aggressive, vulgar, debased attitude towards life are conniving in that life, and I think publishers should reject them. I think Irvine Welsh has been a travesty for Scotland. (He) portrays a notion of Scottish miserablism. But most people in Scotland aren’t like that" (p2)

In this instance McCall Smith focuses on Welsh, but Kövesi is correct to see Kelman as implicated in the general statement. And while it is tempting to dismiss McCall Smith as a writer of ‘lowbrow bestsellers’ his attitude should be taken seriously as indicative of one particular strand of Kelman detractors: those who believe that an artist’s foremost purpose should be to ‘paint a rosy picture of society’ while simultaneously being somehow representative of that society. So inherently hierarchical and laden with cultural and class assumptions is McCall Smith’s position that it would take a few pages to do justice to the flaws it contains as an intellectual argument. However, it can be asked, with what evidence does he conclude that ‘most people in Scotland aren’t like that’? Surely just as Scotland has its pockets of great affluence – of which McCall Smith is a beneficiary – it is also awash with urban and rural deprivation and its accompanying share of misery. But the obvious question lies beyond this. Why should Kelman or any other writer have to portray a particular strata of society? And why should a writer be denounced for writing about a part of society, be it the majority or minority? Why is this important? Why does McCall Smith think it is acceptable to casually assert that ‘publishers should reject them’? Should, for example, Polish or Chinese immigrants in Britain not write about their own communities? For Kelman the answer is that ‘the establishment demands art from its own perspective’ and he doesn’t want to be ‘coerced into assimilation’. Kelman states: ‘I would be forced to write in the voice of an imagined member of the ruling class’ (p 12). So it is not so much that Kelman is unrepresentative, but unlike McCall Smith. he is not willing to perpetuate the elite perspective of the ruling establishment. Ironically though, it is precisely the charge of cultural elitism that another section of detractors apply to Kelman himself.

When critic Macdonald Daly is offended by a negative reference to the Red Road flats by character Patrick Doyle in A Disaffection, he responds in the vernacular: ‘This is straight bourgeois intellectual wank. How dae ah know? Cause ah fuckin lived in the Red Road fucking flats masel’ (p 168). Apart from the fact that Daly seems to misunderstand the basic premise of how fiction operates – namely that the characters’ views are not necessarily the views of their author – it is interesting that he places his class cards firmly on the table in order to emphasise his point - a posture that Kövesi regards as ‘prolier-than-thou Glaswegian critical machismo’ (p 167).

Kövesi also cites the example of writer Ian Rankin, who decides to reject writing in vernacular as a result of his father’s inability to read Kelman.

"My dad is from the same working-class linguistic community as Kelman writes about. If he couldn’t read it, but half of Hampstead was lapping it up, that to me was a huge failure and I decided then not to write phonetically" (p7)

Once again Kövesi makes it clear which side of the debate he thinks has the most validity. Dismissing Rankin as ‘cruising smugly in a tight-boxed pop genre,’ he sees the crime novelist’s narrative and political choices as blandly conformist in their search for parental and peer approval, while for him, it is Kelman who takes the braver artistic stance, eschewing easy acceptance in favour of his own genuine artistic vision. It is useful that Kövesi makes this point as there is a faction of critical opinion that seeks to undermine Kelman, and fellow writer Tom Leonard, by suggesting that their appreciation of ambitious art coupled with their rejection of some aspects of mainstream culture is evidence of an elitist position. In the above quotation, Rankin reacts in a way that suggests his dad is somehow representative of an entire class of people. If the term working-class can be loosely applied to a group – and that is a debateable point - it should be acknowledged that such a group is multifarious and diverse, with extreme differences in political, social, and cultural tastes. Kelman, in his appreciation of literary art, may not conform to a perceived stereotype, but he shouldn’t be misconstrued as elitist or outside the culture or ethos of that class simply for preferring to pursue ambitious art. He should instead be viewed as part of a diverse culture of working-class people. It is those who suggest otherwise that are adopting an elitist position in their suggestion that a class of people should accommodate and conform to a narrow stereotype. The fact that working-class people have cultural diversity is underlined in the Tom Leonard poem ‘Unrelated Incidents’ where Leonard writes:

sittin guzz-

lin a can

a newcastle

brown wotchn

scotsport hum-

min thi furst

movement a

nielsens thurd


While having his share of detractors, Kelman has also inspired a passionate readership that includes writers such as Duncan McLean, Irvine Welsh, Alan Warner and Janice Galloway, all of whom who have adapted aspects of his narrative techniques to create their own distinctive fictions. Kövesi is strong on the political and aesthetic reasoning behind Kelman’s highly-evolved narrative strategies, understanding the politics behind the use of Glaswegian-English as well as Kelman’s avowed ambition to get ‘rid of that standard third party narrative voice’ in an attempt to culturally decolonise his narrative.2 While this is essential ground to cover in any such study, it is the examination of the smaller details of Kelman’s work that really displays the author’s understanding of his subject. For example, Kövesi points out Kelman’s commitment to ‘the value of inconsistency as a linguistic policy in the rendition of authenticity’. He explains how Kelman defends his ‘right to orthographic and punctuational inconsistency in the face of publishers’ homogenising standards’ (p 153). Kelman does not seek standardisation of the language or punctuation of his fiction due to a commitment to the ‘spoken voice’ and partly as a refusal to allow linguistic orthodoxy to be imposed on the constantly changing and evolving ‘living language’ with which he works. In this sense at least, Kelman is working through a realist tradition, but to view Kelman as a realist writer in search of linguistic or thematic authenticity is to misunderstand and diminish his work. For Kövesi, the author does not intend to present an ‘actual Glasgow’ in his fiction, just as the language spoken by his characters is not an attempt at the faithful reproduction of how people actually speak (p 56). Kelman’s project is broad and he is aware at all times he is creating artifice. The critics who complain that the language in novels such as How late or YHTBC isn’t authentically rendered are misreading Kelman through a limited conceptualisation of a realist, working-class fictional tradition that prioritises realistic representation above all else. In Kelman’s fiction, as in Beckett’s writing, elements such as sound, musicality and voice can be seen on occasions to be more significant than subject matter. This, of course, is not to suggest that what takes place in the novels is designed to be of secondary importance.

Regardless of authorial intentions, without doubt the largely working-class subject matter in Kelman’s narratives has encouraged a degree of critical disregard for aspects of his work such as symbolism and literary allusion. Kövesi is willing to explore intertextuality in relation to Kelman, and in discussing How late, regards Sammy’s decision to lie to his son Peter three times as ‘designed to echo and invert the Biblical Peter’s triple betrayal of Christ’ (p 154). Equally, the use of the word ‘sodjers’ in the novel, for Kövesi, ‘forges a bridge’ to Jamie Stuart’s Glaswegian translation of the New Testament (p 155). In A Disaffection, Kövesi examines the multifarious cultural references, from Goya to Camus, and from Tolstoy to Wordsworth, and feels that a structuring principle is in operation that creates a kind of ‘community of minds’ through which main character Patrick Doyle can deal with the existential alienation and loneliness he experiences. Therefore, unlike the traditional use of literary allusion where the device is employed to create an additional aspect of textual significance for an implied readership, based largely on theoretical counterpointing, it is seen in A Disaffection that the references are more biographical and allude to Doyle’s own mindset. Kövesi states:

"Thus Wittgenstein is mentioned not for his theories on language … but because of the biographical fact that three of his brothers committed suicide … Doyle toys with these thinkers as historical people, even as celebrities. Kelman indicates the frivolity of Doyle’s mode of engagement with Hegel by the inclusion, on the same page as the discussion of his life, the glitter of ‘Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers, Bing Crosby and Doris Day'" (p110)

Numerous examples of wordplay in the novels are cited. The ‘persian bets’ that poor Americans gamble on in the absence of flight insurance in YHTBC provide a multilayered wordplay, not least in the allusion to ‘perishing,’ while in addition the reader is alerted to Kelman’s humour and his own narrative risk-taking in employing fantasy to create an all too believable reality. In How late, Sammy loses his sight at Hardie Street police station. As there is no actual Hardie Street police station in Glasgow, but there does exist a Baird Street station, it is possible that this is the author’s attempt to connect in the mind of the attuned reader the names of Hardie and Baird, political radicals from the early nineteenth century and the subjects of an earlier Kelman play (thus we have a kind of self-reflexive allusion at work). Again in How late, the name of Ally, the character who wants to help Sammy fight his claim against the police, is seen by Kövesi as punning on a number of levels, most obviously on the word ally. This is the type of attention to detail that Kelman’s writing deserves and which has been so lacking in the critiques of those who have sought to dismiss him as a miserablist or even as a realist.

In a 1987 interview with The Edinburgh Review, Tom Leonard talks about what he sees as an industry, full of ‘wonderful people going up the academic ladder producing books about real writers’.3 Kelman himself regards some critical work as being a ‘form of colonization … a method of extending dominance over the subject’ (p 161). And Kövesi, empathetic to Kelman, is aware of the problems associated with his own critical study. He writes:

"Criticism therefore has a colonising structure of relation to the texts or subjects it discusses: it is territorially aggressive, asserting its language and value systems as ways of understanding the other; and it is linguistically discriminatory, because it maintains itself in a language which keeps the same other out … the critic is caught in a double bind: a monograph like the one you are reading is a product of a system of professionalized academic life in cahoots with an academic press, produced through research leave partly funded by a government body … This very sentence disenfranchises Kelman’s subject matter, because it attempts to explain and so control his ideas" (p160)

Acknowledging that the only alternative to criticism is critical silence, Kövesi has produced a monograph that engages with Kelman’s novels on their own terms, and has succeeded in producing a book that neither misrepresents nor misappropriates his subject. James Kelman by Simon Kövesi is a study that does what good literary criticism should do and refers the reader back to the original works with new insights and opinions. Kelman can be allied to other major writers who received mixed contemporaneous reviews before their work found the critical attention it deserved. The many critics who in the 1920s and 1930s ridiculed and dismissed James Joyce’s Ulysses are now a quaint footnote in literary history, generally considered with ironic regard, and their opinions form part of an extended literary joke – how wrong can you be? I believe that in time, as the critical ground continues to shift and more studies appear, future generations will come to view those who chose to dismiss the writings of James Kelman in the 1980s and 1990s in a similarly ironic light.

Endnotes: McNeil, Kirsty, 'Interview with James Kelman’, Chapman, 57 (1989). (p4) / Leonard, Tom, ‘Unrelated Incidents’, Intimate Voices 1965 – 1983, Newcastle: Galloping Dog Press, 1984. (p89) / Boddy, Kasia, ‘Interviews with Tom Leonard’. Edinburgh Review, 77 (1987). (p61)

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