The Times, 3 April, 2010
Like some unfortunate in one of his stories, James Kelman can’t help walking into trouble. “Literary Scotland torn apart over Kelman spat”, a recent headline ran after the Glaswegian author went into battle against “f****** detective fiction” and that “upper middle class young magician”.
Kelman unflinchingly aligns himself in one tradition — “Joyce, Beckett, Camus, Tolstoy” — while he places Ian Rankin, Alexander McCall Smith and J. K. Rowling in another. “There’s room for everybody as long as you don’t run them all together, simply because they all use language,” he has said. “I mean, we all sing in the bath, but we’re not Maria Callas . . .”
If, for kicks, you set about your fellow writers with such gusto, you had better be good at your day job. If it is your life, Kelman’s latest collection of short stories, makes plain that he is very good indeed.
For readers accustomed to thinking of him as a dour writer, the happy surprises here are the love stories, recounted by Kelman’s male narrators as they try to make sense of the women in their lives. In talking about my wife, a man returns to his tenement flat from the night shift, after a row with his foreman that may well have cost him his job. He’s back early and he knows his wife, Cath, will be surprised, “up and about and giving me looks”, just another one of the problems sent to try him.
In Kelman’s world familiarity does not breed contempt. Cath’s unfathomable understanding and patience slowly overtake him. He notices her tapering fingers, her smile, her body — “she didnay have what they call a girlish figure”. They end together by the window gazing out on life and at each other. “She looked at me steadily, unsmiling. I kissed her on the forehead, cupped her chin in my hand, angling my head to kiss her on the lips. She was always so cool, so calm, but I could never have told her that, never.”
Kelman, 63, was born in Govan, the heart of Glasgow’s shipbuilding industry, but brought up in Drumchapel, a vast, sterile postwar estate on the northwestern edge of the city. He left school at 15 but by 21 knew that he wanted to be a writer. His socialism has never wavered.
His difficulty at first was finding a voice. Whenever he encountered someone in English literature who shared his working-class roots, they were often caricatures of Glaswegians, perceived from the outside. Inspired by great European writers — Kafka is an obvious point of comparison — he began to make his own world the mainspring of his writing: snooker halls and bars, DSS offices and hospital queues, writing his characters’ lives from the inside and using their language.
He had already produced two books of short stories before his first novel, The Busconductor Hines, was published to critical acclaim in 1984. A decade later he won the Booker Prize for How Late it Was, How Late, a savage, darkly comic encounter between Sammy, a bruised and blinded former convict, and the stifling welfare system that is meant to help him to piece his life back together. There are said to be 4,000 examples of the F-word in the text. Simon Jenkins, writing in this paper, called Kelman an “illiterate savage” and compared reading his work to being stuck in a train carriage with a drunk Glaswegian.
The controversy hurt sales, and there have been times in Kelman’s career when he has needed the financial prop provided by Marie, his wife, a social worker. But his approach has never wavered, and he has revisited, time and again, different points in the same bleak landscape.
One of these stories, Man to Man, is set in a pub: a drinker inwardly froths with righteous anger as he watches another man verbally abuse his wife. In another we join four impoverished friends as they gather round a fire on a piece of waste ground to banter away their lives. In Vacuum, an old man ruminates on his empty relationship with his wife, as she fills her day by endlessly hoovering the flat.
For Kelman’s critics this may all seem too familiar. The Glaswegian poet Edwin Morgan suffers from cancer and lives in a nursing home in the city, a Kelmanian scenario if ever there was one (three of these stories are told from hospital beds). Yet Morgan last year chided the author for his “overly bleak” outlook, saying, “if you have a proletarian novel it should take account of all the extraordinary things that people do, including various kinds of enjoyment”.
Kelman is rescued by his black humour. Pieces of shit do have the power to speak is a tale told by an impoverished traveller, who, during a storm, dines lavishly on prawns, mussels and fruits de mer in a ship’s restaurant. Meanwhile, “strong men crumbled, their bellies succumbing to the heaving seas. Why oh why did we have the last six pints of stout, they screamed to an uncaring hurricane! . . . Always spew portside. Such I had learned from a venerable sage of the sea.”
If that passage comes with some of the verbal comedy of Flann O’Brien, so does another. In On Becoming a Reader, a young guy, in a single sentence, rounds on the “greatbritishsocialsystem ... the last straw being the charred remains of a book I had purchased, found in the fireplace, having been judged licentious by my mother and set in flames”.
There’s even slapstick in Tricky times ahead pal when we view the world through the eyes of a man who has just had his leg amputated. A social security woman orders him a pair of trousers from the Oxfam shop, but when they arrive she inadvertently snips off the wrong leg. The poor chap suffers agonies pulling the things on — and then he has to wear his trousers with the fly at the rear.
What larks! It is certainly never difficult to distinguish between this Scotsman and a ray of sunshine. But If it is your life is a fine collection and an excellent window on Kelman’s brooding world.
If it is your life by James Kelman (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99; Buy this book; 279pp)
This was the lead book review in Saturday's edition of the Times, which was a first for me. Read it here.