In the first of his monthly columns on Scottish Literature, Alistair Braidwood takes a closer look at ‘Morvern Callar’ by Alan Warner, the 1995 novel that was later made into a film by Lynne Ramsay. Next month Alistair will examine Andrew O’Hagan’s ‘Be Near Me’. Buy it here.

‘Morvern Callar’ by Alan Warner

There is an argument that says we can split modern Scottish writing into two time periods; before Trainspotting and after Trainspotting. Obviously this is too simplistic, but it is worth consideration.

Before Irvine Welsh’s 1993 novel was published the well known modern Scottish novelists were Alasdair Gray, James Kelman, William McIllvaney and Iain (M) Banks. All of them had their readership, but I would suggest that only Banks was selling in any great numbers, and he was exceptional in that he was splitting his fan base into sci-fi and mainstream factions.

I’ll look at Trainspotting in a future column, but it is impossible to overstate what the success of that novel allowed. Many critics point to its almost unique popularity through word of mouth recommendation, but the publication of Trainspotting also coincided with the growth in the mass marketing of books and the spread of the large chain book store. Marry that with the content of the novel and you can begin to see why Trainspotting sold to many people who didn’t normally buy non-genre fiction and in doing so Irvine Welsh and this new readership created the market for those that were to follow.

Relative unknowns such as Sarah Champion, Toni Davidson, Gordon Legge, and Duncan McLean were packaged as part of ‘The Chemical Generation’ of novelists. Suddenly writers who thought that they would never get published were being offered deals, and readers who thought that no-one wrote about their life found their representative fiction.

You could read about, music, clubs, drugs, footie etc in places other than in magazines or fanzines. Luckily many of the writers were worthy of publication, but for me the most interesting of them all, including Welsh himself, was Alan Warner. (I wouldn’t read on if you have not yet read the book and mean to. There are huge spoilers to be found.)

I should make it clear that I think Alan Warner is a writer who would have been a success whatever the cultural climate, but, in terms of getting Morvern Callar published, it was a novel that fitted the times. Just as Iain Banks, Irvine Welsh, or, outside of Scotland, Roddy Doyle and Nick Hornby were doing, Warner’s debut is littered with musical and cultural reference. But he does seem to have been determined to take it to a different, more rarefied, level.

Take a look at the dedication at the front of the book. Before we even get into the novel Warner sets out his musical cool credentials by referencing Can’s Holger Czukay and the free jazz sax player Peter Brotzman. The mix tapes that are referred to throughout the novel seem less like the music of Morvern, more like Warner showing off his record collection. Salif Keita, This Mortal Coil, The Ink Spots, Miles Davis… OK, Alan…we get it, you have impeccable taste in music. Just as the dead boyfriend does for Morvern, it feels as if Warner is recommending music to the reader rather than concentrating on the story, and many of the interviews that he gave to promote the novel focused on his musical choices rather than the writing.

It is interesting to consider that the soundtrack to Lynne Ramsay’s 2002 film version kept the Can, but lost the more esoteric jazz and world music and replaced it with Boards of Canada, Stereolab, Aphex Twin and The Velvet Underground. Ramsay’s mix tape, if you like, seems much more appropriate. The following scene uses Lee Hazelwood’s Some Velvet Morning and is a great example of how Ramsay takes Warner’s theme of the importance of music to Morvern from the novel and uses it to enhance her film:

Clip from the film ‘Morvern Callar’, directed by Lynne Ramsay.

For me the key question about this novel is this; how much of Morvern Callar is realistic female voice, and how much is male fantasy figure? Without a doubt the most ambitious aspect of the novel, and the one that received the most plaudits and produced the fiercest criticism, is the voice of Morvern herself.  This is a quote from an article in The Independent Review, where in a reader nominates Morvern as his all-time favourite literary character:

In the mid-Nineties, while the laddish media were in a lather over Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, Scotland’s Alan Warner gave us an unforgettable heroine for our times, the title character in Morvern Callar. I have never fallen so helplessly in love with a fictional character as I did with this sublime creation.

Many readers, and critics broadly agreed with this viewpoint, and Morvern Callar was hailed for its realism in portraying a young woman’s life. But the praise was hardly universal, and here the critic Brian Morton gives another point of view:

For all the patient detail of dress, make-up, sexual response (but not menstruation) that Warner has devoted to her, and for all the enthusiastic response of some female critics in Scotland, Morvern remains an unhappy, even misogynistic creation.

I deliberately quote these opinions here as they give a good representation of my own varied responses to the novel. On first reading I found myself agreeing with your man in The Independent, thinking that Warner had managed to portray a young woman’s voice and life with real insight. I saw his depiction of Morvern as an attempt to describe a very local version of ‘feminine’ traits.

But on second and third reading I began to see that Brian Morton had an argument. There are moments in Morvern Callar which have been described variously as erotic or exploitative, depending on your point of view. In the following scene Warner describes Morvern and her best-friend Lanna showering together:

Everything came off and as per usual we got in together to save time. We tried not to get hair wet and soaped each other, laughing when she lathered the felt tip on my shoulder then the glittering knee. (Morvern Callar p 24)

Obviously viewed in isolation such descriptions will seem gratuitous, but throughout Morvern Callar there are similar scenes that appear to be more male wish fulfilment rather than reality. (I have asked female friends of mine and they assure me that they don’t tend to shower as Warner portrays. But, it is the throw away phrase ‘as per usual’ that really damns Warner.)

What is supposed to portray a young woman’s sexuality becomes problematic as this sexuality is not about her, but about the view of the male author. Warner has been accused moulding Morvern to his fantastical ideal, and he observes with the eye of the voyeur.

Perhaps I’m wrong to focus on Morvern’s gender. It is possible that the real achievement of Morvern Callar is that Warner has created an asexual hero, one whose gender is really not the issue. Warner is tapping into an idea that took hold in the 90’s that women will drink as much, and be as sexually active, as any man. Instead of praising or criticising Alan Warner for attempting to write a realistic female voice, we should look beyond ‘he said/she said’, and concentrate on what is being said.

The generation that Warner writes about is one where the old gender roles are blurred. Life is about escape, escape from the modern world. There will still be consequences, and Warner doesn’t shy away from presenting these as the novel draws to a close, but Morvern Callar is about youth, and the hedonism that accompanies it. The end of the novel signals the end of youth, the end of the dream for both Warner and Morvern.

So what do you think? Is Morvern male fantasy or a realistic female voice which had previously been ignored? Does that matter in terms of her story, one which is certainly gripping?

Despite all the criticisms I have of the novel, it is still one of the best fictional accounts of a time and a place to come out of Scotland in the last 30 years. Perhaps I’m being too hard on Alan Warner. But, with reflection, and considering what a talented writer he obviously is, I don’t think I am.

Alistair

Further thoughts can be found at scotswhayhae

Next month’s novel will be Andrew O’Hagan’s Be Near Me. Buy it here.

Comments

  1. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it Old Crow. I hope the beauty of this column is that as it is monthly, even if you’ve not read the novel by the time it appears, you can do so over the month and post your thoughts. So once you do read it I’d be really interested to know what you think.

  2. this book was a huge influence on me in my early 20’s/ the mid-90’s and, along with Trainspotting, shaped a lot of the experiences i sought out as i headed towards 30. but the book i read again and again is the sequel ‘These Demented Lands’.

  3. ‘These Demented Lands’ is one of the most interesting books of recent times, and I’m still not sure if it’s brilliant or just the wrong side of a brave attempt. It’s certainly different from not only Warner’s other fiction, but everyone elses. It’s seems to me an attempt to write magical realism, or a sort of stream of consciousness. I remember thinking it reminded me of David Lynch when I first read it. You really have to work hard to determine what’s going on, and as sequels go it is certainly the most daring that I can think of.

    It might be an idea to look at it in future columns, if there is the will to see ‘What Morvern did next’. I don’t want to give away too much of the novel here Dan, in fear of spoiling it for others (although if there was ever a novel where it would be impossible to give away ‘plot’, its ‘These Demented Lands’) but if you want to talk about it further then contact me directly.

  4. I’ve read Morvern a few times over the years and I can see both sides of the argument. I think she fits within the early 90’s landscape as a response to the changing nature of youth culture/experience, it’s interpretation in a semi-remote environment and the confusion of the female identity at the time. I’m not sure if the “shower scene” and other such parts early in the book are male fantasy, an extension of the “laddette” or (my favoured position) the fact that Morvern and Lanna were not that much older than when they would probably have bathed together to save hot water given the isolated location. So to answer your question, no, I don’t think she’s a male fantasy figure.
    I do think the film changes the music for the better, it seems to fit with the flow and the time of the story. The world music and the jazz are maybe a bit beyond her boyfriend (he’s not meant to be that much older is he?) and if they’re meant to be sending her a message I doubt she’d be getting it.
    It would be good to discuss These Demented Lands at some stage in the future, just as the end of Morvern sees the end of youth I think Demented looks at the big question of the mid 90’s – what are we supposed to do next? when the answer for many in the 80’s was simply sign on and tune out.

  5. Hi eggy. This is my theory regrading Morvern’s age. If you add up the information that Warner gives us in the book (which, rather sadly, I have) you find that she is 21. She doesn’t feel 21, I would agree with you that she seems younger in the way she acts and thinks. The language that he gives her is particularlty juvenile if you think about it. Here’s a couple of examples:

    ‘I did a number one then a number two, remembering always to wipe backwards’(p2),
    ‘The water was too burny so I put in cold’ (p3)
    ‘I pressed the diddlypush to eject the floppy disc after Z&Y-ing the keyboard then I pulled out the plug’(p5)

    Is it possible that Warner wanted to make Morvern younger but was worried about the reaction? By the time he writes his 3rd novel, ‘The Sopranos’, he is obviously writing about girls who are still at school and the language fits them better (although there are still problematic scenes). It’s just a thought.

    Also, as you mention Him (the boyfriend) what so you make of the fact that He is always refered to with a god-like capital H? I’ve still not quite worked that one out, but have my thoughts. What do you think?

    Cheers for taking the time to post eggy, and Andy says hello.

  6. I’m a wee bitty late to the party, but I thought I’d add my tuppence worth regarding the god-like nature of the deid boyfriend. There might be some spoilers below for those who haven’t read the book.

    The main point, for me, is that he sacrifices himself for Morvern; all the money she needs to finance her travelling comes from him, as a result of his death. It is this journey that causes Morvern to go through a change. By the end, for instance, she no longer shags everything in sight and actually looks to avoid the attentions of men. With him being dead from the outset, there is a feeling of action from afar. He feels like a god-like influential figure on Morvern (she is the only character who refers to him as “Him”).

    The boyfriend figure is also portrayed to be “above” the other characters of the Port; I wouldn’t expect anyone else there to have written a publishable book or have interest in jazz. His trainset, with an exact replica of the town, reinforces this image of him being above and separate from everyone else.

    I’m enjoying this series, Alistair. Keep up the good work!

  7. Hi Paul, I think you’re probably right about the character of the dead boyfriend. His death, and his novel, enable the story to progress. I wonder what this says about Warner and the way he views the role of the writer, and himself? The boyfriend has the same musical tastes as Warner and they are roughly the same age when the novel was written.

    This allows two things. Warner can get over the usual problem of first novels being autobiographical by killing ‘His’ character, possibly the narrator, at the very beginning, and he can make comment on (post) modern fiction and the author. Although I critiscise aspects of ‘Morvern Callar’, it is a terrific book.

    Thanks for taking the time to post Paul, keep in touch.

  8. I hadn’t made the connection between the boyfriend and Warner himself, although now you mention it it is bleedin’ obvious 🙂

    By the way, does your definition of “Scottish Literature” extend to Michel Faber?

  9. I only know him as a journalist. His fiction has passed me by I’m afraid to say, but I’ll give it a look. Which novel would you recommend?

    My instinct when it comes to defining what is ‘Scottish Literature’ is to throw the net wide and be as inclusive as possible. I find discussions about ‘what is and what isn’t’ dull, frankly. If I can justify it to myself then that’s good enough for me. I’ve said it before, but we don’t have the conversations about validity when we talk about Scottish music, as many of the articles on Dear Scotland prove. We enjoy, or otherwise, the music with little worry if it ‘fits’.

  10. Under The Skin is the only book of his that I’ve read, so I’ll need to recommend that one. It’s set in the Highlands but I wouldn’t want to say anything else about the plot for fear of spoiling it.

  11. Cheers Paul, I’m off to Amazon to get myself a copy. Modern fiction set in the Highlands is a rare thing so I look forward to checking it out.

  12. Hi Ola,
    I always took that section as Morvern just running her fingers over the keys but I have since found out that on some PC the Z and Y keys do the opposite of what they should, often on European models apparently (if that makes sense?). I have no idea if that is what Warner is alluding to, maybe the boyfriend is from overseas? His love of German electro music may also suggest this? I’m dying to ask him now 🙂