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.
Further thoughts can be found at scotswhayhae
Next month’s novel will be Andrew O’Hagan’s Be Near Me. Buy it here.