There are few more divisive figures in Scottish writing than James Kelman. He is the Marmite of modern novelists. You either regard him as a visionary and a culturally relevant writer whose use of working class Scots dialect make him a representative for those who rarely appear in novels except when fulfilling a stereotype for comic or dramatic effect, or you think he’s a foul mouthed misanthrope; a man out of time who only appears these days to slag off J.K Rowling.
His most recent novel ‘Kieron Smith, boy’ is his best since the 1994 Booker Prize winning ‘How Late it Was, How Late’, and maybe his best ever. It sees Kelman returning to Glasgow and also his childhood and follows the early life of Kieron Smith, a young Glaswegian protestant boy who is trying to come to terms with his surroundings. Rarely has a writer managed to capture the language and view of a child with such believability. From the first page you pick up the rhythm and childish rhyme of his voice and viewing the story through the eyes of Kieron brings fresh perspective to the reader.
I deliberately mention the religion of Kieron because part of the story is his inability to come to terms with the sectarian madness that is part of his everyday life. He is teased because ‘Kieron is a pape’s name’, thinks that a girl he likes won’t like him back because she goes to chapel, and he believes that people that do that don’t mix well with his family, and, tellingly, he is excited by the sights and sounds of an Orange Walk, where all he sees is adults merry and singing songs, being taken along with the music. Such a day has got to be a good day, right?
There is a scene where Kieron is watching his father as he watches the boxing. He is trying to work out how his father picks which boxer to support. Kieron is aware that there is a system at work, and is determined to decipher it. What is made clear to the reader is the twisted priorities of Kieron’s father’s prejudices. If it is a white boxer against a black boxer, then he shouts for the white man. But if that white man has blessed himself as he enters the ring then he doesn’t know what to do. He tries to trick himself into missing such a show of faith, and if that man loses, he calls him all sorts of bigoted nonsense. Seen through Kieron’s eyes this becomes even more ridiculous behaviour than it would appear anyway.
Kelman is not only famous for his use of dialect but also his literary flourishes. In ‘Kieron Smith, boy’ the most notable example of this is the use of asterisks in the swearing in the book, at least at the beginning. Kieron has a sense of right and wrong attached to some words, and the text is censored to indicate this. Kelman has suffered from people claiming that there is no need for the ‘bad language’ in his work, as if that somehow lessens it. I read Kieron’s self censorship of his language, both spoken and heard, as a literary two-finger salute to such critics, saying that if you are put off a story by the use of bad language then you need to grow up.
There is much that confuses young Kieron, but perhaps the most telling is the way that language is taught to him at home and at school. His mother wants him to speak properly, and at school he is made to speak something called ‘The Queen’s English’, yet out of school he hears a different language spoken. At home this division is even more pronounced and confusing. His father speaks in broad Glaswegian, something Kieron has been told he is forbidden to do. His grandfather is also told off by Kieron’s mother and his own daughter for speaking ‘incorrectly’. Kelman once said that through such institutionalised censorship working class Scots are made aware not only what society thinks of them, but of their parents. It’s a powerful argument that is again enhanced when seen from the point of view of a child.
This is another difficult book to find an accompanying clip for, so please excuse the following tenuous connection. From a great Glaswegian wordsmith to one born in Edinburgh but best known for fronting a great Glasgow band, with one of the top tracks of 2010 this is Edwyn Collins with ‘Losing Sleep’:
If you are not aware of Kelman’s work then ‘Kieron Smith, boy’, or ‘The Busconductor Hines’, are the best places to start. He is a writer who it is better to be introduced to gently, and diving in with the later novel ‘Translated Accounts’ for instance would be a mistake. Kelman asks the reader to think about language, class, education, art, morality, responsibility and so much more. He is not always an easy read (although he’s not always the difficult one that many think) but many of the most satisfying things in life don’t come easy.
I mentioned at the start of this column that Kelman is a writer who provokes strong reactions and it is worth looking at this in a little detail. When ‘How Late it Was, How Late’ won the Booker in 1995 it split the judges as never before. The following is a review by Simon Jenkins which appeared in The Times at the time. He proclaimed that giving the award to Kelman was ‘literary vandalism’ and then proceeded to write the following:
‘I once found myself alone in a no-smoking compartment of a corridor train to Glasgow. An ambassador for that city lurched into the compartment and crashed down opposite me. He took out a bottle of cider, rolled himself a cigarette, lent across to me and belched, “Ye git a light, Jimmy?” For almost an hour I humoured him, chided him, remonstrated with him, fearful for the safety of the Indian conductor who I knew was coming down the train (and who wisely passed us by). My reeking companion demanded attention like a two-year-old. He told me his so-called life story, requested money with menaces, swore at me and eventually relieved himself into the seat. Reading Mr Kelman’s book was a similar experience.’
For me, any book that can promote such an astonishing and patronising reaction is doing something right.
James Kelman is the most important writer at work in Scotland today, but he does have a problem which he openly admits. He is critically lauded and appreciated, but hardly anyone is buying his books. Last year saw him have what should have been one of his greatest years. ‘Kieron Smith, boy’ was released in paperback and won two big literary prizes, and folk like me proclaimed it was his best novel for some time. It has reportedly sold poorly and I worry that his reputation for being difficult now goes before him. He will remain critically admired but awards and plaudits don’t put food on the table. When he had a well publicised pop at ‘genre’ fiction at last year’s Edinburgh Book Festival it must partly have come from frustration at his own situation. Writers such as Kelman are rare and Scotland would be a culturally poorer country without them. It’s worth considering next time you think about buying a book.
The books that we deal with in ‘Indelible Ink’ can be bought from the Dear Scotland shop:
Next month’s novel: My hope for ‘Indelible Ink’ is that it introduces new writers to new readers, and next month’s author is one that you should get to know. Suhayl Saadi is simply a great writer (have a look at ‘The Malt Kiln’ in ‘The Year of Open Doors’ short story collection as further proof) and ‘Psychoraag’ is one of the best novels of the last 10 years. Fans of other pop culture novels such as Gordon Legge’s ‘The Shoe’ and Alan Bissett’s ‘Boyracers’ will love it.
Next 5 books:
1. Suhayl Saadi Psychoraag (Jan)
2. Ron Butlin The Sound of My Voice (Feb)
3. Duncan Mclean Bunker Man (Mar)
4. Kevin MacNeil The Stornoway Way (Apr)
5. Ali Smith The Accidental (May)
*The winner of last month’s competition, winning a copy of Ron Butlin’s The Sound of My Voice, was Gregg in Melbourne. Next month we will have more stuff to give away in the shape of some signed copies of Kevin MacNeil’s terrific debut, and April’s featured novel, The Stornoway Way courtesy of Birlinn Books. But that’s for later.
Photo Credit: The List