The history of Polygon Books is one of the most interesting in Scottish publishing. From its beginnings as an arm of Edinburgh University Press it quickly became known as a home for experimental and challenging writing, something it still does better than most to this day. Frank Kuppner’s 1989 novel, ‘A Very Quiet Street’ is a prime example of this. It was part of Polygon’s Sigma series of books, which set out to “ ..challenge the barriers between disciplines. It will include weird fictions, half-truths, plagiarisms, anarchisms…”. A ‘Very Quiet Street’ contains some, or perhaps all, of those; it depends on how you choose to read it.
It is described on the cover as ‘a novel, of sorts’, and this immediately puts you on the back foot. Kuppner himself is the narrator and the book begins as an exploration into an apparent miscarriage of justice in the case of Oscar Slater, an infamous trial and conviction which occurred in Glasgow in the early part of the 20th century. The case was one which caught the attention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was to write about it himself, and his thoughts on the matter are to be found throughout Kuppner’s investigation. There are a couple of reasons not to worry if you are not aware of the case. Firstly, Kuppner sets out the events as reported before Chapter One, and secondly, it doesn’t really matter because, as the book unfolds, it becomes about so much more.
So far, so unlike any novel you have encountered. If you have been reading the books which feature on these pages (and I hope at least some of you have), then this is a little similar to Andrew Crumey’s ‘Pfitz’ in that it is a “who done it?”, (and who didn’t do it?), which shares an obsession with architecture, the construction of cities, and of stories. That last point is key, as Kuppner looks at how stories are told and unfold, and how the ‘truth’ is arrived at from differing points of view (think Kurosawa’s ‘Rashomon’, or Tarantino’s ‘Jackie Brown’, but set in Glasgow, and you have a small idea of what occurs).
The style of how the book is constructed is interesting on many levels with short chapters, many unreliable witnesses (including our narrator), reportage, (auto)biography, travelogue and finally philosophical and moral meditation. You may think I have over used brackets in this column, but that is nothing to how Kuppner uses them (the only punctuation to rival their use is the full stop and the question mark), and it takes a great deal of concentration to follow what is separated from the main text, and why.
You don’t have to be from Glasgow to enjoy the book, but it undoubtedly helps as Kuppner takes the reader through the streets of the city, concentrating on the Charing Cross area where the original crime took place. Kuppner became interested in the story as he was born and raised in the close where it occurred (or was he?) and the book is also an autobiography of his life. He tells his own tale through his relationship to the Oscar Slater case, his encounters with strangers, his life in libraries, and his walks through the city. You could say that the book moves from being about Slater, to Kuppner, to everyone, but that would be far too simplistic, and Kuppner weaves together these three strands with many more.
This month’s musical interlude is as appropriate as I could come up with, although technically it’s a few streets further west than Kuppner ventures, but I won’t apologise for a moment as this is one of the best songs about Glasgow, and about growing older, ever written. This is Lenzie Moss and ‘Kelvin British Summertime’:
‘A Very Quiet Street’ is also a fascinating history of Glasgow’s architecture as well as an examination of Scotland’s famed system of justice (with its third verdict of ‘Not Proven’). As it draws to a close it becomes more of a treatise on good and evil, or rather guilt and innocence. This is a novel of many parts, and multi-facets. To say it is ‘a novel, of sorts’ is to underplay its ambition and impact. When you consider that Alasdair Gray’s ‘Lanark’ was perhaps the most influential Scottish novel of the day, you suspect that was a major inspiration on Kuppner. Indeed, in the last paragraph of the book he mentions a ‘Burgess. A.’ (Anthony Burgess called Alasdair Gray “the best Scottish novelist since Walter Scott”) and a ‘Gray. A.’, which confirms such suspicions. Perhaps ‘A Very Quiet Street’ is Kuppner’s answer to Gray’s call to arms in ‘Lanark’ that Glasgow, ‘a magnificent city that no-body notices’, needed greater artistic representation to become better noticed both at home and abroad. If so, he does that with a style and invention that is all his own.
All of these columns can now be found in one place over at Indelible Ink.
Next Month’s Novel:
There has been a distinct absence of sci-fi on these pages, and that’s something I will put right next month with Matthew Fitt’s ‘But n Ben A-Go-Go’. Set in the year 2090, in a Scotland flooded due to climate change, the country is literally divided between high-land and lowland.
If the thought of anything sci-fi leaves you cold, then I would ask you to put that aside and give this novel a chance as the real triumph is in Fitt’s use of language, a Scots/English hybrid that allows the text a richness, and strangeness, to matche the subject matter perfectly