by Ian Bell

Mad About the Boy

October 19, 2009 | by Ian Bell

WHEN ALAIN ROBBE-GRILLET bid a definitive adieu to his devotees recently, the London obituarists achieved a tentative consensus. Formal French brilliance, they conceded; and high seriousness on every page. Foremost among the nouveaux romanciers, they said, this was a man who really thought about the novel, and about what we mean by the novel. Uncompromising: that was the word, a badge of honour.

John Calder received credit, and quite right too, for bringing this talent to the English-speaking world’s attention. The trouble was that representatives of the province couldn’t but add a muffled footnote. Roughly: fascinating bloke, that Robbe-Grillet, but not quite the name to spring to mind if you want something droll for the beach. Hard going, much of the time, and possibly – though don’t say we said so – dull.

It was no longer adequate to describe the old writer’s career according to the usual avant-garde pattern. Sometimes the public will indeed ‘catch up’. Sometimes readers do grow accustomed to new ways of telling and new (or at least unexpected) uses of language. But Les Gommes, Robbe-Grillet’s first novel, was issued by Les Editions de Minuit in 1953. Le Voyeur (1955) appeared in an English translation in New York in 1958, and was published here by Calder in 1959.

In other words, the whole wide book-group world appears to be taking its sweet time over this implacable third-wave Modernism. Robbe-Grillet is indeed “a bit hard-going”, even for French readers liable to mistake art for a purgative. Some others, after close observation, have attempted a scientific explanation: life is, in fact, too short.

Perhaps. It raises, though, one of those trite but itchy questions of literature: what do we want from writers? Or rather, what are the obligations under which a writer should labour? As shorthand, you could call these the Finnegans Wake questions. For whom did Joyce imagine he was composing that large, long, challenging and – let’s be precise – only intermittently rewarding piece?

Others strive to be agreeable. They take that as, it were, written. They attempt to achieve a voice to which readers can respond without intellectual arm-wrestling. They want a simplicity that is not – and this is important – simplistic. They flinch at the idea that a novel is a kind of test. They do not believe, though I generalise, that mechanical structures should be obtrusive or an impediment. These are facts understood by most readers. They also involve choices that anyone undertaking a course in creative writing (cf “life, shortness of”) must face.

None of that explains the mystery of fiction. It has nothing much to do, either, with high art, so called, or low. Kurt Vonnegut had the authorial voice of an old, amiable friend. He welcomed you into his books, tugged at your sleeve, offered (though we could talk about ‘deceptive simplicity’) no impediments. He appeared to make writing and reading easy. Isaac Bashevis Singer and Primo Levi, two very different writers, mean while composed tales whose authority seemed to derive from their plainness. ‘No tricks’.

This disjunction has been around in fiction for a long time, perhaps from the beginning. No one ever said that Bleak House and Hard Times were straightforward, but Dickens would have been baffled, actually bewildered, by Joyce. Changing times and tastes have very little to do with it.

One of the oddest literary friendships in the late nineteenth century – but good and true – was that between Henry James and Robert Louis Stevenson. There was a mutual admiration for craftsmanship, a reciprocated understanding of another man’s gifts. The fact remains that the American and the Scot thought of the novel in opposing, even antagonistic, ways. Their ideas of ‘the reader’ differed profoundly. A test: try imagining Treasure Island rewritten in the prose of James.

Try, for that matter, thinking of Heller crossed with W.G. Sebald; of Kafka confused with any available Amis; of Bellow’s Augie in the universe of Beckett’s trilogy. Quick response: great writers are diverse, so what? So this: an archetypal ‘welcoming voice’ – Mark Twain would do – conceives as his first duty a courtesy owed to the reader. Thanks to his craft he can conceal much, for concealment it is, within a Huck Finn, but he wants your nod-and-wink participation in the conspiracy between author and reader.

Dissident art, the difficult stuff, is something else. The purpose is different, the relationship altered. Above all, it is created as an obligation to the text alone. There is no fictive democracy in this imaginative universe and readers must fend for themselves. If the writing is good enough – another wormy can – that is what readers, some at least, will do. Read.

The attitude was best expressed by William Carlos Williams, albeit in verse, and in a little 1958 artistic autobiography called I Wanted To Write A Poem. The title refers to a passage in ‘January Morning’. The New Jersey baby doctor wrote: “I wanted to write a poem/that you could understand./For what good is it to me/if you can’t understand it?/But you got to try hard –”.

The writer who rejects the reassuring voice, the conspiratorial persona, thinks that way: understand me, but try hard. This text isn’t, needn’t be, perhaps should not be, easy. The grief for that sort of author is the reader who answers: Try hard? That’s your job. I’m not sitting exams. I paid good money. And it’s just a book, after all.

A Terry Pratchett or similar will sell 55 million just-a-books and be deified by publishers because (a certain comic genius aside) he takes the implied injunction seriously. Neither Pratchett’s sales nor his relentless professionalism deserve a sneer. Nor can a useful conclusion be drawn about art and popularity. The ghost of Dickens, the populist’s populist, is with us always. But the simple point remains the tricky point. Some writers accommodate; some issue a challenge.

A relevant example. To a non-Scottish eye (or ear) the differences between Irvine Welsh and James Kelman must seem slight. Here they all are: the ‘vernacular’ (variant) speech; the ‘challenging’ themes; the proletarian lives; and a non-standard attitude towards conventions of reported speech. To complicate matters, Welsh has never concealed his debts to the older writer. “It’s now very difficult,” he says in a dust jacket quote for Kelman’s Kieron Smith, Boy, “to see which of his peers can seriously be ranked alongside him without ironic eyebrows being raised.”

(The unexpected existence of ironic eyebrows may explain something. It explains why Welsh is no Kelman. Perhaps it also renders the next paragraph redundant, ironically. But never mind).

Who sells books in the serious quantities modern publishing demands? Who markets the kind of literary brand they understand in Londonshire? For which of these authors is apparent ‘difficulty’ of subject, theme and manner never a problem? To complete the quiz: which of these is the better writer? Welsh knows.

A hit movie never hurts, but a Booker shouldn’t do much harm. James Kelman won the big prize of British publishing in 1994 with How Late It Was, How Late. He then discovered that there are certain rules, the unwritten sort, attached to success. I doubt he was much surprised, but when next you hear someone talk about British values, or happen across the novelist discussing colonialism and language, remember that one Booker jury member (the inclusive Rabbi Julia Neuberger) disowned her team’s choice as a disgrace and “crap”.

This was not the higher criticism, exactly. Simon Jenkins, a by-product bobbing in the sluices of the Murdoch stable, denounced Kelman as an “illiterate savage” who had done no more – quite a trick, though, for an illiterate – than jot down the contents of a Glasgow drunk’s thought bubbles. Had Kelman applied such a technique to Jenkins, the novel might have been brief. But you get the idea: Rab C. Nesbitt Wins Top Award, Disgraces Old Scotia. A barbarian was inside the gates.

We should have known better. Kelman certainly should have known his place. Someone should have mentioned that the word barbarian derives from ancient Greek coinage. When sophisticated folk of the Peloponnesian city-states could not follow the speech of lippy northerners they decided it was a mere sheep-like bar-bar noise. Centuries pass and progress goes by the Welsh-peasant name Jenkins.

Centuries elapse, in fact, and any thoughts Kelman ever had about power, class, culture, dispossession, and the ownership of art – always assuming he has a mind capable of grasping a noble concept – are confirmed. The Booker episode sees him vindicated by default idiots, an experience that must count as the tiniest comfort. But it makes him famously prickly (in print), and pugnacious, and thrawn. His prose will never now be the equivalent of a convivial chat with elites. They have said as much: they do not converse with the likes of him.

Or me, or most of you. Ironically enough, though – raise an eyebrow – those who promote literary fiction in London are never done fretting over its deficiencies. They sense a certain lack of expansiveness and adventure. They worry about their taste in domestic interiors (mental and physical). They guess that their preferred modes may not be half of, as it were, the story. They admire what they mistake as American “energy”. Europeans cause unease. But they do not – a small tragedy in a drawing room – know what else to do.

So middle class people write about middle class people for middle class people. So the coterie grows uneasy over coterie literature and seizes on a Welsh, as one does, as a bit of rough. Kelman is too much. He forgives too little. He does not do the friendly voice. They don’t get his jokes. They need subtitles, Cole’s Notes, and someone to promise he won’t beat them up with an argument up a close. He sounds implacable. Scary.

One argument, for an example: most of the fiction published in Britain is not published for most of the people who live in Britain. It is certainly not, as Kelman has said repeatedly, intended to tell stories for and of the people he knows. In this, literary London resembles nothing so much as one of those New Labour zombies pretending to worry about eligible voters who see no point in voting. Lit-Lon will find no reassurance in Kieron Smith, Boy.

No plot trick, for one thing. There are no magical wardrobes in this boy’s life. Astonishing supernatural things did not happen to male Scottish children smuggling themselves across the frontier between 11 and 12 in the Sixties, between old tenement and new scheme. Fights happened; big brothers happened; smoking and football and parents and dreeping from drainpipes happened. Big God did not manifest Himself as a witty author knocking your thoughts, syntax and life into a significant shape. Kelman’s Kieron has the voice of limited experience. You begin to wonder, unasked, who sets the limits.

Narration is an artistic issue in Kelman’s world. I think he sees the traditional novel manner as an echo of class power. I think, too, that he glimpses centuries of dispossession in the presumption of the third person. Someone is telling you what’s happening, and telling you, importantly, that you are in no position to argue. So Kieron speaks for himself.

This is simple – once upon a time, they would have eaten Kelman alive as an adorable primitive – but endlessly complex. You could say the same about the life of Kieron. Who puts a calculated value on the words, and therefore on the experience? An idealised reader might, but we know better than to believe the sprite. Reading is taught. The accepted manner is pounded into a heid (“prefer head”) until the lesson is learned. They can colonise your mind, at will.

A form of Scots is not, however, a form of ignorance. A democratic instinct rebelling against narrative is not a local phenomenon. It amounts to a trickier question: is Kelman wasting his time publishing fiction for those habituated to believe that his art is, in their less-lettered world, illiterate? What happens when the challenge is just ignored rather than refused? For whom does James Kelman write?

You could adapt the question. You could ask: does the manner in which Kelman writes, the prose motion, matter more to the writer than anything the writing might contain? And is that art, a gesture, or both?

Back in 1983, a little book of stories crossed desks. There had been a noise, whispered, and a bit of light in the west. I seem to think that in 1983 at the Scotsman (that was then) we published something fromNot Not While the Giro. Jim Hutcheson’s design, John Taylor’s cover drawing, and Polygon’s royalties-lite ethos seemed to chime. The first line said: “The old man lowered the glass from his lips and began rolling another cigarette”. I knew where I was.

Back then, Kelman was not a beginner, a sui generis adolescent, an amateur from the underworld, or a one-man cultural-political programme. Nor is he now. The pattern of the prose in Kieron speaks, sounds and echoes of those trance-like hours spent working lines like Braille. It is actually brilliant, if you can visualise the structure of prose like a crystal. In the other cliché, this writing sings.

It does not, though, fall miraculously into one of those three-act Hollywood structures that would help Hugh Grant tell a diffident tale “About a Boy”. The three-act-and-out convenience is another version of deceit. Kelman is not our answer – the question was never asked – to Roddy Doyle’s Paddy (one Ha! should do) either. The publishers hope you will believe otherwise. You won’t. That’s another version of the not-true.

But what might the truth be? Kelman is not the first, far from it, to hope to publish fiction that finds art in non-visible marginalised existences. That theme has been nagging at Scottish writing since they were banging up drunken boy poets in the Edinburgh daft-house. Most literature denies a voice to most people because most of the people who decide most of what you can read – they desire your pink brain – are not most people.

As Welsh and the still-living part of Edinburgh would put it: likesay. Good word. To wit: likesay the tensions you get when political structures and lyrical prose structures collide. Likesay thon bastard disjunctions between that pure, non-specific artistic need and a local social analysis. Likesay the way your neck gets when you are never done looking over your own shoulder. Kelman’s problem, I think.

Here’s what the problem is not: not a matter of gifts; not a matter of integrity; not a matter of refusing to be someone else’s writer. A matter, instead, of stories, and how stories are told, and the very world in which stories are understood, or not. The political empires align with imperial languages. This is true. But how then do you persuade someone who hears only the sheeplike noise to hear better? If they pay £18.99 for just-a-book, they might be disinclined to work their ears off.

Kieron is allowed (by whom?) some beginning knowledge of sex, school, knocked-off bikes and Glasgow bigots. His timeline runs between himself and his grandad by way of a dad in the far-sailing merchant marine. Big travels, little travels. Kieron also understands keelies, injustice, and the vital importance of doing good. And he uses no bad sweary words. For Kieron, this is important. In this novel, the aster*sk matters as much as the joke matters to Kieron’s creator. But f*ck – no, I wrote fu*k – that.

Paul Auster – I just checked the As – composes internationally admired prose and no one in New York questions his experiments. Kelman may just have written the Great Glasgow Novel, finally, but the coterie will only pause to wonder why such a thing might matter in the regions. Did I mention that I read Kieron Smith, Boy, without pause? Did I also forget to add that everything Kelman has done, from The Busconductor Hines to Translated Accounts, still feels like a rearguard action?

Vladimir Nabokov, who knew a little about enforced movements between cultures, and about the butterfly-effect in the chaos theory of literature, once wrote an essay entitled ‘Good Readers and Good Writers’. In it, he recalled a test he set for junior imperialists in an American university town. Ten possible answers. So choose, said Sirin, “four answers to the question what should a reader be to be a good reader”.

Clearly, he messed (not what you think) with the kids. His own four answers were these: imagination, memory, a dictionary, and some artistic sense. The lame joke being that a writer is, sweat aside, the same individual. James Kelman is our writer, yet Lon-don literary consciousness cannot be bothered to find even the dictionary. Precious noses must not be got up. And they have a point.

Find yourself enslaved on a desolate shore. What do you do, before you can begin to speak? The integrity of James Kelman is awesome. Kieron Smith, Boy, is a beautiful thing. But perhaps, just possibly, this world is what it is. Perhaps it now speaks only the brutish greater English, the lingua franca (but not in that language) embedded beyond any possibility of removal. The existing reality. With proper tadpoles (“”) when some prole huffs.

And perhaps, if you cannot or will not speak in that tongue, you cannot be heard. Fox News, far less the BBC, will not report the fact. Reviews will be hard to find. Perhaps it will no longer help to invoke class, parallels with colonialism, or cultural degradation. It is what it is. Art rarely offers a sympathy vote; Kieron doesn’t often find a listener.

The hopeful types who insist on “literature in English” miss the point. The globalised tongue long ago forgot its origins. And forgot the loss. You can resist; you can persevere; you can talk about justice or equality or oppressive power exercised through art. Good luck.

What counts now, I think, is the weight of expectation among those who use and read this English. Kelman, in fact, most closely resembles the creator of foreign literature on an island that is, nominally at least, his own. Such a fascinating footnote.

Back to irony. Kelman is translated for the benefit of his own country. That, I think, passes most of the security checks in the migrant/colonialism corridor. As he may have mentioned in You Have To Be Careful In The Land Of The Free: “being an outlaw is a serious affair”.

So is being heard. So is a beautiful book.

James Kelman
Hamish Hamilton, £ 18.99
pp422, ISBN 978-0-241-14241-7



From this Issue

Westward Ho!

by Brian Morton

Only Connect

by Lesley McDowell

Close But No Cigar

by George Rosie

Blog / Discussion

Posts Remaining