Sunday, 7 December 2008

James Kelman

Since Alastair Gray has put himself out of the running, James Kelman can now lay claim to the crown of 'Most Important Living Scottish Writer' - should he care for such a title, which I rather doubt.

I have read three of his novels, plus short stories. Since that trio includes THE WHOLE of the near unreadable Translated Accounts, it surely qualifies me as Kelman's most devoted reader, and world authority on his works. Come on! Who else has actually read the whole damn thing?

Other that Translated Accounts, I've read How Late It Was, How Late and A Dissaffection. Both are good, though it was a long time ago and I'm struggling to recall enough to make a spirited defence of them. I also have You Have To Be Careful ... on the book shelf, with a provisional start date in January 09.

How Late It Was, How Late won the Booker Prize a few years ago, back when I was naive to imagine that this particular trophy actually meant something. At the time, it was TERRIBLY controversial, because Kelman's fondness of the word 'fuck' and all variations thereof proved too strong for some folk. One newspaper calculated that the word occurred more than four times a page. How did they work that out? What poor bugger had to sit there and count how frequently James Kelman swears? It has been a long time since I read it, but I remember it being being very intense and bleak. The other two are much clearer, so I'll focus on them.

I recall A Disaffection as reminiscent of Dostoevsky's Notes From Underground, only coarser, longer and set in Glasgow. The main character, Patrick Doyle, is a pissed off 29 year old teacher and he is fustrated sexually and careerwise. Sometimes you want to scream at Patrickbut this is a testament to Kelman's ability to make his character seem real, because real people are like that. The final scenes of the book - basically an all day piss up with his brother and his brother's mates, when he should be teaching, interrupted by the arrival of his brother's wife, culminating in a long walk home in the rain - are brilliantly poignant. Kelman must be the only writer who could imagine a trudge home in the Glasgow rain, with a strong liklihood of a kicking from a couple of belligerent cops, seems at all redemptive.

Translated Accounts is a very strange book, composed of fragments of first person narratives, translated by a person or persons who have only a limited familiarity with English. Here are the final lines, which I think are stunningly good:
I cannot say about a beginning, or beginnings, if there is to be the cause of all, I do not see this. There are events, I speak of them, if I am to speak it is these, if I may speak. (1)
I remember reading some spurious comparison between Alastair Gray and Kelman, to the detriment of the latter on the grounds that Kelman is limited by his decision to write in dialect (ducks Kelman's haymaker - he dislikes the word intensely) and his concentration on dull realism. This is bullshit. Kelman's concern is for with the unrepresented, and those who are made to be silent.

He has also been accused of misogyny, a charge often levied at male who write about males subjects, though curiously often aimed at females who write about females. It is a libel that can easily be put to rest. Though most of his narrators are male, he is concious of an excluded 'female voice' (ducks anouther swing from Kelman) and highlights this in the closing pages of A Disaffection. The first speaker is Patrick, well pissed. The second is his sister-in-law, Nicola. Kelman doesn't like quotation marks and the paraphenalia of bourgeois grammar. Live with it:
Pat waited a few seconds before speaking. What I mean there about Elizabeth is she's got a sense of peace. John has it as well right enough but I think she has it more. It's a real sense of peace.

Pat. Women have to listen more than men, that's why they've got a sense of peace as you call it; they're used to listening - that's what they have to do all the time, listen to men talking. Yet to hear them you'd think it was us did it. And not only listen to them, women have to watch them all the time as well, they've got to study their moods, they've got to see its alright to speak if this is the bloody time you can ask the question or no, is it the wrong time and you'll have to wait because half the time men just areni willing to listen to something if they don't want to hear it, it gets you down. (2)
Back to Translated Accounts. It is, I think, the ultimate realsiation of what Kelman has been trying to do with his linguistic guerilla warfare. Reading it a few years ago, I tried to work out what his goal was. I came up with three options:

First of all, by writing a novel that tetters on the verge of incomprehensibility, he is trying to make the reader actively create the narrative from the fragments he has provided. The reader has to create the characters and action in his head. If so, he has failed dramatically, because the novel is too resistant to this sort of exercise. The reader will simply give up in fustration. That said, there was one sequence which I read as describing a building crowded with refugees, which gave me the heebie-jeebies. But, with reflection, I don't think that was what he was trying to do.

Second, he might be attempting - by making the setting, characters and conflict anonymous - to describe some universal experience of displaced or opressed persons. The anonymous characters who flit through the ... (words fail. Novel? Story? Collection?) ... the accounts might be Palestinians and Israelis, or Sandinistas and Contras, Jews and Nazis, blacks slaves and their owners, or Glaswegians fighting against English tyranny. If this was his purpose, however, he failed again as the book is so incoherent that it is impossible to draw any sort of narrative or structure out of it. It isn't anyone's experience.

Which brings us to option number three, which is, I think the correct one. I think Kelman has been trying to respond to the critics who bemoan his obscenity and his refusal to write in anything approaching Standard English (pah!). Translated Accounts a story taken out of its natural reister and translated into a hideous non-language by computer mediation - a bit like running Shakespeare through Babelfish. It is, to all intents, unreadable and incomprehensible - which is the point. I think Kelman is trying to show us that a story or a character must be described in its natural voice. To do otherwise is to bastardize it and to make it - from an intellectually and artistically honest point of view - as deadly and meaningless as the mangled accounts that he has produced. So the Accounts themselves are almost a shaggy dog story - it isn't the accounts that are important, but the fact that they have been translated. They've been taken out of their natural register, an immediately cease to be relevant, interesting or important.

If that was what he intended to do, he's suceeded magnificently. But it is a Phyrric vistory, because the book isn't any more readable just because it is meant to be unreadable.Though I would be interested in reading an alternate version, Untranslated Accounts, to see what was actually going on.
1 - From Translated Accounts, by James Kelman, published by Secker & Warburg, 2001.
2 - From A Disaffection, by James Kelman, published by Secker & Warburg, 1989.

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