Lager and Pernod

Frank Kermode

  • The Man Who Walks by Alan Warner
    Cape, 280 pp, £16.99, May 2002, ISBN 0 224 06294 8

Reviewers rarely feel it prudent to begin by confessing bafflement, but the admission may sometimes be unavoidable. This is my sentiment as I contemplate the four novels of Alan Warner. He has been highly praised (‘dazzling’, ‘classic’, ‘significant’, ‘vastly gifted’, ‘a genius’, ‘one of the most influential literary mould-breakers ever’), and I’m sure none of these eulogies, understandably preserved on the covers of his books, is entirely unmerited. But it is one thing to praise, and another to describe, the work that earned these compliments.

The first of the novels, Morvern Callar, appeared in 1995 and is still probably the most famous of the four. A BBC film version is said to be due this summer, and one wonders whether the language, often a mixture of dialect and dirt, will be purged for the benefit of the English portion of the audience, to say nothing of the prudes. But perhaps we will be expected to have come to terms by now with the Scots of James Kelman and Irvine Welsh, noting that the proportion of obscene language seems to be even higher in demotic Scots than in demotic English, at any rate in novels.

Somebody should look into this matter. The work ‘fuck’ and its derivatives were timidly admitted into English fiction after the Lady Chatterley trial. Angus Wilson and Iris Murdoch are said to have steeled themselves and forced the f-words into their prose. At first they fairly leaped off the page, but forty-odd years later they have settled in and may occur in almost any work of fiction.

In an essay on ‘Oaths and Laughter and Indecent Speech’, Piers Gray argues that we learn the ‘dirty’ words before we understand the acts to which they refer, so that when they are used in ways that have no direct relevance to those acts they reflect or recall a sort of childish innocence.[*] Gray would not have supposed that this theory completely explains swearing, and it certainly doesn’t seem to explain Irvine Welsh’s usage, for in his work the words occur indifferently, whether the topic is sex or not, though it very often is. And he doesn’t strike one as having regressed to childish innocence. While I was reading these books I asked a Japanese professor if his native language made any comparable use of sexual terminology for non-sexual purposes, whether for realism or in order to enliven commonplace statements, perhaps even to improve their rhythm. A good English speaker himself, he thought about it for a moment and said no, Japanese lacked this resource, though people sometimes did say ‘shit!’

Perhaps the Gray theory fits Alan Warner a little better. A fantasist with an interest in folkish tales with modern settings, he presents a subtler problem. He does do Scots and has little compunction about reporting filth, but somehow he sounds more innocent. His language or rather his languages are peculiar to himself, and to the book in which they are used – for the novels are not linguistically uniform, whether in respect of the Scots dialect or the dirty talk. Morvern Callar is about a girl of that name who works in a supermarket. One morning she wakes up and finds that overnight her live-in boyfriend has cut his throat in the scullery and now lies there dead, while the Christmas tree lights continue to wink on and off. His computer screen is still lit.

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[*] Gray’s article appears in ‘Stalin on Linguistics’ and Other Essays, a posthumous collection edited by Colin MacCabe and Victoria Rothschild (Palgrave, 288 pp., £50, 22 May, 0 333 79282 3).