There is a thing – call it the bastard high style – which has preoccupied some writers ever since Villon found a fruitful union in the marriage of gutter argot and the language of the Schools. In English, in this century, it has mostly been used by Irish writers: by Joyce, with Vico and scatology, by Beckett, with velleity and bananas, and by Flann O’Brien, one paragraph of whose At-Swim-Two-Birds includes both an argumentum on Rousseau and the sudden eructation of ‘buff-coloured puke’. Now there is a new practitioner, working with a different vernacular and a different elevated diction. The first of the 47 fictions in James Kelman’s Greyhound for Breakfast finds old Francis on a park bench in Glasgow, menaced by vaguely circling winos trying to cadge a cigarette.
It was downright fucking nonsensical. And yet it was the sort of incident you could credit. You were sitting down in an attempt to recover a certain equilibrium when suddenly there appear certain forces, seemingly arbitrary forces, as if they had been called up by a positive evil. Perhaps Augustine was right after all? Before he left the Manicheans.
Kelman likes blending in a Latinate construction as much as his predecessors; he finds the correlative for it, as the Irish did, in the remembered shards of an imposed education. But it needs saying that in the case of ‘Old Francis’ no confrontation of classes is intended, unless a confrontation between those like the winos who have fallen to pieces and those like old Francis who are still struggling to keep their souls and capacities in one bit: an important exclusion, because previous proponents of the style have always been jealous – often ironically jealous – for the leaven of high culture they strew in their gutter. Kelman’s stories have no Dedaluses carrying secret aesthetic torches; nor do they have the Guinness-misted contempt for the poor that Flann O’Brien’s narcoleptic narrators show. The style is potentially deeply patronising, using the language and world of derelict human fodder to feed the comedy or tragedy of the high culture. Kelman’s use of it takes it in the other direction.
For the most part, these stories are about the Glasgow working class, with occasional excursions to Glaswegian colonies in London or Manchester or America, or into the Strathclyde hinterland of the city. Bets, paper-rounds, child-care, dole-money, industrial accidents, love, school-leaving, drinking and surviving are among their concerns. Sometimes, in monologues or narratives rooted entirely in the perceptions of a single character, he puts the style at his subject’s disposal, as an articulating instrument; at other times, in more fantastic or more fragmentary pieces, it is imposed upon action to produce – through the inhumanity of its elaborations – a black, humane comedy. One of the latter, ‘This Man for Fuck Sake’, nine sentences long, has a guilty narrator describing someone’s progress down a pavement in terms more appropriate to NASA: ‘Then that rolling manoeuvre he performed while nearing the points of reference. It all looked to be going so fucking straightforward.’ With a foreground alive with voices of fastidious clarity, and a distant commentary purged of sneers, Kelman frees himself completely from any possibly condescending editorial middle ground. His characters’ voices are naturalistic; the compounded ‘voice’ of the style firmly realist in intent. Part of the reason for this lies in the high-cultural icon Kelman has chosen to hang on his wall and in his prose – not the Schoolmen, not the Symbolists, but Kafka.
Reviewing the South African writer Alex La Guma in the Edinburgh Review last May, Kelman called Kafka ‘the greatest realist in literary art of the 20th century. His work is a continual struggle with the daily facts of existence for ordinary people. Kafka’s stories concern the deprivation suffered by ordinary people ... whose daily existence is so horrific other ordinary people simply will not admit it as fact.’ As an interpretation one could disagree with that; as a declaration of Kafka’s usefulness to Kelman, one cannot. One can only admire the use. The debt to Kafka in this book is multiple. A few stories – the least successful, I think – drink so deeply and directly from the spring that they are almost pastiche. In ‘The Small Family’, the small family (whose individual members ‘were not especially small’) arouse ‘an ever-increasing burden of guilt. There is no one cause.’ Benson’s visitor in hospital, in ‘Benson’s Visitor’, defines himself only as the person who visits Benson. When Benson asks who, apart from that, he is, he collapses, and as the story ends there is an alarming suggestion that he may now acquire a new role as a patient. Another group of stories takes up the Kafkaesque idea of a comedy based on the indescribable (‘The Red Cockatoos’, ‘The Failure’): details accumulate not to clarify but to obscure, placing the protagonists in untenably false positions. Much more exciting – and more successful – are the pieces in which Kafka’s influence has been digested, diffused and put to use in the Kelman style. The marvellous ‘In with the Doctor’ pays explicit homage to ‘The Country Doctor’ (Kelman’s worrying doctor has been reading it – ‘Gives me the fucking willies’). The Kelman story, though, is a realist rather than surrealist composition, because he has switched around Kafka’s premise about authority: now it is the doctor who alarms the patient by failing to fill his authoritative role. The surgery is a half-dismantled hierarchy. The doctor uses his place of power to impose chatty chaos on the patient, while the patient, who is the narrator, has expectations of protocol at the same time as he fiercely resents the ‘wee class games’ in the doctor’s authoritative failure to be authoritative.
After a moment I say: So what’ve you dismissed me or what? It’s hard to tell.
He looked at me in an odd way, and I knew it was what to do next was the problem.
Obsession interests Kelman greatly. He excels at narratives slanted by unstated difficulties, à la Kafka, but is more concerned with when and how an obsessive eye can become the natural way to see. ‘A Sunday Evening’ (about making sandwiches) and ‘Getting Outside’ (about going for a walk alone) are narrated with the real deliberateness with which you do a difficult, small bare thing that really matters. The original innovation of realistic fiction was the presentation of domestic time: now Kelman is simply giving us un- or disregarded time – personal, tawdry and momentary – seen so closely and unremittingly that the attention itself almost begins to work as a distorting mirror. After all, one of the hallmarks of obsession is attention to a paucity of things, and to make use of obsession is a naturalistic procedure when describing the ‘natural’ world of dole and giro.
Who is this written for? Sadly, the reason ‘why there are few good fictions about folk with low incomes’ put forward by Alasdair Gray recently in his Postscript to Agnes Owens’s Gentlemen of the West is also the reason why folk with low incomes are less likely to read what fictions there are about ‘ordinary’ lives: ‘It is a horribly ordinary truth that our imaginations reject most of the living we do, so from the earliest days of recorded wealth we have lifted up our eyes to the wealthy.’ Kelman’s own statement of principles in the La Guma review is grittily optimistic: ‘As long as art exists there are no areas of experience that have to remain inaccessible.’ I hope James Kelman continues to believe what he said, and continues to write accordingly.
The Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola’s engaging tale Pauper, Brawler and Slanderer draws on another vernacular. Indeed, readers who are unfamiliar with the tradition he writes in will wonder whether we are getting a Yoruba folk-story in the manner of Tutuola, or Tutuola in the manner of a Yoruba folk-story. Like the thieves’ falling-out in Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale, the struggles of Tutuola’s hapless characters with their destinies are a little too productive of the truths of art not to come from the high culture. Pauper, Brawler and Slanderer are the cast-out children of the king, deputy king and assistant deputy king of a town with an oracle. The oracle has laid on the three of them the destinies their names suggest; as they grow older, their presences become respectively too depressing, too violent and too unsettling to bear, and they are exiled to wander the earth as immortals, spreading confusion from town to town. Their adventures are extremely funny: they include a wrestling match with Death in which Death is forced to take a breather, a reaping competition disrupted by two rival spells, and a version of the Grimms’ Bluebeard story in which Pauper, very briefly the king of the Town of Women, loses his throne by unlocking a forbidden door – to find it contains his own discarded suit of rags. Against all evidence to the contrary, Pauper refuses to believe in destiny until the inevitable conclusion, when the three meet the Creator and are transformed into the invisible spirits of their characteristics: and, of course, ever since, humanity has been plagued by poverty, upheaval and ‘evil characters’. Much of the pleasure of the book comes from its fitting huge resources of language and myth into an unsophisticated narration. The vocabulary teems with wonderful coinages, strange imports and lavish formalities. A chief, suddenly Oxonian, calls Pauper and Brawlers’ names ‘shockers’; people flee down ‘feeder roads’ as if just about to enter Milton Keynes; the reaping match is a ‘drastic competition’.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.