Thursday, 21 January 2010

Cannonball Read 11: How Late it Was, How Late by James Kelman

James Kelman is one of Scotland's most celebrated authors. Born in Glasgow in 1946, Kelman grew up between Govan and Drumchapel in the city's tenements and housing schemes. From the outset Kelman has written in the distinctive working class Glaswegian language that he grew up with. His first collection of short stories was published in the 1970s. In 1989 Kelman's novel A Disaffection was published, receiving wide praise throughout the United Kingdom. But it wasn't until 1994, amid a sea of controversy, that Kelman's novel How Late It Was, How Late won the Booker Prize, propelling him more into a world of infamy than fame and literary recognition. Panned by a handful of critics, one of the Booker Prize judges, Rabbi Julia Neuberger, went so far as to dismiss the novel as "crap" and threatened to resign if it were to win. Additionally, Simon Jenkins of The Guardian described Kelman as an "illiterate savage". Having been briefed on the controversy prior to reading the novel, I opened its pages to try and understand how Kelman's work had reduced the United Kingdom's literary elite to the intellectual level of the comments section of a youtube video.

How Late It Was, How Late
tells the story of Sammy Samuels, a 38 year old Glaswegian, ex-convict and shoplifter. Sammy finds himself in jail after a two day drinking binge, with no memory of the last few days. All he can remember is a fight with his girlfriend and a handful of characters he met with prior to blacking out. Beaten by the police, he wakes up blind and, eventually, is sent out into the world.

Written in the first person, this stream of consciousness novel is immediately involving. Despite the grim subject matter the core of the novel possesses a fundamental optimism that transcends the bleakness of the protagonist's many harrowing experiences. The rich description and authentic Glasgow patter vividly brings to life the chaotic and uncertain world our protagonist is thrust into. In fact the novel is as close to experiencing Glasgow as one can get without actually visiting. It brings to life the red sand stone mazes of tenements cluttered throughout the city's streets, the musty pubs, the clinking of pint glasses, the smell of rolled cigarettes chained smoked by old men.

All praise aside, I can appreciate that not everyone would enjoy this novel. Many may very well find the protagonist to be a frustrating and unsympathetic character. To a lesser degree, readers unfamiliar with Glasgow patter may find the language inaccessible. Be that as it may, I struggle to understand how the novel could have incurred such ire at the time of its publication. Kelman accomplishes exactly what he sets out to accomplish. An obviously gifted writer, evoking shades of Kafka, this wonderful novel creates a world all of its own. It is engrossing, brutal and authentic.

In response to the negative criticism flatulated in Kelman's direction the author responded by stating, "A fine line can exist between elitism and racism. On matters concerning language and culture, the distinction can sometimes cease to exist altogether." Too fuckin' right, big man. Criticism of any and all works of art is not only acceptable, but essential. But in the case of Kelman's novel one cannot help but deduce the negative attitudes come from dim witted elites, flabby intellectuals and pathetic effete swine whose only desire is to keep the literary world to themselves and far from the grubby clutches of the untamed masses.

But it is all irrelevant. As Werner Herzog once put it, "I'm not out to win prizes - that's for dogs and horses."

From Govan, with love