Being Beside Oneself
In A Disaffection, central character Pat Doyle has a hell of a weekend, one both banal and yet tumultuous, emotionally devastating but arid, gregarious and nevertheless solitary. The book covers up to six days in the life of a twenty-nine-year-old English teacher in a secondary school in Glasgow, from Thursday evening to Tuesday night. Doyle is scunnered with the work and disgusted with himself but, whatever personal crisis he happens to be in, Kelman elevates it to a human condition rather than reducing it to a personal dissatisfaction. To be dissatisfied would be to suggest that changing jobs and finding a relationship might be enough to alter his situation, but Kelman's purpose is to say that, while these are far from irrelevant, the problem the writer explores is greater than the solution Patrick might hope to find. "That's the recognition of it. That's the recognition, the existential flash; revelation, the existential flash; revelation; being and not being; fucking oblivion." The passage comes in a paragraph when Dostoyevsky receives a mention and suicide has been broached. Doyle, however, has also thought about playing some pipes he has found for the fellow school teacher he fancies. Caught between the heaviest of burdens and the lightest of choices, Doyle is aware at every turn how absurd his life happens to be. When Camus says "all of Dostoyevsky's heroes question themselves as to the meaning of life. In this they are modern; they do not fear ridicule," (The Myth of Sisyphus) Doyle would concur but only up to a point. While one often finds in Dostoyevsky's work characters who pursue the ridiculous, who find themselves seeking the most abased and destructive of choices, in A Disaffection, Doyle is a guarded and cramped figure who allows the ridicule to take the form of interior monologue. Nobody laughs at Doyle more than himself, which gives the novel paranoia in the original sense, which is also what gives the book its special form. As in other Kelman works like the short stories 'End of the Beginning' and 'The Street Sweeper', and the novel How Late it Was, How Late, the writer does something very interesting with a third person narration that segues into a first-person perspective, making the third-person seem almost like a second voice in a character's head.
Paranoia from the Greek combines para (beside) with noos (mind) and in such works Kelman creates narrators who are beside themselves, thinking as though in the first person though the works are narrated in the third. Plenty Kelman works are first person (Kieron Smith, A Boy; 'The Small Station', 'In With the Doctor') but his technical importance as a writer rests most centrally on how he creates a conflation between character and narrator, pushing further than most into the problem of free indirect discourse. James Wood says Kelman "uses first-person and very close third-person narration (the two are almost indistinguishable in his work) to represent with bitter fidelity the mental journeys of his characters" (New Yorker), while Kelman has talked about the importance of the 'I voice': "where every noun will be concrete: there's only facts being stated, there's no such thing as a value judgement." Some of Kelman's works are closer to such a claim than others, with A Chancer usually at one remove from the central character Tammas, whose interior remains secondary to the description of the events he passes through. "It was just after midday and he was eating a mince pie and beans in a pub down from the snooker hall; a pint of heavy at his elbow and he had The Sporting Life spread on the table." If we accept this as a representative passage from A Chancer, we see how different it can seem from A Disaffection: "Fried fish in egg breadcrumbs; chips and tomato and sweetcorn. The sweetcorn was an innovation. They had never had such luxurious delicacies when he was a boy! Sweetcorn by Christ! Mind you it was tasty. Why did he never buy fucking things like that? Sweetcorn. He would have to remember it." In the former we have a Hemingwayesque absence of interiority; in A Disaffection fact and fulmination often coincide, an object in the world often combined with a demotic awareness of things. If the former can indicate almost a positivist account of existence; the latter proposes a phenomenological one that needs at all times to acknowledge the Lebenswelt: the Husserlian notion that all perception is rooted in lived experience.
Kelman has always been interested in enacting as objectively as possible a way of escaping judgement in literature: the sort of prose that separates the fact from the life but returns it as prejudice. Kelman says with disdain, "only when measured by the standards of the elite culture, judged by its criteria alone, can the artwork of particular cultures be awarded authentic value. Every culture in the land is subject to it, subordinate to its standards, controlled by those who are trained to affirm it whether by birth, adoption or assimilation." (And the Judges Said) This can take a more general cultural approach or a specific aesthetic form. It can be seeking recognition from the establishment that gives grants, prizes and good reviews, or it can be in the form itself: in how the book is written. When Kelman rails against prose showing a clear gap between the narrator and the character, it is this that draws out the importance of both the positivist and the phenomenological, even if they are ostensibly contrary. He was looking in The Busconductor Hines for the "type of facts a statement or something; that straight concreteness, you know, where every noun will be concrete: there's only facts being stated, there is no such thing as a value judgement." He invokes Zola and Robbe-Grillet's work (despite large differences) and from a certain perspective we can see this is Robbe-Grillet's achievement, one that is often quite distinct from Kelman's. When Robbe-Grillet says that in "the future universe of the novel, gestures and objects will be there before being something..." it will be so that "the superior human truth" (For a New Novel) will be absent: there will be no generalised human value that the objects will be expected to express, it is a literature of objectivity that will invite a subjectivity to project upon it. The reader won't constantly be making ready assumptions about the values of things but have to seek in the objects a means by which to comprehend them. If philosophy sought to eradicate meaningless statements from its discipline, emphasising the logical and the empirical, then it was as though literature was involved in a similar project as it determined to eliminate assumed values. When Wittgenstein opened the Tractatus by saying "the world is everything that is the case. The world is the totality of the facts, not of things, it can resemble Hemingway's claim "that "I was learning something from the painting of Cezanne" (A Moveable Feast), and that "as a writer you should not judge. You should Understand." (Esquire) Wittgenstein in his early work saw language as based on the pictorial: as Ray Monk says "For Wittgenstein, to think, to understand, was first and foremost to picture." (New Statesman) This is loosely the logical positivist approach to thought and a means to escape metaphysical nonsense, just as Hemingway's prose could resemble the famous William Carlos Williams claim, no ideas but in things. Wittgenstein might be eradicating things by insisting on facts, while Williams is insisting on things and not ideas, but this is still part of the same problematic: a desire to get at things without ideas imposing themselves upon objects and creating an inability to see.
Yet, in contrast, we have the phenomenological and the existential no less influencing Kelman and only apparently generating contradiction. Here we have being thrown into the world, a person constantly making sense of their existence. As DW Smith says, "the subject term "I" indicates the first-person structure of the experience: the intentionality proceeds from the subject. The verb indicates the type of intentional activity described: perception, thought, imagination, etc. Of central importance is the way that objects of awareness are presented or intended in our experiences, especially, the way we see or conceive or think about objects." (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) Or as Sartre put it, "when I run after a streetcar, when I look at the time, when I am absorbed in looking at a portrait, no I is present. There is consciousness of the streetcar-having-to-be-caught, etc. and non-positional consciousness of that consciousness. On these occasions I am immersed in the world of objects: they constitute the unity of my consciousness." (Being and Nothingness) The objects Sartre talks about are not just there in the world, they are utilisible within the world and it is an 'I' who is central. Even if one isn't reflecting on the objects in an oppositional manner that makes clear objects are different from subjects, things from selves, then nevertheless one has forgotten oneself because of an immersion in the things of the world as a self within it. The things aren't objective; they are of a use-value so immediate that one needn't concern ourselves with them as objects, so pertinent is their immediacy.
To understand something of Kelman's importance is to comprehend an aspect of these ostensibly different approaches to early 20th-century philosophy, and to see how the writer, while interested in a potentially objective literature, is no less interested in fiction that puts the self at its very centre. It is why Kelman's most important contribution rests on his use of the third person which constantly suggests the first person, or vice versa. Kelman says, laughing, that, "I know, for instance, what I do in [The Busconductor] Hines Joyce does not do in Ulysses, but I really do think he would have liked to have done that." (Edinburgh Review) But he also says that out of the concreteness he admires in Zola and Robbe-Grillet, he seizes also the opportunity to shift into what he calls the "I-voice", feeling that the technique was not available to Joyce because its innovation came after him, or coincided with Joyce but through the work of Kafka. In an essay on Kafka, Kelman speaks of the conventional approach to third-party narration, which comes from a naturalistic view of the world and which offers an "'unbiased', 'objective' voice that reports, depicts or describes reality that allows the term 'God-voice' to appear valid." Yet as Kelman adds, "when we examine the 'voice' we discover these third-party narratives are saturated with the values of its contemporaneous society, the society within which the author lives and works. ('A Look at Franz Kafka's Three Novels.') He sees that Kafka doesn't do this; he manages to leave the reader as a 'genuine observer', with Kafka removing much of the judgement taken for granted in literature.
Kelman's contribution is to take an aspect of Kafka's paranoia, the writer's ability to suggest not a third-person narrator who can offer an unbiased view, but a narrator who has internalised judgement so deeply that no objective narrative position can match it. When Joseph K is accused in The Trial, when Gregor Samsa wakes up an insect one morning, or when Kafka discusses his upbringing in Letter to His Father, it's as if there is an internal judgement greater than any society can activate: that the judgement of bourgeois values, of good and bad behaviour, seems irrelevant next to a value that makes such narration too weak, too assuaging. It is the sort of fictional judgement that means a person will get their comeuppance, greed will be revealed as self-destructive, lust counter-productive and selflessness its own reward. But Kafka resists such ploys, as though such judgements are too paltry to allow behaviour to be so rewarded or punished. When he says in Letter to His Father that his father's remarks "must positively have worn grooves into my brain", it rests on the tough life his father had which led to the comfortable life Kafka could enjoy. "We all had to sleep in one room"; "we were glad when we got potatoes" and so on. In such internal guilt lies infernal guilt: a value system so encompassing and so harsh that little can escape it. Hence, in The Trial Joseph K isn't culpable of a crime as we find in most investigative thrillers, but culpable without it being predicated on a given event.
In this, Kafka takes further Dostoyevsky's famous claim in The Brothers Karamozov: "for you must know, my dear ones, that each of us is undoubtedly guilty on behalf of all and for all on earth, not only because of the common guilt of the world, but personally, each one of us, for all people and for each person on this earth." In turn, Kelman turns the Kafkan and Dostoyevskian burden into the further reaches of paranoia by utilising a third-person narrator with such interiority that we are almost surprised by the presence of the third person at all. When the narrator says: in A Disaffection, "if this had been the summer it would have been grand indeed. To have been heading nowhere in this set of circumstances, a blue blue sky and a nice mellow sun, still a couple of hours till nightfall, and perhaps heading all the way north with a weekend to spare...This was where he used to go for a swim..." the use of the third person can surprise us so close to the first person do we feel. Kelman has talked well about the trickiness involved technically in his approach. When McLean says that in The Busconductor Hines it seems more an interior dialogue than an interior monologue, Kelman says "I just said 'interior monologue' as a quick description of what can happen with the 'I' voice...nothing that happens outwith the perception of the 'I' voice." (The Edinburgh Review) Yet at the same time in works like The Busconductor Hines and A Disaffection, the third person creates a monologue within a multilogue, as though the individual is often trying to accommodate and fight against other voices that needn't have anything to do with schizophrenia but that nevertheless feel like impositions. In A Disaffection, after failing to find a suitable cafe in which to meet, Pat takes the fellow teacher he fancies, Alison, back to his place on Sunday afternoon and the narrator says at one moment: "Out in the lobby. The obvious temptation to enter the bathroom and lock himself in. Yet it was so out of the question as to merit nothing at all so far as thought or consideration was concerned....And yet presently of course she would still be wondering if this is what was asked of her." There is no basic technical reason why we can't know what is on Alison's mind since the novel is in the third person, but Kelman practises third person limited so restrictively that not only do we never have in the novel the thoughts of any other character, but that we are often inside Pat's mind so completely that the world beyond it seems hallucinatory. While we may believe that Alison would go back to Pat's place, even if she is a married woman and must be aware that Pat has designs upon her, without it seems wishing to start an affair with him, then what about when he teaches a class and says "he was never fucking seen again", "yep, ya bastard ye" as he tells various anecdotes, talks about the possibility of suicide and discusses Tolstoy's relationship with God"? From the position of verisimilitude would Alison go back to his home; certainly would Pat not be immediately sacked for cussing and cursing in the classroom? It would be too easy to say that Kelman cheats on the apparent realism he is working within by creating a narrative voice that means plausibility can be ditched when it suits him. It is more that Kelman creates, like Kafka, works suggesting the reality created is a hermeneutic black hole. "....Kafka's internal stories are usually open to interpretation, not only for the reader but for the characters themselves. It is recognised that a 'story' is not a 'reality'." ('Franz Kafka's Three Novels') Yet neither is it a fantasy: it is a tension point between the interior world of a character and the external world in which the character moves. Not only does Kelman propose that there can be no value system imposed on a situation; but even the idea of a given reality is suspect.
Yet this is where the depth of the paranoia manifests itself, where the problem with technique resides, and where the apparent contradiction between the logical positivist claims that Hemingway's work resembles and that Kelman is sympathetic to, meets the phenomenological approach that acknowledges the importance of subjectivity. A writer's purpose is not to work through such problems consciously; a novelist has no obligation to resolve contradictions on a logical level. It is more that they find themselves embroiled in a problematic that they happen to be working within. The more complex the problematic, the greater the work's texture. The difference between Kelman and Irvine Welsh is that Welsh is a very entertaining and occasionally (Trainspotting) important writer whose work nevertheless doesn't pass through the various tensions that mark Kelman's oeuvre. It would be unfair to reduce Welsh to his skill with the anecdote and his colloquial sense of dialogue and voice, but his gift for creating uncomplicated narratives no matter the plot twists, the character crises and the absurdist set-pieces, leaves his books easy to sell. He is entertaining as Kelman is not and this difference resides partly in the complications Kelman insists upon as opposed to the caricatures Welsh often generates. Begbie is a great modern creation, a character far more in the general consciousness than any Kelman has created, and of course popularised still further by the film. But Begbie is also in the long Scottish tradition of the wee hard man. "From Walter Scott to Thomas Healy...McIlvaney, the Scottish 'hardman' has been a mascot for his nation." (Scotland in Theory: Reflections on Culture Literature) Also, Welsh's references are pop cultural rather than literary, a plethora of names that suggest the actively social rather than the personally alienated. Welsh needn't fret over the outside world and the inside of someone's head: they are products of the same environment and partly Why Renton at the end of Trainspotting must escape from the milieu.
When Kelman in A Disaffection mentions Kafka, Dostoevsky, Goethe and Holderlin, they often represent Doyle's distance from his environment, the feeling that such figures are far from his social reality and that all this information he has in his head is likely to stay there. When he says "the guy that helped Holderlin was a Scotsman by the name of Von Sinclair. He was one of the mainstays of the wee coterie of folk who intellectualised around the taverns and cafes; he wrote a bit of poetry himself..." Kelman has been part of a coterie too, knowing Alasdair Gray, Tom Leonard, Liz Lochhead, Agnes Owens and others who attended Philip Hobsbaum's writing groups. But Pat doesn't have this, and it is part of his disaffection, part of his distance from the world. In Trainspotting, the references to Jean-Claude Van Damme, Cosmopolitan, U2, NME, Simple Minds, Carry On films and Coronation Street are part of the social hubbub. "The Simple Minds have been pure shite since they jumped on the committed, passion-rock bandwagon of U2", Renton opines to young Diane about his musical tastes. "Ah've never trusted them since they left their pomp-rock-roots and started aw this patently political-wi-a very-small-p stuff." It isn't that there aren't popular cultural references in Kelman, but they function differently. In Trainspotting it is funny and knowing and anyone who knows anything about U2 will be inclined to agree with Renton's quick appraisal. However, Kelman usually seeks not the knowing but the estranging. "The Temporary English teacher would be at home just now with the wife and he weans and the grannie. They would all be sitting in front of the telly, in the middle of the movie, The Wizard of Oz, or The fucking Sound of Music, a tray full of various sandwiches, cakes and chocolate biscuit." Welsh's work is often affronting but it is rarely belligerent. The aggression in the prose tends to be assuaged by the wit or humorous vulgarity of its presentation. It rubs you up the wrong way all the better to rub you up the right way. No matter how gross the scenario, the events often have a comedic pay-off that indicates a safe pair of narrative hands, whether it is Davie Archibald in Trainspotting making a hell of a mess of the sheets, or the chapter where The Cruel Bastard and The Selfish Fucker Get It On: when the man takes off his boxer shorts his prospective lover looks on with a scowl and asks who he expects to please with his inadequate tadger; myself he says. Welsh may push the boat out but he never loses sight of the port. The reader is safely returned home, happy in the hearth of entertainment.
Though Kelman is less adventurous than Welsh and numerous other Scottish writers typographically and colloquially, he is the most given to working through more invisible problems. A visible problem would be typographical or colloquial. The sort of experiments with layout and dialect that can consume immense time and energy. Kelman used phonetics in an early short story 'Nice to be Nice' and it "took dozens of drafts" (Into the Gyre), but that isn't to say he rushes through other pieces where the problem is less obviously present. Simon Kovesi pays much attention to a passage in A Chancer where Kelman replaced the verb buttered with margarined. We may not know how much effort went into deciding to go with the latter over the former but Kovesi analyses well the sort of questions that can be raised by using just one word over another. Kovesi says "in pencil Kelman has crossed out 'buttered' and inserted the word 'margarined', and 'margarined' ended up in the published version. This is the only occurrence of the word 'margarined' as a verb in this novel. In the published version, 'butter' does not appear at all. Bread and toast appear with the adjective 'margarined', for example: 'On top of the table were the salt, the vinegar, and the tomato sauce, a teaplate of margarined bread'. As an adjective 'margarined' is relatively common; as a verb it is surely rare." (The Drouth) To butter bread is common enough but who would be inclined to say they margarined it? Kovesi proposes this isn't a non-standard deviation pertinent to working-class Glaswegians but a coinage of the writer's. It potentially gives to the prose the sort of artificiality that Kelman would see as literary rather than realist. But as Kovesi says too, "margarined' as a verb is a derivation from the noun, but is an uncommon one; we might even say it is a coined derivation. It might be that the use of margarine as a verb is not commonly spoken by working-class Glaswegians. If so, why does Kelman use it? He repeatedly asserts that his written language is the language of 'his' culture, of 'his' class." (The Drouth) Kovesi then offers a potted history of margarine and how working-class people would be much more inclined than the middle-class to eat it: the use of margarine as a verb gives to the prose a politics that nevertheless makes the word rather than the polemic apparent. It is the sort of word a writer could spend much time thinking over whether consciously or otherwise, even if the actual time required to replace buttered with margarined would take no time at all.
One sees this not only as a problem Kelman seems to address as a writer but also through his characters, and none more so than Patrick Doyle in A Disaffection. Here Pat frequently muses over the possibility and impossibility in things, the various options available and the likelihood of ever making a decision, all the while reckoning that within the choices available to him are ideological and philosophical processes at work. When Pat sits in his car as pedestrians cross, he thinks: "nice ordinary beings whose existential awareness comprises an exact perception of all that there is and can conceivably be; that's the nature of it..." Pat would be wary of suggesting he possesses a higher consciousness than the people he sees through his windscreen, but he perceives in them an acceptance of the world that for him is in a constant state of tension and flux. The frequent references to artists, writers and poets in the work doesn't provide either social or cultural capital; it offers an awareness of life as a struggle to see the world as it is and not how others may wish you to see it. Pat goes on to think of Goya's unblinkness, and of a temporary teacher who has a wife and three kids: "him being temporary and back on the broo. That's the way it goes poor bastard, a Bob Cratchit if ever this was one." Earlier in the book, Pat has already invoked Goya's black period and Pat himself will go on to say, "I just tell the bloody truth, as I see it." It doesn't make Pat's view correct but it makes him wary of the perspective of others if he senses people wish to assuage him over facing realities that he cannot but see. Pat's comment about the truth as he sees it is followed by his mum saying "ye do like to be different" as Pat insists "naw I don't." But there he is, different certainly from his working-class parents and his unemployed brother, people for whom just getting on with life has brought little, the sort of "nice ordinary beings" Pat refuses to become, and despises himself a little for a difference that he self-acknowledges yet is reluctant to reveal to others.
If we return to the philosophical before addressing the ideological, it rests on seeing that from a certain point of view, others around Pat appear to accept their situation, as though empirical positivists in their own lives who could take a comment like Wittgenstein's and see it is an explanation of how things are. "The world is everything that is the case" people could say to Pat as he frets over how the world is as opposed to how it could be. Obviously, this isn't to reduce empirical positivism to such a narrow claim, nor even to reduce those who Pat comes into contact and conflict with to people who would regard change as impossible. But when Pat speaks to his students about negation he says: "what is not a new life what is new death not what is an old death an old life, not the old life, not a rebirth, the same old renewal, that other way of not being, that unabsence...", one student says, "I just don't accept 'new lives'. To me it's a sign of floundering around. I think it's not something to ever be proud of." On the subject of negation, logical empiricist AJ Ayer reckoned Heidegger's preoccupation with 'nothingness' was an error: "because he wrongly presumes that every word is a name; since there is a word 'Nothing', Heidegger has jumped to the conclusion that there must also be an entity, Nothing, which this word names." (A Hundred Years of Philosophy.) When logical empiricists look at negation they can say that "not-not-p is the same proposition as p, and hence that 'not' is not a name" John Passmore explores in A Hundred Years of Philosophy. But we might wonder if Kelman would agree. In the story 'Not Not While the Giro', the negation is something: the central character still exists as long as the unemployment cheque comes but the not not doesn't only make it a positive: that the giro means he is okay while the not the giro would leave him to starve. It also captures the precarity of a life that is not not as long as the basic means of sustenance are provided. Strictly speaking, the story could be called the Giro, if we accept that not-not p is the same proposition as p. Kelman however sees that the negation contains a value on top of the Giro itself.
One wouldn't wish to get into the intricacies of analytic philosophy but central to the difference between existentialism and logical empiricism rests on the value of negation that existentialists saw it as something. "Why are there beings at all instead of nothing?" Heidegger opens his Introduction to Metaphysics; what is this nothing out of which things come? Kelman like Heidegger couches our existence on its non-existence rather than nothing as a thing which needn't concern us. To say that Kelman is one of the most negative of contemporary writers needn't simply be a criticism of his ostensibly bleak worldview. It is also a way of understanding his work fundamentally. To not not be isn't simply to be but to be in a position where being needs to be understood in all its implications. This includes what Kelman calls, in a different context, negative comprehension, and partly why he regards Kafka as superior to many writers who may describe what p is brilliantly enough but don't entertain the negation. What Kafka often does is not "necessarily detail a thing that exists. What he often does is refer to a space which he then fills the page with a crowd of things that either don't exist, or maybe don't exist." (Some Recent Attacks)
Kelman gives examples like a woman who isn't the wife, the sister, the grannie, or mother. So who is she? She isn't tall, medium or short so what is she, and so on. Hence, 'negative apprehension', and we can see why he wouldn't be inclined to agree with the logical empiricists even if we have seen that there are similarities between Wittgenstein's early thought and Hemingway's prose style. Kelman was always more drawn to what isn't there even if some of the techniques Hemingway practised could be seen as consistent with negative apprehension too. Hemingway famously said that "If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing." (Death in the Afternoon) This seems about the importance of sub-text rather than negative apprehension, however. A writer may know that a character works in finance but doesn't tell the reader of his job; instead alluding to it in various ways that suggest the means of employment. He might be spending a lot of time on his computer, getting agitated and relieved as information comes in, wears a suit in the office, has a personal secretary, a holiday home in the Hamptons and flies off several times a year to the Bahamas. The writer gives us all the necessary information to make it clear he is a financier without ever telling us this is exactly what he does.
The writer will know and hence the writing avoids the hollow places Hemingway fears, and the reader infers what is the case. Another way of looking at this rests on seeing the importance of verbs over nouns; that what matters isn't who someone is but what they do and we will work out who they are from what they do. When we walk into a supermarket the cashier doesn't tell us he is a cashier and the shelf stacker doesn't inform us of her profession. Every day we perceive events that we interpret and central to good craft is often allowing us some of this freedom to assume what we generally practise. Yet this doesn't quite capture negative apprehension, which would appear to be making sense of a world that doesn't fall so easily into the sort of cognitive assumptions we make and which are usually confirmed when we walk into a shop or any other mundane situation. Hemingway's remark resembles Wittgenstein's claim about everything that is the case; in both we have the notion that language is drawn from life, that it is a picture-image of our reality.
If Kelman sees Kafka as a great writer of negative apprehension it rests on the importance of the negative not as an absence but as a different type of presence. If Wittgenstein and others have noted that not not p is p, which turns the negation of negation into the thing again, when Kelman discusses negative apprehension we have noted he sees Kafka filling "the page with absences and possible absences, possible realities." (Some Recent Attacks) This seems far away from Hemingway's reality which allows the reader to infer as the writer refuses to state. If some of Kelman's work does show the influence of the Hemingwayesque as we find in the general absence of interiority in A Chancer, many of the novels and stories are more interested in the Kafkan if we see in it not only the negative apprehension Kelman speak about, but also (and Kelman sees in some ways this as the same thing) the subjunctive.
In the subjunctive and the conditional things are very much not only the case; they also allow constant room to speculate around what may or may not be so. Part of Patrick's problem is that he lives in the subjunctive rather than in the indicative mode. If he were to give up his job and go off to Europe he would on his way stop off and visit a friend in Anglia. If Alison weren't married she may well have been inclined to go out with Pat, and if Pat weren't living in a capitalist economy maybe he could teach in quite a different way. At one moment someone asks if Pat is a Marxist. "Seriously, you're asking me seriously, if I am a Marxist, in a school like this, in a society like this, at a moment of history like the present." In such possibilities we might say Pat is both unrealistic and fails to live in the moment. He does live in a capitalist economy and, if he wants to travel to Europe, he should get in his car and do so. But another way of looking at this without resorting to cliche or ready judgement is to say that Pat lives in the subjunctive; he lacks an indicative mood, even when he is doing something as simple as cooking breakfast. "Once the frying pan was fairly hot Pat placed the pieces of food inside and waited. He could have counted three hundred and drop in the egg to fry with them. Yes, okay the thought of lettuce and cucumber and tomato, healthy portions of cheddar cheese; that had crossed his mind; he was thinking in these terms, maybe for tomorrow." In the subjunctive lies the opportunity for negation: what is, contains the what isn't and Pat's breakfast isn't only made up of a "lump of square sausage and a lump of round black pudding" etc. It is also made up of what isn't on the plate too. When Joyce brilliantly describes the food laid out in 'The Dead', "a fat brown goose", "a shallow dish full of blocks of blancmange and red jam, a large green leaf-shaped dish with a stalk-shaped handle on which lay bunches of purple raisins and peeled almonds" there is no negative apprehension in the description. What is there is there, even if part of the greatness of the story lies more broadly on what isn't there: the dead of the title and more specifically the dead young man that central character Gabriel's wife was once in love with, and who discusses it for the first time with Gabriel near the end of the story.
However, absence and loss aren't quite the same thing as negative apprehension; Kelman's work often contains absence and presence as an ongoing dialectic that contributes to Pat's paranoia, self-hatred and inertia. Neat the beginning of the book he is glad that another teacher is accompanying Alison and Pat to a cafe: "it would offset any gossip."
He is constantly worried about what other people would think, as though assuming that others have as much time to think as Pat does and would be inclined to give time over to doing so. He can also envy his brother as if that envy resides in self-loathing: "Gavin was the lucky one. He took things nice and easy and didn't get upset over trifles and things of mammoth import." But Gavin is also on the dole and would love an income like Pat's. Above all else there is inertia. If the book is over 330 pages but covers only a few days in Pat's life, it is because so much of it is given to Pat's thoughts about doing things without very much getting done. If he lives in his head, then it is a head full of impossibilities rather than possibilities and few people more than Pat would pass for an intelligent being as Dostoevsky couches it. As the narrator in Notes from Underground proposes: "...the direct, immediate, legitimate fruit of heightened consciousness is inertia..." Pat can see that for every action there are numerous inactions, dozens of possible things that could be done as easily as the one chosen and, even in the process of choosing one, others crowd in the mind as more valid alternatives. Pat manages to cook himself breakfast but that doesn't mean a different breakfast wouldn't have been a better idea.
In a strict sense, we are in the world as a fact and the existentialist would never try and deny the reality of this. It is why they used the term facticity to describe what is unequivocally the case. "Facticity includes all those properties that third-person investigation can establish about me: natural properties such as weight, height, and skin color; social facts such as race, class, and nationality; psychological properties such as my web of beliefs, desires, and character traits; historical facts such as my past actions, my family background, and my broader historical milieu; and so on." (Stanford Encyclopedia) But we are also in the world in the first person too, a subject constantly negotiating with objects and objects of our gaze, making choices that are often so small that we hardly give a moment's thought to the decisions. Vital to Kelman's novel is that Pat is constantly aware of himself as both a third-party presence and a first-person agent. But when he views himself from the outside, paranoia lurks; when he acts from the inside, inertia seems inevitable. The consequence is a low-key self-loathing evident when he says, "thoughts are not good. They are not a help, not an assistance." From a technical point of view, which augments the existential and phenomenological perspective, the third-person hovers over the first-person, as though it isn't a standard third-person distance that narrates events, but an externalised first-person that haunts the narrator's subjectivity. We can imagine a passage where Pat stares at his watch in conventional third-person as "Patrick gazed at his watch. It was a twenty-first birthday present from his parents, suggesting a life full of promise and there he was at twenty-nine having failed to fulfil it, even if his parents would have been happy with his job as a secondary school teacher." The distance between Patrick and the narrator is clear but in Kelman's account it all but disappears. "Patrick gazed at his watch, a twenty-first birthday present, the desk at where his wrist was resting, wrist was resting, not wanting to something, to eh, it being the kind of thing he couldn't cope with, this sort of perception, the way these weans saw straight through you, straight into your insides."
There is nothing new in a third-person perspective creating radical interior thought processes and stream of consciousness was utilised by numerous writers in the early part of the twentieth century. Here is Virginia Woolf's narrator moving into Peter Walsh's head: "and it was awfully strange, he thought, how she still had that power, as she came tinkling, rustling, still had the power, as she came across the room, to make the moon, which he detested, rise at Bourton, on the terrace in the summer sky." There is the same repetition, the same interest in capturing a person's burgeoning thought processes based on the immediacy of their perceptions. However, partly what makes Mrs Dalloway and other Woolf books like To the Lighthouse different from Kelman's work, is that the third-person floats over and above character, perching on someone's thought processes before flying off to sit on someone else's shoulder. The reader is aware of the technique of the third-person because we know a first-person work cannot assume what is going on in another's mind. One reason why we might struggle to recall retrospectively whether a book has been in the first or third person is that it was third-person restrictive. Woolf may get very close to a character's thoughts but she also weaves in and out of a number of them so that the third-person is always evident.
Kelman usually holds to the restrictive, which is why Wood can say the first and third person are almost indistinguishable in his work. But this is where the insistence on the restrictive third-person meets with the needs of an existential exploration, within an interest in the positivist that insists on seeing things as they are. For Kelman, if they are not as they are this won't be because they are generally perceived to be something but specifically so. The third-person isn't just restrictive, it cannot be general either. When we imagined a conventional third-person approach to Pat sitting at his desk we also imposed upon the passage assumptions about the promise in a twenty-one-year-old, the expectations of a twenty-nine-year-old and what parents from a working-class background would feel about having a son as a schoolteacher. A value-free literature probably isn't possible, but one devoid of the value-laden ought to be, and Kelman in a very different way from Robbe-Grillet and the Nouveau roman has been interested in such a project, one much bigger than merely on the level of dialogue and narration. Kelman has often noted that "in the average novel written about a working-class character, the assumption is that the character doesn't know as much as the writer and the reader, and often you'll get all these wee things, such as dialect, in phonetics." (Edinburgh Review) Yet this is just the most obvious expression of a value system imposed upon a work and there are numerous others like what might be expected of a twenty-one-year-old and a twenty-nine-year-old and how an assured third-person narration might allow us to take such assumptions for granted.
If Kelman allows such beliefs in the work it is part of an interrogatory procedure, values that can be evident but countered even if in the countering inertia and frustration happen to be the result. Thinking about what he wears, Pat reckons "fuck the trousers and the shirt and the tie, he was wearing jeans and a fucking casual jacket. That was another thing about this life, how come you even started looking like a fucking teacher never mind fucking have to be one of the bastards." The expected values meet the personal disdain for them and it doesn't arrive at transformation, but inaction: a self-loathing that will never segue into bad faith partly because of the loathing. If in bad faith someone has a belief that they have no other option but to do what they do even if they do have options (which is why their bad faith is a faith), Pat knows that he has options but feels unable to act upon them and hence his self-loathing. "Everywhere you looked always this fucking I. I I I. I got really fucking sick of it." While central to Sartrean existentialism is an escape from bad faith through the notion of authenticity, then for Pat being authentic also means being dysfunctional. He can't accept the values he is supposed to live by but doesn't have the wherewithal to create new ones. Even his desire for Alison contains within it an impossibility; falling for a married woman who won't leave her husband even if she may seem to have feelings for Pat. Alison doesn't have kids, doesn't seem happy in the marriage and doesn't seem indifferent to this fellow teacher. Yet she probably knows that what Pat sees in her is the general impossibility he sees in his life rather than a new beginning. Alison isn't part of his hope but his hopelessness. "It was pointless being bitter. Patrick stopped being bitter...Being bitter was fucking silly...At uni it stopped him from doing things. If he had stopped being bitter he might have done things."
Pat may have overcome his bitterness but whatever he has replaced it with doesn't allow him to be any more active. Some might even say he has become embittered, that he is no longer transiently bitter but has moved into a more dejectedly permanent state. While we might wonder if at university he was sick of others, the middle-class uni environment in which he found himself, has he not now become sick of himself? As the book's title suggests, he has become disaffected. Were Alison to see a man merely dissatisfied maybe she might have found the wherewithal to leave her husband, but though she is capable of a 'subdued sarcasm', she often comments on the despair Pat expresses. When Pat says there is no such thing as a good school, Alison says "I hate it when ye say that", adding that "sometimes your cynicism makes me feel physically sick."
Pat insists he isn't cynical, "I'm the very fucking opposite" and we might agree: often the cynic can practise bad faith in a complicated process that allows for the best outcome by denying that they have any choice given the circumstances. Pat could work his way up through the educational system, believing that he is helping the kids all the better to help himself: he could ignore that poor kids usually fail by seeing the odd exception and believing that this is progress. As Ronald Santoni says in the context of Sartre's bad faith, a "cynical attitude can become a bad faith way of being in and viewing the world. And for Sartre, whatever our being may be, it is a choice, and our choice..." Santoni also says he has spent many years trying to make sense of Sartre's notion, so far be it from us to try and resolve it in a few lines. However, when Pat insists he isn't cynical this appears a justifiable claim. He believes that the nature of the education system is unhelpful and if a school is good or not doesn't make any difference ontologically, even if it will make a difference societally. The kids at a good school will get better grades, better jobs and better housing than those who don't. But who is to say that someone who believes that is okay isn't the cynic, the one who accepts that life is unfair and unjust and people need to get on with it? Here the bad faith would exist based on the idea of a fact that might only be a prejudice. In other words, anyone who says that inequality is a fact of life, as they benefit enormously from this imbalance, will not wish to acknowledge that during different historical periods inequality has been great and at other times far more negligible. Facticity would reveal their bad faith: that things are necessarily the case when they aren't. Pat can see that things could be very different from how they are, though for various reasons cannot do anything about it. He doesn't fall into bad faith and cynicism. However, he is instead possibly embittered and certainly disaffected.
Kelman's work is broad despite a number of preoccupations and a consistent sense of place. Not all of it is focused on men from working-class environs (Mo Said She Was Quirky stays in the female central character's head), nor all of it is set in Glasgow (Mo Said She Was Quirky is based in London), but much of it is and to seek variation in the writer's work it wouldn't be in subject matter and place but in subtly different problematics. A Chancer as we've noted offers immediacy without much reflection, while Kieron Smith, Boy is a first-person account of a child during the end of primary school and the beginning of secondary school. Kieron is constantly negotiating his environment, capable of insight into it but with Kelman careful to limit the reflective space, negotiating the place between an unreliable narration that Kelman would never tolerate, and giving Kieron thoughts that wouldn't belong to his experience. Sniffily reviewing the book, Michel Faber couldn't help but admit: "The boy's voice is utterly, mercilessly authentic. Reading the book, you realise how artificial other purportedly childlike narratives are." (Guardian) How Late it Was, How Late, offers a third-person so restricted that the central point of the book remains moot. As Laurence Nicoll says, "Sammy Samuels wakes up hungover, is arrested and either goes blind or feigns blindness (it is noticeable that within the novel this is never conclusively resolved)." '('Facticity, or Something Like That: The Novels of James Kelman') What we consistently find in Kelman's work is a tension between a problem in the world that cannot be simplified through the work, and one that must find in the technique the best way to retain the authenticity of the problem. This has nothing to do strictly with innovation, with trying to generate new possibilities in the novel; more that problems in the world will demand from writers a way of dealing with the crisis. To reduce this to a faithful depiction of working-class lives or a determined need to generate new forms would be to miss the point. To understand an aspect of the tension in Kelman's fiction is to see that life and literature are constantly entangled, and the further philosophical tension between a positivist approach to things, and a phenomenological insistence that we are at their centre, does nothing to resolve them. They do however contribute to one of the densest weaves in contemporary literature. Pat Kane proposed that Kelman deserves the Nobel, seeing that "like the great literary experimentalists of Kafka, Woolf and Beckett - who he constantly cites - Kelman is a "modernist", "existentialist" writer. This means that his writing style must take risks, as it tries to render the flow of experience in an accurate and sensitive way." (The National) We needn't care for prizes to agree in principle, but we can see the magnitude of Kelman's work in Kane's demand.
© Tony McKibbin