Small Flat Items
The writer Ernst Junger once proposed, In The Details of Time that "no matter how far the spirit of egalitarianism may go, the instant a person starts talking you promptly know whom you're dealing with. And if you have a literary background, then with the first two or three authors a person mentions, you already know whether the dialogue is worth continuing, whether it has a chance of being fruitful."
An article some years ago in The Independent (8/5/03) carried comments by some fifty writers, political commentators and journalists, asking them which book they believed was the worst ever written. Amongst the authors mentioned were Proust, Joyce, Mann, Murdoch, Anais Nin, Marx and Derrida. Amongst the comments offered were "it's the sort of hysterical book that intellectuals read because they are too snooty to watch Eastenderslike everybody else"; "It was so leaden and defeating that I needed to get some fresh air"; "completely incomprehensible" and "pretentious...pseudo-poetic". The commentators generally offered, however, less a comment on the books they disliked, than a comment on their own anti-intellectualism and willingness to offer a hasty opinion. It brings to mind a Socialist Review writer lambasting James Kelman for the lazy short-story writing style, instead of looking for an underlying sophistication showing Kelman had eschewed all sorts of conventions that many would insist were skills and techniques.
Maybe the problem is that much of the best fiction now - or even over the last fifty years - has come out of philosophy, or perhaps merely enquiry. So that fiction isn't about creating a world resembling our own, but a world that can change our own, and change our very consciousness. It is that Hemingway idea expressed in a Moveable Feast that Dostoevsky changes you as you read him. But it's also about trying to create readers in keeping with the times rather than readers caught in a kind of temporal literary loop where everything remains essentially the same. We might be reminded of B. S. Johnson's comment that many late twentieth century writers are writing novels for nineteenth century readers.
So all we're really asking of the press is to acknowledge the writers that are trying to write twenty first century novels for twenty first century readers. Maybe Scottish literary magazines like Chapman and Edinburgh Review could create a dialogue defending certain writers, questioning the authenticity of others, and creating some concepts to make sense of the literary work coming out. It would be about not how writers despise their audience, but how instead they're creating new ones, trying to change the reader as they read him. This would of course require moving towards the idea the writer can't help but be true to the influences that have shaped their existence, over the demands of a reader who expects the writer to fit neatly into 'readerly' traditions.
A couple of good examples of this type of analysis that come to mind are Duncan McLean's interview with James Kelman in Edinburgh Review 71, and Kenneth White's 'autobiographical' article in Chapman 59. Yet still we have the writers explaining their influences rather than a critic second-guessing them. It's the difference between prosaic explanation and intuitive comprehension. In the former instance the writer explains his genealogy superficially, evident for example, in the A. L. Kennedy interview in Edinburgh Review 101, where she says "if you read Dostoevsky then maybe you kind of go on to Gogol, and then you think, "oh I'll go back to Chekhov'..." Now of course some writers delve more deeply into the influence of their forebears - Kelman in the McLean interview, say - but the writer produces out of these influences new art works, so that any explanation is secondary to its aesthetic reformulation. It is usually only when a writer writes problematic fiction (and that Kelman's work remains the most troublesome in Scottish literature helps explain why he is also the most analytic) that the reformulation in aesthetic form requires also an analysis of that reformulation. We might think of the nouveau roman, where writers like Robbe-Grillet, Michel Butor, Claude Simon and others, managed with the aid of critics including Roland Barthes, to create a credible space for their work.
But often this type of analysis needs to be done by critics themselves, so that they search out the first principle connection between, say Dostoevsky, Kafka, Beckett and Kelman. Though other writers may equally claim to have read and been influenced by the same artists, we may ask why Kelman is the modern British writer who most clearly shows their mark. Now this can often be done by another writer, just as readily as a critic. There are Janice Galloway's comments on Kelman in Edinburgh Review 101. Here she talks of Kelman "not so much writing about Glasgow as through Glasgow. He has moved much more into the territory of abstract writing. I think Jim's writing through this existential stuff that shapes his meaning. That's the most profound thing about Jim's work, not the Scottishness." Galloway offers the first stage of an analysis of Kelman's work, so that the idea of writing through Glasgow becomes, perhaps, a way of re-grounding the existential in the specific. Galloway may say Kelman's "moved much more into the territory of abstract writing", but it is his interest in Glasgow and politics that makes his work much more Sartrean than Robbe-Grilletian, even if he seems to pass through the problems that Robbe-Grillet addresses. Kelman is still interested in immediate being questions over abstract aesthetic questions, even if the question of objects without meaning (a Robbe-Grillet preoccupation) is addressed. It is often the immediacy of the question - Sammy wandering around blindly negotiating with police, social services and family in How Late it Was, How Late - that demands a degree of abstraction. Hence when Kelman says in the McLean interview that there are technical things going on in the narrative voice of The Busconductor Hines, he is interested in how, though it is written in the third person, it has the feel in many ways of a first person novel at one remove. However this isn't the remove that suggests the writer has a more developed consciousness than the character, but that that the character's consciousness is roughly equivalent to the narrator's. It is a kind of gelling of first and third person to create a 'second person democratic'. This is maybe what McLean means when he reckons the book isn't so much an interior monologue, more an '"interior dialogue".
This approach differs from Roland Barthes' admiration for Robbe-Grillet's work. Barthes reckons Robbe-Grillet's purpose is to drain an object of any ulterior meaning. He believes Robbe-Grillet wants "to confer upon an object its 'being there', to keep it from being something". As Barthes says, "it's easy to conceive of things that would be bad objects for Robbe-Grillet: a lump of sugar dipped in water and gradually melting down...here the continuity of decay would be unacceptable to Robbe-Grillet's intention since it restores a sense of the menace of time... (Intro to Two Novels by Robbe Grillet: Jealousy, In the Labyrinth) Now for Barthes this eschewal is an admirable quality, and this might be why Marguerite Duras says in Practicalities she "could never admire Barthes, who was a writer of writing that was stiff and regular", and who in a certain period of his life admired the stiff and regular also.
Now of course it is entirely possible Kelman has read not only Robbe-Grillet, but read Barthes on Robbe-Grillet, and read Duras on Barthes, but that is not the point. The point here is how does Kelman write in such a way that he tries to disintegrate the object as Barthes describes Robbe-Grillet's task, but reintegrates it is an act of subjectivity from the point of view of a character that is usually perceived in literature 'invisibly'. To try and explain what we're getting at, comments by Kelman and also Scottish journalist Pat Kane are useful. In an article in Some Recent Attacks, Kelman talks about being perceived invisibly by a coupe of art people when he worked as a picture frame carrier. He happened to be in a lift with the two men who talked about art as if Kelman weren't there. Simply, Kelman believes, they did so because of the blue collar nature of his job. This takes care of the invisibility. But add to that sense of the invisible an alienation from objects and you arrive at something in many ways more radical than Robbe-Grillet and the nouveau roman. It is often the meaning of objects in relation to one's sense of invisibility that makes the objects so menacing. In his book, Tinsel Show, Kane quotes Kelman on drinking a mug of coffee: "The coffee was cold...there in his mug, cold, with its regalia of the English monarchy, imperialism's holy of holies, leaving aside the fucking vatican of course, not forgetting the kremlin, plus of course the fucking white house, then again you've got the fucking Zionists. Patrick sipped his coffee..." The notion of the meaningless object is replaced by the hopelessness or helplessness in relation to objects. A regal mug isn't meaningless, but its meaningfulness irrelevant to the character's existence except in the socially abstract as opposed to the personally meaningful: the character as royal subject. Hence when Bruce Morisette talks of Robbe-Grillet's "theory of pure 'surfaces'" in another essay introducing Robbe-Grillet's two novels, he is talking about an 'ideal' literature of ideological purification. Kelman is talking of something else, something he hints at when invoking Robbe-Grillet in the McLean interview, " ...Robbe-Grillet; the types of facts a statement of something; that straight concreteness, you know, where every noun will be concrete: there's no such thing as value judgement. And going from here into an 'I' voice."
What happens is that the 'ideal' absence of the value judgement becomes the subjectivityof the value judgement as a subjective state fights against the ideological pseudo-subjectivity of the mug, a singular subjectivity that insists on countering the ideology of the object. Now when Gilles Deleuze talks about Robbe-Grillet's work, especially his films, it makes sense only if seen from a perspective outside our usual time frames, a sort of cinematic relativity theory where events make no temporal-logical sense viewed from our planetary notion of time, but that would make sense from the point of view of another solar system. Deleuze calls this a 'pluralist cosmology'. "The essential point rather appears if we think of an earthly event which is assumed to be transmitted to different planets, one of which would receive it at the same time (as the speed of light), but the second more quickly, and the third less quickly, hence before it happened and after." (Cinema 2: The Time Image) Kelman might reply that Robbe-Grillet's is an essentially mathematical, post-existential question. But for Kelman the existential is still the one of the most pressing of problems from the point of view, say, of a schoolteacher (as in A Disaffection) who doesn't believe in the ideology of the education system, or a bus driver (as in Busconductor Hines), who can't escape his predicament. Kelman doesn't suggest the nouveau roman is irrelevant, he simply takes aspects of its objectivity and pushes into extreme subjectivity and immediate politicization.
Kelman wouldn't share John Orr's view (expressed in Tragic Realism and Modern Society) that "the characters of the nouveau roman lack any of the figural aspects necessary to such action." What Orr is stating is that the nouveau roman lacks the element of character to generate the conflict between an "inert, external existence oppressing him" and the character himself. Certainly Orr has a point when saying it is "only in the realist novel [where] the element of rebellion against such a world [can] be suggested." But For Kelman this needn't be a value judgement. Instead it becomes an available sense of "figural" purpose opening up from an apparent literary void. Barthes' belief that Robbe-Grillet empties objects of meaning, allows Kelman to fill them again on more immediate terms. When Kane says in writers like Nicholson Baker there is a "safe materialism - a stable personality allowing you to immerse yourself in objects without fear of objectifying yourself", he is getting at the assumptive meaning present in how we perceive objects. When Kelman's central character in Not Not While the Giro talks about stealing small flat items from the supermarket, Kelman offers not the consumerist perspective Kane suggests Baker demands, but the easily stolen objects of necessity.
This is what Kelman is referring to (in the McLean interview) when he mentions a nice middle-class guy who interviewed him failing to understand "certain basic facts of life. He couldn't really appreciate - and this is one of those class things that people who are economically secure and stable don't understand - what not to be secure means." For Robbe-Grillet this notion of insecurity is in essence an ontological question, a way of rephrasing philosophical and literary ones. Barthes reckons where Balzac and Zola, Flaubert and Proust, were all interested in an endoscopic search "to get at the bottom of things...Robbe-Grillet's purpose...is to establish the novel on the surface." But Kelman is interested in a more immediate, philosophically existential and socially specific, insecurity, so that while both Kelman and Robbe-Grillet are fascinated by small objects, Kelman's examination is less obviously abstract.
So perhaps we're now ready to return to a few of our initial points. First we have Junger's comment about knowing whether a dialogue is worth continuing once we know someone's area of interest. Now obviously many people are interested in Kelman, but maybe we would have to wait and hear of two or three other novelists to whom the person responds to know whether the discussion is worth continuing. This isn't simply snobbery; it is more a question of positioning, of trying to find out whether the reader is responding too readily to Kelman's west coast demotic, or whether they are engaging with something more demanding within the material, the sort of existential aspects Galloway believes are central to Kelman's work. It is this attempt to find a work's influence, or our own preoccupations with it, which allows us to find its singularity.
This is what we mean when we invoke Junger, and this is what we mean when suggest Scottish arts magazines can focus not so much on making writers in the journalistic sense, but genealogizing them. In finding where they have come from and where they are subsequently likely to go. It in such an approach we can perhaps escape the problem of good writers languishing while mediocre writers are heaped with praise, and at the same time avoid the dead end opinion practised so often in mainstream newspapers, of which The Independent article we quoted initially is hardly the exception.
© Tony McKibbin