Owning the Language
There are two traditions into which James Kelman falls. For all the alienation of the work, where characters are frequently solitary figures, caught in the spirals of their own solipsistic universe, Kelman has, genealogically, many friends. The first tradition is what could be called the literature of discontent, from Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground, to Knut Hamsun's Hunger, on to Beckett's Murphy, and which also alludes to a more benign tradition of social misfits that we find in Gogol's Diary of a Madman, and numerous tales by Robert Walser and Kafka.
The other tradition is what Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari examine as a literature of minorities, where they take off from a Kafka remark in his diary and expand it into a mode of literature. "A minor literature doesn't come from a minor language: it is rather that which a minority constructs within a major language." (Towards a Minor Literature.) As Kelman says in an interview in Edinburgh Review 71, talking of working class life defined as a minority construct: "I don't think it's usual to meet books written from a working class experience that is total. Total in the sense that the character can be at the same time an intellectual and still be a bona fide member of the working class." Vital to Kelman's work has been this need to explore a life from the inside with all its emotional and intellectual possibilities, to find within the standard language and class structure recognition of what others might perceive as a subterranean self. This is where the notes from underground meet a literature of minorities. Where for Dostoevsky's first person narrator the political seems secondary to the existential, where the needs of individual freedom appear constrained by social norms and conventions, in Kelman's work the existential and the political are intricately intertwined in at least two ways.
The first lies in Kelman's materialist concreteness. When the unemployed narrator living in a bedsit in 'Not Not While the Giro' says, "how in the name of Christ can one possibly consider suicide when one's giro arrives in two days' time", Kelman obviously knows that the Thursday cheque would arrive through the post on Saturday morning, and the character would have to rush off to the post office and get it cashed before it closes at midday. The title of the story is itself a play on the existential meeting the specifically socio-political. The narrator is not not suicidal as long as the Giro comes in, the dole cheque serving as his meagre life support machine. This is Kelman's version of the Absurd: the abstract existential problem of suicide Albert Camus would of course make a claim for at the beginning of The Myth of Sisyphus: "there is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide." Kelman wonders though how the absurd questions plays out against the backdrop of dole money every fortnight, where an individual is not not as long as the cheque arrives. Is this not even more absurd than anything Camus can come up with as Kelman's character seems to survive off a few pounds in a city that is either not his own, or where he seems alienated from those around him? The dialect is clearly on occasion Scots: Pish, Bastarn, the broo, but the location is hard to place. Here is a Scotsman living with the idea of work but not its reality, and increasingly finds himself living in his head. As he says that "I shall tramp the mean streets in search of menial posts or skilled ones. Everywhere I shall go, from Shetland Oilrigs to Bearsden Gardening jobs. To Gloucestershire even", we might wonder whether there are moments where he can hardly get out of his room, and even harder still to get out of his own thought processes. Tory Norman Tebbit may have claimed people should get on their bike and look for jobs wherever they can find them, and this is perhaps all very well if there is a job to find, but for Kelman's narrator he seems in the worst of all possible worlds: displaced unemployment. The absurdity has a clear socio-political focus.
If this is the first aspect of the existential meeting the political, the second lies in the use of the demotic. At one moment in 'Not Not While the Giro', Kelman offers a single paragraph in two words: "Fuck off". This comes after the narrator says "Where is that godforsaken factory. Let me at it. A Trier. I would say so to Your Magnateship. And was never Say Die the type of adage one could apply to the wretch. I believe so your industrialness." In 'Double or clear plus a tenner' there is "course I fucking know what he's like...", "Fuck sake", "we shouldn't have to be fucking guessing". In 'A Wide Runner' we have "silly fucker", "well you need a lot of fucking luck", "fucking froggies". "I don't accept it as swearing at all you see", Kelman says in the interview in Edinburgh Review 71. "Obviously if I say 'look at the sun', it's fucking beautiful', obviously I'm not swearing. I'm doing the exact opposite, you know. So in that sense I object to taking part in a discussion that hinges on the use of swear words in literature." For Kelman the demotic isn't bad language but the repressed of speech: an existential freedom constrained by socio-political assumption.
But we could also note that this repression of the demotic extends into the repression of working class culture. If the demotic is repressed in the social sense of bad language that is not quite part of the accepted cultural sphere, this isn't too far removed from how many areas of working class art are perceived as inferior to other areas of culture. As Kelman says in an essay in Edinburgh Review 84 called'A Reading from Noam Chomsky and the Scottish Tradition in the Philosophy of Common Sense': "In a discussion of the medium in which he works in relation to his 'working class' background, [Craig Raine] was quite willing to concede that the actual artform itself, poetry, belonged to the upper reaches of society. But the folk from his own 'working class' background do have their own artforms." Kelman describes Raine's distinction as "myopic nonsense", seeing no doubt that the division isn't very different from the distinction concerning good and bad language, where language is good if it evokes 'civilised' manners and mores and bad if it does not. Equally, culture that suggests wealth and privilege is to be preferred to cultural forms that indicate the opposite. When D. J. Tayler claims in A Vain Conceit that "for writers in this country commitment has nearly always been a crankish and hugely embarrassing affair, something callow, furtive and unsuccessful", for Kelman commitment is the kernel of the writing, with the very language used indicating steadfastness towards arguing against privileged ignorance in myriad ways.
It is this argument for socio-political awareness against some general notion of aesthetic achievement that Kelman frequently proposes, and where he coincides with Deleuze and Guattari. In Some Recent Attacks Kelman says that Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Versesis "ultimately...not...successful in dealing with the problems of time and space, and in terms of the novel's structure this is vital". He also adds that the work is a failure because "anyone who relies so heavily (Rushdie would argue intentionally) on the 'technique' of stereotype is always flirting with danger and much of the novel fails as a result". Few will argue with the question of technique in relation to time and space, but others would claim (as Kelman assumes Rushdie would claim) that stereotyping is an aesthetic choice. But for Kelman it is as if he is offering a variation on Deleuze and Guattari's notion that "everything in them [in minor literature] is political", and that "everything takes on a collective value". As the two theorists say, "Indeed, precisely because talent isn't abundant in a minor literature, there are no possibilities for an individuated enunciation that would belong to this or that "master" and could be separated from a collective enunciation." From Kelman's point of view, literature would pass through the people, be a voice of the people and therefore their stereotyping would be a failure of socio-political purposefulness for a narrow notion of craft mastery and choice. Rushdie, like Kelman, but in very different ways, would also be an example of minor literature, in the sense that he is working from a colonial context of an Indian writing in English. Does his stereotyping play into the hands of an establishment expectation, over the needs of a people? Kelman seems to think his work from this point of view would be a failure, a failure to acknowledge the importance of a minor literature caught inside the assumptions of the major literature.
Kelman's argument, like Deleuze's and Guattari's, is nuanced. There is no sense here of a committed literature where one writes positive representations of the working class, racial minorities or women because they are part of a minority culture. It is instead that great 'minority' writing comes from a confrontation with the internal problematic that the work generates, and not from either facile playing to the literary establishment, nor nobly representing a people. "By definition, the technique of stereotyping", Kelman reckons, "offers a simplistic view of people and situations that is always conventional, a recipe for lazy writing. At worst it becomes prejudicial and serves only to reinforce the marginalisation of distinct social groupings. It does this by destroying a person's individuality through its tacit acceptance of the prejudiced view that all so and so's are this, that or the next thing." Should a minor literature not be aware that such an approach has a direct impact on an already oppressed group? This doesn't mean the writer settles for positive representations, which would be a failure of art, but the writer doesn't allow for contributing to prejudices that are already well established either; the writer should be seeking instead to break these norms. When Kelman says in Some Recent Attacks, thatThe Satanic Verses "contains a number of the stock characters and situations any politicized student of the English literary canon is well used to...it places this novel in the mainstream", it resembles Deleuze and Guattari's claims that "literature is the people's concern." Do writers like Rushdie and Raine subsequently, if in different ways, see literature as not the people's concern: the people have other lower forms with which to entertain themselves, and thus Rushdie and Raine have no need to fret over questions concerning their place in the world? Yet obviously a minor literature is not at all a lower form, it is simply a literature within an apparently standard discourse and this is what Kelman expects Raine and Rushdie to acknowledge. Rushdie appears to accept that his purpose is to produce a work of literature consistent with the perceptual assumptions of the establishment; Raine thinks that to do otherwise is presumably to descend into lower art forms. However Kelman clearly thinks differently, and whether one is writing in Scots within the UK, German when you're a Prague Jew, or a Black American writing in the US, there is this clash with standard form and one's own people's voice. Much great literature can come from this clash, and Kelman is as significant an example as any.
What is very important in Kelman's work is trying to get one's voice heard in all its manifestations, and recognized for what it is, and not repressed for what it is not, and this ties into a second form of repression. Much of Kelman's fiction is interested in the individual's thought against the social structure that shapes it, makes demands upon it and can potentially destroy it. This is the case in the novels as well as in the short fiction. In A Disaffection, the central character says, "The clothes. He was going to don a shirt and tie and generally affect the conventional appearance of an establishment sort of bloke, an ordinary upholder of the Greatbritish way of eking out this existence." In How Late it was, How Late, "when Sammy came home for the funeral it was all under control. And he had no reason to feel excluded. Except he did." In The Bus Conductor Hines, Archie looks at his son and thinks, "It was definitely best he wasn't extrovert, the withdrawn side maybe allowing him to survive that bit more easily." When in 'Not Not While the Giro' the narrator says "there should be direction at 30 years of age. A knowing where I am going. Alright Sir Hamish we cant all be Charles Clore and Florence Nightingale but at least we damn well have a go and don't give in", this is interior monologue as hegemonic invasion. The system is working its way into the narrator's head as if a psychological problem that is unequivocally also an ideological one. When in the passage quoted earlier the narrator says, "fuck off", does he not want to get out of his head the voices of the establishment that are playing with his mind? S. J. Wiseman wonders in a short essay in Edinburgh Review 71, whether the novels can "be read as explorations of the strings of control whereby those who own own even the physical flows of the owned." We might add the psychic also.
What consequently makes Kelman very interesting from a minor literature perspective is the particular type of 'mental problem' that arises out of a sensibility trying to find meaning and purpose in a life where the sense of meaning and purpose belong to a hegemonic class. If certain writers utilise realism to indicate a nobility of purpose to the class struggle, and subsequently to create positive representations, Kelman draws on characters frequently crippled by contradictions they cannot easily see or are complexly trying to work out. In a piece quoting Beckett in Essays Critical and Clinical, Deleuze says, "Being exhausted is much more than being tired. "It's not just tiredness, I'm not just tired, in spite of the climb. The tired person no longer has any (subjective) possibility at his disposal; he therefore cannot realize the slightest (objective) possibility". One can see that Kelman combines this Beckettian sense of tiredness and exhaustion with paranoiac wariness, as if in some ways the exhaustion comes from the need to be so vigilant in the face of false consciousness.
It is a point Kelman insists upon in Edinburgh Review 84, in 'A Reading from Noam Chomsky...' "The educational classes have more access to information than the vast majority of ordinary men and women but it is rarely in their own economic interest to seek it out and see what it amounts to." Later he says "finding ways of denying reality is a key function of the mainstream intelligentsia. Language provides unlimited opportunity for it." When Wiseman facetiously ends her essay by saying, "Kelman's stuff isn't like that really, no plot, no locations, not much sex...I mean what is he on about this bloke?", then someone might reply he is on about the exhaustion of a vigilant paranoiac in the face of a state apparatus that finds various ways to work on the individual. The artist's purpose is to resist these ways and create 'minor' spaces within these major assumptions.
This is work that is, in Wiseman's words, "uncompromising to the point of aggression in defeating the expectations of plot and authorial presence, and in asserting a closeness between narrator and third person protagonist that deflects closing of relations between reader and narrator." Much of Kelman's impetus seems to come from asking how and where literature is made, and how do we make it differently. When he talks about things like the cost of Tip-ex in interviews this is a means of production question at its most infinitesimal and practical, but he also talks at length about literature as a technical problem: how does a writer manage to get closer to the necessity of the material? How does a writer manage to escape the voice of literature (the voice of the majority, perhaps) and find a minor voice of concreteness? "That straight concreteness you know, where every noun will be concrete: there's only facts being stated, there's no such thing as value judgement." Yet Kelman is also clearly aware of this difficulty in a world constantly impinged upon by ignorance masquerading as assumption (to see an example of it read Terry Eagleton's essay on Kelman in Figures of Dissent), and this is presumably why he talks of many novelists never addressing problems that for Kelman are pressing. As he says Edinburgh Review 71, "other writers don't recognize them as problems, you know - I would regard them as being quite naive."
The belligerence Wiseman talks of is frequently the tension between the need for concrete statements and the awareness of their difficulty when imposed upon by a world view that shrinks the individual, and a world view with many strands and layers. In 'Street-Sweeper', the titular character says: "Ah but he was sick of getting watched. He was. He was fucking sick of it. The council have a store of detectives. They get sent out spying on the employees, the workers lad the workers, they get sent out spying on them. Surely not. The witness has already shown this clearly to be the case your honour." In 'Lassies Are Trained that Way', a man at the bar starts chatting to a youngish woman he assumes to be a student. At the end of the story as she walks off to talk to a group of young guys he reckons look like students too, the central character says to himself, "he didn't have anything against students. Although the danger was aye the same for kids from a working class background, that it turned you against your own people...then they spent the rest of their lives keeping other folk down." In each instance one sees the operations of power, and the internal awareness of this structure. Near the very end of 'Lassies are Trained that Way', the character says, "getting paranoid is the simplest thing in the world...but there was no point in seeing it directed at yourself." What often interests Kelman is the need to see power problems being worked through, but also trying to find a position on power that doesn't lead to ready paranoia, the sort of paranoia that can result in the very narrative contrivances Wiseman sees the writer avoiding. Kelman is interested instead in a sort of trapped nerve of consciousness, a certain stream of consciousness as semi-realization, a comprehension of those hegemonic structures working upon us.
It is presumably what Kelman means when he talks of issues other writers don't even seem to notice, and also when he talks of the problem of time and transitions in literature. Notice how in 'Street-Sweeper' the story shifts from the council having a store of detectives to the imagined court case within the space of a couple of sentences. Another might feel obliged to narrativise the power structure and move cumbersomely from one scene to another, from a dramatised detailing of worker spying on worker, all the way to a court case where someone gets tried. Many a writer will no doubt insist this is even good technique: aren't fiction writers dramatists after all, and isn't Kelman in danger of getting himself lost in a bundle of contradictions over the facts he seeks, the transitions he attempts, and the sense of failure he sees in other writers who eschew key dramatic moments?
For example, Kelman says of William Carlos Williams' fiction: "...suddenly you have this sort of nice switch - well, not a switch - it's written from the wee girl, right, the daughter. For instance the father goes away and you get the next chapter beginning, 'When he came back...' and you think 'Fuck, what happened with all the amazing bit'". (Edinburgh Review 71) Kelman is asking here for the very drama of the daughter without her father, or the father's travels, over the ellipsis. But Kelman would probably reply to those who see contradiction in his argument that the dramatic is often not the same as the essential, and the writer's purpose is to seek out the essence of an event rather than a description of it. Though Kelman may say "just state the thing, don't think in terms of ideas; if you get the thing properly, then you've got it", one might wonder how does the writer find the essence of the thing to state? This is where the necessity of fact meets the smoothness of transition. If we merely have the facts then we have a purposeless list, and most writers avoid this conveying of random information through the strength of authorial presence and virtuosity: the 'skill' with which the writer handles narrative information. But this presence and this approach is a problematic one. As Kelman says: "I never write 'set-pieces' and I object to the use of the term in my work." (Edinburgh Review 71) In other words he isn't interested in the sort of problems that are examples of a writer's given skills, but instead is interested in working out a problem within the material that can get as close as possible to the essence of a character's existence.
So what would be examples of these factual transitions? One we've of course already given, in discussing 'Street Sweeper', but others would include certain moments in 'Not Not while the Giro' and 'Lassies are Trained that Way'. In the latter there is a 'scene' where the central character says he "he had just been wanting to tell her how the things he liked as a boy he had wanted his wee lassie to get involved in...", adding "But it wasn't the point. It was something else, to do with a feeling, an emotional thing." In 'Not Not While the Giro', the narrator says, "the fact is I am a late starter." In each instance Kelman creates the possible without actualisation: the space for an enquiry that could be pursued or equally ignored. This is the opposite of set-piece dramatics, and the need for clear dramatic transitions, where the writer creates a position where choice is no longer available, because of the obligatory logic of the drama set in motion. Is the set-piece not so often the sequence that has been moved towards: the bank robbery that must take place, the wedding that has been carefully anticipated, the first date that could go awfully wrong? When Kelman says, "Kafka was doing things that Joyce was just not capable of doing. The Castle is far superior, just in terms of the sort of possibilities that are contained within any work", one can think of possibilities that need never be actualised. Here much of the freedom of the story lies in creating spaces where one may or equally may not dramatise the elements alluded to, but the essential must be paramount.
This freedom for the possible is the flipside of the immediacy of fact in much of Kelman's work: this factual immediacy especially pronounced perhaps in A Chancer, but that is also present in many of the stories where unity of time and space refuse dramatic tension. Whether it is gambling stories like 'Charlie' or 'A Wide Runner', where Kelman is interested less in the tension evident in the gamble, than the existential nature of the gambler, or the stories of a minor event as in 'Hitchhiker', where a girl shows signs of trust towards the central character, or 'Away in Airdrie', where the young boy might wonder whether he can trust his uncle, Kelman avoids the dramatic pull that seems to await, as if saying within these stories there are other stories, and to dramatise one removes the hint of possibilities that exist within the story never quite told.
Kelman has quoted approvingly Kafka's notion of the 'subjunctive mood', and has talked of techniques that remove the detail to concentrate on absence. "Her nose isn't big, but nor is it wee, and her eyes aren't blue and not even green or brown...and so on." (Some Recent Attacks) Here the concrete detail is deliberately sacrificed to an absent vagueness, a sense of what might be but isn't, rather than what is. Does this not seem to contradict Kelman's earlier comments about weaknesses he sees in William Carlos Williams' fiction, for all his admiration of Williams's poetry with "no ideas but in things"? Not really, because what Kelman clearly dislikes is 'misplaced concreteness', to adopt A. N. Whitehead's term: he dislikes writing that makes certain assumptions about character, class, behaviour etc. "How do you recognize a class of folk. Or a race of people? You recognise them by general characteristics...it is a way of looking that by and large is the very opposite of art."(Some Recent Attacks) It is not the concrete that Kelman is against, but he does insist upon refusing the misplaced concreteness of many a generalisation and assumption. Thus the two poles - abstraction and concreteness - are much closer to Kelman's perspective than the middle ground of nicely phrased, weakly perceived bon mots and dramatic set-pieces.
It is in the allusive and the direct that Kelman finds his 'voice', a voice that can incorporate the minor literature of writing that often very directly wants to concentrate on the details of social environments, evident in numerous passages in Kelman's work, as well as the indirect that explores literature as freedom in the very notion of form: in the subjunctive mood. From exactly what fifty pence will buy in 'Away in Airdrie' to the giro that will arrive in two days' time in 'Not Not While the Giro', Kelman offers the details of a minor literature, just as he also often utilises dialect to capture the milieu in which his characters live. But there is also the existential crises familiar from the tradition invoked earlier: Hamsun, Kafka, Beckett. Here abstraction helps locate the broader problems of being, problems that are interconnected with social problems but aren't only a product of them. Kelman is a figure of some significance as he negotiates the social and the philosophical, and utilises the apparently contradictory methods of detail and abstraction to explore them. He is a modern writer who has found a way "of fighting through this big paper bag of English literature" (Edinburgh Review 71) and focused on the international, for all the apparently parochial concerns. Initially, as S. J. Wiseman observes, Kelman can seem like a standard realist, but there is a breadth of purpose here much grander and more significant than another tradition to which he has refused to become an extension of: the angry young men like, David Storey, John Braine, Alan Sillitoe and Stan Barstow. Some better than others, but all, even Storey, English rather than international, realistically focused rather than philosophically ambitious. Kelman might not think of himself as a writer working out of the notion of minor literature, nor even out of an existential genealogy (though he's obviously well aware of Dostoevsky, Kafka and Beckett), but the complexity of his problematic clearly absorbs both worlds. But sitting behind this genealogy is a basic problem Kelman expresses succinctly in an article in The Guardian Review (11/08/07). "These bastards think they own the language. They want to block your stories, and they will if you let them."
© Tony McKibbin