As a form, the blues is an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically.
In truth, although I’d already decided I was a precocious talent and literary savant, I’d only ever really enjoyed a solitary novel, Camus’ The Outsider, and a few Harold Pinter plays (too many of my friends loved Trainspotting, thereby removing it from my highly individualistic purview). My natural aptitude at school had always been for English (and nothing else), and the giddy high-school passion for l’Etranger hadn’t faded or been matched since. I knew in advance I was a lifelong lover of books, of course, I just needed to hurry and find the one that would open literature up for me. It seemed closed off in a strange way during those early years of study. I loved the Camus book, but was disappointed to find the rest of his work blocked me with the same turgid lack of welcome as I encountered in all school and uni texts – the aforementioned Scott and Austen, in addition to Shakespeare, Plath, Lawrence, Coleridge, and so on. None of it came close to igniting the fires of the dormant, knowledge-free genius simmering within this young Grocery Assistant.
I had turned my nose firmly up at an optional degree-class entitled The Glasgow Novel. Parochial, limiting, tedious stuff. I was a Camus fanatic for fuck sake, I wasn’t going to go back and start reading William McIlvanney and all that ‘no mean city’ bilge. I was in love with Herman Melville, Dostoyevsky, Virginia Woolf, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Not being bothered enough to read any of them yet was a side-issue. I was a citizen of world literature. Several months after the degree courses began, a class colleague (I think her name was Rebecca) gave me a book they’d covered in The Glasgow Novel – it was by a writer called James Kelman, the book title was the odd and intriguing How Late It Was, How Late – with the promise that I’d love it because it “sounds like you”, or words to that effect. Without flicking through the book, I understood the implication. The Airdrie accent was often being noted on campus: “you’re so slang!”, etc etc.
Unusually, I started reading it right away. I think it was because the deep blue of that Vintage edition had the quote emblazoned across the front:
Which I later came to learn was from a review in The Independent by an Australian writer, Janette Turner Hospital. Something about that sentence moved me; it seemed so different from the standard sterile hyperbole you saw on the jackets of contemporary novels.
And as unbearably trite as it is to say, Hospital’s description turned out to complete perfection, and it truly was the book that ‘changed everything’ for me.
It was the book that sent me into a feverish drive toward the rest of Kelman’s work, a frenzy of finding and reading and re-reading, of slowly understanding then re-calibrating and re-understanding, of buying and hunting and collecting, and treasuring; all processes that continue to this day. It was the book that soon led on to Morvern Callar and Lanark and to many other Scottish novels and stories that would come to be so important to me, and later to the great forebearers most often associated with Kelman’s work – Kafka, Beckett, and more. Most of all, it was the book that made me want to write, and to believe I could write – and not in the ludicrous and sensationalistic attempt at high-falutin’ bile I’d envisaged at school, but to want to engage with life and people as I knew them, and in my own language, within my own culture. That wish to write took me to my first evening class at the University of Glasgow several years later, where I first met and discussed his work with other serious Kelman fans, some of them far more experienced and knowledgeable than myself, which was such a profound pleasure.
I write this essay now, seventeen years after I first read the book, and twenty-five years since its UK release. I will focus not on the usual, exhausted topic of the Booker Prize furore, or the endless, half-witted debate on “bad” language (although both may filter in at points), but on the narrative artistry at work in the book (as any serious and committed reader should do) and in unmoderated and unabashed celebration of the greatest novel I have read – a work I could scarcely have imagined on those nightshifts, eyes inevitably drifting away from the pages of Persuasion and Redgauntlet, wondering when a writer would finally speak to me in passionate, scintillating, and brilliant song.
The manner in which How Late It Was opens, how it moves and modulates, the thrust and spread of the language, the perspective(s), the dissemination of that narrative voice(s), the immediate sensations of the real world outside of Sammy, the streets, objects, noises; to my mind, reading those pages in 1994 must have been something akin to the literate Russian population first trying to follow the narrative strands of Gogol’s The Nose, The Overcoat, and Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground in the 1840s and 60s respectively, or of literary critics in Europe grappling with the dark labyrinthine shifts of Kafka’s The Castle or Beckett’s Molloy in the early-middle decades of the century that followed.
The first paragraph of How Late It Was in its entirety:
An essay really could, and should, be written purely on this opening. There is so much ground to cover. I can only do an abbreviated, shoddy version of that here. Starting in the second-person, present-tense, a variation in punctuation between commas, semi-colons, and colons to regulate the speed and the breath of the reader, then the movement into the character addressing him/her/itself, the introduction of a more recognizably conversational human entity, the grammatically ‘incorrect’ partial sentences, mimicking both thought and pure verbal expression, and third-person narration, the switch outwards, at once within the character and beside ‘him’. This excerpt closing with the Glaswegian English voice, exactly as I had known it in my everyday existence of interactions and expressions.
What sense was a first-year student who’d barely read a serious book in his life to make of this?
I neither knew nor cared really. I may not have understood or appreciated it fully – but I loved it. The book spoke to me, as did the situation, the time and the place. It remains a seminal example in art of what Heidegger termed the “thrownness” of life – a sense of disarray that is so powerful, so engaging.
Subsequent re-reads and study leant a more substantive basis to my initial readerly pleasure. Aaron Kelly denotes the political significance to the undulations in narrative perspective within this section:
Sammy’s refusal to be fixed in place by one narrative position or perspective remains the book’s most arresting feature throughout. There is evidently another narrative entity active in that layer of consciousness and representation between writer and reader, but Sammy is never manipulated, or ‘brought in’ and ‘faded out’ – he can talk to, over, and outwith that entity, and this is a primary reason for why many of the contemporary (conservative) critics found How Late It Was such a bizarre surface to try and navigate. In the most simple terms, that opening section contains no comments ‘about’ Sammy – there only ‘is’ Sammy. Regardless of whether he is being viewed from within or without, the sense is very much that he cannot be objectively analysed from afar by a narrative supreme being, as in the conventional Western novel; a system described in an essay by Lee Spinks, as part of ‘Kelman and Commitment’: Edinburgh Review no.108:
This is the classic narrator/character dichotomy that Kelman was so clearly striving to combat in How Late It Was, and continues to do in all of his fictional works. The description above should be familiar to any reader of the major or mainstream literature produced on this island across the last few centuries – predominantly, narrative discourse is outside and above and beyond the piddling interactions of characters, and is the framework that permits judgement. Language and perspective allow Kelman to shatter this hierarchy of discourse, as detailed by the academic Cairns Craig:
The bold font was applied by me as opposed to being the original rendering of the sentence – it’s such an obvious yet fascinating point, very much growing from the linguistic work of Wittgenstein, and later Chomsky. Some critics objected to the narrative style and register of How Late It Was, but how else could Sammy’s experiences and emotions have been accurately and faithfully conveyed, if not through following the verbal and cerebral meanderings of this character’s own organic subjectivity? It is a question that shall be returned to.
When Sammy exclaims to himself: “Where in the name of fuck…”, it is the only means of adequately expressing his feeling of dislocation, confusion, frustration; no other utterance but that one, which emanates directly from his consciousness, could carry that same weight or precision of emotion. Sammy must be able to subsume the narrator and express himself – an alternative to this would be ludicrous, an annihilation, a pitiable comedy. Imagine a world where the narrative of How Late It Was read like this:
The imposition of a more traditional, conventional form of English narrative on this story – a distinct narrator’s voice moderating Sammy from outwith his environment, grammatically correct sentence structures, sanitised language that would permit the book to be stocked in airport branches of WH Smith – it would lobotomise and bury this character, it would crush and obliterate the soul of the person known to us as 'Sammy' Samuels. Cairns Craig defined this succinctly, stating:
That sensation of being ‘thrust’ into the world along with the character permeates every page of the novel as, like in life, we are constantly moving, thinking, feeling surprised, dislocated, confused. This excerpt from the book occurs at the end of an encounter where Sammy has agreed to be represented by Ally in his upcoming claims against the authorities:
Who was conning who? Sammy smiled. Ye do yer crime ye take yer time. He spat into the street.
Muttering from somewhere. Either it was the sodjers or a fucking bus was due.
So there ye are. That was fucking that. He wasnay racing in blinkers man he knew the scenario. So what’s he gony do? roll ower and die? that will be right.
A case of the thinking cap the fucking thinking cap, okay.
Again, even a very short example of How Late It Was gives so much content for narrative examination, and provides so much evidence of its particular stylistic efficacy for the reader to consider. Because we are thrust into the world alongside Sammy, it is a moment of surprise when he reneges on the agreement, abruptly crumpling the documents. As Kelman’s narrative style is not a straightforward, linear, or faithful first-person present-tense narrative, we have not been privy to any possible forethought in terms of Sammy consciously deceiving Ally, waiting for an opportunity to dispose of the referral slip; we just see the action happen and this also leaves open the possibility that Sammy’s rejection of Ally was actually spontaneous, that he either was in favour or open to the notion during their interaction, then simply decided off the cuff (yet definitively) that he wasn’t interested. It is this type of completely natural, everyday spontaneity and emotional irregularity or irrationality that is so often missing from fictional characters. But the narrative style is permitting Sammy to live and to be in a way that a more authoritative narrator would not.
The blunt, obstinate humour of Sammy’s personality and means of expression, so readily familiar to people from this corner of the world, is perfectly captured by the statement: “He had nay intention of doing fuck all except what he felt like.” Again, if the narrator’s linguistic register was not the same as Sammy’s, the precise meaning, tone and emotion of this sentiment could not exist.
This extract contains other crucial elements of the book’s narrative stratagems, which will be examined more fully later in this article, but the immediacy of the sensory world is very obviously apparent (“A heavy vehicle was coming…”, “Muttering from somewhere…”), as is the particular syntactical quality and effect of the voice (“A case of the thinking cap the fucking thinking cap, okay.”)
These variations were defined in the following manner by Sue Vice, quoted on page 143 of Simon Kovesi’s excellent work, ‘James Kelman’:
I’ve never been comfortable with this assessment of the narrative composition of How Late It Was, despite Vice’s eloquent expression; it feels too much like an attempt to separate the experience of everyday reality for a guy like Sammy (his existence) from the dimension of life rooted in thought, spirit, and philosophy (what Vice refers to as existentialism). This seems paradoxical. How could a true existentialism not be inextricably bound to our ordinary existence? Laurence Nicoll commented insightfully on this subject:
As the quotation given from Sammy’s encounter with Ally demonstrates, Sammy’s “ponders on the hardships of life” don’t occur in a vacuum. They don’t occur later, once he is sitting at home, brooding on the disarray of his life. These moments happen in direct relation/proximity to his daily tribulations, during and underneath and over the top of his actions, interactions, and events, not removed from them. In that one small excerpt, Sammy confirms his decision to reject Ally, worries whether Ally is aware of this, resolves to follow on this course regardless, notices an approaching truck, briefly considers his situation, frets about the police again, steels himself, and makes an effort to rally his own spirits. Despite slight, natural modulations in position and/or register, this is simply the flow of perception and the evaluations of a complex human being in the throes of a difficult life situation. It is not a splicing of divergent discourses (which could imply a hierarchy of value or importance), it is a composite discourse which is both necessary for and inevitable to one’s existence (as in Craig’s terminology, “sentenced to experiencing a world made possible by the structures of our language”).
I have been fortunate enough to be involved personally in two interviews with James Kelman, and in both of these he remarked on related aspects of his narrative approach, the first of which refers directly to How Late It Was:
The first comment is of particular interest, in that it underscores the complexity of the narrative techniques at play in the novel, and goes at least some way to resolving questions that filter into your mind while reading the book, regarding the presence and position of the narrative entity. Kelman stated in his essay, ‘The Importance of Glasgow in My Work’: “I wanted to write as one of my own people, I wanted to write and remain a member of my own community.” The concept of ‘community’ is of obvious significance to this narrative stance – the guy telling the tale must have been told the whole story in lurid detail by Sammy as he has an intimate knowledge of Sammy’s feelings, reactions, etc, so this narrator is a confidante. He is also respectful, affectionate, not judgemental, representing Sammy and his plight as accurately as possible. As he is from the same culture, he uses the same linguistic registers. As he is telling the story to others from the same culture, he has no need for the strictures of the formal English language and is free to use ‘oratory methods’, etc.
Linguistically, How Late It Was is working in a way that is generally similar to a novel such as ‘The Color Purple’ by Alice Walker, which was lauded across the Western world upon its publication in 1984. And rightfully so – it’s a good novel. Yet this does raise the question of why it was met with such acclaim while How Late It Was faced a firestorm of controversy and criticism (in among the numerous positive accolades too of course). Was it because How Late It Was is Scottish, and therefore tarnished by the un-exotic, ‘bleak’ stereotype of this nation and its literary culture? Or because of ‘bad language’, or the lack of resolution to its ‘plot’ – two concessions to commercialism that Kelman was unwilling to make (whereas Walker was – at least, to a far greater extent)?
Why was the bad language in How Late It Was such an issue for so many critics, but there was no such controversy the following year when Roddy Doyle’s ‘Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha’ won the Booker, another book that worked with real spoken language (including ‘expletives’)? The journalist Robert Winder suggested: “It is not merely a coincidence that this impish and good-humoured variety of swearing goes down more easily than Kelman’s harsher, less transigent, and much more politicized version”.
However, this is not really a form of questioning that leads to any response, other than a resolution to simply keep reading, discussing and celebrating a book like How Late It Was, regardless of the dubious reactions it may elicit. As Sammy would say, “Ye plough on, ye just plough on”.)
The technique of having the reader “be right in the middle of it” is permitted by continued instances of the immediacy noted earlier:
This style, where things are being brought to the narrative attention abruptly, only as they impact upon Sammy’s senses, is a means of expression quite alien to that dominant mode of fiction whereby everything is introduced, described, and moderated by a narrator. It calls to mind the textual strategies of Franz Kafka, who was writing at a time when combatting the classic (19th century) novel narrator was at the forefront of the minds of the great prose writers. This is a very brief extract from The Castle:
A large room, dimly lit. Coming in from the lane, one saw nothing at first. K stumbled against a washing-trough, a woman’s hand restrained him. (p11)
This kind of movement, the immediacy and lack of orientation or moderation, would have been inconceivable in much of published English prose in preceding ages. It’s still unthinkable now in a proportion of the most celebrated literature of this era, but Kelman was working in that same tradition as Kafka from the 1970s onwards, meaning our view is locked in sync with the perceptive reality of Sammy, as it was with K in the quotation from The Castle. This style facilitates these moments of surprise sensation and recognition:
Deep breaths. A car going by, it sounded like a taxi.
Wild. Fucking wild.
He brought his shoulder away from the wall … (p38)
It is minute-to-minute experience, rendered beautifully, involving the reader as closely as is possible via the written word. Too unnerved to craft a full sentence as he sucks in air, the sound of the vehicle sets off the thought that it was a taxi, then the reaction that is not explicated or defined, it’s just “Wild. Fucking wild.” A totally organic and relatable expression for that guy, Sammy, in that surreal situation.
This momentary nature of the narrative enables further innovatory textual effects too:
He didnay die in the cell he was fucking put there.
That’s a serious thing to say.
It’s actually very serious, said the English guy.
Sammy turned his head from them, he took a big drag on the fag, in case it was the last. There was a bit of muttering from behind him. Fucking bampots, they think they’re wide; they think they’re fucking wide. Ye just let them get on with it. That’s all ye do. And ye dont fucking aggravate them man ye dont fucking aggravate them. It was yous fucking killed him, he said. (p202)
Unlike the example cited earlier regarding Ally the rep, when there was some uncertainty over whether Sammy’s action was premeditated or not, here it seems very clear that emotion has spontaneously overcome logic/rationality, because Sammy, in one breath, is urging himself not to say anything provocative, he is trying, and you can actually see and feel that effort, but in the next breath, he has thrown that aside and blurted out exactly what he was consciously striving to avoid. Sammy is painfully human, painfully at the mercy of his own foibles, his own mentality, and this type of narration allows us access to his inner machinations; at the same time, lending the story a fluidity, and an unpredictable excitement, a shifting, shimmering surface that it could not possess otherwise.
The voice of Sammy is again strong and distinctive and immersive in that quotation – “There was a bit of muttering behind him. Fucking bampots, they think they’re wide…” The first clause here appearing as orthodox third-person narration, the second clause pure voice, yet both existing within the same moment, parts of the same register, within the same flow. As Aaron Kelly described:
Kelly’s statement that this “is not just transcribed speech” is obvious of course, but it was doubtlessly thought to be a distinction necessary to make explicit due to the already cited and dismissed silliness of Mr Jenkins of The Times (a topic I won’t go into further detail on here as it was already covered adequately in my essay on Hubert Selby Jr, which can be read here). A primary mechanism that permitted Kelman to create this “text that is more than a text” is his eschewal of quotation marks and fusing of narrative and dialogue (something also discussed at length in the Selby piece). With reference to Kelman, Simon Kovesi wrote:
Again, the bold text has been applied by me, not Professor Kovesi. It’s an interesting point to consider, why first-person was not deemed suitable for How Late It Was. I have already speculated over how the “concurrent limitations of that first-person” (which I interpret to be absolute fidelity and sincerity of the narrator’s thoughts) would have lessened the sensation of uncertainty and surprise in the reader (when Sammy crumpled the document given by Ally, etc). Yet a more significant answer is likely to be due to the inability of a first-person narrator to allow Kelman to take that innovatory stylistic step (and the very meaningful political leap) of having an ostensibly third-person narrator, but who is part of the same culture as the foremost character, and has no form of superiority over that character, neither linguistically nor in terms of viewpoint, knowledge, or control – which is a critical part of the vast artistic accomplishment of How Late It Was.
The academic and noted Kelman scholar Dr Scott Hames asked Kelman about his rejection of the first-person style in an interview to be published soon as part of an interviews collection (see jameskelman.net/forthcoming), and somewhat different territory was strayed into in the response:
In attempting to truly understand the narrative artistry of How Late It Was, and in light of this quotation, it is essential to try and grasp what this ‘fine-tuning’ was that occurred between Kelman’s exceptional first novel, The Busconductor Hines (1984), and the publication of How Late It Was a decade later. Having considered the approach and the techniques within both books, I believe the ‘fine-tuning’ is constituted by slight changes in narrative distance; allowing us to be closer to the perceptive faculties of Sammy than we often were with Rab Hines.
If we focus on that famous first line of TBH:
At its time of publication, there was debate among critics over the legitimacy of that opening to the book – of Kelman’s decision to ignore (subvert? circumvent?) standard grammar to have this as one sentence separated by a comma, rather than two distinct sentences demarcated by full-stop/capital letter. Kelman’s point in reply, that one thing happens in direct relation to the other, justifies the composition of the sentence on the basis of a situational reality, as opposed to the fabricated rules of grammar.
By the time How Late It Was is published, Kelman has moved this technique not one but several steps further forward:
Much like in the opening line from TBH, Kelman sees no value in imposing grammatical constraints on literary art, so doesn’t separate these linguistic clauses. Yet now, there is no comma either. This evidence suggesting that, like the aforementioned Hubert Selby and even going back to writers like Samuel Selvon or Samuel Beckett or Georg Buchner, Kelman will disregard punctuation and grammar entirely if necessary, in order to convey properly the sense and sensation of the moment, as experienced by a focalizing character. As in TBH, the circumstance is the protagonist making a quick physical reaction to a stimulus; jumping upwards. However, in the TBH instance of this, the two clauses come from the realm and discourse of the narrative entity – there is no modulation in perspective or tone, no apparent point of origin from within Rab’s subjectivity. By contrast, “Already for fuck sake” feels very much like a representation of Sammy’s inner voice, whereas “Sammy jumped up fast” is a narrator’s accompanying commentary of the immediate event. So not only are related actions no longer bound to be separated or demarcated grammatically, different focalizations and narrative modes are being fused into a single narrative stream. The effect being, to use the writer’s phrase once more, for the reader, and narrator, and character, and writer, to all “be right in the middle of it” together.
Kelman was clearly engaged in an active re-making and re-modelling of literary prose in the creation of How Late It Was, ignoring classic or traditional distinctions between narrative and dialogue in a concerted attempt to give the character to us as authentically and fully as possible. Language is of course the medium in which this must occur, and Kelman wrote very powerfully about these endeavours in his essay, ‘And the judges said…’:
Thinking of How Late It Was as part of “the struggle as towards a self-contained world” is vital to a full appreciation of its narrative artistry. The ‘self-contained world’ in this case is Sammy’s world, the world of his perceptions and emotions; it can and should be nothing else whatsoever except that. In the interview already quoted that myself and Alan McMunnigall conducted with James Kelman for thi wurd issue #3, he went into some detail on this, explaining how this struggle was conducted on the page:
The means of expression for Sammy’s ‘self-contained world’ has to be “local rhythms of speech”, which is the very fabric of How Late It Was; Sammy’s own ‘ways of speaking’. On every page, in every line, every breath, the reader feels these rhythms, and much like the best Caribbean or African literature I’ve read (most of it thanks to the mentions and recommendations to be found in Kelman’s non-fiction), there is no other beauty possible in prose to match the authentic, artistically-rendered form of language as spoken within a particular community, with all of its inherent richness, nuance, and subtlety. All of the quotations given so far from How Late It Was provide perfect examples of this form of writing.
An article in The Guardian tried to locate Kelman within a tradition of this linguistically organic narration:
Interestingly, James Wood also noted the greater commitment to a linguistic authenticity in How Late It Was as compared to his great antecedent in this regard, James Joyce:
Kelman’s commitment to the ‘self-contained world’ is absolute. Although Sammy does exhibit linguistic variation in the book (as every human does virtually every day of their lives), Kelman never imposes a register alien to him upon the narrative, as both Wood and The Guardian’s Sam Jordison suggest that Joyce did. We return to the idea of community and culture as the guiding principles of Kelman’s narrative expression. As Kovesi noted:
This is complemented by a statement from the Nigerian writer Gabriel Okara, in his essay from 1963, ‘African Speech … English Words’:
The pertinent point here, and it is something that I personally feel very strongly about, is that for artists like Kelman (and Okara), there is no choice to be made over the narrative language in a work of fiction. When a writer conceives of a focalizing character that they feel compelled to write the story of, as Kelman did with Sammy, the language used must belong to that character – it is a necessity. The alternative – of imposing a different (‘superior’) form of ‘literary’ English upon a character (as Wood and Jordison accuse Joyce of doing) – is ultimately to euthanize that character, as how can they truly exist if they think and speak in a voice not their own?
I return again to the moronic scrawlings of Simon Jenkins, when he bemoaned that Kelman didn’t opt to render How Late It Was in “Older Scottish, or Scots English, or Lallans, or any dialect of Burns’ ‘Guid Scots tongue’,” as if there could be a choice to make on this. How, and why, would Sammy speak in an accent alien to his socio-cultural/socio-economic background and experience? It is illogical, it is impossible. Unless of course, you are conjuring up nonsensical entities that could never exist or have existed, as many inferior writers summarily do.
When Duncan McLean, himself the author of some brilliant books of prose fiction in the ‘90s (see here), asked Kelman about the ‘vernacular’ language of his work in an interview in the 1980s, the response was as follows:
He is underlining the point that language in fiction is not a choice, it is a commitment to character, to a person, to a sincere representation of that person. Such issues are a constant frustration when discussing literature – I recall a spirited debate I had with somewhat of a writer friend who complained that although Tom Leonard’s work was indeed great, the language was often ‘relentless’ and ‘repetitive’, and that he should have ‘used it less’. To which the obvious and repeated response was and could only be: It isn’t a choice. If the conceived character-narrator of a poem or piece of prose uses language in a certain way, then it must be enacted as such, otherwise the work can have no integrity. Indeed, in 1994 The Economist published an article, the ‘Booker Form Guide’, in which it criticized How Late It Was for a “crude, limited vocabulary”, which moves from at first “startling” and even “mesmerising” through to becoming “numbing” and “finally, borrrring” (not sure what the four r’s were supposed to signify). It’s as though people think of language as just another literary device that can be used or dropped as readily as say, overuse of similes or excessive description. Ludicrous, it is just ludicrous. To wish for artists like Kelman or Leonard to “use” a form of language “less” is actually a wish for them to be a different kind of artist to the ones they are in reality. It is also an inadvertent confession that you do not understand or deserve their work.
This lack of understanding of narrative and linguistic artistry affects authors of many cultures also. Kelman himself published an essay on the Nigerian novelist Amos Tutuola in a recent edition of Wasafiri magazine, detailing the similar difficulties Tutuola had faced:
The imposition of this linguistic arsenal, this so-called ‘literary language’ would have killed our stories stone-dead…
…There was none of that in Tutuola’s work, only the attempt to render as precisely as possible the stories from within his own culture, and narrated by characters from the same culture in the oral form for the page, using both transcriptions of oral and literary techniques…
Tutuola breathed life into the deadening voice of the coloniser; the life derives from the rhythms and speech patterns of the language(s) indigenous to his people and culture. The contemporary tradition of which he is at the heart, in direct opposition to assimilation, also reaches beyond Nigeria and Africa. It is a tradition that has endured the horrors of imperialism and at the depth of that pit has clung on at an existential level, and moved from there.
A recognition of many of the same passions and beliefs as inform Kelman’s own work. Unfortunately, Tutuola has also been misunderstood and downgraded within his own culture. The following well-meaning quotation is from the introductory essay to the 1964 Faber edition of Tutuola’s short novel, ‘My Life in the Bush of Ghosts’. The essayist is a Nigerian academic, the Reverend Geoffrey Parrinder:
Even as the good Reverend is attempting to promote Tutuola to a Western audience, there has to be that abashed acknowledgement that – despite the fact that Tutuola is writing in a second, non-native language, and to a standard which makes a large and successful Western publisher wish to bring his work to its readership’s attention, and despite also that Tutuola has somehow managed to authentically and beautifully render the experiences and descriptions of his culture in that second language in a relatable manner (thereby negotiating all of the distances of custom and expression) – his style is, according to Parrinder, “not polished or sophisticated”. But of course, given the circumstances outlined here, his work and style must be far more polished and sophisticated than a native English speaker just writing straightforward prose within his/her own idiolect, free of any concerns over how to navigate a range of potential cultural and semantic voids?
Soren Kierkegaard, writing in the mid-19th century, spoke of language as “being partly something originally given, partly that which develops freely” – it is an unfortunate truth that many people, such as Reverend Parrinder, still seem fixated on Kierkegaard’s first point, and ignorant of his second.
It appears to be an inbuilt belief to most speakers of English, native and non-native, that anything other than “correct” grammar, spelling and punctuation must be somehow inferior – in spite of the knowledge that every halfway diligent school pupil can have learned all there is to know about semi-colons and subordinate clauses by their teen years, whereas a serious prose artist has to purposefully expend time and effort to free him/herself from that limited register and way of thinking, so that they may write expressively and in tune with a living language as it’s used daily by real people.
The question of value is something that Kelman has considered in his non-fiction writing:
For people like Gerald Warner, presumably this is what good art is about. We live in an age where meaningless and incongruous and soulless exhibitions of erudition in the novel form is the subject of critical rhapsody – especially if it is laid out for display in perfect Queen’s English.
The riposte to that remains that written English isn’t actually very complicated or difficult. It is a misapprehension to think that it is. Anyone who is ‘well-schooled’ can write perfectly valid, acceptable, possibly even sophisticated formal English, regardless of whether they have anything remotely interesting or meaningful to write or not. But written English does not and cannot mimic verbal expression. It is a fixed, dead system, consisting of rules, regulations, and conventions. This is why many writers choose to reject these confines – as I am doing now, throughout this piece of non-fiction writing. My emphasis, my choice of punctuation, my sentence construction, are not possible within the tenets of grammar. To step away from this and work with words and punctuation however I choose is something I doubt would have entered my mind had I not encountered the work of Kelman, and Leonard. To express yourself precisely by using the various aspects of a language in English as you see fit rather than how rules dictate is far more “polished and sophisticated” than living solely and endlessly within a ruleset you learned at secondary school.
I wonder, if Geoffrey Parrinder had read and considered Kelman’s comments from an article in the New York Times…
…would it have dawned on him just how far the prosaic renderings of writers like Tutuola and Kelman are in advance of the Anglified, standardized mulch that clogs up so many bookshelves here in the West?
However, as was widely publicized at the time, many of those disparate, dissenting voices upon the publication of How Late It Was were focused not on its grammar, but on the “bad” language (aye, the naughty words) within the book – even though this essay is in effect an attempt at a comprehensive survey of the novel and its critical context, considering in brief all of its major textual features and strands, I won’t give pause to that particular topic, seeing as it’s a battle fought and won decisively by the forces of good sense many a time in the years since, and not really worthy of being taken seriously in 2019. The only interesting comment I came across on the weary subject of ‘swear words’ in How Late It Was was in an essay called Swearing Blind by Willy Maley, and this is included in the Appendix.
Far more intriguing in terms of the literary responses to the book was an assertion made by the Booker Prize judge and now infamous tantrum-thrower, the Rabbi Julia Neuberger, and bewilderingly concurred with by the scholar Mary McGlynn:
A very curious ‘charge’ to level at a novel; that it “never changes in tone.” And having considered the point from various angles, not only can I not see how such a statement could be taken to possess any real modicum of truth or validity, I think it also points to a certain form of prejudice that many ‘writers of voice’ have to suffer from short-sighted critics and reviewers.
I believe that most people would take ‘tone’, when referring to a work of literature, to be the emotional tincture of the prose – specific sections of stories or novels that can be said to have a melancholic tone, or a manic/frenzied one, or a tone of fury, of passion, of disarray, of elation, and so forth. I immediately think of the ominous, brooding, and awful tone of Sabato’s great novel, The Tunnel, or the famously hazy, looping, joyful tone of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy. So if this was indeed the meaning intended by Neuberger, it can be shown to be objectively and definitively false.
Consider these two extracts, the first from when Sammy is alone at home, bathing peacefully, and the following one from earlier in the story as he tries to cross a busy street:
Help! Get me off the road! Help!
He kicked about with his right foot to get the kerb. Help! I’m blind I’m bloody blind, I cannay see. Help!
He says he’s blind.
Get us on the pavement help!
Ye’re on the pavement.
This hand from nowhere gripping him by the forearm and another hand up near his shoulder, and a voice: Ye alright?
Aye… Sammy heard his own voice, it was croaking. (p41)
It’s quite difficult to envisage two examples from another book where the emotional tone would be so radically different. In the bath, Sammy is in a state of pure contentment and relaxation – the jocular nature of his thoughts as they filter through his mind, fantasised conversations, laughter, that feeling of security and comfort (fleeting though it may be), the warmth, humanity and affection brought about by the imagined presence of Helen, and the onrunning metaphorical sentence, the idyllic image of the whale – all of this juxtaposed fiercely with the abject horror of Sammy being out on the road, sightless, as sounds and impressions crash into his consciousness suddenly and haphazardly, staccato sentences alerting him to warnings and possible dangers, disembodied, dislocated words in the air around him, the narrative veering from the voice of Sammy’s internal pleas (“Surely no. Surely…”) to a view from outside of himself; how his voice would be sounding to others, its frightened ‘croaking’ timbre.
The contention drawn from this comparison is that on account of the commitment to the character’s voice in How Late It Was, the difference in emotional tone is much more radical, vivid, and pronounced than if the book had been written in a more conventional narrative style, with a more detached narrator. Only by having the narrative movements and tenor mimic the thought-processes of the central character could such a divergence in emotional tone be achieved; in actuality the scenario appears to be the opposite of what Neuberger suggested.
The only other (conscious) possibility for the Rabbi’s allegation as far as I can conceive of it would be something more akin to a ‘linguistic tone’ rather than an emotional tone, but again, any notion of accepting this as valid critique quickly becomes fraught with difficulty. Indeed, it relates back to the earlier point regarding ‘choice’ – the quote from McGlynn’s work notes that “we do not leave Sammy’s language”, seemingly in support of Neuberger’s criticism. How could we leave Sammy’s language though, when it’s so patently clear that the book is an excavation of his conscious mind, his thoughts, his speech, with a narrative deeply embedded within his culture? It seems absurd for Neuberger to imply that the writer is making an (erroneous) artistic choice to refuse to deviate from this for the sake of an incongruous and untenable linguistic diversity in the text.
The argument thus far doesn’t even take into account that, like any other person who can speak, Sammy does exhibit natural linguistic diversity and changes in tone anyway:
Sammy moves often from a highly repetitive, cyclical, undetermined flow of incomplete or partial sentences (“this fucking utter black fucking”) to moments of a far more concrete, assured, descriptive mode of articulation (“a dark cavern of mental solitude”); the latter being language in “quasi-Beckettian terms” according to Laurence Nicoll.
Dissonances in tone, emotional or linguistic, such as the examples given here (on reflection, both could also function as examples of the other form of tone-change), demonstrate that the ‘charge’ laid by Neuberger is so unambiguously false that it provokes further thought on why such a claim was made. As intimated earlier, I believe prejudice is the root-cause (I don’t implicate Mary McGlynn in this at all; her interpretation of Neuberger’s point is evidently very different to the one I am proffering here). What Neuberger actually meant was that it’s Sammy himself who never changes – ask yourself, would this same criticism have been made about many of the linguistically-homogenous English classics of the past few hundred years? Sammy is always included within the narrative medium, his voice is never overthrown by an RP narrator, we never step away and see him judged or scorned by a speaker of a more “eloquent” authority – all these standard tropes of the classic English novel that have been disavowed completely by Kelman, and it is that unchanging situation which wearies Neuberger and her ilk.
Much like poor Simon Jenkins and his traumatic memory of once having to share a train-carriage with a loathsome specimen of Glaswegian masculinity, readers such as Neuberger simply do not wish to co-exist with people they consider beneath them, in art or in life, but clothe this ugliness in the façade of a nonsensical complaint about ‘tone’, in a similar way to how Conservative Party politicians swathe their latent racism with a lot of insulting crap about the economy and ‘British values’; and it is incumbent upon the serious reader to forever challenge these glib and sinister judgements.
The best antidote to the frustrations and irritations brought on by such spurious criticisms is to return to taking pleasure in the artistic and aesthetic substance of the novel. There are further layers to the sophistication of the style of How Late It Was not yet discussed; firstly those junctures where the narrative appears to be a dialogue between two different people, Sammy and a separate, nebulous narrator:
Whereas at other points, there appears to be instances of a detachment approaching a regular third-person style, leaving the narrator looking at Sammy, considering and articulating his plight for him:
…The bold Sammy
Ach he was making it, he was doing it his own way. Nay point pulling the plug on him after all. There was a wee bit of hallucinating going on but no that much, no when ye come to consider it. It was like he knew it was happening, so he got on top of it, when it started, he stopped it. (p51)
After they straightened him out he was in a patrol car… (p6)
I’ve given a selection of extracts here with the aim of capturing just how varied the narration is, even within the specific area of third-person perspective. The first quotation is straightforward externality, the “as if” denoting that this is the narrator’s observation, not an internal comment. The next two are examples of how the novel resists categorisation as either ‘transcription’ (that (in)famous Jenkins quote, “transcribing the thoughts of a Glaswegian drunk”), or stream-of-consciousness, or monologue, etc. The narrative entity is exerting a form of filter over the rendering of the story, which emphasizes that this is a consciously, artfully constructed account of Sammy’s tale and not simply a stream of events occurring, and also shows there is a level of compassion and kinship between this articulating entity and Sammy the person – emphasizing that this is a work of humanity, and of empathy. The sensation/effect of Sammy receiving the policeman’s boot in his gut are not offered, nor is the agonizing blow-by-blow toil of him reaching his flat for the first time as a blind man.
But the division of the narrator and Sammy is not simple, nor stable. When Cairns Craig termed this style as “self-address”, he was hinting at the possibility that the narrator and Sammy are in fact indivisible; that the narrative mode could as easily be a device, a pose, that Sammy himself is utilising, with the possible objective of conveying his life as being worthy of recording as narrative.
Aaron Kelly quoted Mikhail Bahktin when discussing this type of narrative dichotomy:
Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground (1864) is widely accepted to be one of the most significant works in modern literature, and is often viewed as the inception of the existential tradition in prose fiction. With Kelman noting the “European existential” at the forefront of his own influences, as well as identifying Dostoyevsky by name in multiple interviews, it seems likely to presume the parallels between How Late It Was and the desperate account of the Underground Man suggest an influence on Kelman’s formulation of Sammy’s narrative.
This fluid, indeterminate style, described so well by Bahktin, where the narrator can switch continuously between narration, reflection, and commentary, permits the techniques and movements that mean How Late It Was seethes with life and music, as events oscillate within Sammy’s mind. When Sammy recounts a memory near the middle of the book, the different layers of narrative synthesize beautifully to allow the interlude to function not only as a perfectly-observed technical and artistic movement into a past narrative, but as a touching backstory that gives a glimpse of his previous life, of what led him to his dark and difficult current situation, and provides a view of him via his relationship with Helen, what their dynamic together was like:
Fucking hell. Auld Jackie but, sad as fuck. He was still doing time, unless he was dead, probably he was dead. He was from Liverpool. What happened was he went to the Smoke to do a bit of business for people… (p140) – text in bold for the purpose of this essay
And how it concludes three pages later, bringing us back to the narrative-present:
Fucking hopeless. Nay point talking about it. Ye shouldnay fucking talk about it. Nothing to talk about anyway it’s fucking just
it’s fuck all, it doesnay matter, ye know, doesnay fucking matter, just get it out the fucking road.
Helen; she went right in on Jackie. How the fuck did he get you! A nineteen-year-auld boy.
So fucking what, the guy was desperate, nay point in fucking going into all that.
But here he telt a lie. He telt Helen that Jackie was originally looking for Sammy’s mate; he was looking for Sammy’s mate cause he knew he was a good punter. Whereas it was Sammy he was looking for cause it was Sammy was the punter. It wasnay major money he betted but it was everything he had in his pocket. Auld Jackie had sussed that. So there ye go. We’re all fucking desperate man know what I mean.
So that was that. That was fucking Helen man. Ye might have thought she would have got upset about the lassie left with the fucking cowboys but she didnay. She didnay seem to anyway. Fuck it. (p143)
So much of the distinctive beauty of How Late It Was can be found in these brief excerpts. In the more conventional novel, backstory is delved into in a far more direct fashion – the lines given in bold in the first excerpt would be the entirety of the movement into backstory; a standard simple method of setting up and then delivering a story-within-a-story. In How Late It Was, nothing has such naked purpose, and nothing is quite so linear.
Firstly, this isn’t merely a memory being recalled. It is Sammy’s memory of a time that he recounted the story of a certain memory. After he introduces the “auld yin about him and Jackie Milligan”, there is a paragraph that seemingly relates to the content of the story, but is really giving us more about Sammy’s character and personality, by way of his opinions, his relationship to/with Helen, and with himself. He reveals more about his life and his opinion of Jackie and the kind of world they inhabited together, before he makes the resolution to actually tell that story.
This backstory arc is concluded firstly in direct terms (“Fucking hopeless. Nay point talking about it.”), then we’re back with when he first told this to Helen (“she went right in on Jackie. How the fuck…”), and finally returning to the present again (“So that was that. That was fucking Helen…”). Backstory in How Late It Was is being not accessed directly, it is reached only through that additional layer (or two) of Sammy’s consciousness, his thoughts, memories, and emotions. The impact of this being that the narrative is suffused completely; it isn’t a story about Sammy, the story is Sammy. The tone during the fleeting mentions of Helen are as significant as the content of the anecdote that was relayed to her. The tragedy of Sammy, his difficulty in recognizing and accepting how his life has gone, his desire to reach an understanding of this and of Helen, could not be communicated as deeply or as evocatively without that layer of voice, of thought, of reflection and inner lamentation.
The correlation between narrative language in How Late It Was and the rendering of the human thought-process in words was something my friend Alan McMunnigall wrote perceptively on in his introduction to thi wurd issue #3:
It can be quite an odd and unsettling experience for the reader, the first time they encounter writing that so closely represents thought, rather than adhering to a more formal/prosaic method of presentation. Being, at the time of my first reading of How Late It Was, unfamiliar with the work of Selby or Beckett or Jean Rhys, it was the aspect of the book that I found most bizarre, arresting, and even thrilling. Never before had I seen sentences falter, dissolve, reconstitute, and re-emerge in this manner:
ya fucking blawhard bastards ye want to see cheeky I’ll fucking show ye cheeky
Sammy sniffed. So he could give me a check-up. (p171)
He would never be able to see again.
So fucking what; ye still had yer fucking ears, yer nose, yer bastarn fucking stick
He stopped and took off the shades. It was still raining (p286)
The first quotation is indicative of a highly singular form of narrative – this was conveyed perfectly by James Wood, who acclaimed Kelman’s “strange new sentences” as “brilliant adventures in thought”. Reading these “strange new sentences” were revolutionary moments for me – once I had seen that a sentence could be abandoned in mid-flow because it was being superseded in narrative ‘real-time’ within the mind of the focalizing character, I couldn’t believe it hadn’t occurred to me before, or that every writer wasn’t doing this constantly. What a liberation! And what voice, what emotion. As McMunnigall observed, the interruption to the current/previous sentence gives the impression of the words being “constructed live”, and the sentiments expressed aid the feeling that “we become the character, thinking these thoughts”, so implicated are we in the frustration and anger Sammy is caught up in.
This is exceeded by the effects of the second and third excerpts however – which are instances of narrative artistry verging on a study of human psychology, the like of which is seen very rarely in the novel form. For all the bombast about famous archetypes of stream-of-consciousness, when else has the un- or sub- conscious mind been so artfully dissected? Sammy is joking with himself, again trying to raise his own beleaguered spirits, talking of his heroes of American country music, then the thought just appears in his mind from nowhere, Craig’s “self-address” again, a thought that has presumably been lying dormant in his psyche, haunting his subconscious, lingering just underneath the surface of awareness, as he gamely goes about his daily life, but just like it operates within every sentient being, the neglected premonition is suddenly there, unbidden, obfuscating the mind’s eye, where it must finally be recognized and confronted. It allows Sammy to then reveal himself, his spirit and his stoicism, in his own words, battling away against his worst fears.
The abrupt re-appearance of a persistent worry is evident in the third quotation also, though this time it’s the re-enactment of an argument with Helen; the all-too-recognizable human trait of re-playing a fight over and over again, regardless of what else you (think you) are focused on. The section quoted exhibits Sammy’s streetwise wisdom, his self-reflection and his mode of chiding self-address, the rhythm of his voice and idiomatic phrasing, his stream of discourse intermingling pseudo-philosophical remonstration with everyday worries (further evidence against Sue Vice’s distinction between these), and varying sentence types and lengths to represent the formation of thoughts as they materialize.
Sections and moments such as these are the focus of Uwe Zagratzki’s wonderful essay, ‘Blues Fell This Morning’, which explores Kelman’s identification with Afro-American music and culture via How Late It Was. Zagratzki writes:
These quotations cover primarily (i) time, and (ii) audience, and the analogies presented by Zagratzki are both illuminating and meaningful. Although How Late It Was is strictly speaking written in past-tense, the narrative very clearly possesses a kind of immediacy that is radically divergent from a standard use of third-person past-tense. The opening of Leroy Carr’s song is effectively the beginning of How Late It Was, albeit greatly simplified and truncated. And Jeff Todd Titon’s comment on how blues singers would appear as if they were composing “piece by piece” during a performance is but a different wording of the way Alan McMunnigall described Kelman’s sentence structures. Zagratzki’s term for How Late It Was, his “written rap” (he later also refers to the book as Kelman’s “city blues” – and gives the blues definition from Ralph Ellison as used in the epigraph), emphasizes the implied relationship between the “breathlessness of their spontaneous articulation” with regard to blues lyricism and singing, and Sammy’s living, breathing, thinking articulations of his own struggles.
Zagratzki likens Sammy’s mode of expression to blues music that was directed to, at, and for audiences – and in these two art-forms, both in the repeating grind and scream of the blues and in Sammy’s constant inward maxims (“Ye werenay as strong as ye thought” / “So ye had to be on yer guard”), the effect is inviting the listeners/readers to identify, understand, empathize, and take solace in the act of recognition of life’s tribulations, and what it takes from a person to overcome, or just keep on bloody going.
A deeper synergy between How Late It Was and Afro-American culture is explicated by Zagratzki via a concentration on rhythm as the foundation of a profound existential and political affinity:
When Zagratzki writes “though the words and metaphors may have altered, what remains is the rhythm of life” and “connecting to the internal rhythm of another culture in resistance”, I view this as a form of socialist parallel with the sentiments expressed in Kelman’s Afterword to the 2007 edition of his collection, ‘An Old Pub Near The Angel’:
Both Zagratzki’s points and those expressed here by Kelman indicate to the socialist belief that class experience is a more intimate and meaningful means of identification than mere nationality or location. There are people all over the world across many different cultures who would gain an acute understanding of and empathy with Sammy’s suffering due to his treatment by the authorities, and his experiences that have been conveyed in his own language; many have recognized and felt the “rhythm of life” as it beats through Sammy’s narrative, irrespective of differences in geography or native tongue.
Kelman does universalize this concept of syntactical rhythm when he explained it in physiological terms to Duncan McLean:
The closing sentence expresses his alienation from “mainstream English literature” and his explains his conscious divergence from it through his work in prose. The syntactical structures in How Late It Was may very well have been the “cultural surplus” that made the novel so difficult for some of the critics already cited; but which also endeared it to myself and so many other members of a “culture in resistance”.
The following section is an evocation of “the way blood goes through your head” in times of distress:
happening to him it was happening to him, oh christ man it was happening to him and he started breathing deep and his shoulders rocking, he couldnay stop them, now scratching at his chin and neck, clawing, like there was wee creepy-crawlies under the surface, clawing at his face round the cheekbones pulling the flesh down below the eye sockets, okay, okay, the breathing, just the breathing just the breathing, unscrew yer eyes and get rid of it, rid of it
the guy’s voice
Aye I’m alright I’m alright. (p197)
This excerpt is an obvious instance of what Zagratzki termed the “rhythm of life”, as the reader need not have a vast knowledge of all of the vagaries of the official written English language in order to appreciate the feelings generated by reading these lines. It disregards and rejects the standards of English syntax entirely, with the aim of representing the full thrust of these emotions; something that is more in harmony with music than with the great canon of prose – emotions being universal, the English novel-form not so.
Anyone who has felt the sort of panic and horror that Sammy is suffering when he stammers “happening to him it was happening to him, oh christ man it was happening to him” would surely recognize this painfully lucid illustration of emotion. This emotion is not described using a literary terminology – the flow of the words is an evocation of the feelings being experienced.
Writing of this nature is what prompted the inclusion of the quotation from Henry Miller’s glorious novel, ‘Tropic of Cancer’, in the epigraph:
Despite Miller’s great achievements in prose (especially in the book quoted here) and his enduring popularity and success, given contemporary trends in the novel I am unconvinced his “resurrection of emotions” ever became the dominant form of literary fiction. Thankfully though, there are writers like James Kelman, whose courage and innovation keep putting characters and readers into that “grip of delirium”; Sammy being a timelessly stunning execution of this.
As already shown in many of the quotations given from How Late It Was, especially the last one from p197, one of the most effective features of how Kelman uses language and syntax is the way it allows him to convey anguish; the type of anguish cited by Zagratzki as being common to the Afro-American cultural experience.
Anguish and its expression was also a central element of that tradition that Kelman identified himself as consciously writing within – the European existential. It may be instructive to consider how Kelman’s representations of anguish differ from some of his great existential predecessors, in order to gain a wider understanding of his stylistic innovation in How Late It Was.
Samuel Beckett wrote of anguish as often and as artfully as any writer has, notably at the start of his exquisite story, ‘The Calmative’:
In a different manner, Beckett also resists strict compliance with the mores of conventional grammar; the last line of the extract uses repetition in a similar way to Sammy, the sentence reflecting the speaker’s onrunning, fearful assurances inward to himself. Yet The Calmative differs greatly from How Late It Was when the linguistic tone and register of the prose is considered. Although Edwin Morgan may have been quite correct when he distinguished Beckett by the “marked un-Englishness of the tone of voice”, Beckett’s effect of anguish is more semantic than syntactic. As a very passionate fan of Beckett’s prose and drama, I have a deep appreciation for the verbal perfection of “the great red lapses of the heart” and the horrible implications of “the slow killings to finish in my skull”, it is a very affecting passage, but the difference to note here is that these phrases are language that, on the surface, transmit the anguish over to the reader, without conveying any actual sensation of that emotion in the speaker – there is a sort of metaphysical coolness in the descriptions, listing these terrors in a disturbed yet almost casual fashion. It’s an altogether different medium to Kelman’s far more impressionistic “it was happening to him, oh christ man”.
James Wood elaborated on this difference between these two writers as follows:
The distinction Wood makes is fair, and possibly accurate in this context, although I wouldn’t necessarily agree with his implication that Kelman consciously minimizes or excludes metaphysics for the crime of being “offensively luxurious”; in the case of Samuels, I believe he eschews such a dimension because Sammy’s form of anguish is, like the blues artists discussed by Zagratzki, located firmly and exclusively in the toil and the minutiae of everyday existence, which leaves little time or opportunity for detached or wider ponderings unconnected to the immediate situation.
Another practitioner of the rendering of existential anguish, Knut Hamsun, expressed it in the following manner in his masterpiece from 1890, Hunger:
The first two sentences here are an instance of the same narrative strategy already identified in the prose of both Kelman and Kafka, designed to give the story that immediacy of sense-perception, of being bound with the character and never ahead of or above him/her. Like Sammy’s, Hamsun’s anguish is a less composed/controlled and more expressive and visceral form than Beckett’s; the difference in this case is in the narrative distance. Although Hamsun uses that same strategy at the beginning of this quoted section, his narrator then states: “I find myself in a most violent frenzy”; a means of self-awareness/reflection that is in conflict with Kelman’s statement given earlier: “You cannot describe what the character is doing, but be right in the middle of it”, and also with Jeff Todd Titon’s point from the Zagratzki essay, that blues artists seem to “compose… the song in the midst of performance.” Sammy cannot “find” himself in a “frenzy”, because he must be caught in that frenzy, therefore being unable to assess and describe it from a distance. Rather than communicate verbally to the reader that he is “breathing heavily and loudly and sobbing bitterly”, Kelman’s narrative position and syntax let the reader hear Sammy’s breathing, and see his sobbing (“okay, okay, the breathing, just the breathing just the breathing, unscrew yer eyes and get rid of it, rid of it”).
The point here being that, although How Late It Was would most likely not have been possible without the incredible technical breakthroughs, landmark works, and massive, lasting influence of writers like Hamsun and Beckett, there should also be wider acknowledgement that the periods that have passed since (and the important work that has continued to be done in that field in various ways at various times by Joyce, Camus, Sartre, Selvon, Selby, Achebe, and many others) have permitted Kelman to make a huge and innovatory contribution to that literary tradition, that is comparable in its artistry and significance to the work of those two European giants.
Indeed, whereas Beckett and Hamsun convey anguish in different yet equally recognizable literary methods, Kelman is often doing so in a manner that doesn’t really resemble ‘narrative’ or prose fiction as it is commonly known to readers in the West:
…But he’s fucking lying there in this fucking blindness, this fucking utter black fucking… fuck knows what, fucking limboland. (p175)
In an article written by Anna Travis, this style of writing is described as an attempt:
…an arrangement of thought units as they would originate in the character’s consciousness, rather than as they would be deliberately expressed…
The last point here is critical: “rather than as they would be deliberately expressed.” This is essentially the root of what sets Kelman’s writing apart from so many of his predecessors and contemporaries, and what has made him so problematic for the more conservative contemporary critic: that his writing can move into forms of expression that prize close representation of inner linguistic and/or conceptual processes above what may be considered (in conventional terms) artistically expedient or ‘pleasurable’ to read (I disagree vehemently, of course), such as that repetitious sequence of “comfy fucking comfy”. (Chinua Achebe underlined why writers should never be timid about working with language in this manner, when he stated: “The nondescript writer has little to tell us anyway, so he might as well tell it in conventional language and get it over with.”)
Kelman, in accordance with Miller’s sentiment from Tropic of Cancer, consistently places emotion right in the foreground of the How Late It Was narrative, ahead of any concerns regarding convention:
lonely, just fucking lonely, lonely lonely fucking lonely, lonely; that was his life, lonely. Christ almighty.
No now. Nay emotion left, fucking washed out, washed out, a washed out case. Nay
He was still having difficulty with the lungs… (pp60-1)
The last few lines of this extract feel like a song being composed and sung by Sammy, a method for trying to cope with the sheer desolation he is struggling with so badly, and the more rational last sentence may be a resultant emotional catharsis. This almost musical expression of emotion is something I feel Kelman is using to link Sammy’s story in an aesthetic sense to the musical influences present in the text – the blues music of black America, the country music of the South – and is a vital means of, as Zagratzki stated, maintaining a “resistance to cultural hegemony”.
This form of hegemony is the subject of John Carey’s magnificent study, ‘The Intellectuals and the Masses’, which examines the concept of ‘pure art’ as it proliferated in Britain in the 1920s & 30s. The following passage is in reference to a book written by a chap called Clive Bell and entitled ‘Civilization’ (upon which Virginia Woolf apparently worked as a consultant and confidante):
Although this may seem laughably prejudicial and imbecilic to us in 2019 (other than to the most shameless elitist), Carey’s book underscores what a popular mode of thought this was among the literate/lettered classes of the times. Society, and indeed literature, have both evolved substantially since Bell first crafted that stream of laughable and offensive rubbish, but many do still lament the contemporary novel’s fixation on erudition, definition, and comprehensiveness, that tend to ignore “what the grocer thinks he sees”.
This is effectively why I chose to include that line from Samuel Beckett in the epigraph: “I am no intellectual, all I am is feeling.” It goes without saying that Beckett, like Kelman, was a very serious and formidable intellectual, but I appreciate this sentiment in relation to art – that merely flexing the intellectual muscle on the page is not what artistic works are composed of at all, it is about a higher form of the intellect than that; the form whereby complex people and emotions are expressed honestly and insightfully through language.
Kelman spoke in this vein in the aforementioned Afterword from ’07:
Much of Carey’s book investigates the modernist literati’s concept of “amorphous mobs and baying multitudes”, and their belief that members of the ‘mob’ could not understand “pure art”. I believe this is what Sammy’s narrative combats directly, as he (like myself and other people who will be reading this essay) would be considered by Bell, Woolf etc as just another of the “baying multitude”, unworthy of artistic expression – indeed, barely worthy of being considered human at all (one short paragraph from Woolf’s diary given in the book sees the people she encounters being referred to as “fat white slugs” and “common little tarts”.)
It’s clear from his non-fiction output that, in order to create such a narrative, Kelman had to look outwith the literature of this British ‘Civilization’ to find artists who would inspire him, and help facilitate his rejection of “that conventional grammar”, to allow him to look at himself and the people around him and “gain entry into their psyches”, so that he may express in words the inner beat and turmoil of human souls. One of his primary means of doing so – something which has been noted already but deserves a formal consideration on account of its pervasive importance within How Late It Was – is his use of repetition. James Wood, in his 1994 response to the Booker Prize furore, entitled ‘In Defence of Kelman’, describes Kelman as a writer “whose organizing principle as a stylist is repetition.” The way he uses repetition seems much more readily and closely aligned with English language literatures from different cultures, some post-colonial, than to what F.R.Leavis termed the ‘Great Tradition’ of English prose. The first quotation below is from How Late It Was, the second is from Sozaboy (1985), a novel by the Nigerian writer Ken Saro-Wiwa.
Sammy made this funny groaning noise and stuck his fingers in his ears, swung his legs onto the settee and stretched out. (p319)
Whereas in the realm of classic English literature and “that conventional grammar”, such forms of repetitions would be culled by many editors and writers, Saro-Wiwa and Kelman, both agents of “resistance to cultural hegemony”, use it to convey the internal fretting and the suppression that these characters must put themselves through. Saro-Wiwa’s narrator is fixated on a vague spectre of “trouble”, it affects his every thought and utterance at this point of his story, even as he chides himself for lapsing into this pattern and tries to wrench himself free of it. Similarly, Sammy continually plans and resolves on his next move, as if to assure and convince himself, but his subsequent action proves that he's equally unsuccessful in escaping the emotional situation his repetitious utterances have exposed.
Sammy returns to this tactic near the end of the novel, trying to assuage himself and force through his resolution to exit by urging himself repeatedly:
…Okay. Socks and stuff. And relax, fast but controlled fast but controlled. Right. Okay. Okay, the socks and stuff, underwear and tee-shirts, underwear and tee-shirts. (p358)
The great drama critic Martin Esslin made some fascinating observations about this type of repetition in relation to Harold Pinter, another of literature’s great dialogical innovators:
It's apparent to anyone who has read a fair amount of mainstream English literature, or anyone who has spent years submitting their own fiction for publication, that the belief in repetition being “stylistically inelegant” is alive and well. I see this as linking directly to Clive Bell and ‘Civilization’ – ie, the conflation of genuine emotion in art with “sentimental irrelevancies” – meaning that a very formal ‘elegance’ is prioritised over forms of emotional expression. Writers like Saro-Wiwa, Pinter, and Kelman were all (and in Kelman’s case, still is) actively involved in harnessing ways of representing emotion, and repetition was a highly effective method of doing so, seeing as it is something that occurs naturally and constantly in our verbal exchanges with each other, especially during times of heightened tension.
Esslin’s point that “people in real-life do not deliver well thought-out set speeches” and that “spoken language is associative” leads to thoughts of how actual dialogue in constructed in How Late It Was; how Sammy’s verbally interacts with the other characters. One of the odd assertions in Andrew O’Hagan’s generally positive (yet curiously septic) review of How Late It Was was that:
It’s an opinion I cannot share, as the dialogue within How Late It Was comes to me as so very finely-honed; as authentic and naturalistic as in so many of his other novels and stories.
One of the most fraught encounters in the novel takes place when Sammy is visited at his table in the pub by Tam, a friend he saw on the fateful weekend:
I mean just fucking… Ach. Leave it.
Leave fuck all. Sammy leaned closer to Tam and whispered: Heh, ye want to know what I’ve been doing, eh! ye want to know? give ye the fucking wire Tam ye wanting to fucking know what I’ve been doing? see them, them fucking things? them things there, ye fucking see them! take a fucking look! eh! take a fucking look!
Sammy pulled the skin down beneath his eye-sockets. What d’ye think this is? Eh. Fuck sake.
He kept the skin pulled down for about six seconds, then got his right hand onto the whisky tumbler but left it where it was; he dragged on the cigarette. When he did lift it his hand was still shaking. (p282)
There are many other examples that could be drawn from within the novel that demonstrate a similarly pitch-perfect grasp of the nuances of speech within Sammy’s cultural nexus, although this section in particular is a microcosm of what makes dialogue in How Late It Was feel so consistently authentic and effective. It is impossible not to feel the barely suppressed rage when Tam is speaking, the concomitant fear that is prompting him to confront Sammy like this, his desperation for him and his wife and family to be cut adrift of what is happening, the inherent plea underneath the anger for Sammy to buffer them away from any involvement. Equally, it’s impossible, even from this very scant description, to not gain a vivid image of the police “just sitting there, eating chocolate biscuits and drinking cups of tea; laughing like fuck” – the sense is so clear of the police purposefully relaxing and joking outwardly in Tam’s living-room, while being fully aware of the fact that their presence there is a horror to Tam, a great fear within his family’s home, an imposition that he can do nothing about, a terrible portent, and a debilitating and degrading treatment to endure in front of his wife.
This is followed by Sammy, whose speech is also heavily weighted with subtext. His furious words convey his own rage, indignation, and helplessness, in the face of being attacked and blamed, now by someone of his own community, when of course he has suffered and continues to suffer much more acutely, and is equally powerless to help himself or Tam, while under assault from malevolent authority.
Their exchange conveys Esslin’s points on verbal language particularly well – Tam’s “stylistically inelegant” repetitions of “she’s fuckt, I’m fuckt, we’re all fuckt”, his associative juxtaposition of the innocent weans “sleeping ben the room”, and the very knowing laughter of the polis, “laughing like fuck”, Sammy’s staccato fury of “see them, them fucking things? them things there, ye fucking see them! take a fucking look! eh! take a fucking look!”, all of these utterances show how, as in life, emotion will override completely any notion or concept of well-formulated sentences or grammatical ‘correctness’. This type of dialogue feels and sounds not only beautifully real and alive, it holds within it so much more meaning and value than its mere literal content. Unlike Mr O’Hagan, I consider it to “so brilliantly, matchlessly” convey the realities, tensions, and horrors of the world Sammy inhabits.
A far more egregious mis-reading was perpetrated by the New York Times’ most eminent celebrity book critic of the era, Michiko Kakutani, who wrote:
I read criticism like this, and hear the voice of Sammy in my head: “Jesus Christ. It was unbelievable. Fucking unbelievable man really, it was unbelievable.” (p261) What other reaction is appropriate? The entire book is a close, fascinating, innovatory exploration of the character’s “real inner life” – he is not remotely passive. In fact quite the opposite is true, and I defy the reader to be able to resist sympathy with Sammy as he struggles onward through each page. Kakutani is failing to recognize the complexity of Sammy; presumably blinded or confused by a similar surface linguistic prejudice to some of the other critics mentioned earlier (“lexical paupers who are themselves not worth reading”, as James Wood referred to the book’s negative reviewers).
An illuminating sequence in relation to the character of Sammy occurs on page 114:
Ah rubbish. Ye aye get by. Who cares man, fucking eedjit, it was his own fault anyway, the guy knew the fucking rules and he fucking abused them man so that was that, end of story.
Sammy was sitting there.
It should be evident here that Sammy is not being held up as some sort of paragon or cipher – he is not the plucky and purely virtuous underdog. Although sympathy naturally flows towards a man who has just been beaten and blinded (unless you are Michiko Kakutani), this excerpt reveals a depth and moral dubiety to Sammy, showing him as a somewhat troubling assemblage of human compassion set against a world-weary and callous rationalism, gained via the tribulations of a life spent on the margins. Here we see Sammy’s clipped, resigned comments on himself (“blew his life early”), before recounting the story of the young man murdered in the prison. Of course, the only reason for thinking of this at all is compassion, a sad and wistful recognition of how the system he was (and will soon be) enmeshed in serves to destroy the hopes and lives of young people. Yet Sammy has been conditioned to cope with these realities by suppressing this natural inclination for compassion, forcing himself to not ruminate on the tragedy, which finds expression in him blaming the victim for the brutality he suffered.
Anna Travis described this facet of Sammy’s character by likening it to possession of and adherence to an “inner logic”:
Travis is here underlining why Sammy is so far from being an “utterly passive creature”. When Sammy says “Ye aye get by” in the quotation above, when he says “Ye just plough on” as Travis identified, this stoicism, this instinct for survival, is his form of agency in the face of the unified fronts of hostile, suspicious, and intractable authority. Passivity would be to meekly jump through all hoops presented by the DSS, to cooperate unconditionally with the police, it would be giving himself over to the rep, surrendering to the system and blindly, desperately pleading his case (exactly as the characters in Kafka’s The Trial do), or it would be succumbing to despair when confronted by the miserable reality of life (and death) within the penal system – but he refuses to accept any and all of this. He ploughs on. And whether his moral compass is being consciously rejected when he speaks of the murdered young man or if it is permanently askew on account of his life-experiences in prison is unknown – it is just a vestige of his character that we need to come to an understanding of, as unsavoury as it may appear to some.
A continuation of the quotation taken from page 261 proceeds as so:
Sammy sat down on the armchair but now he was on his feet. He sat down again. It was a serious fucking business; really, it wasnay wild it was serious man serious, serious fucking business. Know what I’m saying? He had to sit. He had to just
fuck it. Nay point
christ almighty he was up on his feet for the chorus, calling it home, big licks and all that, singing it loud, battering it out, giving it the big guitar strokes…
…There was tears coming out, he fucking felt them, it was fucking written for him man it was written for him. Fucking hell.
He went through to the bedroom. Just too much; too much. He was on the bed now on his front and his face was buried in the pillow. Jesus christ but ye just get so fucking angry, ye just get so fucking angry, fucking hell man fucking hell; he was greeting.
And the grub was burning. Let it. It was burning on top of the fucking cooker. He got up and did a deep breath out, he wiped his face. He went through to get it. (pp261-2)
When the feigned bravado is dropped and Sammy is in private, the emotion of the situation overwhelms. He fails to articulate or rationalize it, takes solace in the music and lyrics, struggles with the weight of it all on his conscience, his heart, and then, common to all of us, that momentary feeling of saying “Let it”, damn it all to hell, kidding yourself that you can be that detached and insouciant, before hurrying through to attend to whatever it is. Existence always wins out in tales from true lives, of course.
I return to The Guardian article from 2011 by Sam Jordison:
It remains a sad reality (of course, with life as well as with art) that so many people do not appear able to sympathize when confronted by something they haven’t experienced personally. When Kakutani called Sammy “utterly passive”, what exactly was she expecting of him? Should this recently blinded and currently near-penniless person have just given himself a shake, smartened up, and got a wee job somewhere? Maybe popped off on holiday somewhere to chill out, recharge the batteries, perhaps even had a holiday romance that would have been something worth narrating?
What Sammy did narrate was a life dense with problems, conflicts, uncertainties, and emotions. And like Jordison intimates, he manages to elevate this to beautiful literary art at the same time. At points, the sheer quality of the prose in How Late It Was is staggering, and remains so over a quarter of a century after it was laid on paper. Sammy’s memories of some affecting moments in his life filter into the narrative in stunning ways:
The first extract is a recollection of another time, in another world, it appears suddenly and then dissolves, never to re-surface again, and the scene is so finely-drawn, the detail so authentic; that awkwardness of the knees colliding, the other man scolding him for that and his inexperience. Memories such as these give the text an extra dimension, both to the character and the environment at play.
Prison is also the location of the second quotation, describing the great quietness that rests over the jail at night, and again this is writing that uses exquisite, unusual detail; sentiments that have the impression and currency of being entirely organic perceptions and observations as they occurred within the mind of this very particular person, whose consciousness we are privy to in this moment. The reader can only wonder if the sensation of their own bones and muscles “knitting the gether” underneath the enveloping, wide silence of the prison would befall them, were they ever to lie in an otherwise empty square cell, recovering from a beating and waiting for life to roll onwards once again, with only thought and fear for company.
These quotations don’t require moderation or explication – there is great truth and significance in all of these assessments and insights, and any one could form the basis of a satisfactory response to the novel, as it did indeed accomplish with great style and forcefulness all of the things here mentioned. Linguistically, artistically, philosophically, culturally, How Late It Was is a major novel of our times, and a towering work within a variety of contexts and traditions.
Personally I am drawn to think of why we read, and why we are compelled to write, when I try to convey how much the book means to me. The great Surrealist, Andre Breton, explained these urges by stating:
And as Sammy himself details in the quotation used in the epigraph:
How Late It Was is one of those rare and precious works of art where we can become embroiled completely within the mind of another; the loves, terrors, wonderings, and darknesses that constitute “making the unknown known.” This is accomplished by only the very highest artistry. It is a “passionate, scintillating, brilliant song of a book”, and like many other readers, I share and rejoice in Sammy’s feeling that “it was fucking written for him man it was written for him” each and every time I pick it up to read. ●