Why am I speaking of this, the bored reader asks.
Well I was to leave thi wurd not long after this in order to pursue some projects independently, but as part of our three-way email dialogues at this time, Jim sent his collection of unpublished essays to us – one of which, The True Autobiography of Bob Moore, includes the statement that is now on the front cover of The Common Breath edition of Waiting for Nothing, where Jim had referred to this novel as a “genuine literary classic”. It was both a book and a writer I’d never heard of, but that commendation carried power. It sent me hunting online for a copy, and after several weeks of trying to find it at an acceptable price, I got one shipped over from the US – a dismal edition that looked like a textbook full of sheets printed on an office bubblejet. Hopes dented somewhat, I nevertheless read the book in a day. I was stunned, and bemused. Stunned by the novel’s incredible heart and beauty; incredulous that it appeared (from more online research) to be almost completely unknown in the UK.
Already the idea to re-publish started to take root – though it would take more research, more time and communication and money to actually achieve – but more importantly, it underlined for me how truly great literary art, and how distinct traditions of writing, can never be lost as long as serious readers continue to talk about books, write about books, and choose to seek out writers, rather than solely relying on the zeitgeist platter served up via mass media. There are some truly magnificent smaller / independent presses in the UK just now – the aforementioned Tangerine being one of them, as is White Rabbit Books, Galley Beggar Press, Fitzcarraldo Editions, and more – which both need and deserve our interest and our support, but this shouldn’t detract from an equally crucial practice of the reader, which is to be actively extending their own literary horizons (and then feeding this back into their own community, be it a reading group, a writing class, some like-minded friends, or those you discuss literature with online) via researching the writers they most admire – finding who inspired those writers, which influences they were drawing on, books or stories they may have mentioned in interviews or essays. This is how particular non-mainstream strands within literature, certain traditions, will continue to exist, because the broadsheets and marketeers will forget them.
The importance of community for readers is something I believe strongly in. I ask you, how did you first come to the writers that you love? For me it was mostly through discussing literature, being in contact with folk regularly on this subject, as opposed to ploughing a furrow at the library alone, trying book after book in the hope of hitting on something special, and never seeking out the opinion of an informed friend (in person or online), to have your views challenged, enlightened, or strengthened. I still remember where so many meaningful sources and recommendations came from – outwith Tom Kromer, I also first read writers like Tillie Olsen and Saadat Hasan Manto and many more from reading James Kelman’s essays, as have so many fans of his work that I know. It was the novelist Alan Warner who told me about the work of Jean Rhys and Roberto Arlt a fairly long time ago now. I heard of Anna Kavan and Clarice Lispector from my very learned friend Katie Donnelly. Alan McMunnigall’s great Tuesday night Creative Writing class at the Uni of Glasgow was where I was introduced to the work of John McGahern, Hermann Ungar, and more. My Common Breath colleague Kirsten Anderson told me many years ago of the funniest writer she’d ever read, John Kennedy Toole, and I followed it up, and concurred thoroughly (and still do). When doing research for an interview I conducted with Bernard MacLaverty, I was led to the work of his (almost) namesake Michael McLaverty. The same occurred when I first saw the name of Blaise Cendrars during preparation for my interview with David Keenan last year. From the incredible Backlisted podcast I found Elizabeth Taylor, Sylvia Townsend-Warner, Gayl Jones. From the New Yorker fiction podcast, I first heard of Mavis Gallant and Bernard Malamud. Serious readers express and share their love of books, and that expression stimulates others to find works of art they may never have come across otherwise. It’s the great collaborative proliferation of the art we love, the persistence of traditions, the generational passing of works that belong to no-one and to everyone, and it is essential.
Which brings us to the re-publication of Tom Kromer’s masterpiece.
Very much inspired by the monumental, iconic Rebel Inc Classics series spearheaded by Kevin Williamson in the 1990s, my hope is that we at The Common Breath are now also contributing to a tradition within literature, bringing a neglected work, a “genuine literary classic”, back to at least some form of prominence in this country. It is quite fitting that our edition is introduced by Duncan McLean, a pivotal figure in the great literary movements in Scotland in the 90s, and someone who provided introductory pieces for Rebel Inc Classics.
In his preface, Duncan warns of the dangers of “ponderous literary analysis” to the reading experience, so I am wary of indulging my frustrated academic too much and launching into an ill-conceived and overlong dissection of the text. He is correct that the work is of such quality it doesn’t require us to get between it and its readers, and start thrusting forward its literary merits. The writer’s technical brilliance and the deep beauty within each chapter deserve to be read and enjoyed free of mediation. Yet of course Duncan and I would not have embarked on this kind of project and devoted such work and resources if we were not profoundly moved and enthralled by this novel’s character and its content, so, hopefully without contaminating the startling joy of its pages, I’ll here allow myself to share some brief thoughts on the novel.
There are books where you have to travel far into a character’s psyche and/or story before you are convinced; before you have that moment of embrace with the novel, and gain some form of understanding of it, when all the doubt is left behind and it is firmly set as a book you love (Madame Bovary being one such example of this for me – it took perseverance and many pages for me to embrace that novel and to love it wholly and unconditionally). Other books do not require feats of endurance – the voice convinces swiftly and fully. I knew I adored Waiting for Nothing by the end of its second paragraph.
Waiting for Nothing is a first-person narrative. It is in present-tense. It starts at a seemingly arbitrary point, and ends in much the same fashion. It is experiential; every moment is laden with all the tension and surprise and intensity of a person struggling mightily to cling on to the very lowest rung of a society. It is beautiful. It is radical. It leaves no space for pontification, pointless erudition, idle picture-painting. It is writing borne of Dostoyevsky’s Apropos of the Wet Snow. It is fiction from within a tradition of certain narrative commitments, which can of course be traced directly through generations until you arrive at James Kelman’s own novels, starting in 1984, continuing on until the present day.
On the opening page, the voice speaking to us is cool, calculating, assured: “I will not run. I will walk.” By the end of the following paragraph, we still know next to nothing about this character – but we know that he is real. That he is a human being, like us, and not some author’s textual vehicle. Not a contrivance on paper. This is a person of contradiction, flaw, delusion, feeling. At the outset, the short, blunt sentences presented a man of experience, composure, and certainty. Through that second paragraph, the same rhythm shows he is racked with fear and doubt. We are convinced.
The next page or so sees a shift of gear. Rather than these short lines which feel like they mimic the heartbeat of this man in moments of peril, the narrative slows, and we stand with him as he fixates on a “brown and fat” roast chicken that “squats” in a platter of gravy. He pauses. “I stare in at this couple that eat by the window.” We stare too. He marvels at the beauty of the woman. He sees the man become conscious of him watching in. “He has never been hungry himself. I can tell that. This one has always nibbled at chicken.”
Tom Kromer himself said of the book:
As Duncan states in the introduction:
In this respect, it is easy to see why a writer such as James Kelman responded to this book – indeed, Tom’s conversational addresses to the reader (“Imagine me wearing spatz now”, “Can you imagine a guy thinking he is hard up…”) made me think of what Kelman said in response to my interview question about the narrative mode of ‘How Late It Was, How Late’:
And like Sammy in that novel, you never get the impression we are being presented with this character because he is singularly heroic or remarkable – these protagonists are not Jay Gatsby or Holden Caulfield. When Tom says on p165: “We are five men at this fire I am at. We take turns stumbling into the dark in search of wood”, the sense is that it just happens to be Tom’s consciousness we are tuned in to, but that the other men there will have their inner monologues too, their own document of the misery they all face within this life.
It is the authenticity of voice and situation that gives Tom’s narrative such incredible power. There are so many instances in the novel where the writing quickens the pulse, touches you, or leaves a deep imprint on the mind. I have a list of such moments that I’d love to share, but it’s best if you feel the impact of these yourself (especially chapter 9 – I can never forget this section).
The structure of the book is also significant and worthy of note. B.S. Johnson’s novel The Unfortunates (1969) is held aloft as a paragon of literary experimentalism on account of its ‘book in a box’ concept, whereby all chapters, other than the first and last, can be read in any order without compromising the integrity or coherence of the story. Waiting for Nothing (1935) is structured exactly the same way, minus the gimmick of the box. And unlike The Unfortunates, the first and last chapters could actually even be thrown into the mix and read at any point as well, although they are very well-chosen for their respective positions, as you shall see. The arbitrary nature of this narrative lends it a deep and frightening meaning, in the same manner as the ending of Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962); the impression that what we’re experiencing in this book is not the tale of an exceptional life, nor even of exceptional times within a life, but merely a view into an existence. One which meanders, one which goes on, extending beyond the parameter of its pages. Tom cannot progress, he cannot develop, he cannot have relationships; all of this is denied to him, because the only thing that can exist constantly is his own need. It renders everything else meaningless. He may meet a woman, they may respond to each other, but any progression is impossible, because he’s a stiff, and tomorrow will still be a stiff, foraging the streets, crawling in somewhere to sleep, and on, and on.
Heidegger introduced the term “thrownness” to philosophy (‘Geworfenheit’ in the original German); the concept of one being flung into this material world at random, and having to gain a foothold and some level of understanding amid chaos. This was to become, through Sartre and other twentieth-century writers within related philosophical traditions, the manner in which novels would begin – no more narratorial control and schematic introduction for the reader, but from the first line for us to be plunged into a particular juncture in the given character’s world. What makes Waiting for Nothing such a radical work of its time (indeed, of any time) is that its “thrownness” never settles, cannot settle; every chapter, every day, is from a life trapped deep within the chaos of hopeless existence.
One of the most fascinating strands of Waiting for Nothing is the degree of separation in society between the ‘stiffs’ (Tom and the hordes of other homeless men, women, and children living nomadic existences across the towns and cities of America) and ‘the bastards’, which is the term used to stand for … everything else. For the system, the police, business-owners, the employed, for all those who have but will not share, for those in this society who see yet show no compassion, no mercy. “The bastards” is a cry through clenched teeth that occurs again and again throughout the book, the impotent response to an environment in which ‘stiffs’ are regarded as ‘untouchables’ (see Mulk Raj Anand’s exquisite short novel, Untouchable, published in 1935, the same year as Waiting for Nothing) – they are treated as an underclass, something subhuman, a pitiable sub-species. And all the stiffs can do by way of resistance is to hurt, to hate, and to curse:
This expression, its utterance and its emotion, is one that has sounded through the ages in literature. It is a feeling and a situation that arises within this tradition, and is responded to in this very familiar way.
I think of Moses in Samuel Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners (1956), raging to his friends about how moneyed white women will kiss a “spade” for good luck at New Year: “Them bastards!” A world owned and dominated by bastards, hostile and contemptuous to Moses and everyone like him.
Also of the disaffected, drunken teacher in Joyce Carol Oates’ stunning short story The Boy (1988), who ends her brief, fractured account of alcohol and failed sex with the phrase, “Alright you bastards, this is it”, addressing no-one and everyone at the same time, an abstract exclamation of fury and alienation.
And of James Kelman’s aforementioned novel How Late It Was, How Late (1994) when Sammy curses into himself, “Fucking bastards”, as his panic grows about the net of the police closing tighter around him, consumed by frustration and anger at the systems that leave folk like him in this position.
In our new interview piece, On The Snout, Duncan McLean says:
It strikes me that this conversation is taking place within a tradition via the language used and the emotion that lies behind such invocations. Whether it’s Tom Kromer in an interminable soup kitchen queue in smalltown USA in the 1930s, or Sam Selvon’s Moses looking up to the winter skies in the Bayswater Road in ‘50s London, or Sammy Samuels pacing in a Glasgow tenement forty years later, when they spit their fury about “the bastards”, we feel it, and we understand. The conversation is happening.
In the essay In Search of Tom Kromer, which concludes the excellent 1986 University of Georgia edition of Waiting for Nothing, compiled by Arthur Casciato and James West III, a theory is proffered on Tom Kromer as a writer:
It is an interesting thing to consider. Can it be that someone is a writer in so much as they have one story to tell? And once that story is told, they’re no longer an artist? I, like Casciato and West, wonder if Tom’s limited output and early cessation as a writer (mainly attributed to his life situation and health) may have been, in part at least, because once his pressing story had been given to the world, he no longer felt so compelled to write?
One of Tom’s great successors in the tradition of voice in American literature (and the tradition of writing about real people and real emotions), Hubert Selby Jr, spoke about having a story ‘within’ you (with reference to his masterpiece, Last Exit To Brooklyn) in his interview for Bookworm with Michael Silverblatt:
Selby of course did go on to develop further brilliant works, including The Room and Requiem for a Dream (although none were as great as that first book), but his statement opens up the possibility that a person can have a story “given” to them, one that they have to write. Tom Kromer’s other novel, the unfinished Michael Kohler, is not written with the same fire and urgency and raw honesty as Waiting for Nothing. Perhaps he did only have one truly great work of art inside him, something he had to illuminate the world about, one particular gift to give us, and then he would return to just being in his life again. This gift was passed to me via the words of James Kelman who, in the spirit of this essay, wanted to acknowledge how he himself was introduced to this book, which hasn’t been re-printed in the UK since its initial publication in 1935:
And now we pass it on to you.
All spellings of words and renderings of speech and expressions in our edition of ‘Waiting for Nothing’ match exactly the original 1935 source text. No edits or ‘corrections’ have been made.
We hope you enjoy and appreciate this work as much as all involved have. Thank you for reading.●