Friday, March 18, 2011

392. How Late it Was, How Late – James Kelman

History: This book was published in 1994. The Glasgow-centred work is written in a working class Scottish dialect. The book, amid some controversy, won the Man Booker Prize for 1994. One of the judges, Rabbi Julia Neuberger, threatened to resign if it won, and upon the book being granted the prize, stormed off the panel, saying, "Frankly, it's crap."
In his acceptance speech, Kelman countered the criticism and decried its basis as suspect, making the case for the culture and language of "indigenous" people outside of London. "A fine line can exist between elitism and racism," he said. "On matters concerning language and culture, the distinction can sometimes cease to exist altogether."
Kingsley Amis took offense to the book in his The King's English. In a section on "Four-letter Words", Amis contests that "The thinning-out of spoken ribaldry" is a bad thing for the worlds of literature, art, comedy, and culture. Amis said that "An entire way of being funny, an entire range of homourous effects, has been impoverished, except probably on the lower deck of society. At first sight, the case with the printed four-letter word is different, though here I detect a similarly unwelcome drift towards serious aesthetic purpose. A bit of that can be seen in one of the last and least of the big fuck-novels, the winner of the 1994 Booker Prize. The doggedness with which the author keeps on trotting out the great word and its various derivatives already has something old-fashioned about it. Time for a change."
Plot: Sammy awakens in a lane one morning after a two day drinking binge, and gets into a fight with some plainclothes policemen, called in Glaswegian dialect, 'sodjers'. When he regains consciousness, he finds that he's been beaten severely and, he gradually realises, is completely blind. The plot of the novel follows Sammy as he explores and comes to terms with his new-found disability, and the difficulties this brings.
Upon being released Sammy goes back to his house and realizes that his girlfriend, Helen, is gone. He assumes that she took off because of the fight they had before Sammy last left his house, but makes no attempt to try and find her.
For a while, Sammy struggles with the simple tasks that blindness makes difficult. Soon, Sammy realizes he will need something to indicate his blindness to other people. He cuts the head off an old mop and, with the help of his neighbor, Boab, paints it white. He also purchases a pair of sunglasses to cover his eyes.
Eventually, Sammy finds himself at the Central Medical waiting to get checked out for his blindness. He is instructed to the Dysfunctional Benefits floor and is questioned by a young lady who asks Sammy questions about his blindness. Sammy tells her 'about being beaten up by the cops, but immediately regrets telling her this and tries to take it back. She informs him that she cannot remove his statement from the record, but he can clarify if he wishes to. This upsets Sammy and he leaves the Central Medical without finishing filing for dysfunctional benefits.
Once home Sammy decides to calm down by taking a bath. While in the bathtub Sammy hears someone enter his apartment. When he goes to investigate he is cuffed by soldiers and taken to the department. They question him about the Saturday before Sammy went blind, and about the Leg (an old friend/associate). Sammy can’t remember much about that Saturday but admits to having met up with his friends Billy and Tam. Sammy says he can’t remember anything else, so they throw him in a cell.
Later Sammy is released for his doctor appointment. The doctor asks Sammy a series of questions about his vision, and in the end refuses to diagnose Sammy as blind. Upon leaving the doctors office, a young man, Ally, approaches Sammy. He seems to know all about how the doctor will not give out diagnoses and persuades Sammy that he should be his representation for a commission payment.
Bored at home Sammy decides to go down to Quinns bar, the bar Helen worked at. Sammy gets his neighbour, Boab, to call him a taxi to take him to the city centre. At the door of Quinns bar Sammy is told by two men that there is a promotion going on inside and Sammy cannot go in. Sammy gets upset at this and asks about Helen. The men tell Sammy that no one by the name of “Helen” has ever worked there. Upset, Sammy walks to Glancy’s bar—his favourite hang out—and is approached by his old friend Tam. Tam is upset because Sammy gave his name to the soldiers and now his family is being affected by it. Angry, Tam leaves Sammy who wonders what is going on.
Later, Ally sends over Sammy’s son, Peter, to take pictures of the marks Sammy has from being beaten by the soldiers. Peter arrives with his friend, Keith, and offers to give Sammy money. Sammy refuses the money but Peter keeps pestering him about it. Eventually Sammy agrees to take the money and meets with Peter and Keith at a nearby pub. After Peter leaves Sammy takes the money, flags a taxi, and leaves.
Review: The jumpy narrative is sometimes a bit impenetrable. Sentences go unfinished as thought processes are abandoned and then picked up again a paragraph later. Punctuation sometimes appears to be placed at random. Initially, this mix of dialectal expression and unconventional grammar are distracting. In fact, I had to read back a few times early on, because I found myself concentrating on the novelty of the words as written instead of their meaning. But as you learn to translate as you go, these features become little joyous idiosyncrasies that help give the novel its own voice.
Most of the terms, if not immediately guessable, are made clear through repetition. The unwary (that is, unScottish) reader will be forgiven for initial bemusement (and even glee) in the face of lines like: "ya fucking bampot fucking fuckpig grassing bastard."
At the heart of the story burns a undimmable passion for equality and justice, for the underdog of the ‘underclass’ – but Kelman’s great achievement is to render the book universal precisely as a result of this grounded and specific setting. Sammy’s blindness, too, enables him to address the very matter of reality and existence. Sammy relies on non-visual stimuli to make sense of the world, but the reader has only sight to rely on, which leads to the strange feeling of ‘seeing’ things in the sightless mind of Sammy more vividly than we would when looking up from the page into the real world.
We don’t even know if Ally is real – if any of it is real – even though it is meticulously realistic (and equally intended not to be). It is a book of paradox. In the middle of the savagery of life on the Glasgow streets – of life generally – there is unexpected humour.
Kelman maintains a highly imagined account of the ancillary difficulties of everyday blindness (keeping place in a queue, finding a seat on a bus, selecting clothes for a white wash) while keeping his voice sufficiently expressive for more abstract thinking.
Opening Line: "Ye wake in a corner and stay there hoping yer body will disappear, the thoughts smothering ye; these thoughts; but ye want to remember and face up to things, just something keeps ye from doing it, why can ye no do it; the words filling yer head: then the other words; there's something worng; there's something far far wrong; ye're no a good man, ye're just no a good man."
Closing Line: "Sammy slung in the bag and stepped inside, then the door slammed shut and that was him, out of sight."
Quotes: "He wasnay feeling so hot. Before he had been good. Now he wasnay. There was things out his control. There was things in his control but there were other things out, they were out his control, he had put them out his control."
Rating: Good.

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