Born in Glasgow in 1946, James Kelman left school at fifteen to begin an apprenticeship as a compositor (where he became sensitised to the look of words on the page), which was followed by periods of work and unemployment and a brief spell in the USA. A keen reader, it wasn’t until the early 1970s, in his late twenties, that he began to seriously acknowledge his creative ability, enrolling on a writing course under the tutelage of the influential Philip Hobsbaum, alongside fellow aspiring writers Alasdair Gray, Liz Lochhead and Tom Leonard.
Variously described as gritty, essential, authentic, postmodern, existential, realist, socialist, experimental, original, traditionally working-class, traditionally Scottish, traditionally European in its similarities to Kafka, Joyce, or Beckett, or just incomparable, the work of James Kelman sparks commentators into a labelling frenzy which necessarily falls short of a true appreciation of this highly gifted writer.
Published first in the USA, Kelman had to wait until 1976 for his work to receive a British audience, in Three Glasgow Writers (with Alex Hamilton and Tom Leonard). But it was really during the following decade that Kelman’s unique voice started making waves on the Scottish literary scene. Not Not While the Giro, his first book-length collection of short stories, was published in 1983 by Polygon, and with his first two novels, The Busconductor Hines (1984) and A Chancer (1985), Kelman firmly established his artistic flair and commitment to showing real life in Thatcherite Britain as faithfully as possible (far removed from the falsities and stereotypes of the media).
The Busconductor Hines is the moving and frequently irreverent tale of Rab Hines, a family man and, as Kelman once referred to him, a ‘working-class intellectual’; a highly imaginative soul increasingly disillusioned with the monotony of his job. A Chancer, a book which the author had been struggling to finish for many years, is the brilliantly restrained narrative of a younger Glaswegian man whose only real sense of purpose is derived from the betting shop and the greyhound tracks.
In the late 1980s Kelman began to receive the recognition he deserved, when first his short story collection Greyhound for Breakfast (1987) won the Cheltenham prize and his third novel, A Disaffection (1989), took the James Tait Black award and made the Booker shortlist. With its nods to Kierkegaard and Kafka, A Disaffection brought extravagant literary comparisons on its author, and furthered Kelman’s championing of the ‘working-class intellectual’.
In 1994 James Kelman’s name shot to mainstream as well as literary prominence with the novel How Late it Was, How Late, the powerfully unsettling story of a few days in the life of Sammy Samuels, a tragic ne’er-do-well who is beaten blind by police and struggles to get by in a world of unremitting tension and danger. General astonishment followed when this most unlikely contender won that year’s Booker Prize, the most prestigious, anglocentric of book awards. Inevitably, this caused a fierce debate in the broadsheets which divided opinion between those who admired Kelman’s unwavering description of life on the edge and those who failed to see past the swearing. Simon Jenkins in The Times sneeringly referred to Kelman as an ‘illiterate savage’, while others believed that serious criticism constituted counting the instance of the f-word.
Following his Booker triumph and a new legion of supporters (although his novels have never achieved bestseller status), Kelman took up successive teaching posts on various creative writing courses, while his fiction took a rather new direction. In 2001, Translated Accounts emerged, a strange collection of anonymous testimonials introduced as originating from ‘an occupied territory or land where a form of martial law appears in operation’. While challenging his readership more than ever, Translated Accounts also offers a humanitarian, hard-hitting indictment of post-9/11 right-wing political newspeak, and wisely avoids commenting overtly on real people or places (and thereby narrowing the relevance of the message).
Kelman’s 2004 offering, You Have to Be Careful in the Land of the Free, is a return to his old style, albeit in a new setting. The first-person narrative belongs to Jeremiah Brown, a Glaswegian expatriate drinking in a small town somewhere in the USA, brooding over his past and his ex-girlfriend. There is renewed satire of governmental discourse and its treatment of ‘unassimilatit aliens’ like Jeremiah. As in the previous novels, what is striking is Kelman’s appreciation of the heroism of ordinary human beings just getting by, and Jeremiah Brown, with all his bad luck and resilient humour, is one of his best creations yet.
Of all the words used to describe James Kelman, perhaps the most pertinent then is ‘essential’. Kelman’s commitment to the ordinary individual struggling against systems of oppression, both in his work as a novelist and as a political activist (which he describes in his two collections of essays), is admirable. But it is the way he writes, his calculated subversion of the English language and his total disregard for convention, that singles him out as a truly great contemporary writer, and as much as one would like to avoid the labels, the comparisons with Kafka, Joyce, and Beckett are inevitable and much deserved.