BOOK REVIEW: Category A literature in Glasgow: How does a literary outsider become the Booker favourite? Anthony Quinn meets James Kelman

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The Independent Culture
ON LIFE's building site, James Kelman's characters are usually to be found languishing in the skip. A master of the internal monologue, he has given voice to the frustration and anxiety of a class of people who have found themselves alienated from the prescriptions and protocols of their society. His astonishing first novel, The Busconductor Hines (1984), immediately established the voice - angry, wounded, intense, sorrowful - yet capable at the same time of irrational mirth and moments of extreme tenderness and grace.

His subject is the Glaswegian working-class male and his milieu - the tenement block, the betting shop, the race track, the pub lounge, the dole queue - wrought in a vigorous language that has little truck with the conventions of standard English. Shorn of apostrophes and quotation marks, abjuring initial capitals and grammatical periods, his sentences reach out to capture the elusive inflections and cadences of spoken language. They also tend to be strewn with swear words. After A Chancer (1985) and two short-story collections, Kelman wrote A Disaffection, which earned him a seat on the Booker shortlist and a place in the heart of the Eng. Lit. establishment he so dislikes.

And now this self-styled 'outsider' finds himself the Booker favourite. His new novel, How late it was, how late (Secker & Warburg, pounds 14.99) is of a piece with his three previous full-length works, extending and deepening his usual concerns - in terms of plot nothing much happens, but inside the consciousness of his central character everything is busy. It's a magnificent study in survival. Sammy, the protagonist, is prey to periods of high anxiety and low despair, but soldiers on because - well, because 'ye've got to keep going but'. Determined to avoid another stretch in 'the poky', he is an ex-con who wakes up one morning bedraggled and bewildered after an almighty bender. He seems to have lost not only his girlfriend, but also his sight: 'Sammy shut his eyelids tight . . . If Helen chucked him now he was really fuckt, right out the game, he would be as well parking the head in a gas oven. All he could do all he could do, there wasnay much he could do, there wasnay really much he could do at all. No the now anyway.'

Kelman lives with his wife and two daughters in a tenement flat in Dennistown, an area west of Glasgow. Whippet-lean and wiry, with sombre eyes, he sits in his study flanked by loaded bookshelves, a computer screen glistening in the background. In time-honoured writerly tradition, he rolls his own smokes. I ask about his readership. His subject is the working-class men of Glasgow. Is that actually his audience? 'It's part of the audience, yeah, just as there's a middle-class audience. But there are implications in that form of question - it usually implies that working-class people don't read books, so who the hell are you writing for, ye know?' An autodidact, Kelman himself haunted libraries from a very early age. 'There was no TV in those days, so I was exposed to books, as most ordinary working-class kids are, through the library. . . The library is a place that's free to go to, it's warm, that's why working-class people use them.'

Born one of five brothers in 1946, he left school at 15 to begin an apprenticeship as a compositor; he left two years later and tried 'a great many jobs', in hospitals and factories, building sites and asbestos works. It was often dangerous, and always badly paid. While living with his wife in London at the end of the Sixties he began to write. There was, says Kelman, no angst-ridden search for a 'voice': 'I feel the business of finding a voice is something that should be examined more. For me the thing is to find the voice of your community, of your culture. Being from a marginalised culture, it's straightforward for us, but in England the regional voice is the one that's consistently punished and negated. The obvious explanation for why English literature is so inadequate just now is because regional experience has not been allowed as the subject of literature.'

Kelman and his wife Marie returned to Glasgow in 1969. After a lengthy stretch as a bus conductor, he got himself involved in a creative writing group with the poets Philip Hobsbaum and Anne Stevenson. 'There were about eight other writers there who just took it for granted that you were a writer. That was the most important point - it was assumed your work was valid, even if you weren't quite sure what it was up to.' Certain members of his writing class weren't sure what it was up to either, and one or two of them walked out on hearing the raw, unbowdlerised strains of his prose - what's known in television as 'Category A language'. The author sees darker forces at work beyond the drawing-room politesse: 'When people talk about the so- called expletives they're not talking about the real issue, you know? The real issue is to do with suppression - the standard English literary voice won't allow it.' He says he never heard the word used about sex until he was in his mid- twenties, but, in any case, he was never prepared to curb his language for the sake of accessibility. This is the way people talk to themselves and to each other, so get used to it.

Irreducibly Scottish as his work is, it would be wrong to assume that Kelman thumps any nationalist tub. When issues of nationhood do surface, the argument never feels forced. Kelman puts it simply: 'I come from a country called Scotland. I don't need to ask for my independence.' He has no use for the SNP or any party 'which requires someone in Whitehall to pat them on the head'.

Kelman's work has provoked comparison with a diverse range of authors, including Pinter, Beckett, Joyce and Kafka. Whether he needs to be situated amongst these accredited giants is doubtful. But in the portrait of Sammy as an ordinary man baffled by bureaucracy one can detect the pale shade of Josef K. How late it was, how late paints an institutionalised world thronged with 'touts, grasses and spooks', the faceless thieves of liberty who ghost through The Trial. Kelman admits that a spell doing tribunal work for asbestos victims had a parallel in Kafka's career as an insurance clerk, but he's wary of the 'accepted wisdom' that sees Kafka as a fantasist. 'The establishment reading wants to see it as parable or metaphor, divorced from realism, whereas I would regard Kafka as a supreme realist. On a common sense level, his work suggests as much, the idea of him working for a law firm and dealing with workers' compensation claims. There's so much in Kafka that derives from that fight against bureaucracy.'

For anyone to see Kafka as a supreme realist suggests a bleak view of the world, and certainly there is much in Kelman that is frighteningly forlorn. 'The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,' wrote Thoreau, and you need look no further than Sammy's story to feel its truth. Yet even here it's not the whole truth, for there is solace to be found in the community of language, in small acts of kindness, in a smoke and a pint.