Highly literary and deeply vulgar: If James Kelman's Booker novel is rude, it is in good company, argues Robert Winder

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The Independent Online
JAMES KELMAN's victory in the Booker Prize on Tuesday night has already provoked a not altogether polite discussion

about the place of swearing in literature. His winning novel, How late it was, how late, is a boisterous riot of four-letter words which many readers - those who resent the intrusive appearance of a true-to-life vocabulary in novels - will find hard to admire.

In keeping with an important Booker tradition, one of the judges, Rabbi Julia Neuberger, called the decision 'a disgrace'. Choosing her words with care, she said: 'I'm really unhappy. Kelman is deeply inaccessible for a lot of people. I am implacably opposed to the book. I feel outmanoeuvred.'

For outmanoeuvred, read outvoted. Booker judges often find it difficult to accept a collective decision. But in this case the row has some substance, and is as old as the first attempts to translate the Bible into indelicate-

seeming vernacular tongues. One of the most striking aspects of the story of literature has been the steady drive towards the demotic, and all along the way the high priests have tried in vain to keep the mud off their boots. The bawdy medievalisms of Rabelais - codpieces and hearty pissing - and the choice 18th-century fondness for coarse japes were temporarily tucked out of sight in the 19th century, but have spilt out merrily in the 20th.

George Steiner, the new visiting professor of comparative European literature at Oxford, once remarked that the modern temper in literature was born on a particular afternoon in one of the great country houses of England, when Virginia Woolf dropped a teaspoon and said: 'Fuck]'

The Oxford dictionary cites 1922 - a great date in modernism: the year in which Ulysses and The Waste Land were published - as the moment when the same word was first used 'profanely as the coarsest equivalent of damn'. In the blink of an eye, the real world rushed in and gatecrashed the secluded party that was polite literature. The celebrated vulgarisms of James Joyce and the plain speaking of DH Lawrence slipped through and wedged the door open. Everyone else has followed.

Not many have followed as enthusiastically as Kelman. In A Disaffection - shortlisted for the Booker in 1989 - and again in How late it was, how late - he has taken a hammer to the kneecaps of polite literary language. He is by no means alone among contemporary writers seeking to wring poetry from obscenities: the plays of David Mamet and Harold Pinter are full of thudding expletives, and shelf upon shelf of popular blockbusters echo with cheerful ribaldry. In one sense, it is the idioms of popular literature - Elmore Leonard, James Ellroy et al - as much as those of real life, that are punching in the windows of more self-conscious literature.

Either way, Kelman's is certainly an uncompromising vision. There are, it has been estimated, 4,000 fucks in the Booker winner - 21 of them in the first three pages. At one point the narrator of the novel, a drunken ex- convict called Sammy, is losing his eyesight: 'Sammy shut his eyelids tight. He felt bad now, so fucking bad. These things filling yer head man, fucking filling yer head, terrible, fucking terrible. If Helen chucks him now, he was really fuckt, right out the game, he would be as well parking the head in a gas oven.'

In an interview earlier this year for the Independent, Kelman was caustic about those who criticise his language: 'The real issue is to do with suppression, the standard English literary voice won't allow it. I mean, the term 'fuck' can be used in about 17 different ways, one of which is the cause of its exclusion.'

Kelman's point is debatable, of course: many would argue that the sexual usage is far less offensive than the casual crudeness of the other 16 varieties. One of the tail-end definitions in the dictionary says that it is 'an empty intensifier'. But Kelman also emphasises the political grounds of his prose style. In his speech at the award ceremony he said: 'My culture and my language have the right to exist, and no one has the authority to dismiss that.'

A LARGE part of his project as a writer is to represent the culture of hard-living Glaswegian streets, from which he comes. His novels contrive to be both highly literary and unusually down-at-heel. In this he resembles the poet Tony Harrison, whose celebrated poem v - which described the obscene curses scribbled on Yorkshire gravestones - made the language flinch. Hardly anyone could dispute, though, the artfulness with which Harrison mixed high and low tones. Here's a typical couplet:

The average Frankfurt-am-Mainer

Doesn't give a shit for Heine.

A famous and brilliant plain-dealer, Harrison's work is also studded with anything but four-letter words such as 'fumaroles' and 'mephitic'.

Kelman keeps this sort of thing at arm's length, but he does include the odd Latin tag and composes sentences with an elaborate, circular, lurching rhythm that is, paradoxically, as high and ornate as that of any contemporary.

It might indeed seem that his defiant claims sound odd and out of keeping, coming as they do from a man who has just won Britain's top literary award and hardly seems dismissed or excluded from anything. But it is noticeable that Roddy Doyle, whose novel Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha is the biggest-selling Booker winner ever (320,000 copies in paperback) has not attracted the least opprobrium for his benign love of earthy slang. In a tender moment of reconciliation towards the end of The Van, the young Jimmy Rabbitt murmurs to his father: 'I love you, you fucking gobshite.' 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 politicised version.

If Wordsworth was right when he said every great poet creates the taste by which he should be judged, then we probably have to concede that Kelman's work is, well, just f***ing great.

(Photograph omitted)

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