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Simon Kövesi, James Kelman

Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2007 [Distributed in the US by Palgrave]

204 pp., ISBN: 9780719070976, £14.99


Reviewed by J.C. Bittenbender


In this immensely readable treatment of James Kelman’s major novels, Simon Kövesi offers the reader a wide variety of lenses through which to view the writer. The introduction positions Kelman in the context of other contemporary fiction writers in Scotland, especially those (such as Irvine Welsh) who contribute to the perceived 'miserable' state of the country. Kövesi then proceeds to distance Kelman from that group by pointing out that while he displays a sustained interest in confronting oppressive forms of politics in his essays and his contributions to a variety of social causes, he does not allow such stances to interfere with his creative imagination when constructing his own brand of novelistic realism. According to Kövesi, Kelman’s characters may feel as if they are controlled or oppressed, yet they do not overtly align themselves with particular political or social causes. In Kövesi’s readings, Kelman allows his readers greater interpretative flexibility as they consider the uses and abuses of power in the modern world.

Kövesi goes on to discuss Kelman’s use of language and links that can be detected between linguistic registers, politics, and culture. Words such as ‘margarine’ (p. 22) (and its representation in a variety of grammatical forms) are investigated by Kövesi from economic and social standpoints. Again, as Kövesi shows, Kelman’s interest in language is presented on the fictional page in a manner that only becomes political through subtle readings that allow the reader to identify and empathise with the characters/narrators. Kövesi describes the structure and intentions of the volume at the end of the introduction:

This book focuses upon the six novels in turn, tracing developments in Kelman’s style and subject choices as key political and social contexts shift over time….[i]t attempts to recover Kelman’s work as artful literature, conveyed in a highly crafted and actively resourced language, and therefore works against the prevalent, buried notion that Kelman’s world is the product of a primitivist, passive mimesis assumed by many commentators to be the only tool of the working-class realist (p. 30).

For the most part Kövesi lives up to this claim and the structure of his critique follows in chronological fashion the publication of Kelman’s novels, paying particular attention to The Busconductor Hines (1984) and How late it was, how late (1994).

The strength of Kövesi’s reading of Kelman is that he offers the reader helpful background information and potential influences on Kelman’s writing while also challenging a number of critical responses to his work that tend to narrowly essentialise him as a purveyor of a closed form of Glasgow-realist writing. The chapter on The Busconductor Hines explains the significance of language to Kelman in terms of economic and social conditions in Glasgow at the time Kelman was writing the novel. Kelman’s interest in philosophy is well-known and Kövesi engages with that interest on a number of levels while also offering new critical insights that are often informed by more recent literary theory. Philosophers and theorists such as Hegel, Heidegger, Sartre, Deleuze, Guattari, and Bakhtin are well represented, yet the critical impetus of Kövesi’s analysis never becomes bogged down with overly theoretical discussions or academic jargon, a quality that the seemingly anti-academic Kelman might be pleased with himself.

Some of Kelman’s novels are treated more lightly than others. Chapters on A Chancer (1985), A Disaffection (1989) and the concluding chapter that combines analysis of Translated Accounts (2001) and You Have to be Careful in the Land of the Free (2004) are less substantial, yet remain useful to the reader of these works and serve as a catalyst for more detailed explorations. Additionally, while the focus of the book is on Kelman’s novels, there are substantial discussions, along the way, of his shorter fiction, his essays and his play Hardie and Baird (1991). For instance, a discussion of Hardie and Baird at the beginning of the chapter devoted to How late it was, how late helps Kövesi to establish the context of Glasgow and the working-class background that figures so prominently in Kelman’s work. In this, the most thorough chapter in the book, Kövesi provides great insight into the political and social forces at work in Glasgow during the early 1990s, when Kelman was writing How late it was, how late. Of particular interest is Kövesi’s look into the responses of Glasgow’s artists and intellectuals to the designation of Glasgow as 'European City of Culture' in 1990. The positions of fellow Glaswegian writers such Tom Leonard and Alasdair Gray to this event align with those of Kelman and help to inform his fictional treatment of imposed and oppressive authority in the novel. Additionally, a subsection on the controversial awarding of the Booker Prize to Kelman in 1994 leads into a fascinating assessment of the ultimate authority that Kelman seems to oppose in his work, which steers the criticism back into the texts of the novels themselves, and the involvement of the readers who must negotiate Kelman’s character/narrators. Ultimately it is criticism itself where Kövesi locates a form of colonisation and authority that can be debilitating:

Kelman’s version of criticism is that it always seeks to appropriate that which it wants to control and manage. Criticism therefore has a colonising structure of relation to the texts or subjects it discusses: it is territorially aggressive, asserting its language and value systems as ways of understanding the other; and it is linguistically discriminatory, because it maintains itself in a language which keeps that same other out. (p. 160)

Kövesi goes on to implicate his own work on Kelman as he observes the ways in which criticism can steer the reader into closed arenas of interpretation that limit the freedoms of art. The volume includes informative notes, an index, and a comprehensive bibliography of works by Kelman, interviews with the author, and select criticism of his work. Kövesi’s study represents a very welcome addition to the increasing critical awareness of Kelman and his importance as a writer whose resistance to repressive authority of any kind is subtle, sophisticated and enriching to all who read his work.