I tried, I really tried to read all the way to the end of How Late It Was How Late. I made it, but it was incredibly hard going and several times I was ready to throw in the towel.
The issue wasn’t the rawness of the text. After a time I simply became immured to the frequency with which James Kelman used the F word. In case you’re interested, some columnists did a count and got to 4,000 instances. In my edition that equates to ten uses per page….
I even got used to the strong Glaswegian dialect used by his central character, a habitual drunk and petty criminal called Sammy Samuels. I kept imagining I was hearing Billy Connolly in one of his rants…
Here’s a typical passage that will give you a flavour of the style of this book. Any oddities are not of my making – it’s just the way the book is written. This snippet comes from early in the novel where Sammy, having woken up in an alley after a two-day drinking binge gets into a fight with some soldiers. Taken into police custody he’s so badly beaten he becomes blind.
He didnay even know what day it was. Jesus. The big mouth man he always had to blab. If that was him for another night
Jesus christ. She would be really worried now. He aye had to blab. How come he aye had to blab! Just stupit. Stupit. She would be worrying. Doesnay matter the situation, how it was, that was past tense, she would worry. Cause he had nay place to go and she knew it. Ye’re talking from whenever it was the now back to last Friday morning man that’s how long it was; four maybe five days, including the Saturday. Fucking Saturday! Saturday was a blank. A blank.
Confused? Don’t worry, you’re not the only one. The ‘she’ in the passage turns out to be a woman called Helen with whom he’s been living. But when he eventually gets back to the flat she’s disappeared. Where and why, we don’t know. Half the time even Sammy doesn’t really have a clue what’s going on.
Bleak and Bizarre
For a book that deals with someone already in the dregs of society whose life suddenly turns much worse when he is blinded, How Late It Was, How Late is understandably dark. But it can also be quite funny in a black comedy kind of way.
Sammy for example cobbles together a kind of walking stick so he can tap his way along the streets. Then he realises it needs to be painted white. No problem, he has plenty of paint in his flat. Just one issue remains – how will he know which can is white?
Sammy bizarrely doesn’t seem all that fazed by his blindness initially. He just thinks it’s weird, an ‘initial wee flurry of excitement but no what ye would call panic-stations.” He’s more concerned about the fact someone stole his new leather shoes while he was in his drunken stupor, leaving him with badly fitting cheap trainers.
He’s remarkably philosophical about his run ins with the police – he’s clearly been down that road before and knows the score. But when he tries to get some disability compensation for his blindness he enters an unknown world of absurdity and obfuscation in the form of the welfare system. All he wants to do is claim some money so he can buy food but instead he gets a lecture on ‘Dysfunctional Benefits’ and ‘Community Gratuity’. And ends up empty handed except for a warning about making false statements alleging police violence
Flashes of humour didn’t however provide enough compensation for the fact that for most of the time I found the book was a slog. Page after page of stream of consciousness, interrupted occasionally by a strange third person voice, but without the
Condemned By Critics
I didn’t dislike it as intensely however as some of the critics who castigated How Late It Was How Late when it was published and was named as the Booker Prize winner in 1994..
Simon Jenkins, The Times columnist, for example described Kelman as “illiterate savage” who had done no more than “transcribe the rambling thoughts of a blind Glaswegian drunk”. One of the Booker Prize judges, Rabbi Julia Neuberger, declared that the book was unreadably bad and said that the awarding of the prize, Britain’s most important, was a “disgrace.”
Kelman hit back in his acceptance speech at the Booker awards ceremony. “… my culture and my language have the right to exist and no one has the authority to dismiss that… A fine line can exist between elitism and racism. On matters concerning language and culture, the distance can sometimes cease to exist altogether.”
He has a good point. No author should feel stifled because of an elitist view of what is ‘correct’ or ‘appropriate’ language. Kelman is writing from his own experience, of the people he saw around him while growing up on a housing estate in Glasgow. It’s a city notorious for straight talking, hard living and dark humour. Did the critics seriously expect Kelman to have a central figure who uses Queen’s English or received pronunciation?
I didn’t enjoy How Late It Was How Late, but neither did I feel it deserved the level of criticism levied at Kelman. It’s not a book to everyone’s taste but he has to be admired for his boldness and ingenuity.
We’ve reached the mid point of 2019. It’s a good time to take a pause and reflect.
A time to ask yourselves some questions. Have you:
- kept up with your challenges and projects?
- nailed that TBR stack?
- found any knock out, truly brilliant books?
I won’t bore you with how much I’m behind on my projects to read my classics club list or the Booker prize winners. And I’ve already confessed about the rising state of my TBR.
Let’s talk about something far more interesting: six books I’ve read so far this year that were stunning. There’s a psychological thriller, a classic novel, two memoirs and two literary fiction titles.
Milkman by Anna Burns
After a few years when the winning novel in the Booker Prize didn’t set my world alight, in 2018 we finally got a book that absolutely deserved the prize. Milkman by Anna Burns is an intense and powerful novel about trying to survive in a city where to be different, is to be in danger. The unconventional narrative form (no character is ever named) takes a little getting used to but don’t give up. If you do you’ll miss one of the most compelling novels I’ve read in years.
Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell
Gaskell wasn’t alone among Victorian novelists in her anguish about the plight of workers in the newly industrialised cities. Like Dickens she wrote about their appalling living conditions, sickness and hunger. Mary Barton was her first novel and it’s a no holds barred tale about industrial strife in Manchester. This is a must-read novel for anyone interested in social issues.
The Woman in the Dark by Vanessa Savage
Vanessa Savage’s debut novel is a spectacular psychological thriller. The Woman in the Dark is a tale of a family’s descent into crisis when they move into a house whose previous occupants were murdered. Within this she spins a disturbing narrative about the legacy of child abuse. Just one warning before you begin reading this: you’ll lose lots of sleep because you won’t be able to put it down .
The Salt Path by Raynor Winn
Imagine you’ve lost your home and your business. You have nothing but a few hundred pounds in your savings. Your husband has just been diagnosed with a degenerative brain condition. Faced with that situation Raynor Winn decided to take a walk. Rather a long walk. Six hundred miles in fact. The Salt Path is her account of walking the coastal path, camping wild and encountering hostility because strangers thought they were untouchable homeless vagrants. This is a memoir that can make you angry but it will also make you laugh because Winn has a wonderful eye for the absurd situations in life.
This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor by Adam Kay
Adam Kay was a hospital doctor specialising in obstetrics for six years and kept a diary of his time on the front line of healthcare. This is Going to Hurt is astonishingly funny but also sobering because Kay shows how poorly junior doctors are treated. Underpaid and expected to work well beyond their contracted hours, the job puts a strain on friendships and relationships. This is an astonishingly frank novel but despite his criticisms, Kay is still a firm believer in the principles of public healthcare.
Circe by Madeline Miller
This was a book I wasn’t looking forward to reading. I did so only because it was selected by the other book club members. But this re-imagining of Circe (the Greek sorceress who gets a brief mention in Homer’s Odyssey) was a revelation. Miller’s descriptions of the world inhabited by the Titans among the Greek gods is breathtaking. If you’ve not yet read this, do yourself a huge favour and go out now and buy a copy. You won’t be sorry.
Those are my six choices for the first half of 2019. It will be interesting to see if any of them still make the cut when I come to the end of the year.
What would you choose from your own reading so far this year? Any knock out reads for you?
If there are two words guaranteed to divide the world of authors, publishers and academics, they would be Literary Fiction.
The orthodox view is that literary fiction is the very highest level of artistic merit; the kind of writing that all authors really aspire to achieve. It’s meant to distinguish the truly great from the mere readable or popular kinds of books (remember the fuss over the Booker Prize in 2011 when the judges said they based their selection on readability).
Some critics in North America set the feathers flying a few years ago by daring to suggest that the idea of literary fiction had run its course, that it had become just another genre, like humour, crime or adventure. Not so said the New York Review of Books last year – it was time that literary fiction be recognised as a genre of its own said editor Sue Halpern.
What is ‘literary fiction’? Generally it’s taken to denote a serious-minded novel of high artistic integrity in which style is more important than the actual content (maybe Will Self’s Umbrella falls into that category?); slow and thoughtful in pace allowing the characters’ inner lives and motivations become the focus. To many people that just means ‘highbrow’, maybe even ‘pretentious’ or ‘difficult’ and ‘unreadable’. But for others it means the kind of book that makes it to the short list for the Booker Prize or the work of authors who win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Who are these shining lights? Contemporary candidates from the West could include Michael Ondaatje, Iris Murdoch or Barry Unsworth plus many of the Booker prize winners. They’re all formidable writers and superb storytellers.
As of this week I am going to add another name to the list: John Banville, winner of the 2005 Booker Prize with The Sea. It’s a wonderfully lyrical narrative about a widower who returns to the location of his childhood holidays where one summer, many many years earlier something happened ( we don’t get to find out until about 10 pages from the end). It’s so good that the minute I finished it, I wanted to start all over again.