5 October 2022| Salvage
James Kelman interviewed by Rastko Novaković.
Malignant bureaucracies, class hatred, the revanchist rump of British Empire – they were all on the wane we were told, but presently they are alive and virulent. These are the cold winds that blow through half a century of James Kelman’s writing, huddled around a warm poetic of everyday resistance.
A fine stylist and experimenter, with a honed ear for voice and uncanny way of writing stream-of-consciousness, an elegant essayist, an artist with an infectious passion for existentialism, country music, anti-colonial writing and social justice. Over the years, Kelman has also been active in the community, fighting the commercialisation of public spaces, supporting victims of asbestos poisoning (in his youth, he worked making asbestos-boards), the striking miners, exiled and brutalised Kurds, those resisting racist attacks – by no means an exhaustive list. He speaks alongside and with others, because he sees that being a writer also means taking responsibility, acting in solidarity. He shares this feeling of social conscience with Noam Chomsky with whom he published a book this year: Between Thought and Expression Lies a Lifetime – Why Ideas Matter, which charts their exchanges over 30 years. With an avalanche of books, new and old, some revised and reconstituted, to be issued in coming months and years, Kelman is still breaking new ground and remains relevant to our present moment.
A couple of recent books passed by without fanfare or much notice – some of the finest fiction I’ve read. Mo Said She Was Quirky (2012) – a novel about a day in a young woman’s life. She tries to just get by and fit in, but ends up unravelling when she faces some ghosts from the past. Delicate and tough as nails, like all of Kelman’s work, this is monumental without any fuss. The short story collection That Was a Shiver (2017) is a wild set of escapades, greatly varied in length, style, interest. From one page to the next, it shifts between abjection, bizarre humour, unbearable social situations, precise philosophical investigations, intimate portraits and meditations on what writing and language is. These stories are free and fresh and they confront you with strange and believable realities which are hard to forget.
Kelman’s latest novel God’s Teeth and Other Phenomena is a synthesis of genres in which an ageing writer, Jack Proctor, departs for a writer’s residency at “The House of Art and Aesthetics”, which he promptly rebrands as “House of Snottirs”. Night-time he writes his stuff, probing the meaning of it all and during the days he gigs in the culture industry, facing students and administrators who mostly have no idea what he’s talking about, what he does or why. He is expected to teach Creative Writing in workshops to the young and the mature, novices and pompous MA students, to do readings, opine on the influences of “T S Hitler”, shine and grin as the “Banker Prize” winner that he is. It is a nightmarish farce on a grand scale, but also a deadly serious exposition of what writing is. As Eimear McBride says: “This is a book about how art gets made, its murky, obsessive, unedifying demands and the endless, sometimes hilarious, humiliations literary life inflicts on even its most successful names.” This is a great and irreverent novel.