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  • Eyeless in GlasgowJames Kelman's Existential Milton
  • Scott Hames (bio)

Critical reaction to James Kelman's 1994 Booker Prize was notoriously stormy. A large section of the British intelligentsia responded, John Linklater observed, with "a suppuration of racist, xenophobic class hatred" (8). James Wood published a vindication of the award stressing Kelman's affinities with Franz Kafka and James Joyce, but (Sir) Simon Jenkins's likening of the winner to an "illiterate savage" sticks longer in the public mind.1 Even Jenkins's colleagues at the London Times were bewildered by the ferocity of Kelman's detractors. "From some of the English reaction," Alan Chadwick observed, "you might have thought he had been found in the Queen's bedroom." But the Scottish reaction, too, was less than enthusiastic. A former lord provost of Glasgow, Dr. Michael Kelly, boasted of having "no intention" of reading the first (and to date only) Scottish winner of the prize but deplored the novel's language and politics nonetheless. Kelman's sudden cachet as a left-wing agitant even caught the attention of the shadow chancellor. Eager to shake an already dour public image, but ever wary of appearing too Scottish, too socialist, or too intellectual, Gordon Brown let it be known that he "hadn't made it to the end" of the book in question (qtd. in Poole 8).

The book in question was largely missing from all this. The vast majority of media comment barely managed to describe How Late It Was, How Late, let alone consider its literary merits. This is a familiar [End Page 496] omission from prize-giving routines, of course, but the particular focus and intensity of the Kelman furor makes such thorough inattention to the text remarkable. The shrill debate over the "literary" status of How Late's language and subject matter was largely unilluminating, but it did provoke some serious reflections concerning the nature of cultural value in 1990s Britain. Rather than considering how Kelman's book negotiates and subverts cultural authority, however, critical discussion rapidly shifted to the politics of art and society more broadly. Any close analysis of How Late's technical and stylistic achievement was drowned out by a more general and emotive discussion of cultural snobbery in not-yet "Cool Britannia," with the result that Kelman's novel occasioned a debate conducted mainly on sociological rather than artistic ground. As a result, the caricature of the novel generated by the Booker controversy rapidly eclipsed the literary achievement the prize itself had recognized. Even the majority of Kelman's defenders tended to imply that he was an essentially documentary "dirty realist," and that his use of Glasgow vernacular entailed the transcription of oral speech. This misconception is with us still. The novelist James Meek has recently and cogently observed that "a generous but misdirected romanticism … would like to imagine Kelman warbling his native fucknotes wild, simply sluicing a measure of his authentic working-class soul onto the page" (8). This romanticism, I will argue, is not only politically misdirected but critically misdirecting: readings which positioned How Late as a triumph of brute, ethnic naturalism traduce what is in fact a sophisticated work of modernist mythic appropriation and obscure the deeper radicalism of a writer whose politics are anarchist-existential, not socialist-realist.

Kelman's critical reception has developed a great deal since 1994, but there is a submerged, intertextual element of his best-known work which has escaped serious analysis.2 Given the revealing debate over cultural value that the Booker occasioned, there is a pleasing irony in How Late's unlooked-for engagement with John Milton, a figure of [End Page 497] unimpeachable "literary" gravity and prestige. The novel dismissed by Rabbi Julia Neuberger, one of the Booker judges that year, as "just a drunken Scotsman railing against bureaucracy" (qtd. in Grant 33) is in fact densely allusive to Samson Agonistes. For this to be so often overlooked dramatically exposes the limits of the cultural "expertise" by which such pronouncements gain their authority, neatly proving Kelman's long-standing point (in "'And the Judges Said …,'" for example) about the self-serving, mystificatory function of such expertise. Would Neuberger summarize Milton's closet...


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