Academic journal article Scottish Literary Review

Politics and Art: James Kelman's Not Not While the Giro

Academic journal article Scottish Literary Review

Politics and Art: James Kelman's Not Not While the Giro

Article excerpt


This essay seeks to make and substantiate a bold claim: that Not Not While the Giro, published in 1983, is the most distinguished set of short stories issued in the United Kingdom since World War Two. Furthermore, even if other collections--by Sylvia Townshend Warner, Elizabeth Bowen, John Fowles, V. S. Pritchett, Alan Sillitoe, Elizabeth Taylor, and Angela Carter, for example--were felt to be of greater artistic merit, Kelman's should still be regarded as the most important, capturing as it does with an urgency worthy of its subject the decline of working-class male culture in the 'postindustrial' Britain in the last quarter of the twentieth century. This discussion sees the collection in very general evaluative terms, therefore. In particular, before it turns to Kelman's stories in detail, it needs to establish the political and aesthetic background to their success, and to explore how the political and the aesthetic ultimately found their places and proportions in his achievement.

1. ART

'As a young writer', James Kelman recalled, 'there were no literary models I could look to from my own culture ... I'm not saying these models didn't exist. But if they did then I couldn't find them.' (1) So he was drawn to Sherwood Anderson and Ernest Hemingway; to Camus; and in particular to Modernists like Joyce, Beckett, and Kafka, whose influence on his work are apparent to any reader. Like Joyce, Kelman is drawn to interior monologue. Like Beckett, he depicts isolated figures in various stages of 'bodily decrepitude', (2) whose speech is littered with those 'auto-cancellations' Beckett frequently employs ('I can't go on, I'll go on'), (3) and he shares Beckett's appetite for the 'mock-ceremonious' prose register, too. (4) And like Kafka, he has a penchant for the psychotically surreal--but with less of the con vulsive, dreamlike aplomb that makes Kafka's fiction so disturbing. Kelman may not be the equal of these three writers, but the comparisons are not meaningless. As Adrian Hunter suggests, 'Kelman's responsiveness to the poetics of the modernist text is key to his achievement as a writer', (5) and he really has been able to convert such influences into a vivid idiom for his moral and dramatic ideas, as I hope to show.

Where short fiction in particular is concerned, the Modernists left Kelman with a particular stylistic inheritance. Helmut Bonheim has divided storytelling into four modes: two 'dynamic' (speech and report: dialogue and narrative transcription of characters' actions), and two 'static' (description and comment: the depiction of scenes and the registration of the narrator's moral response to what is taking place). The 'objective-ironic' style of Modernist short fiction (6) is the result of a re-prioritising of these four elements, in comparison to Victorian narrative. 'Of the four modes' the Modernist story writer, 'finds those more aesthetically pleasing, namely speech and report, which are most mimetic and which suggest as little as possible the guiding hand of the artist.' 'The two static modes', Bonheim goes on,

   are either avoided or restricted to embedded forms, preferably at
   the word or phrase level; expository description, 'poetic' settings
   and obvious authorial comment are avoided. The writer prefers
   scenic to panoramic report, he consistently prefers direct to
   indirect speech, unless he moves to stream of consciousness or
   narrated monologue. He conceals that manipulating hand of which
   earlier writers were proud, and tends to that mode or submode which
   will make it seem as though he were holding the mirror up to nature
   once again. (7)

So the aim of the modern short story is by sophisticated means to make the narrative appear transparently simple, above all by forgoing comment and description in favour of speech and report. II.


Joyce, Beckett, and Kafka were all of bourgeois origin, and given Kelman's own background it is perhaps surprising he read so little among the two greatest working-class writers Britain has produced: Thomas Hardy and D. …

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