Book review: A Lean Third

First of all, a word on the title: the stories collected here were James Kelman’s contribution to Lean Tales,where they appeared alongside stories by Alasdair Gray and Agnes Owens.

Picture: Sean Bell



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Tangerine Press, limited edition, 79pp, £50 lettered/signed, £30 numbered/signed

That book has long been out of print. So what we have here is a third of the Lean Tales, some of them very lean indeed, most of them substantially revised, according to the publisher, and brought out in this handsome limited edition.

Some may be surprised to see Kelman’s work appearing in such a form, for one of his achievements has been to give a voice to people who are either usually excluded from serious literature, or treated patronisingly as comic characters or melodramatically as criminals or victim. But really there should be no occasion for such surprise. Kelman has always been an artist, and a highly conscious one. Whatever the social content of his work, he also makes art for art’s sake. The tone of voice sounds unforced and natural, but is never exactly a transcript of spoken language. It is finely wrought, artificial as an Impressionist’s still-life.

The word “tale” has been dropped from the title of this reprint. This is as it should be. A tale is a narrative, sometimes an anecdote. Even when Kelman’s characters are on the move, as they often are, he offers sketches of seen, felt, experienced and imagined life rather than stories as such. He is a master of the brief encounter between people who may never see each other again, or indeed have any desire to do so. He is a poet of transience, catching the passing moment as it wings its way out of sight.

There is an afterword to the collection in which he tells us what some may have guessed, that all bar one of the 18 stories – or sketches – here were written as part of a novel which was never finished, and which the circumstances of his life at the time made it impossible to finish. “The central character was an itinerant worker who wanders about taking jobs when he needs them, sleeping where he can. The drama was not only physical but psychological, concerning states of mind: dreams, reflections, whatever.”

It couldn’t be finished because Kelman himself was “too busy working at jobs that drained me of energy, intellectual as well as physical”. He resented this, bitterly, believing that “art cannot be sustained by wage-slaves, by people whose time on this planet is sold as a means of survival whether of them or their families.”

His resentment was understandable. He couldn’t live on the earnings from what he wrote and he knew he had to write, grudging any time spent away from his typewriter. Though in some respects things are worse today, with literature being regarded as a commodity and arts bureaucrats preaching the need for art to have economic benefits, a young writer of Kelman’s talent and commitment might now find himself salaried and teaching creative writing at one of the many institutions which offers a course in that subject. Whether such a post would have been of more benefit than working as Kelman did in factories, print-shops, a copper mill, and as a bus driver may be doubtful. As it was, he met all sorts of people, heard their stories, observed their habits and manners. So he got them into his head for his imagination to work on, and made something new of them, which is one of the primary functions of literature.

All writers make use of whatever life has thrown in their way. Some accumulate so little experience for their imagination to play on that they wither early. You have the impression with Kelman that he has always been unusually alert to the incongruities of life like, for instance an old lady sitting on a river bank smoking Capstan Full Strength cigarettes and then playing Annie Laurie on the mouth organ. Others might pass her by. Kelman catches her for us and you won’t forget her. He sets you wondering about the parts of her life that aren’t on view. It’s never just a slice of observed life he offers you.

People think of Kelman as a realist, and this is fair enough; he doesn’t romanticize his characters as, for instance, Irvine Welsh romanticises his lost and ruined boys. Kelman’s characters may have their heads in the air, for they often have a philosophical turn of mind, but their feet are firmly planted on the ground, like their author. He is a realistic writer in the way that Courbet is a realistic painter; he has you seeing the ordinary and commonplace as different and significant. Often nothing much happens on the surface of these sketches, and yet when you finish reading them, you find that the ground has shifted. The conjunction with Gray and Agnes Owens seemed far enough when Lean Tales was first published. The distance in time allows one to see that Kelman has very little except the Glasgow background in common with Gray, and that the resemblances to Agnes Owens’s work are superficial. He is our only Scottish existentialist novelist, one whose characters are compelled to make up their lives and their sense of their own existence as they go along. They may be social failures but there are granted a successful individuality.