In pur­suit of a po­lit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy

The Herald - Arts - - BOOKS - Re­view: Colin Wa­ters

Some years ago I in­ter­viewed a Scot­tish author who of­fered a few mild crit­i­cisms of James Kel­man's nov­els be­fore ask­ing me not to re­peat what he'd said. I knew why he didn't want to be quoted. One some­times won­ders whether it's pos­si­ble to ad­mit to not al­ways en­joy­ing Kel­man's work with­out be­ing de­nounced as a cap­i­tal­ist run­ning dog – at least that's the im­pres­sion I came away with af­ter read­ing The Red Cock­a­too, a new vol­ume analysing Kel­man's pol­i­tics.

The book be­gins by list­ing com­men­ta­tors, in­clud­ing an “Alan Massie” (sic), who have made “ex­traor­di­nar­ily vi­cious” crit­i­cisms of Kel­man's work. They don't men­tion the many writ­ers in­flu­enced by his work. There is at least a good rea­son why Kel­man ad­mir­ers are so de­fen­sive. In the 1980s and af­ter Kel­man won the Booker Prize in 1994, crit­i­cism of his nov­els of­ten had a class rather than a lit­er­ary ba­sis. One re­mem­bers Si­mon Jenk­ins's crit­i­cism of How Late It Was, How Late's Booker vic­tory; he wrote it “con­trived to in­sult lit­er­a­ture and pa­tro­n­ise the sav­age”.

Miller and Rodger con­tend Kel­man's po­lit­i­cal es­says, which are col­lected in And The Judges Said … and Some Re­cent At­tacks, pass un­no­ticed be­cause the “ Scot­tish lit­er­ary es­tab­lish­ment” finds them “forth­right and provoca­tive”. Kel­man's es­says, like Don DeLillo's plays or John Updike's po­etry, were bound to suf­fer in com­par­i­son with his nov­els, not for po­lit­i­cal rea­sons, but be­cause they don't im­press as much as his fic­tion. Be­ing an ac­com­plished nov­el­ist does not mean you can also write good po­etry, plays, re­views or es­says. It's not al­ways or even of­ten a trans­fer­able skill. No­body can doubt Kel­man's sin­cer­ity, but Mitchell and Rodger do him a dis­ser­vice by com­par­ing him to Or­well and Mon­taigne, whose gifts as es­say­ists t hrow i nto re­lief Kel­man's faults.

Kel­man dis­misses main­stream pol­i­tics. He bel i e v e s t he wield­ing of power is as cor­rupt­ing of those who han­dle it as those who suf­fer it. He prefers to in­volve him­self in grass­roots groups or­gan­ised ar ound s peci f i c is­sues such as win­ning com­pen­sat i on f or men and women in­jured through work­ing with as­bestos. Ac­cord­ing to Mitchell and Rodger, Kel­man doesn't judge the suc­cess of these groups by whether they achieve their goals but by the de­gree to which the cam­paigns raise po­lit­i­cal con­scious­nesses. Fine – but once a con­scious­ness is raised, what is to be done with it, es­pe­cially as Kel­man dis­dains tra­di­tional pol­i­tics? Is he wait­ing upon some sort of psy­chic tip­ping point af­ter which the rev­o­lu­tion is in­evitable? Again, the au­thors don't ap­pear to know. They can't even say how suc­cess­ful these cam­paigns have been in the short term, writ­ing in­stead that “ a qual­i­ta­tive as­sess­ment re­mains elu­sive”. As an eval­u­a­tion it lacks a Kel­manesque blunt­ness.

The sec­ond half of the book con­cerns a Self De­ter­mi­na­tion And Power c on­fer­ence that was held in 1990, an event or­gan­ised by Kel­man and at which his f el l ow “ lib­er­tar­ian so­cial­ist” Noam Chom­sky was a speaker. The au­thors ar­gue this marked a piv­otal mo­ment in the de­vel­op­ment of Kel­man's po­lit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy.

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ac­count

is Maybe leaden.

There are ques­tions per­tain­ing to Kel­man's pol­i­tics that are lightly fielded. Kel­man is quoted as say­ing: “Good art is usu­ally dis­sent.” But does tak­ing grants from a gov­ern­ment­funded arts or­gan­i­sa­tion, as he has, com­pro­mise his mes­sage? We're told Kel­man “ is gen­er­ally against artists hav­ing to ap­ply for these types of grant them­selves”. Why? Be­cause it's time-con­sum­ing? Or it turns artists into civil ser­vants? The au­thors don't ex­plore the sub­ject.

Nor do Mitchell and Rodger in­ter­ro­gate Kel­man's judg­ments. “ You know,” he once said, “ if you write in English nor­mally you can't help but take on the val­ues of the English up­per class.” Re­ally? How does that work? Did it hap­pen to Ge­orge Or­well? Robert Tres­sell? Charles Dick­ens, whom Kel­man ad­mires? His state­ment goes untested.

The Red Cock­a­too sets out to ex­plain and de­fend Kel­man's “art of com­mit­ment”, but it raises more ques­tions than it an­swers. The book is also badly proof-read. One tires of the pro­mis­cu­ous com­mas, semi-colons used in­stead of colons, AWOL apos­tro­phes, and mis­spelled names. I ex­pect I'll be judged guilty of “ the usual me­dia dis­tor­tion”, but Kel­man's de­fend­ers on this oc­ca­sion have mud­died rather than clar­i­fied his po­lit­i­cal thought.

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