James Kelman: How Late It Was, How Late

Despite my recent cynicism toward the Booker Prize, I still have some implicit faith in the older winners (perhaps simply because they’re the older ones and I haven’t read them yet).  For example I never doubted that the 1994 winner, James Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late was worthwhile.  This may have come largely from the belief that my enemy’s enemy is my friend: on its victory, the most common response to the book from the UK newspapers was to complain about the amount of swearing (one columnist counted 348 swear words, about one per page).  Another commentator called the result “literary vandalism,” and even one of the judges left the panel when the book won, declaring it to be “frankly … crap.”  Indeed, with all this appeal, it was only the book’s reportedly ‘difficult’ nature that kept me from reading it before now.

And it is difficult, if you are looking for a book with a page-turning plot.  Indeed, if you are looking for that sort of book, it’s not only difficult but impossible, because it is not that sort of book.  It is a long internal monologue in the third person (rather like Roddy Doyle’s Paula Spencer) by Glaswegian Sammy, as he struggles to come to terms with sudden blindness.  It is ‘gritty’ (a word used by liberal newspapers to describe something with lots of swearing), it is implausible, almost nothing happens, and it took me longer to read than any other book this year.

He wasnay feeling so hot.  Before he had been good.  Now he wasnay.  There was things out his control.  There was things in his control but there were other things out, they were out his control, he had put them out his control.

You can say that again.  Sammy has been lifted by the police (“the sodjers”), gets a beating from them, and finds himself blind.  “Folk take a battering but, they do; they get born and they get brought up and they get fuckt.”  Sammy’s used to it (“what does it matter.  Who gives a fuck.  Life’s a dawdle if ye give it a chance”), which may explain why he doesn’t immediately seek medical attention for his blindness.  Instead he goes home, and to the pub, and to the government office to register a claim for social security.  There, he faces a wall of bureaucratic obfuscation and doublespeak (“sightloss”, “Dysfunctional Benefit,” “Community Gratuity”).

Now: hold that thought.  Bureaucracy?  Circular conversations?  The little man against the monolith?  Sammy is later held for a crime he doesn’t know anything about, or even the precise nature of.  We’re in literal Kafkaesque territory here.  (There even appears to be a reference to ‘The Hunger Artist’.)  There’s a clear debt to aspects of Beckett too.

Ach it was hopeless.  That was what ye felt.  These bastards.  What can ye do but.  Except start again so he started again.  That was what he did he started again.  …ye just plough on, ye plough on, ye just fucking plough on … ye just fucking push ahead, ye get fucking on with it.

And more and more details as I read the book – his name appears to be Samuel Samuels; the blindness is never plausibly explained – made it clearer than ever that How Late It Was, How Late, for all its social down-to-earth setting, is as far removed from a realistic work of fiction as one could wish it to be; and all the better for it.

Which is not to deny that at the heart of the story burns a undimmable passion for equality and justice, for the underdog of the ‘underclass’ – but Kelman’s great achievement is to render the book universal precisely as a result of this grounded and specific setting.  Sammy’s blindness, too, enables him to address the very matter of reality and existence.  Sammy relies on non-visual stimuli to make sense of the world, but the reader has only sight to rely on, which leads to the strange feeling of ‘seeing’ things in the sightless mind of Sammy more vividly than we would when looking up from the page into the real world.  The reader needn’t like Sammy – he’s a cantankerous so-and-so and an unrepentant jailbird (“all in all he had done eleven years.  They rolled off the tongue”) – but it’s impossible not to identify with him.  As Sammy points out to Ally, a self-appointed ‘rep’ to handle Sammy’s interests in his social security claim, that’s not quite enough:

Aye well you’re no me. There’s a difference between repping somebody and fucking being somebody; know what I’m talking about, being somebody?

We don’t even know if Ally is real – if any of it is real – even though it is meticulously realistic (and equally intended not to be).  It is a book of paradox.  In the middle of the savagery of life on the Glasgow streets – of life generally – there is unexpected humour.

It’s just I was upset, I liked the guy, he was harmless.

Naybody’s harmless Sammy.

Some guys are.

Well I never meet them.

Kelman maintains a highly imagined account of the ancillary difficulties of everyday blindness (keeping place in a queue, finding a seat on a bus, selecting clothes for a white wash) while keeping his voice sufficiently expressive for more abstract thinking.

Waiting rooms.  Ye go into this room where ye wait.  Hoping’s the same.  One of these days the cunts’ll build entire fucking buildings just for that.  Official hoping rooms, where ye just go in and hope for whatever the fuck ye feel like hoping for.  One on every corner.  Course they had them already – boozers. Ye go in to hope and they sell ye a drink to help pass the time.  Ye see these cunts sitting there.  What’re they there for?  They’re hoping.  They’re hoping for something.  The telly’s rotten.  So they go out hoping for something better.  I’m just away out for a pint, hen, be back in an hour.  You hoping the football’ll come on soon?  Aye.  I hope ye’ll no be too long.  I’ll no be; no unless I meet some cunt – I hope I don’t!

How Late It Was, How Late is one of those rare books which could, at a casual glance, appear to have nothing, but in fact contains everything.  There is no bad language here: only beautiful, rhythmic, transcendental language.  And a story to tell too.

Ah fuck it man stories, stories, life’s full of stories, they’re there to help ye out, when ye’re in trouble, deep shit, they come to the rescue, and one thing ye learn in life is stories.


  1. Thanks for this post; I’ve been collecting Booker winners for a while, and HLIWHL has been on my TBR for too long. Now I am encouraged to move it up the pile:)
    Lisa in Oz

    1. Lisa,

      I’ve just ploughed my way through it, and while at times it was like pulling teeth (I was expecting conventional plot and characterisation) the voice of Sammy just flows off the page after a while.

      He’s a character you won’t forget for a while, and after reading it you’ll want to discuss it with others.

      Thank you for your post John.

      1. And thanks for your response, Rebecca! This reminds me that I haven’t read any more Kelman since this, though I have two more of his novels (A Disaffection and Kieron Smith, Boy, which I’ve heard some say is his best work).

  2. Thanks for this post John. I read this around the time of publication and loved it. It seems like a long time since it surfaced in the critical consciousness but it was so badly misjudged by the conservative media of the time. Too many focused on the language, the squalor, as if it was just a deliberate attempt to shock the reader and nothing more. So few picked up on this universal/exsitential thread in the book – so Kafkaesque as you say. I had the same argument with my mother, in fact, who couldn’t understand that swearing could be part of an internal monologue – third person or not.

  3. Possibly the best ever Booker winner, simple as that. I’ve never really read anything like it, and if I notice it on the bookstore shelves, I kind of do a mental nod of the head towards it, the eyebrow may raise…basically total reverence. And I always turn it face forward, just to give it more of a chance of being plucked off the shelves, this savage, terribly moving masterpiece.

  4. Best Booker winner ever, Lee? Hm, well it’s certainly now in my top three, along with The White– … I mean, with Disgrace and The Remains of the Day.

    James, your mother may be assured that my own internal monologue contains a lot more swearing than my audible speech! But what’s so great about the book is that Kelman manages to make it simultaneously utterly grounded in reality and completely unreal. It contains, to paraphrase Whitman, multitudes. As with many great books, I find myself frustrated that I am unable (through desire to keep word count down, but also inability) to express even half of what I think is so good about it.

    Lisa, thanks for your comment – I hope you like How Late and that you’ll return to let us know.

  5. Great review, John. Finally I understand why I should read this book… I hope I still have my copy somewhere!

    Incidentally, this “Vintage Maugham”, “Vintage Kelman” thing they do always makes me think of Alan Partridge.

  6. This is my Booker of Bookers, John, and it beats the rest of them into a cocked hat. I shouted it out from the rooftops (well, from my blog and to anyone who’d listen) but to no avail. Kelman is an extraordinary writer and we should be a lot more proud – and more noisily proud – of him than we seem to be.

  7. Might be a bizarre reference point this, but Kelman has always reminded me of Joseph Heller. Someone trapped in a machine, recognising it, determined to continue (Beckett of course) for no other reason than defiance and to, God forbid, laugh about it. The purest, truest response to an unreal nightmare.

  8. Hi John,
    On ‘How Later’ being “utterly grounded in reality and completely unreal” – it’s amazing how Kelman got the balance right between finding a tangible (gritty) inner voice and being profoundly observant. It’s not easy to both jarringly inarticulate and brutally insightful at the same time – but Kelman manages somehow. The way he exposes the world, through blindness, as sinister and mad, is extraordinary.
    I’d love to re-read this …

  9. Thanks for this, John – and Lee, “reverence” isn’t far from the way I feel too. “You Have to Be Careful” is also wonderful. I just noticed that “Kieron Smith, boy” came out in the States last month – fantastic!

  10. I remember this was the first book I read after finishing University and years of set texts and being absolutely blown away by it. A very humane, tender, brutal novel – could something as strange as this ever win the Booker Prize again? Have to say, I tried A Disaffection a few years later and got nowhere with it, maybe it’s time I tried again…

    PS Nice to see Roberto Bolano, who’s been mentioned on this blog before, gracing the cover of The Sunday Times Culture magazine this week. I am almost breathless with excitement about 2666…

  11. I read this not long after publication — and loved it. I think I was mesmirised by the rythym of the language: I could hear that harsh Glaswegian accent in my head as I read each and every word. And even though I can’t remember much of what happened because it was so long ago (although your great review has brought some of it back), I do remember the *feeling* of reading it — something stuck with me that has never really left. It’s one of those books that you read and it changes you a little and leaves a mark on your life view. I’ve never really read anything else like it since.

  12. It is with some hesitation that I would like to cast a dissenting opinion. While I find “utter crap” to be over the top, “severely wanting” would capture my thoughts. Like John, I found the book very difficult to read — unlike him I did not find that the “reality” it purported to show added anything to my knowledge. I ended up feeling it was a waste of time.

    I am impressed, however, that so many people whose views of books I respect found very high value in the book. Different strokes for different folks, I guess, and it would be a boring world if we all held the same view of every book.

  13. Thank heavens for that Kevin; I thought for a minute there we were going to have boring unanimity of opinion!

    Sam (green-and-purple Sam, not brown-and-yellow Sam), thanks for the recommendation of You Have to be Careful… – naturally my thoughts have turned to what other Kelmans I could try. I was tempted by A Disaffection on the not very literary grounds that it’s also available as a Vintage Classic… though gav’s experience is not promising. (gav, a copy of 2666 is on its way to me via the publishers, though I don’t have any high expectations that I’ll read it soon. I hope it lives up to your expectations though.)

    The other Sam: I’ve read that interview with Kelman, and a few others, and I am pretty sure I would not get on with him – though that’s of no importance in reading his books. The word ‘chippy’ comes to mind.

    Lee, James and others all make excellent points in further support of the book, though as Kevin has pointed out, it is perfectly possible to be an intelligent reader and not enjoy it.

    Rob, I think if Alan Partridge published a line of classic novels, they would be called the Textbook Classics. Textbook Amis, Textbook Heller, Textbook Coelho…

  14. I loved HLIWHL. I also read it around the time it came out, and it’s one of those books that still stays fresh in my memory.

  15. A book I have never encountered but sounds like its worth looking out for – but after your erudite review, would I need to?

    BTW, A Curious Earth by Woodward – I think you’d enjoy it as much if not more than I Go To Bed At Noon. An entertaining but insightful read over Christmas perhaps?


  16. I read this when it first came out, and really liked it, but had no idea there’d been such controversy at the time: 1994 was before I was able to access the UK books pages on the net, I suppose. Your review and excerpts make me want to go and read it again.

    I’ve tried other Kelman without them having anywhere near the same power: does anyone have any suggestions about what’s good? ‘A Disaffection’ looks promising, if only for the new edition’s cover.

  17. Nice post. I read and enjoyed this book well before ever coming near Beckett, and certainly without Kafka as much in mind as I do now, so thanks for highlighting those connections.

    I preferred A Disaffection to You Have to be Careful in the Land of the Free, though I love the latter’s title..

  18. Also, Kelman may or may not be “chippy”, but that Guardian interviewer comes off as imperious and above-it-all, as exemplifying the very characteristics Kelman is talking about, though he, the interviewer, tries to push that aside by way of being so “aware” of everything.

  19. I don’t agree; I thought the interviewer came across as a thoroughly decent chap who tried his best with a difficult subject. (I know someone who knows him, and I’m sure they’d conifrm that). Also, if you read any of his reviews – particularly those in in the LRB – I think you’d have to agree that he’s a very empathetic (and startlingly intelligent) literary critic.

  20. I understand the Guardian interview came up when Kelman appeared at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August. He felt that the Guardian had tried to ‘set him up’ with, as Richard says, an imperious type who knew nothing about contemporary Scots literature. I doubt that was the intention, and I think it speaks ill of Kelman (and corroborates the degree of paranoia he seems to displays in the interview) that he believes that. Here is a more recent interview with him where he is more relaxed, though still finds something to complain about even in sympathetic and lightly posed questions.

    Kelman is a great writer, and no doubt the intellectual superior of most of his interviewers, but he doesn’t have to do the publicity circuit – particularly not for websites (I’ve seen another interview with him on a minority interest fan forum) – and must realise that the aim of the exercise is to try to make more people want to read his books. Whether or not he’s likeable is irrelevant to his work, but it doesn’t do him any favours in trying to broaden interest in him as a writer, which is presumably the point.

    Thanks also for the recommendation, Richard – in fact I picked up A Disaffection at the weekend; it looks very exciting just from a few quick flicks. And yes, JRSM, it was the cover that sold it too.

    (By the way Tom, I’m going to tackle August before A Curious Earth).

  21. Well, I’ll take Sam’s word for it that the interviewer is an empathetic and intelligent reviewer. I hadn’t heard of him (probably because I don’t regularly read the LRB). And I’m not trying to argue that Kelman can’t be difficult. No doubt Tait went into the interview with the best of intentions, and no doubt Kelman was not in the mood, for whatever reason, but the resulting interview, as written, has a certain condescending tone about it, as he was describing an exotic native for the benefit of the comfortable readership back home.

    As for Kelman and publicity, no he doesn’t have to do it… he may be uncertain as to why he does do it. And since there was that firestorm over How late it was winning the Booker, which I’m sure was only a tip of the iceberg in the kind of treatment he had been getting, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that in general he hasn’t been wrong to be “paranoid” about newspaper coverage.

  22. I know this is not the place for it, John, but is there any chance we could have a yearend Top Five? I monitor those published in the conventional press and, like Philip Hensher, equally respect the opinions of accomplished bloggers.

  23. Point taken, Richard – Kelman has been on the receiving end of a good deal of unreasonable coverage. I’d overlooked that, which is a bit embarrassing since I mentioned it at the start of my review.

    Kevin, yes there is – a Top Twelve in fact – but you will need to wait until 28 December! Yes, I do plan my blog that far in advance… Hope you can stand the suspense.

  24. Oh, very interesting, Sam. I do like a list. I am guessing that Anne Enright’s story collection Yesterday’s Weather is the one published in the UK as Taking Pictures. Anyway I shall certainly be getting Kieron Smith, Boy when it comes out in paperback. I read in an interview Kelman say that he had to write Translated Accounts in order to finish Kieron Smith. As Translated Accounts was his first novel after winning the Booker, that suggests that he had been working on Kieron Smith since How Late It Was, How Late was published 14 years ago.

  25. “this year’s middlebrow Booker Prize committee” – gotta love him!

    Incidentally, James Wood was on the judging panel in the year Kelman won the Booker Prize. I think I read somewhere that Wood was championing the Kelman and the Hollinghurst, with a slight preference for the latter.

    It scares me how much crap I know.

  26. I’m not sure even a Wood recommendation could tempt me to Kieron Smith, Boy. Then again, given all the praise on this post maybe I do have to acknowledge that I might be wrong and give Kelman another chance. I remain a defiant minority of one as far as I can tell.

    (I’d like to thank Max for motivating me to change my Gravatar and take control of my own visual presence. I am offering a prize — to be determined — for anyone who correctly identifies it.)

  27. You are amazing. While the painting was not done until the 1930s, the artist was in Britain during the three years of the vorticist “movement” (if three years can count as a movement) and descriptions of his abstract work often acknowledge “vorticist” light shafts. So far, you get 8 out of 10 and your entry is not even complete.

  28. John, just going briefly back to the comments about Kelman and publicity – speaking as a book publicist (that slippery, eyed-with-suspicion thing) it’s probably the case that he does have to do it, in order, as you say, not only to get people to read his books but also to buy them. He’s got commitments to his agent and publisher just like the next author. I’d wager it’s precisely the ‘has to’ element of it that brings out and exacerbates his suspicion of the process: it’s an odd thing to do and who among us doesn’t tread carefully when we’re on unfamiliar or uncomfortable ground, and only there out of obligation?

    Also, while I totally agree with you that whether you’d get on with an author is unimportant to appreciating their books, I have heard he’s extremely nice in a normal, one-to-one situation.

  29. Hi Joe, that’s a fair point. I suppose what I meant was that a ‘big name’ author like Kelman probably has enough clout to insist on a no-publicity clause in his contracts with publishers. He’s not a bestseller, but he’s a Booker winner who will always have a readership – compare to a new author like, say, Tom Rob Smith 😉 who will want to do all the interviews he can in order to get his name out there.

    I’ve been surprised by how willing authors are to do interviews even for small-scale places like this blog. I suppose it’s a combination of wanting to sell your book, and it being nice to know that someone out there wants to ask you questions about it.

    Gilbert Adair in his new novel And Then There Was No One, where he appears as narrator, reports a conversation where his agent rings him asking him to appear at a literary festival at short notice. He tries everything he can think of to get out of it:

    There then came the knock-down argument to which no writer has ever been capable of responding.

    ‘Or don’t you want your books to sell?’

  30. Byatt’s another who has said in the past that she hates book readings and only does the publicity rounds because of commitments to her publishers. The authors with the clout to refuse to do any interview-type publicity are pretty rare: J K Rowling comes to mind, and Zadie Smith, who I think refuses to appear on British TV, and said post-‘White Teeth’ that she’d never again do any interviews with the British press.

  31. You can wait for a week or two, John, but an opinion on the 2009 jury now that it has been announced would be welcome in time. Please try to overcome whatever frustration you may still have from any creative writing course that you failed and any agendas you may possess (as a regular visitor here, I sense no agendas other than good reading.) I don’t know any of the names but off the bios it looks to me that the jury is somewhat more used to reading real books than last year’s was. I do, of course, stand to be corrected.

  32. Once again, I second Kevin’s request. And if you don’t mind, I’d like to transfer whatever you say to a comment in the Booker section of my blog – with your explicit permission of course.

  33. To be honest, guys, I probably know only a little more about them than you do (possibly no more, in these days of Wikipedia and Google). However I do agree with Kevin’s suspicion that this year’s jury seems to be of higher stock than last year’s.

    John Mullan writes the Book Club pieces for the Guardian, and undoubtedly knows what he’s talking about.

    Lucasta Miller, although unknown to me, has written a book on the Brontes (or more accurately, on their followers) and articles on the likes of Susan Sontag.

    Michael Prodger also was unknown to me before today, but as literary editor of a national newspaper, he would seem to be this year’s counterpart to Alex Clark last year (the only judge on that panel I knew for sure I could rely on). Interestingly, as this piece from 2006 points out, he employed James Naughtie in the Telegraph books pages, so I wonder whether Naughtie had some sway in his being chosen as a panellist? His support in 2006 for Edward St Aubyn’s Mother’s Milk, the title which undoubtedly should have won that year (a view shared by at least one of the 2006 judging panel: see the entry for 2006 here), is good news.

    Sue Perkins is this year’s token celebrity – and indeed has appeared on the grotesque UK jungle-based reality show I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! (oops – see below) But I always found her clever and amusing as a comedian and TV presenter, so it could be worse.

    Trevor, of course you may cut, splice and sever these comments as you see fit.

  34. John: We don’t expect a complete analysis, only what you know — and this certainly fits the bill. There does seem to be nothing totally offline and, frankly, more on line than I think there has been in recent years. I do think most juries treat their brief seriously — so I see no problems here. Thanks so much for the quick response. Perhaps the most positive thing is that you have no information that causes a negative reaction. Cheers, Kevin

  35. Sue Perkins? What the…!? They do insist these days on a vaguely sentient celeb to add their twopenn’orth, for whatever reason…I will never understand why. If it’s to try and get, say, my mum interested, it’s not going to work. It’s a waste of a panel member, as much as I don’t have any gripes about Perkins as a media person. Get Lezard in! As for Naughtie, well, I can only hope Mullan at least has a bit of sway. Mother’s Milk should indeed have romped home, so Prodger seems hopeful.

    I bet Kelman gets on the longlist at least.

    Quick digression (sorry chaps). Has anyone read the new Matthiessen collection, or Bolano’s 2666?

  36. If it’s to try and get, say, my mum interested, it’s not going to work

    Good point. My mum either. She doesn’t even like Sue Perkins.

    I bet Kelman gets on the longlist at least

    I bet he doesn’t! Not unless he has another novel out in the next 9 months! Kieron Smith, Boy was eligible for the 2008 prize, but didn’t qualify. Increasingly, from what others are saying about the book, that is looking like yet another mad omission from the 08 judges.

    Has anyone read the new Matthiessen collection, or Bolano’s 2666?

    By the Matthiessen, are you referring to Shadow Country, which won this year’s National Book Award? KevinfromCanada has written about it on Trevor’s blog here. He calls it “a tour-de-force for writers … but a very difficult force-de-tour for readers.” (I’ve just noticed, though, that you commented on that thread further down, so presumably you’re referring to another Matthiessen book.)

    The Bolano is out in the US but not in the UK yet. However, I think my copy arrived from the publishers yesterday as there was a card through my door saying they couldn’t deliver a package as it was too big for my letterbox (at 912 pages, that would make sense). I didn’t think I would read it anytime soon, but now I am quite keen on the idea, particularly if I can clear some mental space in the Xmas break.

  37. I am referring to ‘Shadow Country’ and I am, of course, canvassing those already in the know etc. It does look very interesting indeed and I may be asking KevinFromCanada a few more questions about it…

    I need to get more informed re: publishing schedules and so on. I honestly thought it’d be eligible and that it was only just upon us…ho hum…I won’t be going to Ladbrokes with my ‘punt’, then…

    My mum likes Sue Perkins but thinks us Booker shortlist scrutinising sorts a bit geeky and her inclusion will not mollify her any that this isn’t still the case, alas…

    I am extremely excited by the Bolano novel (or series of three interlinked novels?) after reading the excerpt on the NY Times site and noticing the immense praise thrown its way. The excerpt, at least, reads like Nabokov tinged with Auster, Marquez and Powers amongst others. Unless that’s just wish-fulfillment, of course, but I cannae wait to get hold of the thing…

  38. No, I’m NOT referring to Shadow Country! I hereby pledge to ACTUALLY know (to an extent anyway) what I’m talking about before I prattle! I meant Steven Millhauser (No, apart from the ‘M’ kicking off the surname, there IS no common factor that excuses my getting them confused or my laxness) and his collection ‘Dangerous Laughter’. Apologies! I have awoken from my slumber (hey, can I use the office party as an excuse?)…

  39. That’s OK, Lee: oddly, when I did an Amazon search earlier for 2666, one of the search results lower down was for Millhauser’s collection. Usually that annoys me – when I search for The Clothes on their Backs, I don’t want to see the other Booker shortlist titles coming up as well – but here I’ll mark it down as serendipity.

  40. Sue Perkins … has appeared on the grotesque UK jungle-based reality show I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!

    My apologies to Sue Perkins, whom I grossly misrepresented with the above. I confused her with Rhona Cameron – in fact Perkins’s ex-girlfriend – who appeared on I’m a Celebrity… in 2002.

    The reality show which Sue Perkins appeared on was Celebrity Big Brother. Apologies for any confusion caused.

  41. I think it’s just one of those days, John…they’re all much of an indistinguishable muchness those shows…flagging careers…show you’re a good sport…stock temporarily rises…cash-in during the window of public affection…vanish…

    Surely Coupland must be considering the whole phenomenon?

    I’ve order the Millhauser, which looks great. Where did you get your copy of the Bolano from, might I ask?

  42. It’s an advance copy from the publishers. However I would like to assure you that any such arrangement will have no bearing on my critical appraisals.

    This blog comment is brought to you in association with Pan Macmillan, purveyors of quality literature.

  43. I got my copy of 2666 via The Book Depository. I plumped for the three piece paperback edition, but they had the US hardback available when the book initially came out. The first printing must be sold out by now, though.

  44. Yes, Stewart, I had a look at that (hence the ‘three-part’ comments) and wasn’t sure what to make of it, other than I always prefer everything ‘under one roof’, so to speak. It is at the very top of my ‘wanted’ list in whatever guise!

  45. I’m a bit bemused by the three-parter (other than in handling manageability terms) – the book, as I understand it, is in five distinct parts. Can you tell us how the volumes are divided, Stewart?

  46. What a fascinating convesation. One cannot but wonder if Lee was into the port, but I digress, of course.

    I would be happy to opine on Shadow Crossing — I didn’t think it was a very good book.

    I’m very interested in any opinions about Millhauser, whom I have not read. The NY Times positioning makes him interesting, but all reviews of the book tell me it is not my style. I will await opinions. I have considered ordering this book but am awaiting thoughts from others.

  47. Kevin, I will read it next up and let you know; I’ve a few days off coming up and I have pledged to read a few tomes.

    On the port? Good God, man, if only etc. I look forward to the festive period, though, as I have avoided all forms of alcohol for a good while in the run-up…just goes to show what ‘clear-headedness’ can do for ones acumen, eh? Befuddlement aside, I think I will avoid the Matthiessen for the time being; Millhauser, Bolano, Wroblewski and Wolff loom…

  48. Lee: I’d advise setting Shadow Crossing aside and starting with some other tomes. It is not a good book and not worth your time. I’d certainly appreciate a thought on the Millhauser and admit that the Bolano publicity turns me off that book.

  49. Kevin, I read Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Millhauser a few years back and didn’t get much out of it. My “theory” friends loved it because of all of its postmodern elements, but that’s not my cup of tea. It seemed like it was written to showcase those elements and not to use them for a greater purpose. That said, I’ve never quite been able to shake it, and I’ve been considering giving it another shot now that I’m a bit more – well – a bit older and have thrown off some of my own “theory” hangups. I too am hoping someone can give me a good word on this new collection.

  50. I’m a bit bemused by the three-parter (other than in handling manageability terms) – the book, as I understand it, is in five distinct parts. Can you tell us how the volumes are divided, Stewart?

    Not a problem. Just got home a few minutes ago and finally tore the cellophane off them. Here’s the rundown, with approximate page counts in brackets:

    Book One
    Part 1: The Part About The Critics (160)
    Part 2: The Part About Amalfitano (50)
    Part 3: The Part About Fate (120)

    Book Two
    Part 4: The Part About The Crimes (285)

    Book Three
    Part 5: The Part About Archimboldi (265)

  51. Millhauser is on hold, pending thoughts from those I respect. Bolano will require a major positive review to bring me in — all I have read so far say this is not a book for me.

  52. Thanks for the list, Stewart — I’d read some but not all. I know Hensher will hate me for this, but I’m now waiting for “reviews” from people like yourself whom I quite frankly find more useful. Cheers, Kevin

  53. Thanks Stewart. (Trevor, my first review of 2009 will be of a book which uses postmodern trickery to not much greater purpose, but which I still – or because of that! – thoroughly enjoyed.)

    Kevin, looks as though we have drawn a blank on identification of your Gravatar. Can you enlighten us?

  54. My Gravatar, by Kevin Peterson.

    This Gravatar is a digital reproduction of an abstract painting by Lawren Harris, done in New Mexico in 1937. Harris may be Canada’s best known artist — he does hold, and will continue to hold, the record for being its most expensive and his works regularly go for more than $1 million at auction. He was a member of the Group of 7 (and those paintings fetch great prices) but also was in England when the Vorticists had their brief flurry (John: Could you please tell me how you know about them? I collect art, it is my wife’s minor and we had to look it up when you mentioned it — and discovered Harris was there and would know about it. I am intrigued that you do know it — maybe the Wyndham Lewis or Pound effect?)

    Sorry I got distracted. The painting that is now my Gravatar showed up at auction two years ago with a $10-15,000 estimate. My wife and I collect art but Harris is in another league most of the time. The estimate was obviously low — but the $50,000 where we backed out of the bidding was well below the $112,000 the painting eventually fetched. I’d downloaded an image from the catalogue before the auction and, copyright notwithstanding, have been abusing that image ever since.

    Certainly, it beats a quadrangle with the tongue sticking out. Or a photo of myself.

    Just to keep a book thought going, everything I have read about 2666 says that I will not like it. And despite all the positive reviews of the Millhauser, I’ll be waiting for a blogger whom I trust and respect to like it before committing my time.

    Distant Early Warning alert: A friend send me a proof copy of Burnt Shadows, which is due for release in March. It is definitely a plot-based novel, but it is also very, very good. Keep your eyes open.

  55. Hoorah! Kelman might not have even made it onto the shortlist for the Booker (perhaps unsurprisingly with Port-a-loo as the chair of judges), but he did win the highly significant Scottish Saltire Book of the Year Award. See here:


    Kieron Smith, Boy is brilliant, as almost all reviewers concurred.

  56. Yes Percer, praise from friends, James Wood – and you! – has persuaded me to give Kieron Smith, Boy a go, though I’ll probably leave it for a while to avoid overdosing on Scots vernacular.

    Kevin, thanks for the Gravatar info. I have no idea how I knew of the vorticists; I tend to have a memory for words and names so it must have stuck somewhere along the way. I think Wyndham Lewis may indeed have been the one I was thinking of specifically, though I really only know of his paintings from the covers of Penguin Modern Classics editions of his books. (A larger version of Kevin’s Gravatar can be seen here.)

    Thanks too for the recommendation of Burnt Shadows (by Kamila Shamsie). I have arranged to get hold of a copy so I hope to read it soon. From the description it sounds a little like a more digestible version of Nadeem Aslam’s The Wasted Vigil, which I tried reading a couple of months ago, but didn’t get far into. One for the Booker 09?

    (Incidentally, picked up my copy of 2666 from the postal depot this morning. Very few paragraph breaks. No new lines for dialogue. Long pages of unbroken text in tight spacing. 893 pages total. You might be right Kevin.)

  57. Incidentally Lee, you may be interested to know that there’ll be a discussion of Bolano and 2666 on the Today programme on Radio 4 on Monday (or possibly Tuesday) with the translator Natasha Wimmer. Er, Hensher will also be taking part, but you can’t have everything, eh?

  58. As long as he doesn’t read any passages from ‘The Northern Clemency’ I’m sure it’ll be fine. Thanks for that, I will definitely be tuning in.

  59. I’d say your impression of Burnt Shadows is pretty accurate — not nearly as dense as The Wasted Vigil, more complex than something like A Thousand Suns. Definitely a plot driven book (and my positive reaction is probably influenced by the fact that I was wanting a book where the plot took me along), but the writing is also very good. Not sure about Booker status, although it is certainly a better action-oriented read than Child 44. I’ll be interested in your opinion.

    And I’ll be waiting to see what you say about Bolano. Your comment so far tends to confirm my hesitation.

  60. I think it probably is, Trevor – others have raved about it. I just found it difficult to latch onto and gave up rather than force myself through and end up hating it. I do intend to try it again … sometime.

  61. I gave up on Aslam’s ‘Maps for Lost Lovers’; the one hundred or so pages I read were very over-written. I think he’s labouring under the influence of Arundhati Roy. There was at least one (very particular) simile in Aslam’s pages that was very similar to one in Roy’s ‘The God of Small Things’ (they both described semen as being like the white from a ‘quarter-boiled egg’). Also, ‘Maps…’ took him eleven years to write, and he said in an interview that he had to start again in 1996/7, which, by my reckoning, was when Roy’s novel came out. I don’t think he’s found his own ‘voice’ yet.

  62. I read The Wasted Vigil and liked it Trevor but I think both John and Sam raise valid points. I thought the first 100 pages were wonderful and that I was reading a great book — alas, after that the intricacies of the story start to take over and it became tough slogging. So John was probably right to put it down if he wasn’t enjoying it, because it did get tougher. And Sam has a good point that Aslam still seems to be discovering his voice. Still, it was a worthwhile read.

  63. I read this a few years ago when I was delving into past Booker winners. I liked it a lot, finding like you, far more warmth than initial impressions give out. But as I get older I find myself less and less patient when it comes to reading books written in dialect.

  64. what a long hard read of a person down on his luck A plot would have suited this book,maybe some excitement! Because I started the book,one only has to believe it has to be finished

  65. Steady on Lee! It’s a ‘difficult’ book in its way, so I don’t blame people for feeling some resistance to it. (Why else would I not have read either of the other two Kelman novels I have at home since, if not because I fear they will take a long time and require more effort than pretty much anything else I could be reading? Despite the great rewards, of course.) But I am unclear on Steve’s comment about finishing the book. Did you finish it? Or are you saying you did so through a sense of obligation? No point in that; if you’re not getting anything but ‘a hard read’ out of it, then move on to something else.

  66. Hey, what’s wrong with the Prisoner of Alakazam?

    I certainly hope Steve finishes HLIW,HL as it deserves at least that and its cumulative whole may stir him. It is hard going but it was never 3-for-2 fodder, was it? I think you need to get through these things sometimes, if it’s the subject matter that’s the issue, and not the writing. I’m not sure what kind of ‘excitement’ was expected here?

  67. I’ve not read it yet, but if as I understand it’s not a plot driven book then it’s a non-sequitur to say it needs a plot (or excitement). It’s just not that sort of novel surely?

    Saying it would be better with a plot is as meaningful as saying it would be better with zombies. If you’re a horror fan the latter might well be true for you, but it’s not a meaningful statement about whether the book succeeds on its own terms.

    Now, if someone were to argue it’s an unconvincing character portrait or that the language isn’t actually as good as claimed then one might agree or disagree but the argument would be about what the book is – not about what it never set out to be.

  68. Lee, I forgot to answer your question about prisoner. I admit I’ve only read the first Harry Potter so it’s possible it turned into Tolstoy on book 2, but my answer would be that it’s bloated and derivative children’s fiction (take Jennings, add Neil Gaiman’s The Books of Magic, stir in 300 extra pages, serve).

    That said, I read it as an adult. Had I read it as a child I might have enjoyed it far more. That’s the thing about children’s fiction – adults aren’t really the intended audience so it’s in some ways harder for them to judge it.

  69. In fact, I believe it’s widely agreed among Potter aficionados that Prisoner of Azkaban is the best book – before success went to her head and she started producing bloaters.

  70. Oops, I had the chronology mixed up in my head. You’re quite right. It’s Goblet where it all goes a bit bloaty.

    That said, even the earlier ones are still a bit Jennings crossed with Books of Magic. I don’t think it was plagiarised for a moment, but I don’t think it was original either.

    Of course if they were good (and plenty thought the Potter books were) then whether they were original or not is rather unimportant.

    1. Blimey Max you must be as old as me if you can remember Jennings. I doubt if many contributors to this blog would be familiar with him or Darbishire or indeed Old Wilkie though like Harry Potter and chums they had a vocabulary all of their own – equally badly written too.

      1. I grew up on Jennings, though I’m afraid they were my grandfather’s. I doubt I’d have heard of him otherwise.

        I loved them as a kid, which I suppose does show that it’s not really for adults to judge children’s literature. In the end only children can decide which ones are worth reading.

        The odd thing with Jennings is that I grew up in an inner London council estate. Jennings’ world was as far from mine as that of the aliens in the SF I read (further in some ways). Still, I enjoyed them.

        Rowling drew on a whole host of common themes. Public school stories, coming of age stories, adolescents discovering special powers, there’s loads of this stuff. It’s why I don’t buy plagiarism accusations. There’s a lot of these kinds of stories about and have been for a long time. She combines old stuff in a newish way which is hardly unusual for genre fiction.

        What puzzled me always was why so many adults were reading it. Still, some of what I read would probably puzzle some people so whatever you enjoy I guess.

  71. I’ve tried to read Harry Potter but just couldn’t get past the first few pages. It’s not as if I don’t enjoy fantasy children’s fiction. I’ve re-read Alan Garner , Rosemary Sutcliffe and John Masefield in the last couple of years with great pleasure. I just don’t think the prose appealed to me – it’s all about narrative and the descriptions are just plodding. However lots of friends who are discerning readers just love them so it’s what ever you enjoy as you say. I prefered the first film which was was full of visual richness.

  72. Thanks for this review, John. I finished reading How Late… today. It was slow going at first, I think partly because I was afraid of what would happen to poor Sammy next! I found it an uneasy read rather than a difficult one, but enthralling too for the reasons you mention: the beauty of the language, the ambiguity of what’s taking place. Right from the start, its precise and repetitive cadences took me right into Sammy’s internal experience; you end up amazed by how much you know, or feel you know, about how he relates to the world and to himself.

    I wasn’t counting the swear words, but the anonymous columnist’s “348” seems like a gross underestimate – I’d say it’s easily three times that, and maybe much more. It felt fully authentic. Your comment: “my own internal monologue contains a lot more swearing than my audible speech!” is probably true of most people, certainly of me, but I’ve rarely seen the swears transmitted onto the page with such fidelity and frequency. The reactions of certain conservative critics, of which I learned after finishing the book, speak unflattering volumes. This is a great book.

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