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.