(born 1946 - ) - Glasgow
Born in Glasgow in 1946, James Kelman left school at fifteen to begin an apprenticeship as a compositor (where he became sensitised to the look of words on the page), which was followed by periods of work and unemployment and a brief spell in the USA. A keen reader, it wasn’t until the early 1970s, in his late twenties, that he began to seriously acknowledge his creative ability, enrolling on a writing course under the tutelage of the influential Philip Hobsbaum, alongside fellow aspiring writers Alasdair Gray, Liz Lochhead and Tom Leonard.
Variously described as gritty, essential, authentic, postmodern, existential, realist, socialist, experimental, original, traditionally working-class, traditionally Scottish, traditionally European in its similarities to Kafka, Joyce, or Beckett, or just incomparable, the work of James Kelman sparks commentators into a labelling frenzy which necessarily falls short of a true appreciation of this highly gifted writer.
Published first in the USA, Kelman had to wait until 1976 for his work to receive a British audience, in Three Glasgow Writers (with Alex Hamilton and Tom Leonard). But it was really during the following decade that Kelman’s unique voice started making waves on the Scottish literary scene. Not Not While the Giro, his first book-length collection of short stories, was published in 1983 by Polygon, and with his first two novels, The Busconductor Hines (1984) and A Chancer (1985), Kelman firmly established his artistic flair and commitment to showing real life in Thatcherite Britain as faithfully as possible (far removed from the falsities and stereotypes of the media).
The Busconductor Hines is the moving and frequently irreverent tale of Rab Hines, a family man and, as Kelman once referred to him, a ‘working-class intellectual’; a highly imaginative soul increasingly disillusioned with the monotony of his job. A Chancer, a book which the author had been struggling to finish for many years, is the brilliantly restrained narrative of a younger Glaswegian man whose only real sense of purpose is derived from the betting shop and the greyhound tracks.
In the late 1980s Kelman began to receive the recognition he deserved, when first his short story collection Greyhound for Breakfast (1987) won the Cheltenham prize and his third novel, A Disaffection (1989), took the James Tait Black award and made the Booker shortlist. With its nods to Kierkegaard and Kafka, A Disaffection brought extravagant literary comparisons on its author, and furthered Kelman’s championing of the ‘working-class intellectual’.
In 1994 James Kelman’s name shot to mainstream as well as literary prominence with the novel How Late it Was, How Late, the powerfully unsettling story of a few days in the life of Sammy Samuels, a tragic ne’er-do-well who is beaten blind by police and struggles to get by in a world of unremitting tension and danger. General astonishment followed when this most unlikely contender won that year’s Booker Prize, the most prestigious, anglocentric of book awards. Inevitably, this caused a fierce debate in the broadsheets which divided opinion between those who admired Kelman’s unwavering description of life on the edge and those who failed to see past the swearing. Simon Jenkins in The Times sneeringly referred to Kelman as an ‘illiterate savage’, while others believed that serious criticism constituted counting the instance of the f-word.
Following his Booker triumph and a new legion of supporters (although his novels have never achieved bestseller status), Kelman took up successive teaching posts on various creative writing courses, while his fiction took a rather new direction. In 2001, Translated Accounts emerged, a strange collection of anonymous testimonials introduced as originating from ‘an occupied territory or land where a form of martial law appears in operation’. While challenging his readership more than ever, Translated Accounts also offers a humanitarian, hard-hitting indictment of post-9/11 right-wing political newspeak, and wisely avoids commenting overtly on real people or places (and thereby narrowing the relevance of the message).
Kelman’s 2004 offering, You Have to Be Careful in the Land of the Free, is a return to his old style, albeit in a new setting. The first-person narrative belongs to Jeremiah Brown, a Glaswegian expatriate drinking in a small town somewhere in the USA, brooding over his past and his ex-girlfriend. There is renewed satire of governmental discourse and its treatment of ‘unassimilatit aliens’ like Jeremiah. As in the previous novels, what is striking is Kelman’s appreciation of the heroism of ordinary human beings just getting by, and Jeremiah Brown, with all his bad luck and resilient humour, is one of his best creations yet.
Of all the words used to describe James Kelman, perhaps the most pertinent then is ‘essential’. Kelman’s commitment to the ordinary individual struggling against systems of oppression, both in his work as a novelist and as a political activist (which he describes in his two collections of essays), is admirable. But it is the way he writes, his calculated subversion of the English language and his total disregard for convention, that singles him out as a truly great contemporary writer, and as much as one would like to avoid the labels, the comparisons with Kafka, Joyce, and Beckett are inevitable and much deserved.
- The Burn - Paperback
Passionate, exhilarating and darkly humorous, 'The Burn' is an extraordinary collection of short stories by a master of paranoia and an unsurpassed prose stylist.
- Add to BasketThe Busconductor Hines - Paperback
Living in a no-bedroomed tenement flat, coping with the cold and boredom of busconducting and the bloody-mindedness of Head Office, Robert Hines finds life to be 'a very perplexing kettle of coconuts'.
- Add to BasketA Chancer - Paperback
Tammas is a gambler and when he's not at home or in a bar he can always be found at one of Glasgow's many bookies or a casino. Gambling, he believes, is the only chance he'll get to work out who he is and what's important to him.
- A Disaffection - Paperback
Patrick Doyle is a 29-year old teacher in an ordinary school. Disaffected, frustrated and increasingly bitter at the system he is employed to maintain, Patrick begins his rebellion, fuelled by drink and his unrequited love for a fellow teacher.
- The Good Times - Paperback
These narratives portray ordinary people in a language that makes glory of their lives. The narrators are men and boys who come face to face with uncomfortable truths, whether musing on mortality or struggling to understand women and work.
- Greyhound For Breakfast - Paperback
This collection of short stories reflects the huge scope of Kelman's writings, from 1972 onwards, ranging in length from one paragraph to 20 pages, from the concrete to the lyrical, from casual tragedy to wild farce.
- How Late It Was, How Late - Paperback
Award-winning author Kelman's How Late It Was, How Late has been reissued. He renders the hidden depths of ordinary lives in sardonic, abrasive prose which, although gritty and realistic, is uplifting and positive.
- Add to BasketIf It Is Your Life - Hardback
Giving voice to the dispossessed and crafting stories of lives on the edge, lives almost lost, lives held in the balance, James Kelman writes about the things that touch us all.
- Add to BasketKieron Smith, Boy - Hardback
Rejected by his brother and largely ignored by his parents, Kieron Smith finds comfort in the home of his much-loved grandparents. But when his family move to a new housing scheme on the outskirts of the city, a world away from the close community of the tenements, Kieron struggles to find a way to adapt to his new life.
- Add to BasketMo Said She Was Quirky - Hardback
James Kelman tells the story of Helen - a sister, a mother, a daughter - a very ordinary young woman. Her boyfriend said she was quirky but it was more than that. Some things were important. You had to fight for them. Only Helen wasn't as strong as people thought.
- Not Not While The Giro - Paperback
'Not Not While the Giro' is James Kelman's first major collection of short stories - originally published in 1983. It follows the lives of young men, social misfits, whose lives are spent waiting - waiting for their next giro or menial job - in the pub, the dole office, the snooker hall and the greyhound track.
- Add to BasketAn Old Pub Near The Angel - Paperback
James Kelman's first collection of short stories is set among the tenements and bedsits of Glasgow, shining a light on the exploits of young and old. This new edition contains an essay by Kelman about his early life and writing.
- Add to Basket"And The Judges Said -": Essays - Paperback
'And The Judges Said -' is a collection of essays from James Kelman, dealing with matters literary, artistic, political and philosophical.
- You Have To Be Careful In The Land Of The Free - Paperback
Jeremiah Brown, a 34-year-old Scot, gambler and drifter, has lived in the USA for several years, fathering a child by a now defunct relationship. He is about to make his first trip home in years when he recalls a time with his ex-girlfriend, and the memories then keep rolling.
- Wikipedia entry on James Kelman
- British Council: Contemporary Writers on Kelman
- Interview with Barcelona Review
- BBC Writing Scotland on James Kelman
- A Disaffection - The List 100 Best Scottish Novels
James Kelman Bibliography
- An Old Pub Near the Angel - 1973
- Three Glasgow Writers (with Alex Hamilton and Tom Leonard) - 1976
- Short Tales from the Nightshift - 1978
- Not Not While the Giro - 1983
- The Busconductor Hines - 1984
- A Chancer - 1985
- Lean Tales (with Agnes Owens and Alasdair Gray) - 1985
- Greyhound for Breakfast - 1987
- A Disaffection - 1989
- Hardie and Baird, and other plays - 1991
- The Burn - 1991
- Some Recent Attacks: Essays Cultural and Political (essays) - 1992
- How Late It Was, How Late - 1994
- Busted Scotch - 1997
- Seven Stories (audio cassette, read by James Kelman) - 1997
- The Good Times - 1998
- Translated Accounts - 2001
- And the Judges Said ... (essays) - 2002
- You Have To Be Careful in the Land of the Free - 2004
- Where I Was - 2005
- Kieron Smith, Boy - 2008
- If It Is Still Your Life - 2010
- Mo Said She Was Quirky - 2012