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Kelman: how great he is, how great …

IN the annals of Scottish literature a hallowed space must be reserved for Rabbi Julia Neuberger.

It was 20 years ago this autumn that she flounced out of the room in which she had been participating in the judging of the Booker Prize.

When it became apparent the winner was to be James Kelman for his novel How Late It Was, How Late, Rabbi Neuberger could not contain her disapproval and muttering something like "over my dead body" went in search of reactionary shoulders on which to spill her tears.

She did not need to look far. In the aftermath of Kelman's triumph the behemoths of bourgeois England emerged frothing from their burrows. Chief among them was one Simon Jenkins, previously editor of The Times, then a Guardian columnist, now a champion of the heritage of the shires.

Displaying the ignorance which is typical of his breed, Jenkins denounced the award of the prize to Kelman as "an act of literary vandalism" and How Late It Was, How Late as "the rambling thoughts of a blind Glaswegian drunk".

In particular, Jenkins was struck by the number of times the word f*** is used in the novel. Thinking it terribly amusing, he quoted a passage in which it occurred numerous times. My suspicion is that this was perhaps the only part of the book Jenkins read. However, he could not contain his admiration of Rabbi Neuberger who, he reported, was so horrified by the decision that she "ran in horror" from the scene of the crime. Kelman, he concluded, was "an inversion of the norm, a Jilly Cooper of the gutter, a Barbara Cartland of the Gorbals".

In 1994, I was one of five judges on the Booker. A solid majority of us loved How Late It Was, How Late and one of us did not. That's life. What was most galling, though, was not the infantile stereotyping, faux metropolitan sophistication and crass attempt at humour, it was the disgraceful, insensitive and pathetic portrayal of Kelman as some kind of "illiterate savage" who had somehow managed to muster enough sentences to complete a book.

At the time, it reminded me of Henry Mackenzie's famous remark about Burns, whom he described as "this heaven-taught ploughman". Unlike Jenkins, Mackenzie meant to pay a compliment but in so doing he managed simply to be patronising. As anyone who knows Kelman can testify, he is highly intelligent, hypnotically eloquent and uncompromisingly honest. He always speaks his mind. He is also, and principally, one of our greatest contemporary writers, the one against whom all others must be measured.

Having said that, has he been given the recognition he deserves hereabouts? I believe not and I am at a loss to explain why. In a recent issue of the New Yorker magazine, James Wood, who was one of my fellow judges and who is regarded as one of the most perceptive critics in America, compares him to Kafka, Hamsum, Beckett, Gogol, Chekhov and a few others. But the truth is that while Kelman may remind readers of countless other authors, there is no-one quite like him. He is sui generis. No one constructs sentences like his, no-one arranges words like he does, no-one demands so much of his readers, no-one affects you like he can.

Not much happens in his stories but when something does it is significant. On the spur of the moment a man who can ill afford it buys a greyhound. Now he must tell his wife what he's done. That's the gist of Greyhound for Breakfast. That's typical Kelman. It is not the stuff of those looking for escapism. But for those who think, as I do, that harmony of style and content is the hallmark of great fiction, then Kelman's your man.

His is a world in which people are barely surviving, coping with disability, like Sammy in How Late, or straitened circumstances, like Helen, the single mother in his most recent, wonderful novel Mo Said She Was Quirky.

This is life as it is, beyond inherited privilege and unearned smugness, where safety nets are unimaginable luxuries. It is a world apart from that in which most of the chatterati revolve. Here are ordinary folk who must make of things what they can. What James Kelman continues to make of them is art of very high order.

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