Resistance in James Kelman’s 'How Late It Was, How Late'

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2009 20 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature



Introduction: Power and Resistance in How Late It Was, How Late

1. Language and Style

2. Narrative Techniques

3. Blindness

4. Music

5. The Journey



Introduction: Power and Resistance in How Late It Was, How Late

Discussing How Late It Was, How Late, the present paper pays special attention to the modes of resistance as presented in Kelman’s text. In this respect, the purpose of my introduction is to explain the terms power and resistance and relate them to the novel.

To begin with, for the purposes of this paper I refer to Foucault’s definition of power as “a set of actions upon other actions”. (1982, 789) So, I do not use power in the sense of violence, but in the sense of actions, which induce, ease, restrict or forbid the actions of others. (See Foucault 1982, 789-790) Therefore, power comes to designate a relation and not an attribute. It can be only exerted, but never possessed.

Furthermore, power relations are rooted in all social networks. The relations between the main protagonist, Sammy, and the representatives of the social institutions such as policemen illustrate my claim. First of all, in the face of the unemployed, thirty-eight years old Sammy, an eager drinker and smoker with a criminal past, Kelman’s text concentrates on a certain group, which epitomizes deviations from the socially accepted norm. In this regard, there is a system of differentiation, determined by law and status, which privileges the institutional representatives over the main character and thus permits them to act upon Sammy’s actions. Therefore, the power relations between Sammy and the representatives of the institutions are brought into being by their control over Sammy’s actions.

Moreover, since power relations lie at the core of society, one cannot escape from them. However, Foucault asserts that: “To say that there cannot be a society without power relations […] is not to say that […] power constitutes a fatality at the heart of societies […] that cannot be undermined.” (1982, 791) So, one is not a mere victim of the socially established power relations. There are always possibilities for resistance. Moreover, resistance designates the re-employment of the means of power.

The language of How Late It Was, How Late, perfectly demonstrates my assertion. The text uses phonetic spellings, profanities, repetitions, linguistic and punctuational inconsistency in order to reproduce the Glaswegian of the working-class. Thus, by appropriating Standard English, in terms of simultaneously taking on and altering it, the Glasgow vernacular becomes a mean of resistance.

Similarly to language, the narrative techniques of How Late It Was, How Late, such as interweaving of spoken and written forms, presenting several versions of the same event, lack of division in separate chapters or sections, lack of differentiation between ‘core’ and ‘insignificant’ episodes, open end, represent non-standard forms by altering the standard ones.

Furthermore, another mean of resistance is Sammy’s blindness, which he considers as a new beginning. His blindness endows him with the ability to defamiliarize the already existing landscape of the city, thus, enabling him to create a new place on the premises of the already existing one.

Besides, music in How Late It Was, Haw Late functions also as means of resistance. Sammy’s own musical creations grant him the opportunity for a self-articulation. Furthermore, his love for country music, the music of working class Texans, affirms his class-identity.

Last, but not least, Sammy’s effort to redefine his image of a down-and-out is exemplified by the motif of the journey. The journey is intimately connected with Sammy’s dreams and fantasies about himself and his future; it is a mean of self-definition, of resistance against the imposed image of a victim.

To conclude, power relations involve the simultaneous existence of power and resistance. In this respect, the present paper discusses language, style, narrative techniques, blindness, music and the motif of the journey as modes of resistance. The mentioned items will be examined in the same sequence as enumerated.

1. Language and Style

This chapter discusses the use of Glaswegian dialect, phonetic spellings, profanities, repetitions, intertextual references and linguistic and punctuational inconsistency.

First, I concentrate on the language of How Late It Was, How Late, Standard English, used by the chief police officer, for example, and Glaswegian, a vernacular, a local language, opposed to Standard English, used by the main character Sammy. In this respect, the narrator asserts: “even just out walking first thing in the morning, ye forget where ye are, then that first Glasgow voice hits ye; it makes ye smile […]”. (Kelman, HL, 160) So, the Glasgow voice reminds one, where one is. In other words, the Glaswegian speech indicates certain identity and belonging. The Glasgow voice contrasts the voice of the police officer, whose “accent [sounds] English”. (Kelman, HL, 162) Thus, language becomes the place of struggle between Sammy’s vernacular and the Standard English of the institutional representative. So, appropriating Standard English, in the sense of simultaneously taking on and altering its vocabulary, Sammy strives to construct a vernacular identity.

Moreover, I am not referring here to an identity which epitomizes Scottishness as a whole, but to one which emphasizes the Glaswegian. Kelman’s use of phonetic spellings, characteristic for the Glaswegian, such as “sodjers” affirms my statement. “Scots dictionaries confirm that ‘Sodger’ is the legitimized standard spelling.” (Kövesi 2007, 155) However, the author uses consistently throughout the novel the phonetic spelling “sodjers”, which is characteristic for the Glasgow vernacular. Besides, in How Late It Was, How Late Kelman uses many other common Glaswegian expressions such as “gony” for “going to”, “aye” for “yes”, “wean” for “child”, “the morrow” for “tomorrow”, “mind” for “remember”. (Böhnke 1999, 70) Therefore, the result of Kelman’s appropriation of Standard English is the Glasgow vernacular, which reproduces the oral speech of the Glaswegian working-class.

The following observations on the use of profanities and repetitions elaborate further on this inference. First, I concentrate on the use of profanities. In the following citation, the word “fuck” is used as a noun, an adverb, a verb and an adjective. When Sammy wakes up at the beginning of the book, some plainly clothed policemen are staring at him:

This yin with his big beery face and these cunning eyes, then his auld belted raincoat, shabby as fuck; he was watching; no watching but fucking staring, staring right into Sammy […] Fuck ye! […] he [Sammy] needed dough, a smoke, anything, anything at all man he needed some fucking thing instead of this, this staggering about, like some fucking down-and-out winey bastard. (Kelman, HL, 3)

Used as a noun (“shabby as fuck”), an adverb (“fucking staring”), a verb (Fuck ye!), an adjective (“fucking thing” and “fucking bastard”), the word ‘fuck’ functions as filler, a rhythmic device, which reproduces the authentic Glaswegian speech. Thus, the profanities attribute an oral quality to Kelman’s text. Furthermore, Kelman himself does not consider the repeatedly used “fuck”, “bastard” and “cunt” as swear words or bad language. “He suggests that they are not very different from the words ‘and’ or ‘wall.” (Böhnke 1999, 69) So, swearing does not always equal obscenities. Therefore, I claim that Kelman appropriates these profanities for the purposes of authentically depicting a vernacular, which is rooted in orality. Furthermore, the use of profanities is another way of subverting Standard English, which treats them as taboos. Thus, profanities turn out to have a crucial role not only for the construction of the Glaswegian vernacular, but the Glaswegian identity. It appears as a vernacular identity, embodied by the Glaswegian voice.

Besides, in the above citation profanities are combined with repetitions. In this respect, I assert that the repetitions have the following functions: first, they depict authentically the Glaswegian speech; second, their excessive use subverts Standard English, which treats it as ‘bad language’, third, they allude to groping for words, to Sammy’s struggle for self-articulation through appropriation of the language of the ones in power; fourth, they hint at the strong emotions and feelings, such as desperation or anger, the repeating one strives to convey. So, just like profanities, the repetitions turn out to be means of self-articulation, and, thus, means of resistance.

Next, I focus on the role of intertextual references as means of resistance. Thus, searching for blind role models, Sammy remembers that he once read a story of a blind Russian officer, who “set on his big white horse and led the troops”. (Kelman, HL, 127) He refers to General Kutuzov in Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. “In the war with Napoleon, Kutuzov is Tolstoy’s heroic spirit of Russia: a commonsensical general, who is […] never tempted by the glorification of war, in contrast to the tyrannical vanity of Tolstoy’s Napoleon.” (Kövesi 2007, 138) In this respect, both Kutuzov and Sammy are fighters, who become metonymies for the common, working-class people. So, this allusion to the Russian character appears as a mean of resistance against the role of a down-and-out, which institutional representatives strive to inflict upon Sammy.

In this respect, another reference to common people provides Sammy’s allusion to Gogol’s The Overcoat. “He once read a story about that, some poor cunt that worked as a minor official for some government department and he beavered away all hours but everybody thought he was a dumpling […]”. (Kelman, HL, 40) So, Gogol’s Akaky Akakievich suffers the same social injustice as Sammy. Furthermore, in Gogol’s story someone steals Akaky’s coat, protecting him from the hard Russian winter. Similarly, one steals Sammy’s shoes. As a result, his toes become “angry-looking”, “red and purplish”. (Kelman, HL, 180) Besides, Akaky’s surname is Baskmackin, deriving from bashmak, which means “shoe” in Russian. (Kövesi 2007, 138) So, due to the theft, Sammy walks metaphorically in Akaky’s shoes; he is in a similar situation. Thus, the comparison to Akaky exposes power structures, striving to impose upon the main protagonist the role of a victim.

Another important aspect of How Late It Was, How Late is its use of language games, typical for Kafka’s works and especially for Der Prozeß. The following dialogue between Sammy and the doctor illustrates my observation:

[Sammy:] Aye sorry for interrupting doctor but see when you say “alleged”?

[Doctor:] Yes?

[Sammy:] Are you saying that you don’t think I’m blind?

[Doctor:] Of course not [...] In respect of the visual stimuli presented you appeared unable to respond.

[Sammy:] So ye’re saying I’m blind?

[Doctor:] It isnt for me to say.

[Sammy:] Aye but you’re a doctor.

[Doctor:] Yes.

[Sammy:] So ye can give me an opinion?

[Doctor:] Anyone can give you an opinion. (Kelman, HL, 225)

The doctor has to diagnose Sammy’s blindness, so that he could receive a dysfunctional benefit. The absurdity of the above conversation is a perfect example for official arbitrariness. Thus, it exemplifies the way in which the institutional representative exerts power on Sammy, namely through words and ignorance of knowledge. He refuses to acknowledge Sammy’s blindness. Therefore, one could exert power on others by acknowledging certain knowledge and ignoring other. So, the aim of this dialogue is to unmask existing power relations as well as their means, language games and arbitrariness.

Besides, the use of intertextual references points out another aspect of the novel, its literariness. Therefore, the choice of a focalizer, who “wasn’t a great brain, […] wasnay what ye would call a thinker” (Kelman, HL, 250) does not reduce the achievements of Kelman’s text to the authentic depiction of the Glaswegian. The intertextual references, presented through Sammy’s perspective, establish Sammy as a complex character and justify How Late It Was, How Late ’s claim for a dignified place in the literary world.



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LMU Munich – Department für Anglistik und Amerikanistik
James Kelman Resistance Michel Foucault Scottish Literature Postcolonial Theory




Title: Resistance in James Kelman’s 'How Late It Was, How Late'