Each has been met with great anticipation and fervour from fans of Kelman’s work, but I would suggest that the release of A Lean Third on Tangerine Press is, even when set against other Kelman publications, a special occasion. Not only do we receive a beautiful new presentation of the classic set of stories from 1985’s Lean Tales (the book co-written by Alasdair Gray and the late Agnes Owens), but also the knowledge that each piece has been revised, rewritten, remastered by the author. As someone who spent days comparing every sentence of the seminal yet heavily-edited Raymond Carver collection ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’ (1981) to the 2009 release of Carver’s untouched originals (entitled ‘Beginners’), the fact that a keen reader can now witness not only the hand of Kelman the writer, but also of Kelman the editor and re-writer, is a source of genuine excitement.
Although I did not originally intend to do the same thing with A Lean Third and Lean Tales, inevitably this is what occurred; in some of the stories here the differences are very slight, which demands close scrutiny and so tempted a line-by-line inspection. I believe I’ve identified a set of editorial changes within this new book, and can hopefully offer some insight into what the writer wished to accomplish.
Firstly, it is worth a brief consideration of where these stories fit in the Kelman canon, and of what value these altered versions are to the Kelman reader.
I first read Lean Tales a number of years ago, when I was in the midst of working my way through Kelman’s very substantial body of short fiction. I’m not sure if I’d view any of these individual pieces as quite belonging in the same rarefied airs as Kelman’s greatest stories (my personal list would surely include ‘Old Francis’ and ‘Greyhound for Breakfast’ from Greyhound for Breakfast, 1987, ‘The house of an old woman’ and ‘Acid’ from Not Not While The Giro, 1983, ‘Lassies are trained that way’ from The Burn, 1991, and ‘The Comfort’ from The Good Times, 1998) – a selection which (at least in my own opinion) merits recognition as a specialist of the form, a writer who can sit comfortably alongside the collections of Sherwood Anderson, of Kafka, of Flannery O’Connor.
But if we perceive the Lean Tales stories as one body of work, a set of thematically/conceptually linked stories, then this does constitute a book of experiential and existential substance, that wields a variety of narrative styles and aesthetic rewards, and is of comparable quality to any other collection Kelman has produced.
The strongest stories here, such as ‘In a betting shop to the rear of Shaftesbury Avenue’, ‘the paperbag’, ‘Extra cup’, and others, would perhaps reside in that level somewhat below the aforementioned elite few – they could indeed be filed under the merely brilliant, alongside the likes of ‘it’s the ins and outs’ from The Burn, ‘Jim Dandy’ from Not Not While The Giro, ‘Circumstances’ from An Old Pub near the Angel, 1973, ‘Forgetting to mention Allende’ from Greyhound for Breakfast, ‘Vacuum’ from If It Is Your Life, 2009, and both ‘Every fucking time’ and ‘Constellation’ from The Good Times.
The book itself may not be cheap (my signed hardback copy was £34, though there are other copies on amazon now for £9), but James Kelman surely justifies a publication of this nature, after such a hugely important, successful literary career. Whereas his arguably more high-profile friend and Lean Tales collaborator Alasdair Gray is rightly celebrated with late-career works such as A Life In Pictures and Every Short Story, it is fitting that Kelman now has a special edition of work connected to his writing-past as well. Considering the stylistic innovations and political/aesthetic breakthroughs that James Kelman made as a writer in the ‘80s and ‘90s, it seems right to say that he is an artist to be feted by the generations of writers and readers who have come after and owe so much to his vision, his courage, and his artistry. We should rejoice at this edition, which feels like a just recognition of his work – the cover design which features only one word (‘Kelman’) does indeed have the feel and look of an art object, a collector’s item, a testament to work of quality which bears the artist’s close editorial touch. A touch which is intense at points, barely noticeable at others, but which is to be detected through each composite part.
Whereas some changes result in variations in the tone and/or style of a story (these shall be examined later), there is also a range of simple cuts and rephrases and clarifications, the like of which would be expected from any good editor. If anything, this shows how comprehensive Kelman was with this task – no wholescale re-writes as such, but he has certainly performed a swathe of subtle omissions and enhancements.
These amendments include straightforward improvements to the sound of a sentence (“I was the one mug living on the dump” p61 LT, becomes “I was the one mug living in the place” p68 ALT), as well as a conscious attempt to ‘modernize’ the references for a new audience (“cassette” becomes “music” in Getting There, mentions of “Extel” brand speakers are removed from In a betting shop).
There is also a raft of fairly inconsequential substitutions, apparently conducted as the writer saw fit at the time. These remain interesting to consider on account of their seemingly arbitrary nature; a possible insight into how meticulous and exhaustive Kelman is when deciding on his publishable drafts. A “checked bunnet” is now “grey tweed” in The Witness, a horse called “Warrior Chief” is rebranded as “Warrior Queen” and the newspaper containing details of it, “The Chronicle”, is now “The Sporting Life” in the story ‘In a betting shop’. Names are switched (“Jackson” to “Jobson” in Getting There, “Billy and Dan” to “Desmond and Fred” in O jesus, here come the dwarfs) and items inverted (“up the road” becomes “down the road”, Getting There, and a “couple of pints” changes to a “couple of beers”, O jesus).
It’s clear these changes are just simple replacements, and don’t involve the insertion of new sentences or result in discernible changes in effect or trajectory.
I soon became aware of small additions to the texts – innocuous lines which, when slipped in among the existing expressions, do succeed in (what is presumably the objective) adding a new layer of narrative complexity and visual resonance.
The addition of a line such as: “There were calendars and framed certificates on the wall” in the wonderful tale of work, ‘Extra cup’, could so easily be overlooked in terms of its textual importance (perhaps even in its very presence as a newly-added phrase). And yet the effect of this sentence (being positioned as it is) is meaningful and multifaceted. I would term this an ‘experiential’ line – it is an observation of the narrator in the way it would be experienced by any other person who sat in that room – the narrative time being extended just a little as the indifferent eye records details, our protagonist observing his surroundings, passively yet perfectly capturing the inertia of the environment (as he waits to leave), the meaninglessness of unspecified accreditations of work, the alienation of being faced with the industry achievements of presumably better-assimilated workers, and the immediately recognizable and depressingly ubiquitous paraphernalia of standard office working lives.
Similarly minuscule additions occur everywhere in ‘In a betting shop’ (a story which will be considered in more detail shortly). Yet it is worth referencing here too, as the insertion of a short line at one stage has managed to resolve somewhat of a ‘problem’ that I had as a reader with the rendering of the original. When McKechnie says ‘What…’ (p35 LT) as he is again approached by our persistent narrator, I do recall feeling quite strongly that this was the angry, confrontational ‘What’ of a man from Glasgow feeling under threat in the pub – and in the initial version of the story, it is several lines before you can grasp that it had not been said as part of a hostile confrontation, and that McKechnie is still set on evasion rather than action. The simple revision of this, to “What? McKechnie concentrated on the screen” (p26, ALT) is a good orienting detail – it does not come anywhere close to an omniscient intrusion, it doesn’t kill the tension of the scene or give any ‘game’ away, it merely removes a dissatisfying fleeting ambiguity that could lead a reader towards a situation that is a mirage, appearing due to a lack of such orienting details and disappearing just as quickly.
The last of the minor edits I’d like to mention are perhaps not as textually significant (in terms of effect or ‘improvement’), but one of obvious value to anyone who considers him/herself an engaged fan of Kelman’s writing. In some of the newly-added lines there are clear links to moments from some of the great Kelman books that were to follow Lean Tales; changes that enhance the voice these stories have and provide them with distinctive Kelman stylistic hallmarks.
The punctuation/layout of Getting There is altered – linebreaks are added (see bottom of p38, ALT) mid-sentence, in place of full-stops in the original story and in preference to the conventional device of ellipsis – this technique was already utilized sparingly in Lean Tales’ ‘A Nightboilerman’s Notes’, and it is now extended to cover Getting There, having become a Kelman signature in the novels How Late It Was, How Late and You Have To Be Careful In The Land of the Free (and others), as well as further stories such as Tricky times ahead, pal (If It Is Your Life).
A second familiar technique applied is the use of repetition – like the insertion of linebreaks, this also takes the story away from coherent, grammatical units and moves it towards a better representation of speech and/or thought (in terms of its effectiveness as literature). The repetitions added into ‘the paperbag’ carry echoes of ‘by the burn’.
The insertion of an onrunning sentence with repeated phrases, a Kelman innovation to convey the flow of the human thought-process in moments of heightened tension and emotion.
At several points, those who know the great novel ‘A Disaffection’ well will recognize parallels with the narrative of Patrick Doyle. I laughed at Kelman’s addition of “Ahoy ya cunt” (p58 ALT) when the narrator sees his opponent waiting to fight him by the sea, with the same vigor as when I first read the line “Buona sera ya bastard” (p49, A Disaffection), as said by Patrick when discussing an elderly Italian chip-shop owner.
Such a correlation occurs between the climax of ‘the paperbag’ and the momentous, unforgettable section where Patrick fantasizes about not letting Alison go:
This appears again in spirit, as the narrator of ‘the paperbag’ exhibits that same impossibility of desire, the wish he cannot realize:
A Disaffection is a special novel with regard to characterization; the character of Patrick. It is stands to reason that the additions noted in reference to that book are ones which intensify and/or expand on character via the language and feeling of narrator’s inner commentary - his soul (or at least, his soulfulness).
In The City Slicker and the Barmaid, this confession occurred:
Which has been redrafted to:
The physical manifestations are more pronounced and memorable (the image of someone clawing at his own eyebrows being quite unusual), the repetitious voice more distinctive, and the questioning of himself, of nature, present a ‘character’ of depth and of doubt, the question drawing us closer to the consciousness, as opposed to the flat statement-sentences of conventional narrative.
The City Slicker and the Barmaid is a key story within A Lean Third, as it is one of the only shorter pieces that has been quite thoroughly revised, with a wealth of greater detail and contemplations. The lock-in episode is no longer a bare reported account, but the story comes alive with the narrator talking and thinking more freely, providing information and reaction. Instead of:
There is now:
Speaking as a reader, this is simply indicative of a better piece of fiction – we identify with the bumbling narrator, coming back from the cludgie while under the glare of an irascible barman, we get a strong image of him stumbling in the darkness outside the pub, of sharing his unfamiliarity with the “blanket” that sweeps down at night here, something which does not occur in the lit streets of the city slicker’s home.
Such characterizing edits are made in a particularly effective manner in the story ‘Old Holborn’. The accentuation of little details here show the impact of Kelman’s skilful light hand – whereas our narrator originally “nudged” the busker’s box and guessed “about thirty pence maybe” (p61 LT), he now nudges with the “toe of my left shoe” and is then able to profer the more considered and precise figure of “thirty-two”. He later says: “People were just walking by too” (p44 ALT) and notes (in reference to the busker) “He brought out the pouch, rolled himself a smoke” (p44 ALT, my italics) – the reworked narrator is no longer so passive, the added lines allow us to follow his eyes and in doing so, his character is revealed more clearly. He looks on as the busker rolls “himself” a smoke (as opposed to just rolling a smoke) and he stops singing now at least in part because the people are walking past and not contributing money, whereas in the original story it appears to be because he’s concerned that their performance is risible. These minimal additions manage to enhance the sense of the character significantly – what was once an impression is now a more vivid picture. Rather than surmise we can see, the traces are on the page for our use during the reader’s inner creation/interpretation of the character.
The principal element in all of these editorial changes is essentially that they give more of the stories. There is more to experience, rejoice in, be seduced by. The details are so much richer, these new visual and sensual layers.
This is a passage conveying the voice and detail of the original ‘The City Slicker and the Barmaid’:
But this is radically improved upon by more descriptive detail, more emphasis on the narrative voice, more relaxed and elaborative meandering through events and recollections:
Boots are no longer “soaked”, but “spattered and saturated”. Dung isn’t just dung, the image is of “baked seaweed”. And just as the earwigs are now brought to life with menace, so the narrator is enlivened by his comments on spiders (instead of merely listing the word as before). It is, to my mind, undeniable that this greater specificity and grandiloquence results in fiction that is more nuanced and more pleasurable (even though these were stories of obvious quality in their first form).
This formalization is in evidence throughout: “switches” becomes “controls”, “I would say inwardly” now “I discussed the matter inwardly”, “I come in” to “I arrive”, “ultra-serious business to do with submarines or spaceships” rewritten as “ultra-serious business concerning submarines and missiles”. In each case, a more formal phrase has been selected. This extends to an extra level of precision, as “step ladder” becomes “internal ladder” and “ladder” is upgraded to “welded ladder”, “boots” are now “studded boots”, “the entrance” to “the entrance hatchway”, and “leaving the lighting off” becomes “leaving the lighting in off-mode”.
The cumulative effect of this wave of tweaked expressions lends a different tone to the story, shown more fully here:
The original tale is recounted in a more conventional fashion through the narrator’s composed reportage, providing efficient evocations of place and action. The revision is altogether different – “a thing to move in the midst of the fixation, the fixed eternal” does not resemble a spoken sentence, neither in language/register nor in structure/cadence. And yet, it is more arresting, more idiosyncratic, more rhythmic. The same sense is drawn from the Beckettian listing of the items (“the 2 crates, the rake, the shovel”) when juxtaposed with the more common and conversational tone of the indefinite articles, “2 crates plus a rake and a shovel”.
This technique is developed further when the narrator discusses people, as opposed to inanimate implements:
“…trying to kid on he wasnt bothered by it…” p61, LT
“…in desperation yet maintaining the pretence that he is not at all bothered by it, any of it…” p66, ALT
Strangely, the consequence of removing the more colloquial expression (“kid on”) has still managed to produce a sentence that appears and feels more speech-like, more fluid. This is the success of a refined sentence structure; the change in register is offset by the flow of the sentence, the use of expressions common to speech (“kid on”) but within grammatically standard and correct sentences does not possess the same lyricism as the augmented Kelman narrator.
The modifications to ‘o jesus, here come the dwarfs’ are also centred on language, but the overarching purpose here seems to be a move towards a light, formal-voiced humour – “somebody” is now “a disgruntled party”, “spuds” changed to “pommes des terres”, and the “evening meal” switches to the “evening repost”.
The narrator becomes more effusive, more scabrous, a more personified/characterized figure than the previous. He now says “that giant boat sailor bastard” in place of “the boat sailor”, the mode of narration is more playful:
This new voice seems more closely aligned with the loqacious recalcitrance of a Jeremiah Brown or a Sammy Samuels – why only mention Pierre when it could be noted that he’s a “taciturn loanshark bastard”, why merely report the event when you could inject some of the narrator’s attitude and feeling about his companion and the situation. Again, the principal and effects of these editorial amendments follow logically; the story becomes more enjoyable to read as you are given more of the character to work with, more of their fictional world to inhabit.
This approach is pursued via other means too – more idiomatic phrases are slipped into sentences (“That much you can say”, “old cunt that he is”) and the narrator speaks directly to himself, switching from a non-specific second-person recollection (“You are frowning; you glance sideways” – p80 LT) to a more experiential, more immediate command (“You are frowning now: stop frowning” – p55 ALT). This removal of narrative conceit/distance is combined with the more personal and conversational style at points:
The narrator is now conversing with and about himself, a type of self-analysis that was not present before. I saw in the scant few critical sources that I could find on Kelman’s Lean Tales stories that they’ve been strongly linked to Beckett’s novellas. The changes applied to the narrator of o jesus, here come the dwarfs do appear to take Kelman’s story closer to a recognizably Beckettian terrain, although I would stop short of claiming that the works shared “uncanny” similarities, as the critic Paul Shanks stated in The Edinburgh Companion to James Kelman (p13). Kelman’s voice remains distinct from Beckett’s; a separation which does not exist in texts I’d consider to be “uncanny” in their similarities (a good example of this being the work of American short-fiction writers Amy Hempel and Lydia Davis). I hope these selected excerpts do convey the subtle difference between Beckett’s expressive exclamations and Kelman’s more understated, onrunning utterances. Earlier in o jesus, we encounter a statement regarding the holding of objections:
This rather nihilistic sentiment, its weary mix of defiance and resignation, serves to remind me of the line in Beckett’s First Love:
Both narrators find life itself a huge, stultifying obstacle, a sequence of impossible difficulties to be negotiated (if it even can be), and in this vein Kelman does seem to be reaffirming the eloquent and irreverent cynicism of the Beckett novellas. Yet the voice and the style in which this feeling is rendered is different – Beckett is the formal and the lyrical, Kelman the soulful and rhythmic (though it could be argued that the formalization of language discussed earlier in reference to A Nightboilerman’s Notes increases the parellels with Beckett, as this formality was a feature that linked the original Lean Tales stories to the Beckett pieces in the view of Paul Shanks, considered in depth in his essay ‘The Unnamed Itinerant’ from the Scottish Studies Review of 2008).
Other than Shanks’s work, the only sustained critical writing on Lean Tales I found was JD Macarthur’s 2007 study, ‘Claiming Your Own Portion of Space’. This book was of particular interest when analysing the story discussed earlier, ‘In a betting shop’, which is another of the greatly improved pieces in A Lean Third. The significant changes include the removal of a line of explication (“And it dawned on me: there wasnt any toilets in this fucking betting shop” p33, LT), and as done elsewhere, the narrative voice is taken from the strictures of grammatical sentences and moved closer to Kelman’s own speech-thought representation, partially through the additions of everyday expressions into the narrative (“A fucking dawdle man a scoosh case” p25 ALT, “these cunts don’t mess about” p27, “Typical shite” p26).
However, there is a more meaningful development in this story, at least in terms of the basic premise and plot. When I first encountered the Macarthur book a couple of years ago, I bristled at his assertion:
I felt that this was a misinterpretation and misrepresentation of the main character and of the story. My sense was always that the narrator was suffering from playing a very deliberate long-game. He recognized McKechnie, and so the only objective, unspoken though it may be, was to befriend him to the extent necessary to then impose upon him at a suitable moment of guilt and awkwardness for a ‘loan’ of money – a loan that would of course never have to be repaid.
Initially, there were several reasons why I believed this to be the case – the narrator’s preoccupation with whether McKechnie is currently working or not (p30 LT), the clue that McKechnie is likely aware of the situation being that he walks away for the first time only once work is raised as a topic (p30), McKechnie cutting him off mid-sentence when the narrator mentions McKechnie having a few quid (p32), the statement: “It had become difficult to tell where he was getting his selections” (p33, my italics), which shows the narrator effectively citing that he is (and has been) concerned with McKechnie’s success and not his companionship (as no further attempt to chat occurs here), and then when McKechnie finally exits it appears to be due to the promise of money that has been made (p34). It always seemed clear to me that this was a drawn-out game of bluster and pretence between the two, and not a continuously rebuffed offer of friendship as stated by Macarthur.
An edit made by Kelman for ‘A Lean Third’ can be taken to support this impression:
Taken in context, this remark implies a greater shared history and knowledge of each other than was clear in the original story – a specific memory of McKechnie, most likely his guise in the betting shop environment, his evasive shuffle being the mechanism to avoid the leechers (like our narrator). The two fall very quickly and easily into their roles in the story, with McKechnie proving elusive against the narrator’s fawning and probing approaches. This indicator of closer experience of each other makes both the narrator’s spontaneous yet sustained gameplan and McKechnie’s cagey reactions all the more believable and humorous.
I will close with a final example for your own consideration, from the story ‘o jesus, here come the dwarfs’, one that I feel aptly illustrates the differences integral to A Lean Third: