1990s Booker Prize

How Late It Was, How Late – James Kelman

 Winner of the 1994 Booker Prize   

How Late It Was, How Late is set in Glasgow and follows Sammy, who wakes up in the gutter after a night of heavy drinking to discover that his shoes have been stolen. He gets into a fight with some plainclothes policemen (“sodjers”) and ends up in a police cell. Badly beaten, he wakes to discover that he is blind and so begins the difficult task of learning to live without his sight whilst also trying to avoid being blamed for a crime he knows nothing about.  

I started off hating this book. The stream of consciousness writing style combined with frequent swearing and the Glaswegian dialect meant that I had trouble connecting with it, but I persevered and slowly became used to the writing style. I found that if I read it in large chunks then I could immerse myself in the Glaswegian dialect and the bad language became a natural part of the conversation.   

Plus ye couldnay quite predict what they were up to, the sodjers. So he was gony have to go careful. So fuck the drink there was nay time, nay time, he had to be compos mentis. Whatever brains he had man he had to use them. Nay fuck-ups. The things in yer control and the things out yer control. Ye watch the detail. Nay bolts-from-the-blue. Nayn of these flukey things ye never think about. Total concentration. 

After about 50 pages I was amazed to find that I started to like Sammy – I began to feel sorry for him and even found some of the book funny.   

It wasn’t an easy read – the book flipped forwards and backwards in time and sentences were often left without an end. It took me a long time to read this book and there were several points at which I nearly gave up. Very little happens and the middle dragged. I think that if the book had been 200 pages shorter then I’d have appreciated it a lot more.

This book is packed with symbolism and I’m sure it could benefit from multiple re-reads. I’m glad I glimpsed Sammy’s life, but I’m not sure I’d want to read about him again.

Recommended to fans of literary fiction who enjoy reading about the darker areas of society.

Did you enjoy How Late It Was, How Late?

Do you recommend any of Kelman’s other books?

30 replies on “How Late It Was, How Late – James Kelman”

I think I probably se this book through rose-tinted glasses. I first became aware of the Booker and literary prizes when Hotel du Lac won, but, despite my lifelong love of both books and writing, it was only when How Late it Was How Late won the Booker and sparked an outrage that hit the main pages of the newspaper that I realised just how incendiary a book could be. It affected me more directly as a writer than the much larger events surrounding Satanic Verses, which I think I followed as a news story more than as something that related to me. This, just at the time when Young British Art and the Turner Prize were shocking the chattering classes, gave me the first real frisson that writing could be as genuinely explosive as other art. It’s what really made it something I wanted to do. So yes, it’s a difficult, annoying, idiosyncratic, and long-winded book, but one that will always mean a lot to me personally

Dan, I wasn’t following the Booker prize in 1994 so I have only seen the controversy through the occasional reference to it. I like books that spark debate and even if I don’t personally love them I prefer a book to cause outrage than to be boring. I can see why you and others love it, but I wish it had been a bit shorter.

Sammy really grew on me too — he had it so hard but he just didn’t give up. I loved the way his language got into my head after a while, coarse as it was.

What a brilliant cover — I haven’t seen that version. Perfect.

Marieke, A lot of the criticism for this book seems to be around the fact that Sammy is an unlikable character, which I found strange as I loved him despite the fact I didn’t think I would. Sounds as though we felt the same way about him 🙂

Vivienne, It looks quite off putting, but I assure you that it quickly feels natural. I understand that this book isn’t for everyone though, so perhaps you’re wise to avoid it 🙂

I have such a tough time reading “dialect” or when things are written phonetically. I have no idea why it drives me so crazy.

I guess the “dialect” keeps me from being able to fall into the story. But it’s funny that I don’t have the same problem when I’m reading in my second languages… Something to think over, I guess.

Jen, I think that just shows your skill in second languages – they come so naturally that you don’t have to think about them too much, but the dialects require full concentration?

Jackie, I had very similar feelings about this book and rated it only 1/2-star lower than you did. Like you, I expected to hate it and like you, Sammy grew on me. And the last sentence of my review reads, “I’m not sure I would recommend this book, but in an odd way it wasn’t bad.” How’s that for a ringing endorsement?

I hadn’t thought much about the symbolism. And while I’m sure one would benefit from re-reading it, I probably won’t. 🙂

Laura, “in an odd way it wasn’t bad” LOL! That’s exactly how I felt! I rarely re-read books, but this book wont get near my re-read list, despite the fact it would make me appreciate the book more – I prefer books without stream of consciousness writing! It is good to see that our opinions are beginning to match more these days. 🙂

Stephanie, The dialect isn’t as bad as it looks. I had far more problem with the stream of consciousness writing than understanding the dialect. I’m sure you’d get the hang of it after a few pages 😉

I’m not sure that I could get used to the heavy dialect. I’m kind of a baby when it comes to books with any sort of heavy dialect – for me it takes away from the enjoyment of reading it. However this one seems like it may be worth a go.

Amy, I guess it is all down to what you are used to hearing in real life. I am normally fine with all real dialects – it is the made up ones that tend to annoy me!

I’ve never been a big fan of stream of consciousness style. Faulkner drove me crazy in college! That being said I’m glad you stuck with the book and got something out of it. Sometimes the books we have to go through slowly are the ones we remember the most.

Kathleen, Faulkner was a big challenge for me too! This is a lot easier to understand than Faulkner, but I agree that the slower books are often the most memorable. I don’t think I’ll forget this one 🙂

I’ve been looking forward to your review of this book. I found it hard going the first time that I picked up the book. Infact, I did not finish it. The dialect got in the way of the story for when, seems to takeover the whole book!

Kinna, There isn’t much of a plot so I can see why the dialect takes over. Sorry to hear that you didn’t make it to the end, but I completely understand why you’d be frustrated with it.

Aye yai yai. That is some tough stuff to read, and I give you loads of credit for even trying. I’ll just go and mark this one off my to read list! Which I know is shallow, but holy cow.

I read How Late It Was, How Late around eight years ago, and it’s probably in my top five novels of all time. I love the fact that Sammy’s background means he can’t help have a positive outlook, despite the horrendous things happening to him.

Stream of consciousness can go overboard, but I think it’s used well here – and is much more akin to Jose Saramago than some of the more extreme examples.

As for the dialect, I grew up within 10 miles of Sammy, so I was completely in tune with the language from the first page. It certainly made it easier to read!

I believe James Kelman is one of the finest authors alive: Kieran Smith, Boy and A Disaffection are both superb novels (albeit with slightly less extreme dialect than How Late It Was, How Late).

If you want a headache, try reading Translated Accounts. It’s written in plain English, but never uses character names or indeed anything that helps ease you into a novel.

Thomas, I loved Sammy’s positive outlook too.

Living in Scotland would make this book much easier to understand and I’m sure the local aspects would only add to your appreication of the book as a whole.

I’m not sure I’d agree that this book has similarities to Saramago – I never have trouble following Saramago, but frequently struggled with this one. It was much easier than Faulkner or Woolf, but I’m not sure that is saying much!

I’m not sure I want to actively seek out a headache, but I am now intrigued about Translated Accounts – I can’t imagine a book which never uses character names. Thanks for drawing it to my attention.

I had a first edition of How Late It Was, How Late in stock for years and years. I tried to read read it ( carefully! it was a first edition) but failed. I do struggle with dialect as I am dyslexic so that didn’t help. It was interesting that I found the book unsellable though, even when reduced to pence. It eventually went in one of useless-stock-that-will-clearly-never-sell clear outs.

In a similar vein Morven Callar was another I couldn’t get into (more a Scots voice than full blown dialect stream of consciousness) but my husband loved it.

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