I had a truly weird experience yesterday attending Irvine Welsh’s presentation of his novel Un polvo en condiciones, Francisco González’s translation of A Decent Ride (Anagrama, 2015). This is the tenth novel in Welsh’s long list, which also includes four short story collections and also plays. I decided to attend because I was meeting a friend, not because I’m a fan of the author. As happened, my friend arrived in time for the talk but after admittance to the auditorium was closed–that’s 250 seats. So, there I was, surrounded by 249 persons in a packed house, wondering how many who had rejected the translation aid could really understand Welsh’s Edinburgh brogue (and suspecting he was overdoing it…). About 15 minutes into the talk, two persons walked out, and then a few more–one a woman possible in her sixties, who did have the translation aid but, my guess, didn’t know who Welsh was (some members of the public will attend any literary presentation) and had left… in disgust at the obscene humour? Yet, when I left, towards the end of the q&a segment, 75 minutes later, there were people still queuing. I didn’t know Welsh had such loyal fandom.
Actually, I have a tale to tell. This was back in 2005 and Irvine Welsh came to Barcelona to present a new translation (Anagrama, which publishes his books, used to bring all prominent UK authors to the British Council thanks to the good offices of a now retired head of cultural affairs). The book was probably Glue–I’m not sure–but one thing I recall is that I had never seen, in years of attending, any presentation as crowded as that one… and with so many men!! In the q&a segment I did ask Welsh whether he saw himself as a writer specifically addressing men, and how he connected with his female readers–I don’t recall the exact words but he replied something along the lines that he hoped women found his books anyway interesting. Like many others, women and men, I consider Welsh’s first novel Trainspotting (1993) a great achievement. As a newly arrived PhD student in Glasgow, in 1994, I couldn’t help noticing the black book with the guys in silver skull masks on the cover, so frequently seen on the metro and the buses in the hands of young readers. I was fascinated by the phenomenon and I was subsequently fascinated by the text (once I could make sense of the dialect!)–I do have a copy signed by Welsh on that day of 2005.
I also have a peculiar personal memory. The British Council kindly invited me to stay for dinner and I found myself sitting between Welsh and his new wife, Beth Quinn, a Chicago native. I suspect that Welsh does not care for academics and, so, the moment I was introduced to him was, more or less, the last moment he spoke to me, despite my efforts. Perhaps the man is shy. In contrast, I found myself deep in conversation with Quinn, who, embarrassingly for me, chose to discuss the very personal topic of whether she should have children immediately, wait, or never have them. Welsh was then 46 (he was born in 1959); Beth, his second wife, 23. He had divorced Anne Antsy, his wife since 1984, and dedicatee of Trainspotting, in 2003. I was so enchanted young Beth and she was so absolutely full of very American charm and candour, that when we said goodbye, and I can’t believe I did this…, I shook Welsh’s hand and told him ‘you take care of your wife, she’s wonderful’. He said he would. The relationship has lasted for 15 years, until 2017–and they never had children.
So, yes, maybe I’m a bit prejudiced against Welsh because the social skills he displayed over that dinner were not top-notch, but, then, I trust that Beth Quinn was happy with him for a long time and, so, this is in his favour, absolutely! What makes me bristle at his novels is, rather, the glamorisation of a type of laddish masculinity that few women, if any, can abide. He is, clearly, still not thinking of his women readers, which is why his candid exposé of the dregs of the masculine underworld is, ironically, so useful to us: because we learn a lot.
Welsh is fully aware, as he acknowledged once more yesterday, that he occupies an extremely unstable position for, although he claims to be still surrounded by the working-class male friends of his youth, at the same time he is an educated man (with an MA) who makes a living writing novels–hardly a cultural product that interests men like his mates. No wonder then that, as he joked, they monitor him constantly for signs of his going soft (too middle-class), whereas he is transparently using his books to prove that he is in possession of a macho bravado that few, if any contemporary novelists, have. His presenter yesterday (Spanish novelist Kiko Amat) and most of the audience (except the grey-haired lady who left and yours truly) found it hilarious that A Decent Ride has so many penis jokes. I found the excitement with Welsh’s gross prose quite boyish, which in this context is not a word of praise.
Welsh defined himself as a brand, and he is right–specifically, he is a one-trick pony: a writer stuck in his Trainspotting universe while he himself and his characters age. This is neither good nor bad. He lives and works, however, in constant tension to prove to the reviewers he claims not to care for that he is not a literary writer. In his logic, he cannot be one because he is too prolific (lack of time was the reason he invoked to justify his disinterest in the reviews) but, then, his books are clearly unique and belong in no known genre, except the sub-genre of the ‘Irivine Welsh novel’. Anyone who has read Marabou Stork Nightmares can tell you that Welsh is an extremely ambitious literary novelist doing his best to undermine any possible reputation as such.
Thus, in order to prove to himself that he cannot be touched by the critics because he is not a literary writer of the kind that is shortlisted for the Booker Man Prize, Welsh spins increasingly delirious tales of men gone wrong and doing unspeakable things, or provoking them. The in-your-face scatology grows with each novel and is humorous if you’re already interested in that kind of bodily, iconoclastic comedy but it also produces a feeling of déjà vu and a sad impression that Welsh refuses to grow up as a writer. His staunchest fans are actually loyal to the spirit of Trainspotting and will buy anything he publishes (or queue to see him in the flesh) but they do so in a spirit of mateship, so to speak, than of readerly pleasure.
I’m re-reading these days Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus series, now about to reach its 22nd instalment with In a House of Lies (to be published in October), and I was wondering how his Edinburgh and Welsh’s Edinburgh overlap. Rankin’s villain, Big Ger Cafferty, uses his taxi business as a cover for drug dealing at one point, and the protagonist of Welsh’s A Decent Ride is a self-employed taxi driver. Does Big Ger know this Terry Lawson, I wondered? Has he at any point done business with Sick Boy? Has Rebus ever arrested any of the Leith crew in Trainspotting? How would Rebus fare in a Welsh novel? Has he read, perhaps, Filth and enjoyed the exploits of Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson? Has Frank ‘Franco’ Begbie ever read a Rankin novel?
It’s funny how we accept such separate literary universes as representation of the same city, and even of the same circles, and how authors highlight each other’s strengths and foibles. After a dose of Rankin, Welsh seems dirtier than ever; after a dose of Welsh, Rankin seems over-polite. And it’s funny how you have no doubts of who the bigger literary artist is. Rankin is very good at spinning convoluted plots held together by extra-thin threads–his Rebus novels are very clever spider webs–but in his novels the prose is limpid and the main word-games are found only in Rebus’ sometimes obscure banter. Welsh, in contrast, elevates to literary art the prose one finds in elevator and loo graffiti, while pretending he just has a good ear. It may not be to everyone’s liking, not even the author, but Mr. Welsh you do write Literature. Please, note that Kiko Amat mentioned Louis-Ferdinand Céline (1894-1961) as a referent to understand Welsh’s work, and who doubts that Céline wrote Literature?
Amat also argued that perhaps it would be in Welsh’s benefit to be as dead as the French author because then he would be a proper cult author for the reluctant critics. This was Amat’s polite way of hinting that perhaps Welsh should have stopped writing once he published Trainspotting. After all, Emily Brontë only wrote Wuthering Heights–the Trainspotting of 1848– and then she died at 30, and look at her! Imagine, if you can, twelve more novels by Ms. Emily dealing with the same characters and environments, and you can understand Welsh’s problem.
Another unsubtle thing Amat said is that if you don’t enjoy the gross-out factor in Welsh’s novels and his kinky humour this is because you’re a prude, which barely concealed a misogynistic taunt, as he really meant ‘a prudish woman’. This is a type of justification that admits no counter-argument because if you acknowledge your prudishness then you’re done for in our heavily sexualized times, and if you reply that you’re unprejudiced but just don’t like vulgar humour, then you sound prissy anyway. As Stuart Kelly put it in his very negative review of Welsh’s novel in The Guardian, ‘The tired old rebuttal is “it’s a satire and you don’t have a sense of humour”. But listen. What’s that? It’s the sound of no one laughing. There is a faint and distant sniggering, though. If anyone parts with £12.99 for this, they’re being taken for a ride’. Not having read A Decent Ride yet, I cannot say whether it is indeed a scam perpetrated on pliant readers but, at least, I’m satisfied that not all men enjoy Welsh’s kind of laddish, boyish or childish humour, whatever you prefer.
There’s a slumming factor here at work that I need to unpack and that is verging on the dangerous side of snobbery. Welsh may be working-class originally but he is, I insist, an educated, middle-class writer reproducing in his works an idiolect conditioned by class and regional markers, with its peculiar humour. He has built his reputation on building characters that sound genuine and that you might recognize in certain areas of Edinburgh (perhaps as they used to be, not as they are now). He is doing, so to speak, literary-anthropological work for the benefit of his middle-class readers (perhaps mostly declassed readers with a working-class background) and presenting the ‘life of the others’ as humorous material.
I’m not about to suggest that this is cultural appropriation or politically incorrect in any way. What I’m saying is that Welsh’s novels are yet further proof that the working-classes have not been yet given a dignified literary representation which is neither sentimental nor humoristic. I’ll mention, however, William McIlvanney’s novels Docherty (1975) and The Big Man (1985), as an example of how Scottish fiction can offer better portraits of working-class masculinity beyond Welsh’s shenanigans. Incidentally, McIlvanney’s Laidlaw (1977) started the Tartan Noir tradition from which Rankin’s John Rebus descends (the first novel, Knots and Crosses was published in 1987). I cannot recommend enough McIlvanney’s elegant The Papers of Tony Veitch (1983), with dour Inspector Jack Laidlaw.
I wish I could have asked the 249+ persons attending Welsh’s talk with Amat why they were there. Perhaps in a city of 1,500,000 million, this is a tiny figure. I had an easy excuse: I’m a Literature teacher, and I have even taught Trainspotting (well, the film rather than the book, try to have second-language students read Welsh…). Was it celebrity? Was it a the memory of handsome Ewan McGregor, no matter how Rent-onized? For, and this is one last nasty barb, if you think that reading Welsh in translation is reading Welsh at all… you’re being taken for an (in)decent ride…
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