Autobiography is a branch of fiction. This is not to say that Newman’s Apologia or Goethe’s Dichtung und Wahrheit are untrue. Merely that they are the work of skilled writers, and the arrangement of one’s life– especially the arrangement of that kaleidoscope, one’s INNER life – into a story is an inherently artificial thing to do. Not least because, in a story, one thing happens after another, and in actual, experienced, life the important events do not happen chronologically, and if certain events or experiences possess more significance than others, this might only emerge long after they have happened, or not happened. Perhaps this explains SOME of T.S.Eliot’s personal obsession with not having a biography written of him, a preoccupation which gripped him from really quite early manhood. The reflections on his inner journey in Burnt Norton would suggest that it was impossible, quite to put these things into narrative, because time, unlike prose narratives, does not progress in a linear form.
These thoughts, themselves repetitions of inner preoccupations of mine stretching back many years, came to mind when I was finishing the latest winner of the Man Booker Prize SHUGGIE BAIN, by Douglas Stuart (Picador £14.99). I very much admired it and could easily see why the judges, one of whom happens to be my eldest child – my God, talk about the policemen looking younger, one’s CHILD is a Booker judge!! – thought SHUGGIE BAIN was worthy of the prize which, in the past, has been given to such masterpieces as Iris Murdoch’s THE SEA, THE SEA and Salman Rushdie’s MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN.
Douglas Stuart works as a fashion designer in New York, but, as he has made clear in many interviews, SHUGGIE BAIN is the story of his early life in Glasgow during the 1980s – when the mines and the manufacturing industries and the docks of that magnificent old port were all being destroyed by the march of monetarism, and for many people there was small hope of paid work or, indeed , of anything interesting to pass the time. Shuggie (it is Scottish for Hugh or Hughie) is the third child of Agnes, and the story chronicles her disastrous relationship with alcohol, played out in a series of grotty residences, where the women sit round poring over sale catalogues for cheap clothes and domestic appliances to buy on the never-never. “Thank God for black-outs”, as one of the women says to Shuggie’s mother, while crossing herself.
“Look. Ah know why ye drink, hen. It’s hard to cope sometimes. Ah steer clear of the drink, but ah still need a couple of these every day”. As she produces the wee bottle of Valium, she adds, “Welcome to Pithead”. When, much later in the book, Shuggie and his mother have moved to Glasgow’s East End, his new friend, – in some ways the most sympathetic character in the whole book, Leanne Kelly – having asked why he speaks so funny, confides, “Ma brothers would skin me if they knew I was going around with a dirty Orange dog”. (In fact, though the son of a Prod taxi driver, Shuggie is of his mother’s religion,. Ie Cath-lick).
Everyone is poor, none of the women actually likes their man, and the tribal divide between Catholic and Protestant, is expressed less by attendance at a place of worship than by sporting a Glasgow Rangers Sports bag or a bit of Celtic memorabilia. Preference for McEwan’s Lager reveals the tribal allegiance.
None of the men – I was going to write, the “real men” – in the book is remotely sympathetic. Pot-bellied, balding, farting, sexually clumsy, and now largely unemployed, unless they are taxi-drivers or prepared to go and work as mine-foremen in South Africa – we hear, with eery accuracy how they speak, but we do not see into their souls. This is is a book about women – and Shuggie. From an early age, Shuggie realizes that all the women have correctly diagnosed that there is something about him which “isnae right”. In spite of his attempts to bone up on football, from a tattered old copy of a sports handbook, given away free with the local newspaper, he convinces no one.
Gide was furious with Proust for the opening pages of Sodome et Gomorrhe, where it was suggested that there were certain men who were really girls trapped inside male bodies. This viewpoint in 2020-21 is, OF COURSE, offensive on almost all levels, managing to upset transgender sensitivities as well as the feelings of homosexuals. Such delicate sensitivities and feelings, however, are not on very wide display in the poorer parts of Glasgow in the 1980s. Even when he is eight, and moving with his alkie mother to the Pithead region of ex-coal-mines, the other residents yell out his supposed resemblance to Liberace. Everything about him, from his voice to his walk, to his fondness for rearranging his mother’s few non-pawnable knick-knacks on the window ledge – tells the same mysterious story. There are moments of horror, as when other boys at school beat him up, or he takes an unwise taxi ride on New Year’s Eve in quest of his mother, but even in these dark moments, the comedy is unrelenting.
For that reason, Shuggie Bain is Dickensian. It does not imitate Dickens, but it has Charles Dickens’s ability to turn the humiliations and heartbreaks of a poverty-stricken childhood into a work of art. You would think that Dickens could not have improved on his childhood horror-story after you have read David Copperfield, but he could lower the bucket repeatedly into the well and produce Little Dorrit and Great Expectations. It will be fascinating to see, in the case of debut-writer Douglas Stuart, whether he continues to write about working-class Glasgow, or whether the impeccable ear for dialogue and the nuanced comic timing will enable him to write fictions about his current sphere of usefulness. If so, The Devil Wears Prada will one day have a great rival.
I really recommend Shuggie Bain.