Writers at Play

The Fall of Kelvin Walker: A Fable of the Sixties

by Alasdair Gray
George Braziller, 144 pp., $14.95

There are allegorical tales, usually rather short, that resemble instant powders or concentrates: if you add water, in the shape of extra incidents and ancillary characters, you have a decent novel of a standard kind. The Fall of Kelvin Walker isn’t one of these: if you diluted it, you would end with a lumpy gruel.

Subtitled “A Fable of the Sixties,” it is obviously akin to Voltaire’s Candide in respects both basic and superficial. Young Kelvin leaves his native town of Glaik, known for the manufacture of fish glue and sweaters and for the processing of cheese, to make his fortune, or, more accurately, to find his destiny, in London, the glamorous and prosperous city (as he sees it) of the 1960s. His father is a fundamentalist Christian, or “more than a Christian,” being session clerk of the John Knox Street Free Seceders Presbyterian Church of Scotland. (The intricacies of Scottish religion are perplexing even to many Scots, so we are informed that a session clerk is chairman of the congregational committee empowered to correct the minister should his preaching deviate from true doctrine.) Freeing himself from paternal oppression, Kelvin—the name is said to derive from a Scottish river, though my guess is that Calvinist associations are prepotent—has embraced the philosophy of “the sublime” Colonel Ingersol, the nineteenth-century American opponent of Christianity, and subsequently the more sweeping example of Nietzsche. Indeed, Kelvin sees himself as the New Nietzsche, with the advantage of being neither dead nor insane.

There was no one in Glaik with whom he could discuss serious matters—“glaikit” in Scots means foolish, thoughtless—and selling canned soup in his father’s grocery store was no sort of launching pad for a future Ubermensch. All this he explains in simple ringing tones to his Cunégonde, Jill, who cohabits with a dropout pseudoartist called Jake. In their amiable, slack way, the couple have adopted Kelvin; or, in his more determined fashion, he has taken them over. Slovenliness is inefficient, and a sin against the will to power.

Unable to engage in conversation (except on the subject of Nietzsche) or order a meal in a restaurant, Kelvin looks like the prototypical innocent abroad, except that his innocence evinces itself as a preternatural shrewdness. The power he already possesses lies in his sheer belief in himself, and in the sort of naked intelligence shown by the boy in Hans Andersen’s tale who observed that the Emperor wore no clothes. The stock advice about starting at the bottom and working one’s way up, he points out, is deluded: the ladders are so long that you reach retirement age before you even get to the middle. He himself has no formal “qualifications,” but at the top, the right place to start, you don’t need them. “It’s years since the managing directors of chemical corporations needed to know much about chemistry. A minister of transport doesn’t bother with railway timetables.” What is necessary is self-confidence …

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