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The Blade Artist

Callum Seddon

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The Blade Artist
Irvine Welsh
Jonathan Cape, 7 April 2016
288 pp
ISBN 9780224102155
£12.99

 

 

 

 

 

In The Blade Artist, Irvine Welsh returns to the life of Francis Begbie, one of the protagonists of his debut Trainspotting (1993), its sequel Porno (2002) and prequel Skagboys (2012). Begbie, now inseparable from Robert Carlyle’s performance in Danny Boyle’s adaptation of Trainspotting (1996) is a terrifying, compelling and complex character in contemporary Scottish fiction; violent, politically incorrect and so gloriously creative a swearer it would make Malcolm Tucker blush. As Mark Renton observes in Trainspotting, ‘Begbie smashes fuck oot ay innocent wee daft cunts whae accidentally spill your pint or bump into ye’.

In Trainspotting and its two related novels, Begbie is one of the few characters not to be addicted to heroin. But where Renton, Sick Boy, Spud and others are obsessed with skag and hypodermic syringes, Begbie is addicted to violence and booze, a football hooligan who likes to carry ‘an assortment ay stanley knives, basebaw bats, knuckledusters, beer glesses, sharpened knitting needles, etc’ down to Easter Road. The Blade Artist is also, in Welsh’s own words, about ‘a psychopath with a knife’, but it marks a significant break with the form, tone and characterization of those earlier novels. Instead of a heteroglossic, loosely associated collection of sketches and short stories about Leith’s youth culture, The Blade Artist is a compact thriller focalized almost entirely around the middle aged Begbie’s return to, and confrontation, with his past. It is Welsh on familiar ground, but in unfamiliar terms.

At the end of Trainspotting, we saw Renton betray Begbie and his friends by stealing the funds from a heroin deal and running away to Amsterdam, a betrayal that continues to define the relationships between Begbie, Sick Boy, Spud, ‘Second Prize’ and himself in Porno. In that novel, Begbie tries to enact revenge for this betrayal by confronting (and most probably, killing) Renton, but fails: he is run over by a car whilst chasing Renton, and whilst slipping into a coma at the top of Leith Walk, appears to be in the process of forgiving him. It emerges in The Blade Artist that Begbie has indeed put this violence behind him. Having spent much of his adult life in and out of prison, he has found rehabilitation through art and prison education. The combined efforts of a probation mentor and art therapist (Melanie, who becomes his wife) take away from the narrative that his friends and family had long expected of him: more prison. A successful exhibition in Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket gallery has lead to Begbie’s international recognition as a sculptor and painter, his specialty being the grotesquely mutilated likenesses of Holywood celebrities, churned out from his studio in California. Now going by the name of Jim Francis, Begbie’s life is the polar opposite to his past in Leith, with a functioning marriage and two children. But this idyllic life is under threat. At the start of the novel, we see Jim Francis see off two men who threaten his family without resorting to violence, but their bodies are soon found, leading a cynical police officer to suspect Jim/Begbie’s involvement. At the same time, Begbie is recalled to Edinburgh by the news of a death in the family, the unexplained murder of his first son, Sean.

Upon returning to Edinburgh, Begbie finds the police doing little to investigate Sean’s death, but plenty of his old acquaintances point the finger at the violent gangster Anton Miller. The novel follows Begbie’s own attempts to identify the culprit, motivated by a cause that is never satisfactorily explained (in Porno, Begbie was never particularly driven by the need to protect his family). In addition to this nod to crime fiction, The Blade Artist also examines Begbie’s own identity and relationship to the past. In this respect, the novel dovetails successfully with the struggles of Sick Boy, Renton and Spud in Trainspotting, Porno and Skagboys. For them, Edinburgh and Leith offer the potential for relapse and failure, through drugs or violence. For Renton, at the end of Trainspotting, the narrator observes that ‘He could now never go back to Leith, to Edinburgh, even to Scotland, ever again. There, he could not be anything other than he was.’ These words take on an uncanny resemblance to Begbie’s own struggles – abroad and in Scotland – as he negotiates the two facets of his personality: Jim Francis, an artist who channels violence into creativity, and Franco Begbie, a ‘psycho who used sharpened knitting needles when he wanted to sort some poor cunt out’. There’s clearly an uneasy link between both aspects to Begbie; as his agent notices early in The Blade Artist, Jim Francis’s studio does not use traditional materials: ‘[m]ost [of the knives] are the traditional thin stainless-steel blades he’s seen other artists use for clay sculpting, but there are some larger ones that look like hunting knives, while others appear to be a surgeon’s operating instruments.’

Welsh’s latest novel is then, a take on the established trope of ‘the double’ in Scottish literature, a tradition leading back to the James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824), Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) and Muriel Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960). Indeed, the onomastic indeterminacy at the heart of Jim Francis/Francis Begbie’s presentation is reminiscent of Spark’s ludic doubling of Dougal Douglas and Douglas Dougal. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t take long to realize that Jim Francis has not entirely done away with the violent urges of Francis Begbie. We learn that Begbie was indeed responsible for the deaths of the two men in California, whose murder is narrated with a shocking, violent rebirth of Begbie’s former self: ‘SAY MA FUCKIN NAME! FRANK BEGBIE!!!’ Begbie never did choose life, but knife. He became more adept at concealing the violence, replacing the explosive pub brawls with elaborate Patrick Bateman-like torture routines.

It would be easy to be cynical about this novel, with some reviewers finding the premise of The Blade Artist as simply too implausible. This, however, is precisely the point: none of Begbie’s friends or family respond to his claims to being a reformed man with anything other than incredulity and/or suspicion. Even if the plot does at times read like a blend of Begbie’s own reading material – A Clockwork Orange and those ‘true crime’ novels from the prison library – Welsh has succeeded in complicating and developing the characterization of Begbie. This development climaxes in the novel’s revelation that Sean was not killed by a small-time Leith thug, but his younger brother Michael, a fratricide that alludes to Begbie’s disastrous fatherly advice to Michael in Porno:

Ye huv tae learn tae stick up fir yirsel. Jist git a fuckin basebaw bat n batter the cunt’s heid in, wait till ehs asleep n ehs kip, like. That’ll fuckin well sort um oot. Worked wi Joe, only wi me eh goat a half-brick ower ehs heid. That’s what yuv goat tae dae. Eh might be stronger thin you but ehs no fuckin well stronger thin a half-brick across ehs fuckin chops.

Michael’s murder is a violent realization of this advice, and it clearly troubles Begbie to meet the legacy of his past ‘unreconstructed self’ in his younger son.

Any weaknesses are unsurprisingly a result of Welsh’s choice of form: a third-person narrative voice, occasionally switching to the memories of Begbie and his wife. The result is that Begbie’s monologues in the earlier novels, in the Edinburgh dialect with an explosive verbal energy, give way to prose that occasionally feels lifeless and flat. It may be the case that the novel will function for many as no more than a supplement to the novels in which Begbie has previously appeared. But for those readers who are already familiar with Begbie and his world, The Blade Artist is a rewarding installment in the history of the YLT.

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Callum Seddon is in the final year of his D.Phil at Merton College, Oxford.