Which character from the Irvine Welsh novels has the most depth? While Francis Begbie might have counted as the most vivid, particularly as he was brought to life in Robert Carlyle’s unforgettable performance, I’d be surprised if anyone thought of him as the deepest. Yet that’s the impression one is left with after reading Irvine Welsh’s latest novel The Blade Artist. I don’t mean depth in terms of the psychological coherence of the characterisation, as much as that Welsh has clearly spent a great deal of time reflecting on Begbie and what makes him who he is.
The Blade Artist begins in California. We meet Jim Begbie, succesful artist and devoted husband and father, facing down two men on the beach who threaten his wife and daughters. We soon see the remarkable, most of all happy, life he has built for himself across the Atlantic. A balance which is shattered by the news that his son Sean has been murdered, prompting Begbie to fly back to Edinburgh in order to attend the funeral.
His transition is explored through his return to Leith and reacquaintance with the familiar figures from his older life. He finds himself sympathising with the police’s lack of interest in his son Sean’s murder, wondering to himself “Why indulge people like that when they would simply take each other out if you left them to their own devices?”. He’s baffled in the face of old rivals, astonished “now to think that he cared enough about this guy to consider doing that”. In the face of the leering optimism of Sean’s mother that they might reconcile, he can only find her grotesque and idiotic.
Finding his way to an old boxing gym when he returns, he suddenly relates to past acquaintances in a new way. Those who had “been keeping him at arm’s length for years” were now suddenly “welcoming him into the ‘he used to be a bam but he’s alright now’ club”. They had joined this club a long time ago but in finding membership in it, he realises there’s still a place for himself in the city and once more feels at home there.
There were two figures integral to his transformation. The first, John Dick, “believed in him, despite Franco being determined to present all the evidence to the contrary” and ran the prison scheme which “brought in the writers, poets and artists, to see if anything would gel” and “Saw a spark ignite in a few, Frank Begbie being the most unlikely. Amongst these was Melanie, the art therapist, now his wife:
But who was she? She was good and strong and I was bad and weak. That’s what hit me most of all from being around her. That I was weak. The notion was ridiculous; it went against everything I’d come to believe about my persona and image, against the way I’d consciously forged myself over the years. Yet who else but a weak man would spend half his life letting others lock him up like an animal?
I was one of the weakest people on the planet. I had zero control over my darker impulses. Therefore I was constant jail fodder. Some mouthy cunt got wide; they had to be decimated on the spot, and I was back in prison. Thus such nonentities were in total command of my destiny. That was my first major epiphany: I was weak because I wasn’t in control of myself. Melanie was in control of herself. In order to be with somebody like her, to live a free life, not in a tenement or scheme on the breadline, or even a suburb and crippled with a lifetime of debt, I needed a free mind. I had to get control of myself.
His work began to receive recognition when he was granted day release to take part in an exhibition in Edinburgh. It soon won celebrity sponsorship, with prominent figures fixating on his portrayal of the life he had denied the man he killed, as well as his wider tendency to mutilate representations of celebrities in the name of art. Social recognition comes to provide a momentum of its own, sweeping him along in changes that are already underway, not least of all through his relationship with Melanie.
Much of all his change involves a changed relation to himself. Throughout the story, we see Begbie respond to situations through self-restraint, in full awareness of his inclination to lash out. This illustrates the continuity of his character, as the old impulses are marginalised rather than annihilated. What has changed is how he relates to himself and the world, with new concerns leading to an eery distance from the social world which formed him.
To the outside world, such a change is baffling. It comes from nowhere and invites accusations of insubstantiality. An accusation that has a kernel of truth given that he is still the same person, he simply orientates himself to the world in a different way. But there were moments in his past in which he sought change:
Ah’m just no feelin it, he says, recalling slivers of alcohol-fuelled violence, bonhomie and shagging. Then the long periods in between, of being stuck in a cell. Coming out. A fresh start. A new bird. Big plans. Resolutions made.
Then another wide cunt. Another incident.
Rather than a life time of stasis being followed by a sudden change, we can instead see his life as involving a whole sequence of impeded attempts to change. Frustrated attempts to become something other than he was, lacking both external guidance and the conditions within which he might enjoy success. For all its flaws as a novel, The Blade Artist captures the dynamism inherent in becoming who we are, the constant activity at work even when people fail to outwardly change and the possibility of significant transformation which always remains latent within them. In the end do we really change? The Blade Artist would suggest not but does so in a way that reminds us of the limitations of treating fictional portrayals as akin to qualitative data.