A conversation with Will Self.
Will Self was born in London in 1961 and published his first book of short stories, The Quantity Theory of Insanity, in 1991. To date he has published nine novels, three novellas, six collections of short fiction, and six books of non-fiction. Self has also worked extensively as a journalist, contributing regularly to a number of publications including The London Review of Books, The New York Times, The New Statesman and Harper’s Magazine.
His latest novel, Umbrella, is a wordy stream-of-consciousness narrative that is unashamedly modernist in style and structure.
Set in London and deep within the folds of the human brain, Umbrella leaps across several decades and various minds without any chapter breaks to distinguish between characters or periods of time. In 1918 Audrey Death, a munitions worker at Woolwich Arsenal, is sectioned to Friern hospital in north London after falling victim to encephalitis lethargica. Better known as “sleepy sickness,” it was an epidemic that swept through Europe after the First World War, condemning many of its victims to a lifetime of silence and immobility. Audrey is awoken over half a century later, in 1971, by Dr. Zack Busner, a psychiatrist who discovers a new drug to treat the illness. In 2010 the now-retired doctor travels across north London recalling how he brought his former patient back to life.
Self has been shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize.
Is Umbrella your attempt at trying to resurrect the modernist movement in literary fiction?
No. It’s just that writing in the simple past exhorts on me a terrible sense of tedium. I really wish I could write straightforward, honest, English novels!
Could you talk about the leitmotif of the umbrella that you use in the book?
Well the whole novel is structured like an umbrella, just like Joyce’s Ulysses is structured with themes on colours and chapters that correspond to The Odyssey. The underlying structure of the book is an umbrella: it opens out, and then blows forward, so the pivotal scene is when Audrey is blown inside out when she is succumbing for the second time from encephalitis lethargica—that’s when the novel inverts. The umbrella theme is also a physical structure as well.
Was writing about World War I an attempt to show how it laid the seeds for the violent century that followed?
Absolutely. I read The Great War in Modern Memory by Paul Fussell, which states that the experience between 1914 and the static trench warfare on the western front six months later, is the crucible of twentieth-century irony. All the darkness of the twentieth century emanates in those few square miles of Flanders. If you look back at the late nineteenth century, there are all sort of populist consciousness of darkness, evil, and unpleasantness: Marx has already published Das Kapital and The Communist Manifesto, for example. It’s not that people don’t know what the consequences of all these things are, but something else happens in the First World War—it’s a different modality, an intensifier to all of that.
When you were writing this novel, were you consciously aware of how value systems change over history?
Yes, but one of the problems authors of the contemporary era have who want to go back before the First World War is that they are very conditioned by what I would call the bourgeois perception of the past, which left out certain important aspects of life, including physical intimacy. That’s why, for example, Ulysses was so shocking. I wanted to get behind that Stalinist-doublethink about the past, and suggest the sensual and felt life of the period as well.
Why do you place so much importance on the geography of London in your novels?
Well, I’m a London writer, not an English writer, and certainly not a British writer. The Book of Dave gave me a way to indulge my own personal knowledge of the city. When I was writing that book I became very interested in how London was a completely modern city in the early 1900s, and how London has been in decline ever since.
Could you talk about the famous urban walks you have done?
They were about getting back to a primitive level. For me the pivotal thing was walking out of London. I had this epiphany in about 1986, where I was standing in the middle of London and I thought, I have never seen the mouth of the river Thames; I don’t even know what it looks like. That stuck me as so strange to have lived in the city all your life, and have no conception of this really major geographical feature that is only thirty miles away. We live entirely in a human geography, so the walks are very much about trying to knock against that.
Two writers who seem to have influenced your career are William Burroughs and J. G. Ballard. How did they inspire you?
I have since repudiated Burroughs. I discovered in my forties that he is just a recapitulation of the things that the high modernists had already done, and that he basically just ripped off Joyce. Ballard, on the other hand, was a personal friend and a mentor to me, and that was a powerful connection to have. His work is like an IED planted onto the highway of mainstream British prose: it looks disconcertingly like something else, but then explodes inside you, and you see the systematic and totalising dystopic vision he has, and how accurate it is.
Where does the enormous vocabulary in your work come from?
Are my words so big? I’m never really comfortable with the idea that I’m this monstrous sesquipedalian. It just seems to me that everyone else’s vocabulary must be rather grotesquely attenuating.
What do you feel you achieve when you enter into a fictional world?
I used to say that it was a kind of power complex. In no other realm can you be as omnipotent as you can in the fictional realm. However, as the necessity of modernism has started to grip me more, I feel that less and less. I’ve understood that that omnipotence on its own terms is very provisional. I feel compelled to do this, and always have done, so it’s not something that I feel I have to make a conscious choice of. It’s much more like a religious calling.
How do you feel about your own books? Do you like them?
I’m totally ambivalent to my own work. I love it in the sense that it’s a vocation, but I absolutely hate it as well. I stopped having book parties because I feel each book is a failure.
JP O’Malley is an Irish writer living in London.
In a conversation with JP O’Malley, London-based novelist Will Self talks about why he doesn’t see himself as a British writer, how his latest novel is a tribute to James Joyce’s Ulysses, and why he considers every book he writes a failure.