Sprung out of silken folds
By Anna Aslanyan.
Umbrella, Will Self, Bloomsbury 2012
The best writers of prose are those who possess the ability to transform themselves, the world around them and, consequently, the readers into whatever shape is required for a piece of fiction to become more than just an account of given events, no matter how exciting. Will Self has tried it before; when the protagonist of his early short story declares: “I’ve lost my sense of scale”, the whole world (or, at least, that contained within London Orbital) pushes out of its physical boundaries. Likewise, when the heroine of his latest novel realises that “it is not the Ladies Walking Umbrella that cannot be furled, strapped and closed – it is me, I’ve got the wind up me”, the reader experiences a flying sensation. Well, one did, anyway.
There are readers and readers, much as there are books and books: those you can leaf through or put aside, and those you have to read, if only because you are the person to do that, and no one can do it quite like you; the same goes for writing. Self’s previous book, Walking to Hollywood, although enjoyable and witty, was from the former category. Umbrella firmly belongs to the latter. Indeed, you cannot imagine it being written by anyone else, nor can you, while reading it, think of other people doing exactly the same thing. Statistically, you have to admit a possibility of someone, somewhere sitting down with the same volume, looking at the same words, but the meaning they have for that person cannot possibly be the same as for you. This, I’ll venture, can be seen as a (very primitive) definition of modernism. And who but Self is better equipped to define the phenomenon that, at the eve of its centenary, is still able to divide the literary world, bringing new talent under its, erm, umbrella, while annoying certain literary grandees into gloomy silence or, worse still, prolific writing?
The novel charts the journey made by modernism in its nearly hundred years: swinging back and forth, chronologically it starts in 1918 – at the end of the Great War, which coincided with the dawn of modernism in England. An umbrella is pronounced to be the essence of petit-bourgeois culture in an early scene (similar accusations must have been aimed at modernism in those days) setting the tone for the book. In it Self returns to his familiar territory, London suburbs with its familiar theme, death – it is spreading across Europe in the form of shells made at Arsenal by Audrey Death, a lathe operator and proto-feminist. The life-and-death circle is drawn in a dotted line: the faulty shells, whose production is supervised by Audrey’s older brother, cause the death of their younger sibling, Stanley. When he finds himself in the afterworld, surrounded by fellow “troglodytes”, it is tempting to think of ‘The North London Book of the Dead’ or How the Dead Live revisited, but the author goes a lot further. What ever happened to modernism, indeed? is the question he not so much asks as makes the reader ponder over. Do its practitioners, like the killed soldiers, huddle in their underground refuge, venturing outside occasionally to save what can still be saved?
You have to be quick with your guessing before the narrative cuts to the next time layer, introducing you to Doctor Zach Busner (in his heyday, the early ’70s; you’ll meet his retired ego four decades later) and his patients, the victims of encephalitis lethargica, or “enkies” as they are chummily called at their booby hatch. These unfortunates, who have “borne the brunt of every successive wave of psychiatric opinion”, having spent decades in their beds without any contact with the outer world, unless you count what goes on in the depths of their minds, also serve as a metaphor for the fate of modernism. Forever mistaken for slobbering idiots, they can’t – or can’t be bothered to – explain that “there was no mental illness to speak of, only different ways of looking at the world.” And since everyone’s is unique, there must be things that can only be said by a particular person, at a particular moment of time and, let’s not forget, to a particular audience.
Thus, Umbrella is a product of a rare set of circumstances, but also a necessary one. Not only was Self the man for the job – writing this all-consuming, challenging book was probably something he could not help doing. In his recent essay written for the Guardian he talks about the path he’s taken in the last thirty years, explaining that the novel was more or less an inevitability. He dwells on his attempts “to embrace the slippery evanescence of the stream of consciousness” – fairly successful, we should add, give or take an occasional whirlpool of plot undercurrents interrupting the otherwise progressive flow. One thing that catches your eye is the author’s use of italics when switching from the dominant third-person narrative to what must be first-person speech scraps. The satirist’s trademark irony is here, too, when he looks at the young suffragette trying to pull off her Victorian bloomers once and for all, or at “the good news of the Holocaust she’s slept through”.
The strands of the novel keep multiplying as you go on. Self, who in his recent New Statesman column set out “to investigate the queered semantics of proprietary drugs”, seems to be interested in this subject too, devoting parts of the book to the effects of a new treatment administered by Busner. This decision gives rise to new tropes and allows for more umbrellas to be smuggled into the text – apparently, that’s what a syringe is called in the medical jargon.
Sometimes you can see why the author has diagnosed himself with “everythingitis”, a condition that compels him to put everything in a single book. Substantial though the ground covered in Umbrella is, from psychiatric abuse to property development, it still does not come across as the writings of someone who has completely succumbed to the illness. If everything is there in the writer’s mind anyway, he doesn’t have to care about how much ends up on the page. Nor is he worried about his readers; after all, “the best audience is the person he sees in his shaving mirror every morning” – the words of Nabokov may well have been attributed to Self. The reader is, of course, free to take a similar modernist approach and distil the brewing stream into their substance of choice.
The epigraph taken from Ulysses, “A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella”, prepares the reader for various allusions, literary and otherwise. No history of modernism would, of course, be complete without the influence psychoanalysis had on the movement. Again, if Self didn’t explore this theme, it could have easily stayed all but forgotten in the present-day Britain. A couple of years ago, the Freud Museum in London ran a series of events billed as Intimate Evenings. The advert ran thus: “The first in this extraordinary series sees celebrated author Will Self on the couch. Psychogeographer meets the inventor of psychoanalysis…” If you missed it, don’t despair – Self may have fallen out with psychogeography, or at least stopped practising it on the pages of broadsheets, but his new novel must be read for his psychoanalytic forays alone.
There are moments in the novel that would make Freud himself chuckle with delight. In one scene, “Stanley, naked except for his cap, had grabbed his cock and, tugging back the foreskin so that the pink umbrella opened, brandished it” at his rich, mature lover. Despite its masculine “blunt and accusatory end”, an umbrella is seen by Busner as pointedly feminine, “her thin metal ribs and struts all furled in the stained folds of her old silken skin” (another nod to the transmogrification motifs of Cock and Bull, perhaps?). In another revealing passage a character is trying “to avoid the tips of umbrella struts that snipe for his eyes – the enemy of the tall man in this crowded stone trench.” This image is reminiscent of the author’s long, bony figure, as is the shape of a folded umbrella. As the object unfurls it mutates, the restrained stick turning into a tangle of broken limbs before rounding itself out, stretched on its spokes, the folds of silk smoothened like the perfect canvas. It is almost as if the book, fighting restrictive conventions, transcends its own, and its author’s, limits – physical, gender, literary – and opens up as a new structure, one of those “delicate and airy things” whose “struts snap” and “covers tear”. It – he, she – may not be big enough to protect the whole of contemporary fiction from the elements, but is highly suitable for personal use.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anna Aslanyan is a translator and journalist living in London. She regularly contributes to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and writes for the TLS and a number of online publications. Anna’s translations into Russian include works of fiction by Tom McCarthy, Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Mavis Gallant and Zadie Smith.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, August 15th, 2012.