EIBF2014: Will Self’s Happy Talk

Death by water: Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead. He must have forgotten his umbrella in August. A very soggy and windy few days at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in which I did much typing and managed to see Judith Kerr and Matthew Kneale talk about Mog, Quatermass and much more. Did you know Nigel Kneale’s real first name was Tom? Though I did take a few notes, this event was for pleasure alone, so there won’t be a write-up, and I was politely chased away from taking pics of the signing queue, so let’s move on.

Last night, Tuesday, Will Self drew an almost sell-out audience to the main theatre and reminded me just how well-loved he is and why. I recently threw myself into the Booker-shortlisted Umbrella, to which his new book Shark is a “sprequel”, and it’s a very odd reading experience, but not as difficult as some reviewers would have had you believe: it flits between conscious and subconscious thought, shifting time and place and even zooming in and out of different characters’ memories and experiences without warning. It’s unsettling and fragmentary, a fact the event’s chair Stuart Kelly picks up on with his opening remark that “Will is one of the very few writers who responds to the challenges of high modernism.” As we’ll see, Self is responding to the likes of TS Eliot and James Joyce and their fragmented narratives.

On the coining of “sprequel” to describe Shark, he admitted  an “awful tendency” to create new words but “I spend too much time alone”. The book is “chronologically prior” to Umbrella but spins out of an incident related in it where psychiatrist Zack Busner, under the influence of LSD, sees his nose turn into a shark fin. As Umbrella concerns itself often with the First World War (or, as he repeatedly says “First War”) Shark is  more to do with the “Second War” and the relationship between “the technology of that war and psychosis”.

After Self gave a reading that illustrated the style of the writing, Kelly asked him to explore his influences, particularly the way the passage, involving deaths at sea, recalls Eliot’s The Waste Land.  The whole passage was pervaded by intercut songs such as Happy Talk from South Pacific and Kelly noted there is a direct reference to The Tempest and ‘Death by Water’ (“full fathom fucking five” if memory serves), so what did he learn from Eliot?

“I mostly put that Eliot stuff in for you, Stuart. To amuse you. I knew that only you would spot that. I think the relationship can seem a little arch and up its own bottom, but the high modernists saw what they were doing as a relationship between the ‘timeless-go-round’ of culture. They saw an equipoise between the shock of their new techniques and the Ur-texts: the obvious one is the Odyssey and Ulysses. Or The Waste Land and the grail, the Fisher King.

“We’ve lost touch with what they were trying to achieve. I’m trying to treat their texts in the way they treated the ancient texts.”

Kelly then explained a complex correspondence he’d spotted between Shark and Ulysses and asked what Joyce’s contribution had been.

“I didn’t see him there at all. I think I would have noticed. I would have been grateful for him to take up some of the labour.  What I get from texts like Finnegan’s Wake, Ulysses or wherever is a feeling of comity and identification with the abandonment of the third-person narrator.

“I haven’t completely abandoned the third-person narrator but I think the third-person narrator is God and I don’t think he, she or it has a place in the fictional topos. I don’t think it’s possible to write anything that really reflects the way we think, it’s so complex. there’s quite a few of us in this tent, with a procession of images, sensations and words passing through our minds. How can we ever apprehend that or convey it? I think you can allude to the richness of consciousness.

“The drive to try and write in a different way, to allude to stream-of-consciousness is an emotional response. It’s something I had to do. Since I’m shedding readers by the cartload, it could hardly be a commercial decision.”

Kelly then asked about the way the consciousness elide in the novels. Self explained the technique of skipping from one psyche to another with no break expresses the way our “bubble worlds” touch each other yet don’t meet. “I remember when I was very much in love with someone I said, ‘I’m jealous of your thoughts because they’re inside you.'” To which she replied it was one of the creepiest things she’d ever heard. But she’s still married to him.

Despite this he thinks it is in many ways a straightforward novel, focusing on a young conscientious objector. Kelly asked if there was a plan about when to switch voices.

“I do plan the books very carefully. I draw diagrams. And then I ignore them. The text always takes on a life of its own.”

I can’t say I’m familiar with Céline (the author of Journey top the End of the Night) so got a little lost in the next bit where they talked about his uses of the ellipsis, but like the rest of the audience I was horrified and amused by the fact you could sum up Céline’s anti-Semitism by his telling comment that Hitler was a bit “too Jewish” for him. As Céline was a big influence how, Kelly asked, did Self transform the anger of his style into the elegiac tone of Shark?

“I guess I’m just not as angry as Céline.”

“People often ask me, ‘Why do you write about mentally ill people all the time?’ There are various reasons but I think one of them is that mentally ill people are a great challenge to our capacity for compassion. Because their psyches are so twisted out of shape. We can just about touch our bubble worlds of consciousness together but when people are seriously mentally ill you just can’t get near it. I always write about mentally ill people as a duty of compassion: we need that exercise.”

Kelly asked why there was a sense in Shark about lessons to be learned from war when this was absent from Umbrella.

“I think something profound happened when Colonel Paul Tibbets, piloting a plane he’d named after his mum dropped a weapon on Hiroshima that in a split second annihilated 125,000 people, mostly – not that it makes any moral difference – civilians, women and children. I think that was an ethical breakpoint for civilisation. I’m not of the Steven Pinker school of Panglossian optimism that the everything is getting nicer and cuddlier and anybody who’s been watching the world news for the past week I would say that my perspective is probably in the ascendant.

“Specifically, there’s a point in the novel where Busner sends a postcard to the philosopher Theodor Adorno. It’s a comic moment but it’s also serious. Adorno famously said ‘there can be no poetry after Auschwitz’ but Busner writes ‘there can be no compassion after Hiroshima’. Yes, the USA may have killed more people in a single night, causing the Tokyo firestorm and the RAF were responsible for major casualties in bombing German cities, but there’s something about Hiroshima, that just because of the timing, the number of lives lost and the small number of men who perpetrated it seems to me to represent a break point.

“What Shark is proposing is that after Hiroshima all human relationships are predicated on the double bind. There’s something about Hiroshima that is in many ways … is a phenomenal piece of human ingenuity, but at the other end you have what it does, which is to kill. I think that’s like a cosmic double bind. Everyone in this room has lived through a sort of phony peace since 1989 after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Everyone in this tent is roughly our age and we all grew up under anxiety about imminent nuclear destruction; it really shaped us, I think, psychologically.”

Kelly made reference to how civilisations are historically built on exploitation and Self alluded to WG Sebald’s  line in The Rings of Saturn that civilisation is “a sepulchral monument erected over a hecatomb”. But there has been a step-change and there’s a remoteness now from that awareness.

“Most of us don’t live lives of quiet desperation, we live lives of well-cushioned ennui a lot of the time: ‘Oh, I’ll just have a sit-down. For a decade.’ I know I have. There’s a valorisation we are seeing now of the commemoration of the First War. I know people have tried to respond to that anniversary in quite sensitive ways but it’s unavoidable that the idea of violence is still valorised. there’s been an inverse relationship between  the actual engagement of Western troops in armed conflict and the way in which  they are signified in our culture, terms like ‘hero’ and ‘warrior’ have come back in very strongly. I don’t recall those from my childhood. I think it’s because most of us have been having a nice sit-down.”

They moved on to RD Laing and his legacy and a joke in Shark that “Yes, Ronnie, he’s very dictatorial about anarchy”. Having recently seen a film of Laing speaking, Self says, Laing had “a phenomenal amount of charisma”.

“When he qualified as a psychiatrist  it was really at the peak of inpatient treatment in the old, big, Victorian asylums. Laing became a travesty of himself, but his initial impetus was  to engage with people who were mentally ill as people and not as pathologies.

“I’ve always found him fascinating. he always seemed to me, if you look back on the counterculture of the 1960s, you think Jimi Hendrix, Keith Richards… but RD Laing was the cultural revolutionary of the mind, of the psyche. That’s why he remains such a massive influence.”

Kelly pointed out the irony that Laing himself had serious problems, and that “the man who does the most to try and reach out an empathise cannot actually do anything for himself”, like Zack Busner.

“I think that’s true of people in these professions. It always seems that their efficacy as therapists is pretty much unrelated to whatever system of thought they follow, it’s about them as people and their ability to exercise compassion. The fact of the matter is that Busner cares, he’s not afraid to care.”

Kelly noted that Zack Busner recurs in many of his stories, is it the same person? “I must have first written him in the late 1980s. He’s been with me man and boy. To begin with he was a character I could adapt to certain narratives, but he was a way of investigating the idea that psychiatry and the mental health professions had become in a way a religion, that in a godless world these people who treat whatever ails us are kind of priests.”

Kelly asked that as most of his work is set in cities, but in Shark there is a rural dimension as one of the characters, a conscientious objector, Peter, embarks on a long walk.

“Peter is based on my father, who was a conscientious objector. My mother was Jewish, and like many Jews of her generation took the Holocaust personally, it’s difficult not to, but she was in New York. She was very hard on my father for being a conscientious objector. She thought it was shameful. It was a very tender subject.I don’t think we can quite realise what it would have been like as a 20-year-old young man to make that decision.

“He’s been a member of the Peace Pledge Union, an Anglican communicant, he was a religious guy who felt it was wrong to shoot people. I’m not so sure that he was wrong about that. Before he died I said ‘we need to talk about it’ and he said, ‘You just don’t understand what it was like to be faced with that dilemma. After I’d made the decision I did regret it.’

“The family legend was that as he had unconditional exemption, which was very rare. He went up to North Lincolnshire to a group of socialist Christians. Young people came in who were pacifists and learned to work the land. I think my dad, like the lad in the novel, didn’t last very long. He leant his hoe against the barn and wandered off.

“So in pursuit of authenticity I did the same walk that he does. He walks back to London, I walked from London, so if those passages have any verisimilitude, it’s because I did it.”

Kelly’s final question spins off from a quote in the book that “film now dominates our experience of the world”.  Self recently gave a lecture in which he expressed concern that the novel was dead.

“I think the relationship between narrative film and the novel is like the relationship between Rome and Greece or, like that between the Soviet Union and the West. The novel retains centrality on false premises. It retained its centrality against film purely on the basis it wasn’t that. It’s the demise of film that’s been the problem: the Balkanisation of it, the multiplex, the videotape, the DVD and now streaming. The ability we have to watch a film on a smartphone. It’s atomised every area of our lives.

“The thing in the Guardian was misinterpreted. I can only surmise that people hadn’t read it with enough attention: they were texting while they were doing it! It’s a thought experiment: do you believe that the vast majority of text will be read on digital devices within the next ten years. The answer is yes, because it’s already the case.

“The second question is will people voluntarily disable a web connection to concentrate on reading narrative prose. I don’t think they will. You’re reading a novel like mine, you come across a word you don’t know, you go online to check it out, you check your email, there’s an email suggesting you buy reindeer oven gloves, you buy the reindeer oven gloves … and you’ve lost the level of concentration that makes it an experience.

“This art form is a function of this technology [pointing to the book], the codex. If the codex is replaced as the platform for reading then the serious novel … can’t possibly survive except among a few cognoscenti.”

An audience question le to a swift trot through his ignorance of Boyd Hilton (the famous epiphenomenal imbroglio incident, below) and the dangers of an expansive vocabulary leading people to tell him to “pay more attention to George Orwell”. His next talk on Point of View will be about Orwell: “Basically, he wasn’t that good … the cult of Orwell is the cult of not writing terribly well.”

“What struck me about the hacking scandal is that the tabloids were fighting a rearguard action by doing this ghastly stuff to hang on to print readers. The tabloids were aware that the culture of scandal was no longer going to be accessible to them as a money-making enterprise. It was the last spasm of that kind of gutter journalism before everywhere is the gutter; the gutter is in your pocket.”

After quick discussions of the attraction of derangement and the dangers of having a standing army we leave, appropriately, to the strains of Captain Sensible’s version of Happy Talk. I don’t think it will ever sound quite the same.

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