Will Self always pulls a big crowd at Hay and this year he dished out a sizzling mix of wit and venom, plus comic banter with interviewer Sarfraz Manzoor. In a (literally) terrific performance, he read from his latest novel Umbrella. As he later explained to the audience, Umbrella is the completion of a trilogy that follows ‘the outsourcing of violence’ in modern times.
He said Umbrella’s main character Audrey Death – a post-encephalytic patient in a London asylum – embodied the impact of technological developments in the 20th Century. In 1908 Henry T Ford built his first industrial production line, said Self, and in 1914 this new wave of industrialisation transferred to the trenches creating a production line of death.
It’s a complex and challenging novel spanning both World Wars and you can read my review here.
Self explained that the structure of the novel was the same structure as an umbrella – sometimes tightly furled and other times blown apart.
And in the midst of planning this complex book, moving post-it notes madly around his study wall, Self likened himself to Tom Cruise in Minority Reports. He only began typing when he’d sorted his array of post-its. (‘I switched to a manual typewriter when broadband came in,’ he said later).
One of the challenges in reading Umbrella is picking up the characters’ lingo, which is inserted into sentences without quote marks. (I liked this; it worked well for me). As Will Self told the Hay audience, ‘this book is an attempt to put voice on the page.’ He pointed out that between 1890 and 1914, Britain had a semi-literate culture and the vernacular was completely different to printed vocabulary. So for his research, Self mainly looked at photographs though he acknowledged the work of Jack London in The People of the Abyss.
On tangential subjects, he took a verbal swipe at literary critics and mocked them for their obsession with inter-textuality, ‘Why do they do that – write about a book in reference to other books? The style is apiece with…’ Umbrella was his response to the subject matter, not his response to other books.
And he made a swipe at 24/7 media coverage. ‘We’re living in a country where dignity is being lost on all sides. The BBC is encouraging people to parade their grief in public. I find it offensive…’
And, he asked, why did anyone think it was ever a good idea to ask the opinions of actors? ‘Why interview an actor? Unless they’re in character.’
He described ‘a call to seriousness’ in his work as the years rolled on. ‘The ideas in my work do seem to be bigger canvas ideas.’
It was frustrating that Will Self’s event clashed with Lionel Shriver’s. I’d read Umbrella so that helped me make the decision. But Self is so brilliant in conversation with an audience that, I have to admit, I simply couldn’t resist.