At Hay Festival in 2006 I intercepted Will Self between events and he very kindly signed my hardback copy of The Book of Dave. Only… he wrote “From Anne” instead of “For Anne.” No matter how hard I try to untangle this briefest of encounters (what exactly did I say? what did he say?), I can’t fathom how this misunderstanding was precipitated. Maybe he thought I intended the book as a gift, hence “From Anne.” I did sense, just momentarily, that Will realized something had vaguely gone awry. In this comical, typically English exchange, neither of us remarked on the error (if that’s what it was). I said, “Thanks, Will.” And that was that.
Anyway, in readiness for attending his talk at Hay Festival later this month, I’ve read his novel Umbrella, in eBook format; nothing for him to sign this time. He’ll be talking with Sarfraz Manzoor not only about his novel but also about ‘the possibilities of the digital form’. Should be good.
So, what do I think of Umbrella?
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize last year, Umbrella was pipped by Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (which I still haven’t finished owing to the fact that I bought it, out of curiosity, as an App for my iPhone – not the ideal interface for such a long novel).
I expected a challenge and Umbrella proved to be so, though not consistently. Don’t be put off if you haven’t read this novel as yet. I occasionally lost the thread – not knowing which character was speaking, not realizing that the setting had changed half a page previously, and that the story had jumped back or forward in time. These shifts, I soon realized, were happening mid-sentence.
I decided to go with the flow, not worry if I briefly lost a handle on the story. Nevertheless, for the most part I knew what was going on and I suspect if I read Umbrella again everything would fall into place.
There are two main characters namely Zach Busner a psychiatrist in London, and Audrey Death who is one of Busner’s enkies – his post-encephalitic patients. The novel also follows the lives of Audrey’s two brothers, Albert and Stanley. Albert (De’Ath) a mathematical savant is in charge of shell production at the Arsenal during the First World War. Stan is fighting in the trenches. Audrey herself works with toxic materials in the danger sheds at the Arsenal before the onset of her illness. She’s estranged from her family due to her affair with a married man, a toff, who fails to support her during her later decades of confinement in an asylum.
Will Self presents Audrey to us with great tenderness. It’s heart-breaking stuff. But he combines tragedy and comedy with great skill, as per usual.
The fractured, modernist writing style is seductive; I fell into it. And the style is perfect for Self’s subject matter – the chaos of war, mental derangement. In fact, as I thrashed through several difficult sections I almost sensed the confusion Audrey Death might be enduring.
I have to admit that I’m glad I knew the bare bones of the story before I began the book!
Reading Umbrella as an eBook turned out to be a bonus. The characters in this novel are rarely introduced in a tidy fashion so I searched for the first occurrence of several names to check if I’d encountered them before. And many of the psychiatric terms were covered by the eReader’s dictionary.
But maybe Will Self would look askance at such a desire for word-by-word clarification. Certainly, the eReader saved me from the full-on angst I might have experienced with a print copy but maybe this author, with this book, would prefer to keep his readers in a state of high anxiety.