Will Self’s modernism: Umbrella

Tuesday September 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

I am still somewhat troubled by Will Self’s new novel, Umbrella, and its overt modernism. The first thing to say is that it is a really incredibly well-written book, from what I have read thus far, and in its way, a page-turner. There are moments when I have been left smiling at the inventiveness of the language, or the sheer rightness of a description or an image. On its own terms, this is shaping up to be a great book. 

However, it is those terms that leave me a little wary. Because this is a recognisably ‘modernist’ novel. Those features that most people would accept as representing high modernist technique – the broken diction, the close grammar, the fractured, dilatory narrative, and the foregrounding of linguistic invention – are all there. The plot, such as it is, is a story told across three time periods (and naturally the novel flicks between them, sometimes at random and mid-sentence) concerning a young woman called Audrey Death who in the aftermath of the First World War, owing to a worldwide epidemic, enters a coma. The novel narrates the period of her life before her coma; the attempts of a doctor, Zak Busner to cure her during the 1970s; and then finally the elderly Busner of the present, recollecting his time treating her all those years ago. 

I suppose my wariness is owing to a number of factors. One is that for all its accomplishment, this novel feels like something of a throwback. It really does read like a modernist novel – in the sense that you feel, if it were not for the present day sections, that it could have been written at any point between 1920 and 1930. Which is fine, but it raise questions as to what modernism might usefully be considered to represent now, or more accurately (and pompously), what is its legacy. By so faithfully replicating the techniques and methods that characterised literary modernism in the 1920s it situates those techniques as museum pieces, that can be lifted out and dusted off. It freezes modernism in its moment so that it ceases to be the sum of its intellectual concerns, and instead becomes the accumulation of a range of narrative devices. 

Which is unfair to Self. I suspect he shares those intellectual concerns (which, for what it is worth, interest me too) and it is those concerns he is seeking to explore and resolve. But what makes me wary is that there does not seem to been an acknowledgement of the fact that those techniques are of a time. Which isn’t to say that they can never be used again, or that they have a kind of expiry date. But there does not appear to have been development of the ideas underpinning them. 

To come at it from a different tack, I believe there is a clue to this in the novel’s setting. It is partly a historical novel after all, and whilst there were modernist texts that cut between different time periods, or that were partially set in the past (Ulysses for example is set some twenty years before it was published, and Woolf has novels that span generations, The Years and Orlando most obviously) a good many were very much set in their own near present. The fact that the historical period of Umbrella is the cusp of the high modernist years is also telling. It reinforces in my mind the sense that this is more a homage to, rather than a development of the modernist novel. 

Related to this, I think the novel also closes down our working definitions of what modernism is, fixing it as I say above in a very clearly defined set of techniques. But why should a novel that shares modernist concerns about narrative, and about the ways in which we think we know our world, employ broken diction. Have circuitous grammar. Fracture time at the level of the sentence, and foreground linguistic agility within it. What are its longer horizons? 

Its all a bit harsh on Self. He hasn’t, anywhere I’ve seen, said that his book is the definitive guide to, or representation of modernism (although he has given several interviews pinning his personal colours to the modernist mast, which suggests he is in this novel trying to signpost an affinity to a certain notion of modernism – implicitly of course the one presented and enacted in Umbrella). But these are some of the questions that reading his book have prompted for me.

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