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Writing the Body Politics

It’s Not All in the Mind of Britain: Will Self’s Umbrella

C’est pas tout dans la tête de la Grande-Bretagne : Umbrella de Will Self
Marc Porée


L’article se propose d’étudier le rapport entretenu par Will Self, l’auteur d’Umbrella (2012) à la Condition of England Question, autrement dit la nature de sa prise en charge, par le biais de la fiction, de la pathologie qui lui paraît affecter le corps social. Une comparaison initiale, entre Will Self journaliste et sémiologue (au sens où pouvait l’être le Roland Barthes de Mythologies) et Will Self romancier (frotté d’anti-pyschiatrie et manifestement obsédé par l’imaginaire comme par la réalité de la maladie), débouchera sur la mise en lumière de la condition neurologique et psychique qui est celle de ses personnages, mais aussi de la nation anglaise. À la différence, cependant, des neuro-romanciers, l’auteur d’Umbrella se refuse à dissocier l’étude de cas (l’individu en question, Audrey Dearth, pouvant représenter une collectivité ou une classe — la classe ouvrière, en la circonstance) de la prise en compte des grandes forces historiques qui, depuis au moins la première guerre mondiale, façonnent, pour le meilleur et pour le pire, le tissu social. Ainsi, malgré les apparences d’un discours laingien et foucaldien, ce sont William Blake et D.H. Lawrence qui portent le fer dans la plaie de la mécanisation et de l’aliénation. Ainsi, malgré les apparences d’un dispositif narratologique de type « moderniste », le roman de Self rejoint les préoccupations éthiques qui étaient déjà celles des romanciers victoriens. Procédant d’une critique en règle de la technologie (souvent d’origine militaire), Umbrella laisse pendante la question, sinon du supplément d’âme (Will Self n’ayant que faire d’une esthétique bourgeoise), du moins du care, de la sollicitude manifestée à l’endroit des plus vulnérables. Chemin faisant, l’interrogation quant au statut du « contemporain » (avec ou sans Agamben) demeure entière.

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  • 1 A journey that echoes that undergone by Self, again all the way from his London home this time to D (...)

1It would seem that the poet Philip Larkin, the nine-to-five librarian based in Hull on the edge of things, the figure-head of the strongly (anti-modernist) Movement, the worshipper of provincial Englishness, the lover of jazz, on a less offensive note, is the least likely choice of candidates to begin a paper on Will Self, the once enfant terrible of British culture, the former addict extraordinaire and now come of age intellectual, the trenchant New Statesman columnist, and last but not least, practically the only novelist around who still believes in the viability and continued relevance of high modernism when applied to the novel. Granted, Britain's best-loved poet of the previous 50 years, recently voted Britain's greatest post-war writer (in 2008), presumably for his wry humour (though hopefully not for his racist jibes and sexist slurs), was never destined to become Self’s bedfellow. And yet a passage from his 1961 poem, ‘Here’, features as an epigraph to a section of Walking to Hollywood, at the outset of the third leg of Self’s fictitious rendition of his (highly improbable) walk from London to Hollywood and back1:

  • 2 ‘Here’ would be close to Spurn Head, a remote spit of land curving into the North Sea, on the extre (...)

And past the poppies bluish neutral distance
Ends the land suddenly beyond a beach
Of shapes and shingle. Here is unfenced existence:
Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach. (‘Here’

2Self’s trip no doubt recalls one of those ‘inside-out excursions,’ identified by Steven Connor as emblematic of the narratives of the condition of England, by way of their ‘attempt both to achieve perspectival distance on the question of national belonging and to confirm the integrity of the various boundaries that mark the nation off from its opposites, adversaries and others’ (Connor 84). That last chapter, plainly the most openly psycho-geographical of the three, while just as pathological as the other two, is one that elects a coastal space that is at once quintessentially English and archetypally universal: ‘The 35 mile stretch of crumbling glacial till between the chalk cliffs of Flamborough Head and the shingle spit of Spurn Head’ (Self 2009a, 341). A space bordering on the vacant and the void, a ‘territoire du vide’ (after Alain Corbin’s eponymous essay of 1988), in the process of erasing itself under the combined assaults of sea and wind. On the verge of sinking into nothingness, the spot—also selected by Swinburne in his own time and age—no doubt represents the collapse of Englishness, imperial and otherwise (‘the voided—although not yet decaying—outpost of an empire that, rather than being overthrown, had been undermined by creeping indifference’ [Self 2009a, 347]).

3Such a terrain of anxiety, individual and collective, is clearly as psychic or historical as it is geological or geographical: erosion, erasure, obliteration, make the perfect topologic match/destination for a fictitious Self allegedly labouring in the grip of Alzheimer’s disease. The onset of amnesia finds itself metaphorically represented as slippage in the real landscape: ‘the grey waters of Lethe undercutting its soft cliffs, so that individual recollections tumbled on to the beach below’ (Self 2009a, 330). The self’s condition—which is not necessarily Self’s condition—becomes loosely analogous to the Condition of England, as was already the case with poems by Swinburne (‘On the Downs,’ ‘By the North Sea,’ ‘A Forsaken Garden’) and, closer to us by Ted Hughes, ‘Mayday on Holderness’ in particular, which addresses more or less the same stretch of amphibious land, interwoven with traumatic memories of WWI and displaying to the full the powers of devouration and annihilation.

4Combining the potent appeal of melancholy, à la W. G. Sebald (loosely modelled on The Rings of Saturn, the relation of a walking tour in Suffolk), a strong distaste for declinist reflections on the shrinking of Great Britain in the face of globalization, and hopes, however meagre, placed in therapy, healing, by way of magic (‘the walk devised as a ritualized erection of groynes, which might impede the longshore drift of my psyche’ [Self 2009a, 345]), the chapter alternates between ‘childhood’ recollections (always of a socio-political kind, when the current affairs TV programme Nationwide is recalled, on pages 341–344), gritty ethnographic observations and anguished intimations of old age and mortality, in a manner that succeeds in being at once realistic and mythopoeic, not to say fantastic (see the final encounter with the 600-year old Struldbrug). The result, unmistakably Selfian, albeit part Swiftian, partakes of Self’s self-described ‘dirty magical realism’—which constitutes the best possible introduction to the ‘memory clinic’ of England (Self 2009a, 425).

5‘Memory clinic’: is there indeed a better way to portray Umbrella, Will Self’s compelling ninth novel? A novel about siblings and umbrellas (the latter being as easily forgotten as the former), it deals with family, inevitably, but more essentially explores sanity (insanity, as a matter of fact), amnesia, disease (encecephalitis lethargica, treated on the scale of a pandemic). It spans the entire twentieth century, from the early 1900s to the late 2010s (with special emphasis on WW1 and the seventies), making of it a highly skewered Condition-of-England novel, resolutely placed under the moral and intellectual tutelage of William Blake, Thomas Carlyle, D. H. Lawrence and Michel Foucault, four great markers of signs—but one should not want to forget the strong Joycean spin given to the whole narrative and fictional fabric.

Signs of the Times

  • 3 ‘He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And (...)
  • 4 See Carlyle, Signs of the Times (1829).
  • 5 See Self, ‘The British Vomitorium.’
  • 6 Notwithstanding his recent essay, ‘The Novel is dead (this time it’s for real).’

6Walking, as was already apparent in Walking to Hollywood Memories of Before the Fall, is more than a mere motion (favoured in view of its slowness as opposed to all too loathsome modes of fastness); serving as a political or ideological statement, capable of disrupting the woolly, a political consciousness imposed on us by liberalism, it carries along with it more than a fair share of hermeneutics. Indeed, the reading and interpreting of signs—‘Signs of the times,’ in the biblical3 as well as in the Carlylean4 sense of the term—find themselves enhanced when paired to the peripatetic experience itself. Two short excerpts will demonstrate this lesson in ambulatory Deutung. Taken from a a fairly recent New Statesman column, the first targets the vomitory clinic of a food-obsessed England, whose addiction Self reviles on a fortnightly basis, angered as he is by the fact that (a surfeit of) food should have become ‘the defining attribute of both class and culture in 21st–century Britain.’5 The second is from Umbrella, a novel—Self is still an ardent believer, in this age of massive disbelief, in the residual potential of the novel, battered and besieged as it may be, ‘to imagine, project and preserve forms of national and collective identity’ (Connor 47).6 A novel that characteristically deals with mental disease, technology and memory—a triad of themes and motives which Self has relentlessly addressed since the publication of The Quantity Theory of Insanity (1991), where the pyschiatrist and psychoanalyst Zack Busner, present here, made his fictional debut:

How many times do you have to tread in vomit before it puts you off your dinner? This wasn’t, in my case and that of my companions, an academic question: as we walked from my son’s flat in Haggerston, East London, towards the City, we must have passed puddles of sick running into double figures—in some parts of Shoreditch the puke lay so extensively on the pavement that the chunks of food glistering in its bile seemed like some duodenal wrack, left behind when the Great Vomit Wave of ’14 finally retreated. Still, what did we expect at 11.30pm on a Saturday night? This part of London, having reached a critical mass of hipsters, has now started to draw in revellers from Essex, who debouche at Liverpool Street and Fenchurch Street Stations, drink, dance and kebab up, then leave their viscid spoor behind them as they beat a retreat. (Self 2014b)

It is this loonystuff, at once fluid and dense, that Busner wades through, and that, besides clogging up the interminable corridors, also lies in viscous puddles throughout the extensive building and its annexes. (Self 2012a, 9)

  • 7 As he was writing Umbrella, Will Self was diagnosed with a rare disease of the blood, polycythaemia (...)

7Both texts, journalistic and fictional, read, each in its own right, as an anatomy of two ages: an age of excess and greed, of over-eating and binge drinking, as a result of which vomit is excreted by the gallon on the pavements of London and of quite a few other English cities; an age of trauma and insanity, of psychic instablity, dysfunctional brains, neuronal disorder, made equally conspicuous, though less openly disturbing, when it floats largely in the air of corridors of hospitals, in scores of contemporary novels dealing with mental illness as the ‘metaphor’ (in Susan Sontag parlance) of something larger, affecting the collective psyche. What they present is two faces of the same diagnosis, two faces of the condition of England, impairing chiefly the liver and the brain, against a backdrop of assuredly polymorphous and complex chronic pathologies.7 The liver, toxic, bilious, jaundiced, is a vital organ whose function it is to cleanse, to purify, to regenerate, but one which our capitalistic economy of accumulation, excess and waste selects as its favourite target. The brain, cognitive albeit not necessarily brainy, when it comes, as with the novels of Will Self, with a body, with physicality and emotions, is an organ which is on its way to become contemporary novelists’ favourite terrain of investigation or dissection—the trend may very well have started with Graham Swift’s Waterland (1983), located in the canals of the Fens but attuned to the ‘more intricate topography of the medulla and the cerebellum, which have, so he discovers, their own network of channels and ducts and their own dependence on the constant distribution of fluids’ (Swift 68–69).

  • 8 See Christine Reynier and Jean-Michel Ganteau, Ethics of Alterity. Confrontation and Responsibility (...)
  • 9 See Will Self: ‘The British Vomitorium.’
  • 10 See Psychogeography (2007), Psycho Too (2009).

8Between these two generically distinct pieces of writing, there is no gap, since the four humours of bile, gall, melancoly and choler are made to intermingle in the body politic as they do in the ‘milieu intérieur’ (after Claude Bernard) of fiction construed as a living organism. The journalistic logic of the former abstains from passing moral jugments, and is quick to diagnose what it interprets, after Roland Barthes, as portable ‘mythologies,’ as hidden ideological constructs in need of unravelling and demystification; the novelistic, fictional logic of the latter is not above displaying palpable evidence of a strong commitment to the ethics of alterity and responsibility,8 if only by choosing to step inside the heads and brains of character in various stages of stress and duress. The one is a column, a digest (of the indigestable9), a miniature, at one with Self’s abiding preoccupation with the very big and the very little, consistent with his fondness for ‘Scale,’ i.e. varying perspectives on the meanings of alterations in scale. A miniature that adds up, on a serialized basis, so as to form a more general picture when anthologized, together with Self’s Pyschogeography columns in The Independent on Saturday, but one that is destined to remain, at the end of the day, tantalizingly elusive and fragmented.10 The other is part of a larger design, including the sweepingly panoramic views (overviews would be more appropriate) of the highly dystopic, post-apocalyptic The Book of Dave (2006), or the more prismatic facets of Liver (2008), that indecent portrayal of egos, appetites and addictions modelled after the four lobes of our largest internal organ (a battleground for toxins, a creator of bile). The two constitute indispensable components of the Zeitgeist, but the former is probably more dispensable than the first, in that, for all its trenchant political acumen, it may prove less contemporain, in Agamben’s sense of the word.

Corridor’d Britain

9Walking through the streets of London, Blake’s poetic and prophetic persona in his eponymous poem, found them ‘charter’d’—a loaded term, in contemporary England, when Charter meant the granting of royal charters and trade privileges to the ones (the very few) at the expense of the others (the many), for the sake of control and ownership, inducing the all-pervasive sense of alienation which the self-proclaimed bard is all too eager to ‘mark’ (for remark) and brand (as in the phrase the ‘Mark of the Beast’).

  • 11 Colney Hatch had the longest corridor in Britain (six miles). It would take a visitor more than two (...)

10Walking through the corridors of Friern Hospital, formerly a Victorian institution for the care of the mentally ill and now a luxury complex, located in the North of London, Self’s recurring fictional character finds them long,11 clogged by the smell of faeces and of madness, far-reachingly tentacular. In their intrusiveness and all-pervasiveness, they connote the (imperialistic) Empire of the Medical Profession and Institution—they are ‘Corridors of Power,’ after all. In entering the field of knowledge—in entering the hospital—the human body also enters the field of power, becoming a target for manipulation. Corridors in Umbrella are all over the place: they function as the Thames functions—or fails to function—in Blake’s poem. They stand for arteries, veins, literal and figurative, they connote natural or man-made channels: streets, thoroughfares, tube stations, roads, railway tracks, the North Circular (‘of the soul’ [Self 2012, 4]), rivers, canals, etc. Either they go through various stages of congestion, thrombosis, clotting—paralytic dormancy, in short—, or they act, metaphorically, like conveyor-belts (Self 2012, 28)—‘running round and round, bringing towards him patient after patient pari passu’ (Self 2012, 28). As a result, the reader is never allowed to forget that mental alienation, harboured within the mental asylum, is but a reflection of the social alienation of the worker, and of the working class outside the asylum (as represented by the Death family with its East End roots). Typically, alienation is the one diagnosis no medic ever arrives at, in a novel teeming with ailments (‘neurosis, dipsomania, dementia praecox, generalized paralysis of the insane, syphilis, addiction to socialism, schizophrenia, shell shock…’ [Self 2012, 28]), all of which end up systematically mis-diagnosed. Marxist ideology interacts with the theoretical insights of anti-psychiatry (R. D. Laing, Thomas Sazs) to produce a vision of madness as ‘manufactured’, and of the mad woman in the attic/ hospital (Audrey Death) as alienated.

  • 12 The final section of Murphy, by Samuel Beckett, when the eponymous character, acting as a male nurs (...)

11Drawing on Carlyle, as we shall see, but also on Charles Mackay, another Scot, the author of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, first published in 1841, for whom the history of a nation coincides with the history of ‘National Delusions,’ ‘Peculiar Follies’ and ‘Philosophical Delusions,’ Self also enlists Michel Foucault, the twentieth-century expert on Asylums, Prisons and Clinics—all harking back to and stemming from the days of the Grand Confinement. Zachary’s first eye-contact with the enkie (‘when he is fixated by one transfixed’ [Self 2012, 8]) is not far from resembling Foucault’s conceptualisation of the ‘medical gaze,’ believed to penetrate surface illusions, in The Birth of the Clinic (1963). By way of his ‘Archeology of Medical Perception,’ Foucault anatomized the dehumanizing medical separation of the patient’s body from the patient’s identity. By way of his own fictional anatomy of neurological medication, Self brings into the open the subterranean connection between the asylum and the hospital.12

  • 13 Umbrella was generally well-reviewed in England. It is worth noting, however, that some of the comp (...)

12The novelist does more, however, than merely illustrate or vindicate Foucault: availing himself of indigenous, i.e. arch English material—what with the infamous history of Bedlam, The Report of the Metropolitan Commissioners in Lunacy to the Lord Chancellor of 1844, plus sundry literary sources, beginning with The Sleeper Awakes, by H. G. Wells (1910), followed by the more recent Mother London (1988) by Michael Moorcock and The House of Sleep (1999) by Jonathan Coe, without forgetting Harold Pinter's play, A Kind of Alaska (1982) or Oliver Sacks’s memorable reworking of the motif in Awakenings (1973-1990), Self questions the very possibility of a discourse about mental disease, while remaining loyal to an artistic agenda, which is to preserve, by hook or by crook, modes of access, other than bio-chemical, to the living interiority of the human self. To keep the soul awake, in other words, against a backdrop of ‘cerebral corridors and cortical dormitories’ (Self 2012, 4). Such an inner space, one feels, eludes the grasp of the medical specialists, and becomes the (ever-receding) province of the novelist, by way of his/her privileged narratological tools.13

  • 14 A slang term for England, first used during the Boer War and widely popularized in the WW1 trenches (...)

13As for the space of the hospital proper, that ‘self-sufficient realm’ (Self 2012, 43), at once a place of surveillance, of mappings (‘maps of maps of maps’ [Self 2012, 43]) and storage (a ‘human museum’ for ‘crushed and mangled specimens’ [Self 2012, 28]), it takes after Freud’s own topological chartering of the unconscious, ironically represented, at a twofold remove, as a ‘monumental piece of trompe-l’œil’ (Self 2012, 3). In the hyperinflated metaphorical language of the novel, corridors merge with WW1 trenches and tunnels to produce an all pervasive vision of a ‘tunnelling process’ at work—‘Thousands given up for dead found to be living in extensive tunnelling beneath no-man’s-land’ (Self 2012, 336)—, not just under the characters, as was the case in Woolf’s, but beneath the whole infra-and supra-structure of ‘Blighty,’14 the one place within which literally everything in this book is made to ‘connect causally’ (Self 2012, 39), hollowing out the whole edifice, but without ever managing to undermine, let alone, subvert it. For instance, the highly phantasmactic episode featuring the troglodyte community, allegedly hiding underground, fails to trigger a much anticipated post WW1 revolution, as no ‘New Britain’ (Self 2012, 338) emerges, come spring, from the dark recesses of wintery sleep and encephalitic stupor.

Condition of England Question

14The contemporaries of Thomas Carlyle, as they were reading The Signs of the Times (1829), Chartism (1840) and Past and Present (1843), were under the impression that the ‘Condition of England’ question was not just ‘ominous,’ but that it was urgent, calling for immediate action:

The condition of the great body of people is the condition of the country itself: this you would say is a truism in all times; a truism rather pressing to get recognised as a truth now, and be acted upon, in these times. (Carlyle 1840).

15When required to characterise his age by any single epiteth, Carlyle chose to call it the ‘Mechanical Age,’ an age in which everything, from philosophy to Science to Art to Literature depended on machinery:

Were we required to characterise this age of ours by any single epithet, we should be tempted to call it, not an Heroical, Devotional, Philosophical, or Moral Age, but, above all others, the Mechanical Age. It is the Age of Machinery, in every outward and inward sense of that word; the age which, with its whole undivided might, forwards, teaches and practises the great art of adapting means to ends. Nothing is now done directly, or by hand; all is by rule and calculated contrivance. . . . There is no end to machinery. Even the horse is stripped of his harness, and finds a fleet firehorse yoked in his stead. Nay, we have an artist that hatches chickens by steam; the very brood-hen is to be superseded! For all earthly, and for some unearthly purposes, we have machines and mechanic furtherances; for mincing our cabbages; for casting us into magnetic sleep. . . .

Not the external and physical alone is now managed by machinery, but the internal and spiritual also. Men are grown mechanical in head and heart, as well as in hand. The same habit regulates not our modes of action alone, but our modes of thought and feeling. They have lost faith in individual endeavors, and in natural force, of any kind. Not for internal perfection but for external combinations and arrangements for institutions, constitutions, for Mechanism of one sort or another, do they hope and struggle. (Carlyle 1829; emphasis added)

The insight must have been profound, and truthful, for some six or seven decades later, the terms of the question were virtually unchanged, under the pen of D.H. Lawrence:

This is history. One England blots out another. The mines had made the halls wealthy. Now they were blotting them out, as they had already blotted out the cottages. The industrial England blots out the agricultural England. One meaning blots out another. The new England blots out the old England. And the continuity is not organic, but mechanical. (Lawrence 163)

16Now, modernism oblige, D. H. Lawrence is frequently echoed in Umbrella: at the level of plot (Stanley, for one, has sex with the married upper-class Adeline, mirrorring the character of Mellors), but more fundamentally, at the level of the society described. Self, who seems to have literally imbibed the lessons of Carlyle, reiterates them, with a strong Lawrentian spin:

Willis kept his counsel and Stanley saw human manufactories like the one for motor cars in Philadelphia: a vulcanised belt stretched to a great length, to either side dronish workers taking parts from great zinc buckets, a leg, an arm, another leg and breast and a cunny, as they put together one of Adeline, then the next, the female portions twitching in their hardened touch. (Self 2012, 151)

17Self is bent on shedding light on the latent presence of hyperkinetic movements in the work force and in the sex life alike: the ugly triump of the lathe, of the dehumanizing conveyor belt, is relentlessly stigmatized. Tics, jerks, jolts, tremors and spasms of all kinds are rampant in the novel, elicited as so many symptoms of the heinous effects of the machine on human psyche. His characters invariably behave like ticcing automats, who have fallen victim to exploitative systems and to modern technologies (‘transistors, assembly lines and answerphones’ [Self 2012, 41]). The villain of Self’s piece is mechanization, stiffening human life and enthralling it to vast and impersonal forces.

18Reading some of the novelists of today, Martin Amis’s recent Lionel Asbo. State of England (2012), in particular, one suspects that Self is one of the very few writers to have integrated the comprehensive and in-depth lessons of Carlyle. For all its welcome political correctness, Amis’s rollicking (mis)representation of the working class worker as a yob makes for quite a jaundiced and unempathetic ‘State of Britain’ indeed (soaked in Schadenfreude). One also feels that the terms of Carlyle’s ‘condition’ have changed, dramatically. What’s more, the ‘condition’, these days, tends to be systematically construed as neurological, and no longer social. The malaise is diagnosed as mental, protagonists are endowed with neurological disorders the causes of which are not societal or psychological but biochemical. Could Self, who has read his Marx and his Mcluhan, and whose in-depth knowledge of just about every historical shaping force at work in the world is only matched by his eagerness to google his way into any new territory that he would not yet know of, be the exception that confirms the rule? Unrivalled in the profession of wordsmiths, could he also be the only one to have picked up on the prophecies of Carlyle: ‘When the thoughts of a people, in the great mass of it, have grown mad, the combined issue of that people’s workings will be a madness, an incoherency and a ruin! Sanity will have to be recovered for the general mass’ (Carlyle 1840)?

English Neuro?

  • 15 ‘The last dozen years or so have seen the emergence of a new strain within the Anglo-American novel (...)

19In a 2009 paper, Marco Roth laid down the theoretical foundations of a new developing genre in Anglo-American fiction: the ‘neuronovel.’15 High on the list of such ‘neurovels’ are: Enduring Love and Saturday by Ian McEwan, The House of Sleep, by Jonathan Coe, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003) by Mark Haddon, Mother London (1988) by Michael Moorcock and several other fictional passages to and flights from, the asylum. On the face of it, Umbrella abides by the (uncodified) rules of the genre. Working with the one premise, namely that the mental illness of one individual (a working class girl, typist, umbrellist [?], ammunition worker, by the name of Audrey) personifies the larger disorders of the century. Shark (2014), the second volume in the planned trilogy, uses the psychosis of Claude Everude as the prism through which to explore the psychic devastation brought about by WW2. Both narratives take place within psychiatrist wards—leading some critics to wonder why Will Self keeps on satirising the psychiatry of the seventies, as if he were stuck in a temporal rut of his own (Cuell).

20The novel splits into three different temporal strands or tiers: London and the French trenches in 1918, Friern Barnet Mental Hospital in 1971, and North London again on the eve of the 2010 election. Each is made to function, again, like a corridor, merging into yet another one, calling for all kinds of unexpected transitions, or should I say, increasingly seamless shuntings. The first time such a disorienting switch—such a ‘Veeering’ (Nicholas Royle)—is enacted, the location is indeed a corridor, panning from blood vessel to city street to corridor back to brain: ‘What will she smash into? What will happen then? All the subhuman parts of her—can they be observed? in the long dark corridor where they play all sorts’ (Self 2012, 13).

21One recalls that for Agamben is contemporain that which has disengaged itself from, is out of sync with, the present (‘la relation au temps qui adhère à lui par le déphasage et l’anachronisme’ [Agamben 11]). Contemporain, too, in a subsequent and more oracular type of characterization, is ‘celui qui reçoit en plein visage le faisceau de ténèbres qui provient de son temps’ [Agamben 22]). In that dark corridor, the full weight of the latter form of contemporanéité seems indeed to have fallen upon the catatonic mind of the enkies, like a funereal pall plunging them in the night of everlasting sleep. Only provisionally dispelled by the new treatment received at the globally incompetent hands of Busner, it is never sacralized or spirtualized as such. Besides, the disease bears no metaphysical dimensions in the expert hands of the writer. Not for Self the Tenebrae of Madness. His imagination runs along far more matter-of-fact lines. Along railway lines, actually.

  • 16 ‘Now’ is the last word of Walking to Hollywood (Self 2009a, 428).

22One is fittingly reminded that the historical Friern Hospital was close to the Great Northern Railway and had its own railway station, and that Manhattan Transfer (1925) by John Dos Passos, another modernist monument, was named after a passenger rail station in Harrison on the Pennsylvania Railroad's main line to New York City, now Amtrak's Northeast Corridor. Friern Hospital, with its island wards and criss-crossing corridors, makes for a most sophisticated representation of Passage or Transfer: midway through sentences, thoughts and actions change directions, taking the reader by surprise, keeping him/her on his/her toes, in a condition of maximum alertness. Somewhat at odds with Agamben’s conception of the past as having broken off from the present, Self views the contemporain, strictly speaking, as contemporeanous, co-eval with the here and now.16 ‘Now and in England,’ as T. S. Eliot would argue (Eliot, Four Quartets, “Little Gidding”, 215).

  • 17 In the words of George Letessier, Umbrella revives High Modernism so as to articulate a profoundly (...)
  • 18 One can’t help recalling Virginia Woolf’s premium on the ‘spasmodic’, the ‘obscure’ and the ‘fragme (...)
  • 19 Along the lines predicated and prescribed by F. R. Leavis in his essay of 1948, The Great Tradition(...)

23Modernist motives, pointers and citations may be thick on the ground in the novel,17 and yet, for all its spamodic or kinetic sophistication,18 its neo-joycean pyrotechnics, its artistry, in short, Umbrella remains deep down, pace Self, solidly Victorian. As Victorian as novels by Dickens, but infinitely more serious.19 Despite the jokes and the many tricks played upon the reader, Self’s novel means business, serious business, what with its earnest representation of the clinic that is England and its unflinching ethical commitment. Curiously, given Self’s reputation as a scathingly vitriolic and uncompromising satirist, the novel is not afraid of voicing big words such as ‘humanity’ (Self 2012, 12), ‘compassion’ (Self 2012, 38), ‘security’ (Self 2012, 382), ‘feeling’ (Self 2012, 396). With a great deal of tact, it grows empathetic, against a backdrop of increasing Neglect (U 376). In 1989 it was decided that the real Friern Hospital should close as part of the ‘Care in the Community’ policy instigated by the Thatcher government. Closure came in 1993, and the building and grounds were sold to Comer Homes, and the building was converted into luxury flats called Princess Park Manor. Such a dramatic withdrawal, construed as betrayal and abandonment, Self’s fiction exploits to the full—somewhat bringing forward the fictional closure of the hospital, so as to include, within his Condition of England novel, an implicit critique of Cameron’s Big Society agenda—yet another cynical ‘cloak for the small state,’ accused of leading in effect to an even ‘more troubled and diminished society, not a bigger one’ (Coote). Indeed, highly perceptible in the novel, in true Condition of England novel fashion, are ‘the effects of the disjunction between welfare state and capitalist process’ (Connor 47), materialized, in real Britain, as discharge of patients, closures of wards and mental homes, underfunding of hospitals, cuts in public services, withdrawal of the state, etc.

24Not that nostalgia for the heydays of the Welfare State, or the NHS, is endemic in pathos-free Umbrella. As one of the ‘Less Deceived’ (Larkin again), Self would only too readily acknowledge that the age of the hospital as an ostensibly humane and enlightened facility belongs to the never-never land of myths and fairy tales. What’s more, profound scepticism regarding progress in general, and the treatment of madness in particular, pervades the novel. And yet the form of Umbrella pleads at the level of plot and technique for social—societal—and political cohesiveness. Its narrative conception, which accommodates narrative of the nation and narrative of the English patient, subsumes both under the same umbrella: ‘the specifically English condition of unified and interconnected national life’ (Connor 56). One of the reasons why Umbrella cannot, and will not, be labelled as a ‘neuronovel,’ is that it eschews the pathologies of neuronovels by discarding the statically neuronal conception of personhood favoured by neuronovelists in favour of a ‘narrative conception of personhood—of selfhood, of the self—within which causality, freedom, and the pressure of society and history all have roles to play’ (Parker). Citing Paul Fussel’s essay, The Great War and Modern Memory (2000) as one of his main sources of inspiration, Self has the traumas of man-made history take precedence over the descent into mere ‘neurology.’ Eager to shift the locus of disease away from the brain unto the age, he credits the latter as ‘the source of who we are’ (Parker). The memory of the trauma of WW1, he concurs, is still with us, nay, it has hardened, and the wounds of 1917 are behind the scars of 1971. To those, psychiatrists and brain surgeons, who would argue that it’s all in the mind, Self emphatically retorts: not in the Brain of Britain, but in the Mechanization of Society.

25By way of conclusion, it is tempting to look at the way in which our two initial texts (vide supra) end. The piece in the New Statesman comes full circle, closing definitely not with a whimper but with a (rhetorical) bang:

At the other tables around us, beautifully groomed young women with hair, nail and nipple extensions (I made the last one up) shrilled to one another. As I relaxed and blotted up the atmos’ with my waffling brain, I marvelled at the serendipity of it all: I’d worried that the lofty Duck & Waffle wouldn’t provide a real enough meal to qualify for this down-home column, but then I hadn’t reckoned on the warped genius of late capitalism, which can spot a gap in the market the way pigeons shit on ledges—or people puke on pavements, for that matter. (Self 2014c)

  • 20 In his fortnightly column in the New Statesman, ‘Real Meals,’ Self reviews, essentially, high stree (...)
  • 21 Bearing in mind the ambiguity of the syntagm ‘child-changed’ (as applied to the old king) in King L (...)

26The exit line, punchy and biting, has everything one might expect from a New Statesmanly (i.e. leftist) understanding of the state of Britain. Not that it reads predictably—simply it delivers the goods, offering a terribly witty, enlightened and insurgent insight into the fabrication of those ties, chains,20 mind-forged manacles that tie us, dogs as we are, to our capitalistic vomit. The novelistic piece ends with Zachary Busner’s last remorseful thoughts and with the sight of his former patient, Audrey Death, ‘Left behind […] for so long and so often’ (Self 2012, 46), undergoing her final (un-Ovidian) metamorphosis, leaving her brolley-changed,21 as it were, thus forming a final image of neglect, vulnerability and distress:

And beyond these discards, what is it that Busner sees propped up in the corner, her thin metal ribs and struts all furled in the stained folds of her old silken skin? His very own… Sleeping Beauty… her neck, gripped in the kyphotic vice of her extreme old age, curves up and over into a hook, so that levelled at him is its very blunt and accusatory end” (Self 2012, 397).

  • 22 ‘Madness of Crowds’ is the title of Self’s other column with The New Statesman, named after Extraor (...)

27Tagged unto that spectacular imago of regressive introversion and extreme symptomatology, is the thin end of the umbrella as wedge, in the shape of a pointed accusation (in lieu of the classical question mark the reader was bound to expect). In my end is my accusation, and there is no walking, let alone running, away from that—no getting away with murder, in short: indifferent to the charges of rhetorical patness or formal complacency—‘end,’ all too patly, is the last word of the novel—, Umbrella remains bent on not losing touch with the bare essentials—the frail self (no pun intended), the lonesome creature, the lonely looney, adrift amidst the ‘Madness of Crowds.’22

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Agamben, Giorgio, Qu’est-ce que le contemporain ?, Paris: Rivages poche/Petite Bibliothèque, 2008.

Amis, Martin, Lionel Asbo: State of England, London: Jonathan Cape, 2012.

Beckett, Samuel, Murphy, New York: Grove Press, 1957.

Carlyle, Thomas, The Signs of the Times (1829),, last accessed January 20, 2015.

———, Chartism (1840),, last accessed January 20, 2015.

———, Past and Present (1843),, last accessed January 20, 2015.

Connor, Steven, The English Novel in History, 1950 to the Present, London: Routledge, 1995.

Coote, Anna, ‘Cameron's “big society” will leave the poor and powerless behind,’ The Guardian 19 July 2010,, last accessed January 19, 2015.

Cuell, Thom, ‘Shark by Will Self,’ The Literateur 6 (October 2014),, last accessed January 19, 2014.

Eliot, T.S., Collected Poems, 1909–1962, London: Faber and Faber, 1974.

Foucault, Michel, The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception, London: Routledge, 1973.

Fussell, Paul, The Great War and Modern Memory, Oxford: OUP, 1975.

Larkin, Philip, The Less Deceived, Belfast: The Marvell Press, 1955.

———, The Whitsun Weddings, London: Faber and Faber, 1964.

Lawrence, D.H., Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928), London: Penguin Classics, 2010.

Leavis, F.R., The Great Tradition (1948), Hardmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1972.

Letissier, George, ‘A Knotty Novel for a Tangled Object Trauma in Will Self’s Umbrella,’ Contemporary Trauma Narratives: Liminality and the Ethics of Form, eds. Susana Onega, and Jean-Michel Ganteau, London and New York: Routledge, 2014, 137–155.

Mackay, Charles, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1856),, last accessed January 20, 2015.

Parker, Hall, ‘Will Self’s Umbrella,’, last accessed January 20, 2015.

Reynier, Christine, and Jean-Michel Ganteau, eds., Ethics of Alterity. Confrontation and Responsibility in 19th– to 21st–Century British Literature, Montpellier: P. U. de la Méditerranée, Horizons Anglophones, 2013.

Roth, Marco, ‘The Rise of the Neuronovel,’ n+1 8 (Fall 2009),, last accessed January 19, 2015.

Royle, Nicholas, Veering. A Theory of Literature, Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2011.

Self, Will, The Quantity Theory of Insanity, London, Bloomsbury, 1991.

———, The Book of Dave, London: Viking, 2006.

———, Psychogeography, words by Will Self, pictures by Ralph Steadman, London: Bloomsbury, 2007.

———, Liver: A Fictional Organ with a Surface Anatomy of Four Lobes, London: Viking, 2008.

———, Walking to Hollywood Memories of Before the Fall, London: Bloomsbury, 2009a.

———, Psycho Too, Words by Will Self, pictures by Ralph Steadman, London: Bloomsbury, 2009b.

———, ‘The Trouble with my Blood,’ The Guardian 21 October, 2011,, last accessed January 20, 2015.

———, Umbrella, London: Bloomsbury, 2012a.

———, ‘The British Vomitorium,’ Point of View, BBC Radio Four, 28 December 2012b,, last accessed January 20, 2015.

———, Shark, London: Penguin, 2014a.

———, ‘The Novel is dead (this time it’s for real),’ The Guardian 2 May, 2014b,, last accessed January 20, 2015.

———, ‘Whoever came up with Duck and Waffle’s menu is some kind of twisted genius,’ New Statesman September 26, 2014c,, last accessed January 20, 2015.

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1 A journey that echoes that undergone by Self, again all the way from his London home this time to Dubai, (see Psycho Too, words by Will Self, pictures by Ralph Steadman, 2009).

2 ‘Here’ would be close to Spurn Head, a remote spit of land curving into the North Sea, on the extreme edge of England, on the fastest eroding coast in Europe.

3 ‘He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the evening, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening. ’ You know how to interpret the appearence of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.”’ Matthew 16 : 2b.3

4 See Carlyle, Signs of the Times (1829).

5 See Self, ‘The British Vomitorium.’

6 Notwithstanding his recent essay, ‘The Novel is dead (this time it’s for real).’

7 As he was writing Umbrella, Will Self was diagnosed with a rare disease of the blood, polycythaemia vera, a disease which he googled up about before paying a call to his GP, and which has him undergo weekly venesections in hospital. See ‘The Trouble with my Blood.’

8 See Christine Reynier and Jean-Michel Ganteau, Ethics of Alterity. Confrontation and Responsibility in 19th– to 21st– Century British Literature.

9 See Will Self: ‘The British Vomitorium.’

10 See Psychogeography (2007), Psycho Too (2009).

11 Colney Hatch had the longest corridor in Britain (six miles). It would take a visitor more than two hours to walk the wards.

12 The final section of Murphy, by Samuel Beckett, when the eponymous character, acting as a male nurse, prowls the corridors of Magdalen Mental Mercyseat is pointedly echoed in Umbrella.

13 Umbrella was generally well-reviewed in England. It is worth noting, however, that some of the compliments paid to Self were, at best, double-edged: while crediting him with the ambition of revitalizing the English novel by way of resorting to the flamboyant techniques of modernism, jaundiced critics could not help remarking that in the process the novelist became enchained to this new/old set of (allegedly liberating) narratological conventions.

14 A slang term for England, first used during the Boer War and widely popularized in the WW1 trenches, when soldiers longing to return home would grow sentimental about the motherland. Featuring quite prominently in the novel, the term lends itself to a highly critical connection between post-colonialism (according to the OED, the word derives from ‘bilayati’, a regional variant of the Urdu word ‘Vilyati’, meaning foreign, therefore British) and English parochialism.

15 ‘The last dozen years or so have seen the emergence of a new strain within the Anglo-American novel. What has been variously referred to as the novel of consciousness or the psychological or confessional novel—the novel, at any rate, about the workings of a mind—has transformed itself into the neurological novel, wherein the mind becomes the brain. . . . What makes so many writers try their hands and brains at the neuronovel? At the most obvious level, the trend follows a cultural (and, in psychology proper, a disciplinary) shift away from environmental and relational theories of personality back to the study of brains themselves, as the source of who we are. . . . By comparison with most 19th–century novels, and even with most 20th–century modernist novels of the ‘stream of consciousness’ school, the neuronovels have in them very little of society, of different classes, of individuals interacting, of development either alongside or against historical forces and expectations.’ (Roth)

16 ‘Now’ is the last word of Walking to Hollywood (Self 2009a, 428).

17 In the words of George Letessier, Umbrella revives High Modernism so as to articulate a profoundly interiorised personal and collective experience proving relevant to the here and now (Letissier 137–156).

18 One can’t help recalling Virginia Woolf’s premium on the ‘spasmodic’, the ‘obscure’ and the ‘fragmentary’ (to be tolerated by the reader) as the indispensable components of the new forms of writing she was advocating, in ‘Mr Bennet and Mrs Brown’ in particular (Woolf 335).

19 Along the lines predicated and prescribed by F. R. Leavis in his essay of 1948, The Great Tradition.

20 In his fortnightly column in the New Statesman, ‘Real Meals,’ Self reviews, essentially, high street food outlets—chain eateries, as it were.

21 Bearing in mind the ambiguity of the syntagm ‘child-changed’ (as applied to the old king) in King Lear IV, 7 (Shakespeare 320).

22 ‘Madness of Crowds’ is the title of Self’s other column with The New Statesman, named after Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Scottish journalist Charles Mackay, first published in 1841. Despite its journalistic and rather sensational style, the book has gathered a body of academic support as a work of considerable importance in the history of social psychology and psychopathology—and Self was quick to pick up on it as a source of inspiration. Here is an exceprt from Mackay’s Preface: ‘In reading the history of nations, we find that, like individuals, they have their whims and their peculiarities; their seasons of excitement and recklessness, when they care not what they do. We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first. We see one nation suddenly seized, from its highest to its lowest members, with a fierce desire of military glory; another as suddenly becoming crazed upon a religious scruple; and neither of them recovering its senses until it has shed rivers of blood and sowed a harvest of groans and tears, to be reaped by its posterity’ (Mackay).

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Marc Porée, « It’s Not All in the Mind of Britain: Will Self’s Umbrella »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 49 | 2015, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2015, consulté le 21 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Marc Porée

Marc Porée is Professor of British literature at the École Normale Supérieure (Ulm). He is affiliated to the Prismes research centre of the Sorbonne Nouvelle. He is the author of essays on English Romanticism and on contemporary British literature. He is also the author of translations of Byron, Conrad, Radclyffe, De Quincey, Stevenson into French. He has recently co-edited a special issue of Études anglaises devoted to contemporary British fiction.

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