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‘A Polaroid of the Grail’: Will Self’s Approach to Naturalism

‘A Polaroid of the Grail’: une approche selfienne du naturalisme.
Maylis Rospide


Le 17 octobre 2002, Will Self et Jonathan Coe prirent la parole autour de la question: ‘Un véritable naturalisme littéraire est-il possible ou même souhaitable’. Tandis que Jonathan Coe choisit de raconter l’histoire de B.S. Johnson et de son obsession pour le naturalisme, Will Self résuma ce qu’il considère être l’histoire du naturalisme pour mieux souligner son interprétation de cette tradition littéraire. Bien loin d’une définition académique, l’allocution de Will Self se propose de faire appel à des théories qui peuvent sembler contradictoires. Empruntant quelques grandes idées au naturalisme français, Will Self s’en écarte cependant afin de redéfinir ce concept littéraire. Le naturalisme selfien semble reposer sur l’animalité du corps et un emploi subversif de la notion de réalisme. Pour Will Self, la vraisemblance du roman naturaliste puise ses origines dans le concept initié par Oscar Wilde selon lequel la vie imite l’art et dans le simulacre de Jean Baudrillard. Le besoin de Self de dire la vérité au travers de mensonges révèle sa propre conception du monde. Ainsi, le naturalisme et le réalisme de Will Self côtoient ce que Will Self a nommé ‘dirty magical realism’ et exige que le lecteur suspende son incrédulité.

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1In 2002, novelists Will Self and Jonathan Coe were invited in France to discuss the question ‘Is a true literary Naturalism possible or even desirable?’ After reading excerpts from their novels, Self and Coe tackled the thorny issue through the prism of their own literary interests: Coe, unable to take up the theoretical and Cartesian gauntlet, chose to delve into B.S. Johnson’s obsessive hunger for Naturalism, and quoting the dead writer’s bleak outlook on the subject said: ‘Telling stories is telling lies. [. . .] You cannot tell the truth by writing fiction’ (Self 2001, 70). Self, on the other hand, followed the opposite track and issued the somewhat controversial statement: ‘My motto for this quest for a Polaroid of the Grail is: If novels appear to have any verisimilitude at all it is because they are written (and read) by people who themselves read a lot of novels’ (Self 2001, 24).

2What seems to be a misconstruction of Naturalism in Self ’s sweeping statement bespeaks, in fact, Self’s personal definition of this phenomenon. Self’s intervention never provides its reader (or its audience) with an academic definition of Naturalism. Nevertheless, Self gleans several elements from consensual and popular acceptations of the concept of Naturalism to redefine this notion. Self’s fictional work has become a byword for extravagant plots and motifs that seem to be diametrically opposed to Naturalism. However, Self’s article stubbornly resorts to this literary notion in an act of self-reference. The aim of this analysis is to outline Will Self’s theoretical and practical approach to this ‘Polaroid of the Grail’ and to bring to light literary concepts that appear as contradictory while summoning critical hypotexts that show at the surface of Self’s essay. To analyse this phenomenon, we shall compare Self’s definition and practice with more canonical critical texts. Then we shall move on to what Self seems to present as his method to ‘say something true with lies’. And finally, we shall try to pin down Will Self’s use of the suspension of disbelief.

3Will Self’s speech on Naturalism does away with an in-depth analysis and taxonomy of Naturalism and prefers to analyse what he believes to be his own definition of this literary method. Will Self ’s opening words are a captatio benevolentiae and an apologetic explanation of this rather unusual outlook on Naturalism: ‘I hope you will bear with me, because as will become apparent this is no mere trawl through the evolution of the novel, but an essential part of how I view the world’ (Self 2001, 24). Nevertheless seminal texts on this issue will help us outline Self’s method as he shies away from academic definitions of this literary phenomenon and his depiction of the naturalistic method needs to be pitted against Émile Zola’s Le Roman expérimental and, to a lesser extent, against the Preface to Thérèse Raquin to enable us to measure the range of his theory.

4Anchored in the work of Claude Bernard and heavily drawing upon his Introduction à l’étude de la médecine expérimentale, Emile Zola describes the experimental novel as a method and not as a literary school. Self ’s personal description of his naturalistic methodology is both convergent and divergent when compared with Zola’s.

5For the French novelist, science and Claude Bernard’s experimental medicine are the two mainstays of his literary method. Whenever Zola quotes an excerpt from Bernard’s work, he hastily mentions the relevance of replacing the word doctor by the term writer: he harps upon the theme of the writer as a chemist, a physician and a physiologist. Although Will Self uses scientific metaphors to draw a sketchy history of literature, his essay never mentions the role of the author as a scientist. In Self’s text, nineteenth-century literature is described in the likeness of an entropic steam engine: ‘The novel is a wonder of the industrial revolution, and has important similarities to the steam engine. Like the steam engine it is a machine that transforms fuel into power, but in the case of the novel the fuel is comprised by the fossilised myths, dreams and suppositions of the people’ (Self 2001, 28). Yet, despite this scientific rhetoric, Will Self never exhibits a scientific approach to naturalism. Zola introduces another element from which Self differs in his own text. Mentioning Darwin as a seminal thinker, Zola lays the stress on the tremendous part played by heredity: ‘j’estime que la question d’hérédité a une grande influence dans les manifestations intellectuelles et passionnelles de l’homme. Je donne aussi une importance considérable au milieu. [. . .] ces phénomènes, ces faits du mécanisme des organes agissant sous l’influence du milieu intérieur, ne se produisent pas au dehors isolément et dans le vide’ (Zola 2006, 61–62). The notions of determinism and heredity are essential to Zola’s method, yet they are not even mentioned once in Self’s definition of naturalism. Although Will Self brushes aside determinism and the scientific method, he retains two other features of naturalism that are developed in Zola’s critical texts.

  • 1 Most chapters open on obsessively minute descriptions of the characters’ sartorial tastes: ‘Russell(...)

6For Self, naturalism ties in with realism. As Tzvetan Todorov says in his Preface to Littérature et réalité, ‘le lecteur doit avoir l’impression qu’il a affaire à un discours sans autre règle que celle de transcrire scrupuleusement le réel, de nous mettre en contact direct avec le monde tel qu’il est’ (Todorov 7). In his essay, Self happily describes his and others’ favoured realist techniques: ‘As for realism, I believe that this lies in the kind of quotidian detail—the light switch, the paper clip, the eyelet in the shoe—that the American writer Nicholson Barker has factored an entire career out of. This use of descriptive prose to—apparently—distort the scale of our perception of the external world is really—I would argue—a way of bringing it into sharper focus’ (Self 2001, 48). The ‘effet de réel’ described in this excerpt is both a definition and an example of what Philippe Hamon pinpoints in his inventory of realistic ploys: ‘Dans le programme réaliste, le monde est descriptible, accessible à la dénomination [. . .]. On connaît la référence maniaque de très nombreux auteurs au ‘détail’ (Zola: ‘J’ai l’hypertrophie du détail vrai’). [. . .] D’où l’émiettement synecdochique et souvent l’impression de ‘mosaïque’ que l’on éprouve devant un texte réaliste’ (Todorov 162). ‘The light switch, the paper clip, the eyelet in a shoe’ is a practical example of the paratactic and synecdochic homeoptoton described by Hamon. Self’s definition not only refers to his own work (with My Idea of Fun and the short story ‘Grey Area’), it also points towards other writers such as Bret Easton Ellis and his American Psycho, a paratactic ode to male fashion.1

7Yet for Will Self, naturalism is best epitomised by physicality and the animality of the body. In Zola’s Preface to Thérèse Raquin, the author sets out to defend his novel: ‘En un mot, je n’ai eu qu’un désir: [. . .] chercher en eux la bête, ne voir même que la bête, les jeter dans un drame violent, et noter scrupuleusement les sensations et les actes de ces êtres’ (Zola 1970, 60). In this excerpt, the corruption of the flesh seems to be a form of determinism, but in Will Self’s essay it is a necessary prison related to realism: ‘Thus I take my readers by their hands and drag them not just into the bedroom, but also the bathroom, and once they’re in the bathroom I force them to contemplate the exact consistency of the goo secreted by the sweaty pores of my characters’ (Self 2001, 46–48). Self’s coercive metalepsis is meant to transcribe his relish for gruesome details linked with the lower body. And for him, the silencing of the physicality of the body entails the creation of a rift between realism and naturalism. Castigating modernism for what he deems prudishness, Self declares:

  • 2 The word equivalence reveals that Self uses almost indiscriminately the terms realism and naturalis (...)

But isn’t it worth remarking, at this point, on Vi rginia Woolf’s reaction to Ulysses, a novel she perceived as the very acme of the puerile? Arguably one of the main motivations of literary modernism was a kind of voyeurism, the paradox being that in departing from the nineteenth century conventions of ‘naturalism’—a ‘natural’ world in which humans neither had sexual intercourse, nor, in the Rabelaisian formulation ‘made void of their natural waste products’—the modernists found themselves abandoning any equivalence between realism and naturalism at all.2 (Self 2001, 36–38)

8This sweeping statement concerning modernism nevertheless reveals that, for Will Self, naturalism cannot work properly without an emphasis on the body.

9Although Self subscribes to some of Zola’s remarks, his attitude is not one of naïve acceptance of a pseudo mirroring of the world of experience. With an iconoclastic sleight of hand, Will Self questions Zola’s blind reliance on a perfect and transparent correspondence between art and life: ‘He [Flaubert] is [. . .] too great an artist to be fooled—as was Zola—by any mere correspondence between art and life’ (Self 2001, 32). Will Self cannot wholly adopt the naturalistic fallacy described by Zola because for him the subject of naturalism is not so natural.

  • 3 This epigraph is a quotation from Saint-Réal but it is repeated by one of Stendhal’s characters lat (...)

10Preferring an ‘effet de réel’ to the monolithic belief in the ability of literature to turn worlds into words, Self defines his naturalism. It is both a literary method and a way to view the world: Self wishes to impart a shifting conception of ontology. After pitting Zola against Flaubert, Self also opposes Flaubert and Stendhal: ‘Flaubert’s Salambo [. . .] refutes the Stendhalian formulation. For Flaubert the mirror is warped and tarnished—as is the world it depicts’ (Self 2001, 34). Alluding to Stendhal’s ‘Un roman c’est un miroir que l’on promène le long d’un chemin’ (Stendhal 72)3 Self reveals that his take on naturalism might not purely be that of an uncritical obedience to realism.

11Indeed, a foray into Self’s metadiscourse reveals his theoretical stance. Always eager to remind his audience of his disdain for critics, Self discloses the existence of a theoretical hoax he initiated at the beginning of his literary career:

In order to annoy critics in the 1990s, I came up with the slogan ‘dirty magical realism’ to describe my fiction. This was a coinage made up of two others: the so-called ‘dirty realism’ of Raymond Carver [. . .] and other American writers, elided with the Magical Realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, [. . .] and assorted other South Americans. I hasten to say, at no time did I believe in the existence of my own coinage [. . .]. Of course it worked—triumphantly. [. . .] Fiction has triumphed over reality, I have told the truth with lies. (Self 2001, 44-46)

12Although Self disparagingly rejects his portmanteau concept, it still holds some truth about his own naturalism. Indeed, as he points out later on: ‘I attempt in my work to combine aspects of all these modalities, to produce a coherent body of observed facts’ (Self 2001, 46). Even though Self relapses into the role of the observer in the experimental novel, he adds a third component to realism and to the dirtiness of his fiction: magic. The holy trinity of Self’s naturalism is but an echo of what Self sees as a seminal text for the whole of his oeuvre.

To say ‘something true with lies’ (Self 2001, 42) Self turns to Kafka’s Metamorphosis:

But compare the essentially conventional approach of Orwell—‘the clock struck thirteen’—with the complete abandonment of any convention by Kafka. The opening line of ‘Metamorphosis’, when I read it, aged fourteen, seemed to me a monad, which contained all of the prose form’s ability to say something true with lies. ‘Gregor Samsa awoke one morning to discover that during the night he had turned into an enormous cockroach.’ Indeed. For isn’t this the experience that we all have upon waking, that of being reacquainted with the idiotic conjoined twin or our own physicality, our own animality, our own naturalism; while in sleep we inhabit caverns measureless to man, and are entertained by damsels with dulcimers? (Self 2001, 42)

13By emphasising the Cartesian divide between the body and the mind, Self introduces one of the most fundamental topoi of his work and of his outlook on naturalism: a realistic experience of gross physicality can only be represented through surrealistic and magic motifs. Self not only describes this phenomenon, he also applies it to his own work. In ‘Bull: A Farce’, Self chooses to resort to an incipit that betrays its parodic origin. Entitled ‘Metamorphosis’ the first chapter opens on the following words: ‘Bull, a large and heavy-set young man, awoke one morning to find that while he had slept he had acquired another primary sexual characteristic: to wit, a vagina’ (Self 1993, 103). To fashion our analysis after Self’s own words, ‘the transmogrification itself is deadpan, matter of fact, just as our animality is a fact about ourselves that we manage—with some success—to doubt, sitting in our stove-heads, reading novels’ (Self 2001, 44). While Zola rejects the irrational and the supernatural, Self reconciles naturalism and its enemies, showing that traditional acceptations of these terms are not enough. Whereas Zola’s naturalism is meant to ward off the metaphysical chaos depicted by idealist writers, Self’s aim remains the transcription of the eerie and surrealistic dimension of modern experience.

  • 4 ‘Paradox though it may seemand paradoxes are always dangerous thingsit is none the less true that(...)
  • 5 Here, Self’s wish to ‘say something true with lies’ reaches its peak. The Idiot was first published(...)

14But if this generic miscegenation is rendered possible in Self’s definition of naturalism it is precisely because the relationship between the world of experience and the text has changed. This paradigm shift is what Brian McHale sees as the essence of postmodernism: ‘postmodernist fiction differs from modernist fiction just as a poetics dominated by ontological issues differs from one dominated by epistemological issues’ (McHale xii). This questioning of the very nature of ‘reality’ tends to denaturalise the world of experience to lay bare its discursivity and pre-mediated quality. For instance, with Linda Hutcheon’s historiographic metafiction, the world is rife with words and moulded by the language of ideology: ‘Similarly historiographic metafiction [. . .] inscribes and only then subverts its mimetic engagement with the world. It does not reject it [. . .]; nor does it merely accept it [. . .]. But it does change irrevocably any simple notions of realism or reference by directly confronting the discourse of art with the discourse of reality’ (Hutcheon 20). However, Self’s originality lies in the fact that, when dealing with naturalism, he chooses to summon an unlikely hypotext: Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Decay of Lying’. Self’s tour de force is to call forth Wilde’s aphorism ‘Life is a dream that keeps me from sleeping’ (Self 2001, 34)—an aphorism which was also the epigraph of Grey Area and Other Stories, one of Self’s collections of short stories. Reality is not so real. To exacerbate the Wildean strain of his definition of naturalism, Self alludes to the excerpt in which Vivian and Cyril discuss how life imitates art4 and applies it to Dostoevsky’s The Idiot: ‘In The Idiot the old sot of a General, Ivoglin, retails an anecdote which ishe confesses once challengedlifted from Chekov’s ‘Lady With a Lap Dog’, so that art mimics life mimicking art’ (Self 2001, 34)5 . For Self, the nature of naturalist mimesis is one in which the relationship between art and life is biased. Art imitates Art. This tautological echo to Wilde’s aesthetic stance explains Self’s rather provoking definition of naturalism and verisimilitude. Indeed, Self’s novelistic homage to Wilde is entitled Dorian: An Imitation. In this novel, although the term imitation is closer to the concept of ‘imitatio’ than to a servile copy, it nevertheless reveals that Self’s text is art copying art, removed from the world of experience. Self’s version goes a step further when, at the end of the novel, the boundary between fiction and reality vanishes. Thus the sacred and transparent link woven between the world of experience and the text is deferred and displaced in Self’s theory. But if art and literature become the real referent in Self’s ontology, we can see that the world of experience almost completely vanishes from the relationship, leading Self down the path of the simulacrum.

  • 6 The discursive nature of reality that Self brings to the fore is reminiscent of the postmodernist e (...)

15When Self defines the verisimilitude of the naturalist novel as being comprised of its faithfulness to other texts, he seems to relegate the referent to the wings. Always already ‘human’ (Self 2001, 44) reality presents itself to Self as a pre-mediated material that the writer can cast aside. Still owing to the Wildean hypotext, Self seems to be moving towards Baudrillard’s simulacrum. The simulacrum, or in Self’s terms the naturalist novel, is a text cut away from the world of experience and in which the referent becomes a copy: ‘La simulation n’est plus celle d’un territoire, d’un être référentiel, d’une substance. Elle est la génération par les modèles d’un réel sans origine ni réalité: hyperréel. Le territoire ne précède plus la carte, ni ne lui survit. C’est désormais la carte qui précède le territoire [. . .]’ (Baudrillard 10). The Selfian simulacrum is a textual reality that has lost its moorings in the world of experience, a textual reality which has found its origins in ‘fossilised myths, dreams and suppositions of the people’ (Self 2001, 28).6

16For Will Self, each layer of literary convention lays bare another layer of convention. Self prefers to see naturalism as the catalyst of new relationships between the text and the world of experience. According to Self, the never-ending cycle of literary referentiality transcribes a magic and fantastic reality in which the body is but a strange entity that cannot be grasped with an unalloyed naturalism. But when the novelist mentions his coercive naturalist method, he desperately needs his reader to be carried along the writer’s naturalistic antics.

17Although the scientific method backing up naturalism is related to the positivist suspension of judgment, Self favours Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘suspension of disbelief’. Indeed, throughout his essay, this tenet often goes unsaid, but Self heavily relies upon Coleridge’s seminal idea:

In this idea originated the plan of the ‘Lyrical Ballads’; in which it was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to produce for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith. (Coleridge 168–169)

18For Self, the reader’s prurient interest in de Sade’s novels hinges around not a suspension of disbelief but ‘an erection of credulousness’ (Self 2001, 26). Yet, for him, the suspension of disbelief seems to be a programmatic modality that ties in with the creation of a coherent whole: ‘The important thing about fictions is that they should cohere with one another, this is in my view the only true literary naturalism’ (Self 2001, 26).

19As we have seen with the Wildean hypotext and the simulacrum, the undisputable core of Self’s naturalism is the echolalic and hypertextual nature of texts. The machinery that secures the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief is what we could be tempted to call ‘Selfland’ in reference to ‘Greeneland’. Indeed as Self points out, he has shaped his texts into an oeuvre crammed with endophoric references to his own works of fiction:

In my first collection of short stories, characters from one narrative would reappear in others, either taking up a minor role, or even merely as a subject of hearsay, or seen—in passing—on television. This, I hoped, would help my readers to understand that the world of my books had an autonomous and believable existence. Does it matter to anyone save for me? I have no idea, but that itself doesn’t matter, the important thing is that I am able to suspend disbelief in my own creations, because if I don’t—who will? (Self 2001, 48-50)

20A quick panorama of Self’s use of the retour de personnage will help us understand his take on naturalism: although this particular technique is not Self’s invention, the writer manages to twist it until it fits into his definition of naturalism. Zack Busner, an aging psychiatrist appears in five of Self’s books. He becomes a reassuring presence that helps the reader to suspend disbelief. Indeed, in the short story ‘The Quantity Theory of Insanity’, a young psychiatrist sets out on a quest for his mentor Alkan (a thinly disguised version of Lacan). The only way for this young man to follow his role model is to find gay ads in London’s public lavatories and to glean geographical coordinates from graffiti such as ‘Boys under 21 with 6’ or more meet me here’ (Self 1994, 107). This is no mere obscene scribbled note left in a cubicle. This message reveals the whereabouts of the elusive Alkan. In this hard-to-believe plot, Busner’s reassuring presence appears in the background as a known figure, a stable point that remains in spite of the raving tone of the short story. Whenever disbelief becomes too hard to suspend, Self reintroduces a well-known character whose presence discreetly re-establishes the boundaries of Selfland. However, to build this literary truth, this textual coherence, Self injects a fraction of incoherence into the continuum of verisimilitude. Zack Busner is a recurring character, but not necessarily a coherent one that obeys the trational laws of the world of experience. In ‘Inclusion®’ Busner is swallowed by a patient’s psyche (Self 1994, 247) but he reappears as if nothing had happened in ‘Dr Mukti’ (Self 2004, 1–130). This shows that the suspension of disbelief is not solely engendered by the text. The coherence of the whole also rests in the readers’ ability to will themselves into suspending disbelief in spite of and because of the incongruity of the retour de personnage.

21Yet, Self’s plea for the reader’s cooperation (through the suspension of disbelief) does not only apply to fiction. It also applies to Self’s answer to the question ‘Is a true literary Naturalism possible or even desirable?’ In spite of the rather peculiar redefinition of the concept of naturalism, Self manages to tell the truth with lies: he tells us about his literary practice and that of other contemporary writers. But to see the veil being lifted, we would argue that the reader needs to suspend disbelief in Self’s answer to the question: ‘Is a true literary Naturalism possible or even desirable?’

22The aim of Self’s intervention in 2002 was not so much to define naturalism along the lines of academic taxonomy as to make naturalism his own. In abandoning some of the traits underscored by Zola and in choosing to adopt others, Self inscribes himself in a literary tradition that he subverts from within. Naturalism is for Self a way to describe his literary method and to impart the sense that life may sometimes look as fictional as any novel, or more uncanny and fantastic than might meet the eye. The shifting ontology and a redefinition of literary concepts enable Self to explain away his rather unusual use of the naturalist label. Desperately dependent on the reader’s more or less willing suspension of disbelief, Self is reliant on the reader’s ability to create a coherent version of Selfland by spotting all the recurring motifs and characters.

23Despite Self’s apparent iconoclastic attitude (his dismissal of consensual approaches to literary history and theories), his naturalism leans on well-established trends of literature, and on conventions. For him, no matter how accurate naturalist novels are, what matters is that they should be ‘deemed to be so’ (Self 2001, 32). Despite his unsavoury reputation, Self vulnerably relies on and needs conventions: he needs his reader’s agreement and a consensual acceptance of the rules of his fiction. He depends on an act of poetic faith.

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Baudrillard, Jean, Simulacres et simulation, Paris: Galilée, 1981.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, Biographia Literaria, or Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions (1817), London: Everyman’s Library, 1967.

Ellis, Bret Easton, American Psycho: A Novel, London: Picador, 1991.

Hutcheon, Linda, A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction, London: Routledge, 1988.

McHale, Brian, Postmodernist Fiction, London: Routledge, 1987.

Self, Will, Cock and Bull (1992), Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1993.

Self, Will, Dorian: An Imitation (2002), Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2003.

Self, Will, Dr Mukti and Other Tales of Woe, London: Bloomsbury, 2004.

Self, Will, Grey Area and Other Stories (1994), Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1996. My Idea of Fun: A Cautionary Tale (1993), Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1994.

Self, Will, The Quantity Theory of Insanity: Together With Five Supporting Propositions (1991), Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1994.

Self, Will, Un véritable naturalisme littéraire est-il possible ou même souhaitable? Vendôme: Pleins Feux, 2003.

Stendhal, Le Rouge et le noir (1830), Paris: Garnier, 1973.

Todorov, Tzvetan, ed., Littérature et réalité, Paris: Seuil, 1982.

Wilde, Oscar, ‘The Decay of Lying’, Complete Works of Oscar Wilde (1891), Glasgow: Harper, 2003.

Zola, Émile, Le Roman expérimental (1880), Paris: Flammarion, 2006.

Zola, Émile, Thérèse Raquin (1867), Paris: Flammarion, 1970.

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1 Most chapters open on obsessively minute descriptions of the characters’ sartorial tastes: ‘Russell was wearing a two-button wool sport coat by Redaelli, a cotton shirt by Hackert, a silk tie by Richel, pleated wool trousers by Krizia Uomo and leather Cole-Haan shoes’ (Ellis 374).

2 The word equivalence reveals that Self uses almost indiscriminately the terms realism and naturalism. It seems that for him, if realism is to fulfil its aesthetic aim, it must take as its subject the gross materiality of ‘reality’. In short, for Self, the only possible modality of realism is the naturalist bias, so much so that at times the two terms overlap and seem to become synonymous in Self’s essay.

3 This epigraph is a quotation from Saint-Réal but it is repeated by one of Stendhal’s characters later on: ‘Eh, monsieur, un roman est un miroir qui se promène sur une grande route’ (Stendhal 342).

4 ‘Paradox though it may seemand paradoxes are always dangerous thingsit is none the less true that Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life’ (Wilde 1082). Vivian goes on: ‘Art finds her own perfection within, and not outside of, herself. She is not to be judged by any external standard of resemblance. She is a veil, rather than a mirror. She has flowers that no forests know of, birds that no woodland possesses’ (Wilde 1082).

5 Here, Self’s wish to ‘say something true with lies’ reaches its peak. The Idiot was first published in 1869, while ‘Lady with a Lapdog’ was only published thirty years later in 1899. This chronological impossibility suits the purpose of Self’s essay. Like Ivolgin, a story teller who distorts facts and anecdotes the better to entertain his audience, Self tells the truth about his literary practice with a lie. This technique that uses lies to tell the truth invades both Self’s practice and metadiscourse, so that he depends on the reader’s suspension of disbelief in his theoretical discourse.

6 The discursive nature of reality that Self brings to the fore is reminiscent of the postmodernist exposure and denaturalisation of what Lyotard labelled master narratives as Linda Hutcheon explains: ‘The result of this deliberate refusal to resolve contradictions is a contesting of what Lyotard [. . .] calls the totalizing master narratives of our culture, those systems by which we usually unify (and smooth over) any contradictions in order to make them fit’ (Hutcheon x).

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Maylis Rospide, « ‘A Polaroid of the Grail’: Will Self’s Approach to Naturalism »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 33 | 2008, mis en ligne le 21 juillet 2020, consulté le 03 décembre 2020. URL :; DOI:

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Maylis Rospide

Université Paul-Valéry, Montpellier 3

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