To buy an unabridged audio book version of Umbrella, by Whole Story Audiobooks, which has also produced audio versions of The Butt, Liver (read by Will), The Book of Dave (also read by Will) and How the Dead Live, go to Amazon here.
Will Self is going to be discussing his book Dorian and Oscar Wilde’s writing with the film and literary critic Kevin Jackson on May 13 at the V&A. For more details and to book tickets, go here.
Dorian is chosen for the Telegraph’s Bookclub: “Praise abounded: clever and dazzling. Trademark show-off vocabulary triumphantly deployed. Characterisation outstanding. Above all, laugh-out-loud funny. As for the book’s misogyny and homophobia, these were gleefully glossed over. Even the ending, which throws an irritating twist, got the thumbs up.”
I’m back at the Sylver Surfer. I wanted to post a blog in Primrose Hill yesterday, when I staggered out of the dentist. But although this part of London may heave with the sexual antics of fashionable underpants designers and pretty-boy actors, pay-per internet access is thin on the ground.
When I come to think of it – and must we not all come to think of such things eventually? – cyber cafes are the tanning salons of the infosphere, they beckon you inside to bombard your cerebellum with sinister radiation; they encourage you to fritter away minutes and then hours playing the plastic piano of trivia.
But I digress. I’d wanted to post a blog while my entire jaw was numb, because frankly that’s as close as I get to a mood-altering experience nowadays. Louise, my dentist of 20 years standing, was trying to give me yet another crown. Like an old sheep, the relentless rumination of decades of troubled sleep has resulted in the wearing down of my back teeth. In the grey hours of dawn I awake to a crumbly gorge of amalgam and dentine, cough, choke, spit and discover that another molar has bitten itself into dust.
Each new, gold tooth is about £500 a pop – not cheap. But Louise couldn’t pump enough procaine into me to prevent the pure-pain laser of the water drill lancing into me. Eventually she gave up and said she would carve a niche in the stup of the tooth (somewhat in the manner of Joe Simpson placing a piton on the North Face of the Eiger), and ‘anchor’ a filling on to the tooth. Result: it cost 400 shitters less than the crown would. She averred that: ‘The nerves must be deranged in there.’ Next time she says she’s going to shoot me up with a stronger local anaesthetic, one with adrenaline in it. Woo-hoo! As Homer would say.
When I was in rehab in the 1980s I knew a geezer called Pete whose scam was to visit all the dentists in England and blag the glass sheets from them, on to which they’d smeared the leftover silver amalgam from filling teeth. Pete said he could make a nice little earner flogging this stuff to scrap metal merchants. I thought this such a bizarre example of the division of labout that I put it into my novel ‘Dorian’. Now, of course, silver amalgam and scrap metal merchants are just part of a bygone age. But I’m still here – with my ground-down teeth.
It’s a wild, Wilde world
Will Self knows something about repressed, homosexual, aristocratic drug addicts
In 1998 I was approached by Joan Bakewell and her then husband, Jack Emery, to consider doing a film adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Some money came from Jack and more from Channel 4. Without this commission I don’t think that I would ever have considered adapting Wilde, let alone re-novelising him.
Rereading the original I saw that one of the things which I’d always found curious about the novel could be the springboard for a new approach. In Wilde’s Dorian 16 years pass, but the only way they are measured is through the moral dissolution of the protagonist – no social, cultural or historical change is registered. It occurred to me that if I wanted to set my adaptation approximately 100 years after Wilde’s (and there were good reasons for this; I’d always viewed the novel as a strange anticipation of the shape of a liberated gay culture) then there were two concurrent significant 16-year periods available. It was 16 years from the first stirring of the HIV/Aids epidemic until the introduction of Haart (Highly active anti-retroviral therapy), which spelt the end of public perception of the disease as a threat in the west. And these were the same 16 years as the ones between the marriage of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer and the latter’s death.
I began work on the script, taking as my model Bruce Robinson’s Withnail & I. The film is great, but arguably the script is still greater, a literary work in its own right with superb – almost Dostoevskian – stage directions. Screenwriting friends kept talking to me about useful computer programs, but I eschewed them; it didn’t seem such a hardship to type “INT DAY” every few lines. Other friends would bang on about various adaptations of Dorian – there have been a lot of them over the years – but I ignored them as well. What was the point? Setting aside the fact that I was writing an adaptation – and therefore the material was a given – I’ve never understood the mania writers have for examining the similar works of others. In my view the plangent artificiality of a lot of creative work results from the fact that the people who write novels, direct films and put on plays tend to read too many novels, watch too many films and go to too many plays. As for the business of writing a screenplay as against prose fiction, it didn’t seem such a big deal. You just make the margins wider and type “INT DAY” or “EXT NIGHT” where appropriate.
Nevertheless, despite finding Emery perfectly simpatico, and meeting with an equally simpatico John Maybury, who was interested in directing the film, I found work on my Dorian script slow to the point of being tranquillised. Having spent years more or less confident that what I typed would end up being what the reader encountered, I found the idea that there would eventually be input to my script from accountants, men wearing sleeveless anoraks and (gulp!) actors impossible to stomach. I broke off to write a novel, a non-fiction work and then to edit a collection of my journalism.
Eventually I became so late with the project and poor Emery was so despondent that I seized upon the only possible way of completing it: I’d done about two-thirds of it in script form, why not make the margins narrower and delete “INT DAY” and “EXT NIGHT” where necessary? Then I’d end up with a recast Dorian Gray all ready for Jack et al to adapt for the screen. Besides, the whole business of my work appearing on the screen has always seemed highly problematic to me. I hold with Martin Amis’s dictum: “Don’t believe they’ve made a film of your book until you rent the video.”
So, Dorian was born. I found it easy enough to finish my re-novelisation, and sometimes, but not always, ease is a good sign. Overall, I’m fairly pleased with the book, and satisfied with the wide disparity in its critical reception. As dear Oscar remarked: “When the critics are divided the artist is in accord with himself.”
Setting my version in the aristocratic, gay, druggie milieu of the 1980s wasn’t too difficult, as I’d spent quite a lot of the 80s in – surprise, surprise – an aristocratic, gay, druggie milieu. So it was with considerable annoyance that I confronted a member of an audience whom I read to at last year’s Soho festival (upon hardback publication). This woman said to me: “I enjoyed your reading, but I find your characters altogether unbelievable. I mean people like Henry Wotton, Basil Hallward and Dorian Gray couldn’t possibly exist, could they?” Ignoring the fact that these (fictional) characters were Wilde’s rather than my own, I snarled at her: “Just how many repressed, homosexual, aristocratic drug addicts have you hung around with in your time?” And when she conceded “None”, I rested my case.
Jonathan Heawood, September 2002
“He brings events forward to June 1981, the summer of the Royal Wedding and the Brixton riots, a time when, according to Self, ‘Britain was in the process of burning most of its remaining illusions’. In this world of style and insubstantiality, Basil Hallward’s oil painting has become an installation called Cathode Narcissus, in which Dorian’s divine form revolves endlessly across a bank of video monitors. Where The Picture of Dorian Gray both defined and mocked the decadent movement, Self aspires to do the same for postmodernism. Where Wilde had Huysmans, Self has Warhol. Where Wilde epitomised aestheticism, Dorian: An Imitation is riddled with reflexivity. And where the original novel was compelling but only incidentally amusing, Self’s adaptation is brutal and sometimes hysterical.”
Read the full review
Robert McCrum talks to Will Self
“Observer: What’s the relationship of Dorian to The Picture of Dorian Gray?
Will Self: It’s an imitation – and a homage. As a complete and professed rewrite of a classic, I think it’s unique. The Picture of Dorian Gray is the prophecy and Dorian is the fulfilment.
Obs: What gave you the idea?
WS: The idea came through the suggestion that I adapt Wilde’s Dorian Gray as a film. The minute I started looking at Wilde’s original, this idea came unbidden. I’d never have approached the idea of doing it as a novel, I approached it as the idea of doing a screen adaptation, and when the screen adaptation ran into the sand, through my own inability to complete it, I decided the only way to get the thing out was to turn it back into prose.”