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.
Val Carmichael credited Pete Stenning — who was called ‘the Martian’ — with getting him off the gin and on to the vodka. “Cleaver cunt, the Martian,” Val said to the assembled members, who were grouped at the bar of the Plantation Club in their alloted positions …
Listen to Will Self read the start of Foie Humain here and then here, the first of his four part story-cycle in Liver, which is available as an unabridged audio book from Whole Story Audio Books for £19.99 here.
I went to dinner at the McCluskeys’ and the Brookmans were there, as usual — and the Vignoles as well …
An exclusive for the website this. Listen to Will Self reading The Minor Character, an unpublished short story, which will be part of his collection of short stories, The Undivided Self, to be published by Bloomsbury USA in October. Self recorded The Minor Character while he was narrating an unabridged audio version of Liver, which will be published by Whole Story Audio Books in September.
“Exile, Joyce famously noted, is a necessary precondition for art. If so, Self must feel himself abundantly exiled. He’s half American, but writes as sublimely and mercilessly about London as anyone in his generation. He’s half Jewish but has a keen eye for the hypocrisies of organized Christian religion. He’s a merciless skeptic about the sacred cows of liberal humanism, who occasionally writes with considerable tenderness, and who is also loyal to his friends and family in ways few tender people are. You are about to reap the rewards of this abundance of Selfish exile … there will be work here that alarms you, dazzles you, makes you laugh out loud.”
From the introduction to The Undivided Self by Rick Moody, NYC 2010.
An interesting paper entitled Literature, History and the Humanization of Bioethics by Nathan Emmerich (Bioethics, 9999 (9999) 2010) quotes from Self’s Leberknödel story from Liver. The full text can be obtained here, but this is the relevant section:
“There is little doubt that literature can be a tool for the teaching of bioethics. Consider this passage from one of Will Self’s short stories:
“Joyce washed down the chocolate sludge with a second gulp of the bitter anti-emetic. ‘Do please remember’, Dr Hohl said, ‘that any of these times, Mrs Beddoes, you are able to make the mind change, yes?’ He had said this at least three times before, and on each occasion Joyce had relied, ‘I understand.’ It was, she grasped, the very call and respond of assisted suicide: Dr Hohl was the priest, announcing the credo, and she was the congregation of one that affirmed it.”
[Will Self, Liver, p85]
“It is difficult to express or imagine what the reality of an assisted suicide clinic might be. One can imagine all sorts of contingencies and eventualities which, from the perspective of analytic philosophy, can be dismissed as not being fatal to the possibility of an assisted suicide clinic being moral or ethical. Yet in this passage, Self expresses one concern with such clinics which is that they may become banally ritualized; where well meaning mandated opportunities to bring a halt to proceedings actually become automated, ritualized steps along the way. In doing so he illustrates the challenge this aspect of ethical regulation brings to actual practice. His work also presents the alienation of the self from the self as a consequence of the protagonist being taken out of her home and of her own country in order to access the services of this clinic. Moral insights presented in literary form can of course cut both ways in ethical argument or, perhaps more often, present and engage the reader with an uncertain, ambivalent and ambiguous moral landscape. In this instance the representations of literature contextualize and particularize the assisted suicide clinic and, in doing so, can give one pause for thought in a debate often characterized by entrenched positions and polemical argumentation.”
To Sebastian Horsley’s funeral at St James’s in Piccadilly. I first met Seb in the early 1990s, he was living in Mayfair in order – or so he maintained – to be near to the prostitutes. He had the dead-white face of a Weimar cabaret compère, and the lisp of a studied aesthete. When we went out to the cash point together to get money for the dealer, Seb revealed that he had a loaded revolver back at the flat. I was furious – I’ve never liked guns, and guns and crack cocaine (as history seems to bear out), are seldom a good combo.
I can’t say I ever exactly warmed to his publically cultivated image: yet underneath the dandiacal shtick – which was time- as well as shop-worn – there lurked a sensitive, kind, tormented man. On top of addiction (itself a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder), Seb was riddled with the gamut of repetitive counting, hand-washing and magical thinking. He took smack because he was an addict, for sure, but I think he also used it to silence this psychic Babel.
He climbed on and off the wagon many of the rest of us managed to ride – but in this there was no disgrace. Less easy to take was the attitudinising – at least when you understand, as I believe I do to my marrow, that once someone has crossed the line, far from being a lifestyle choice (albeit of an arid and unprofitable kind) intoxication is nought save a pathology. I saw Seb as trapped inside a performance that he was powerless to give up – one that did for him in the end.
We joined the cortege at the top of Lower Regent Street and followed the horse-drawn hearse past Bates, the hatters. There was a representative sample of the existentialist inhabitants of the inner city: suited and booted sub-Goths twirling skull-topped canes, demi-whores in corsets with BDD (Breast Dismorphic Disorder). Stephen Fry offered me a large, soft, cool, moist hand and greetings, and then observed that we were unlikely to see the likes of such a funeral again in Soho. Unkindly, I suggested that he might prefer us to be dropping like gaudy flies, if spectacle was the object.
In fact, Stephen’s address to the mourners was measured, calm, only a little wry, and quite moving. He didn’t play to the gallery who look upon the likes of Sebastian Horsley as some kind of freak show. Seb was predeceased by a few weeks by Michael Wojas, ex-proprietor of the Colony Room, the private members club where he often hung out. I knew Michael back in the day, and used him – quite unashamedly – as the model for the barman, Hilary Edmonds, in my story Foie Humain from Liver.
As I said in the story, the real tragedy of these Soho denizens was not that they belonged to some kind of avant garde, but that the cultural revolution they spearheaded was carried forward without them: as outside in Old Compton Street everyone got gayer and happier, inside the Colony Room everyone got sadder and older. Wojas died of chronic alcoholism at 53, Horsley of a heroin overdose at 47. There’s no way you can paint up either death as anything but miserable and futile.
Watch Will Self on the Sky Arts Book Show talking about his short story collection Liver among other things here.
At the Conway Hall (conwayhall.org.uk) in central London, on March 25, Will Self was in conversation with David Eagleman, the neuroscientist and author of Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives. It was a case of an eager Eagleman versus a stoical Self.
Sum’s 40 mutually exclusive stories are, said Eagleman, a critique of certainty, a “meta-message” shining a flashlight around the “possibility space”. Self gently ribbed Eagleman on his neologism of “possibilianism”, which he said didn’t exactly trip off the tongue and that, besides, it reminded him of the word bilious. He told him he preferred his own coinage – “radical agnosticism”.
Self admitted at the beginning of the talk that “It’s a drag that we’re more or less in agreement” in terms of a debate, and clearly Self was more interested in any epiphany that Eagleman might have had, or any emotional backstory to the book. In that regard, Sum turns out to have more of an intellectual inspiration.
Self talked about the shock of nursing his dying mother when he was still in his 20s and of her death, and that it was this epiphany, along with the birth of his first child, that propelled his writing, starting with the short story The North London Book of the Dead from The Quantity Theory of Insanity: “I saw myself becoming a neutered bachelor, who would be wearing a cardigan and still living at home at the age of forty, but it wasn’t to be.”
Self said he saw Sum as a book very much about this life rather than the afterlife. Intriguingly, Self also suggested that the Dignitas-inspired story Leberknödel, from Liver, could be viewed as an afterlife story too.
To watch the whole talk, visit the Intelligence Squared website here.
There is also a review on the New Scientist website here.
A couple of US reviews of Liver, published by Bloomsbury USA in hardback in the States, the first from the Washington Post, which said that the four stories collected here “are for those who like their stories brainy, cunning, hard-edged and diabolical”; and the second from the New Yorker, which said that the characters were, ahem, “difficult to like” …
Liver Let Die
Will Self’s newest collection, Liver, contains a novella, Leberknödel, that is set in Zurich and has a protagonist called Joyce Beddoes. Call me an obsessive Irishman, but put “Zurich” and “Joyce” together and you automatically come up with James Joyce, who wrote a number of chapters of Ulysses in Zurich, died and is buried there. The link seems obvious to me. When you discover that Self’s Joyce eats a meal at the famous Kronenhalle (James Joyce’s favourite hangout and the place where he ate his last proper meal) and that she has reserved a plot in Fluntern cemetery (the very same cemetery where James Joyce lies buried), then you know that the sequence of coincidences is not a sequence of coincidences. Strangely, in British reviews of Self’s book in the likes of The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Independent and the Times Literary Supplement, not one critic has picked up on this. If the allusions to James Joyce were simply decorative then perhaps the reviewers could be forgiven for leaving it unmentioned. But to miss the ghostly absence of James Joyce in this occult novella is to read a different story then the one Self has written.
Leberknödel tells of a Birmingham woman called Joyce Beddoes who, suffering from terminal liver cancer, travels with her daughter to Zurich where she has arranged for an assisted suicide. While there, she experiences an estrangement with her daughter but also a sort of miracle whereby, it seems, she gains another chance at life. James Joyce’s first port of call when he left Ireland with Nora Barnacle was Zurich. He returned during World War One when he worked on Ulysses, possibly the greatest English language novel of the 20th century. He returned again to Zurich as a refugee from Fascism, only to die in January 1941, shortly after his arrival. His final masterpiece, Finnegans Wake, had been published in 1939.
Self’s Joyce Beddoes was known to her late husband Derry (why is he called after an Irish town?) as “Jo Jo”, which would give her the initials “JJ”, as in “James Joyce”. But in many ways she is the inverse of James: Joyce is her first name, it is his last; she is an English woman, he an Irish man; she comes to Zurich seeking death but ends up applying for refugee status, he came to Zurich as a refugee seeking safety from Fascism; she dines at the Kronenhalle and it marks a type of resurrection, he dines at the Kronenhalle and collapses into the illness that will kill him; she arrives in Zurich with her despised 33-year-old unstable daughter who she allows to be arrested and locked up in a women’s prison, he arrived in Zurich without his beloved 33-year-old daughter who he was forced to leave behind in a mental asylum.
Joyce Beddoes stays at the Widder Hotel in Zurich’s old town. One evening she ascends a nearby hill, from where she gazes over the old town centre at the foot of the Zurichberg, divided by the River Limmat “that flowed into the long lake”, the Zurichzee. (In fact the river flows out of the lake – if this is a mistake, it is Self’s only one.) Dublin is a city that lies below the Dublin Mountains, divided by the River Liffey that flows into the sea at Dublin Bay. So what does Self’s Joyce feel as she gazes upon the town that she has never seen before? She feels what James Joyce must have felt – Will Self tells us: “The city gave her a curious sensation of déjà vu.”
As she descends the hill to return to her hotel she has an accidental encounter with three Catholics, which will change her life. They are just leaving a little catholic shrine, when they fall into conversation with her. I wondered about this catholic shrine. Could Self have meant the Augustinerkirche (which James Joyce frequented)? But it is a church and Self clearly refers to a “little shrine”. Then the penny dropped. Just a few steps from the Widder Hotel is a small square known, informally, as The James Joyce Corner. On the corner is a literature museum, and tucked away upstairs one finds the small James Joyce Foundation. This indeed has many of the hallmarks of a shrine.
The foundation’s members, like the adherents of a catholic cult, preserve the works and relics of their saint. Here you will find all of Joyce’s published books, including translations, as well as secondary works. Postcards and letters of James Joyce are carefully preserved, as well as relics, such as the Dubliner’s original death mask and his famous walking cane. Once a year, followers of the Joyce cult can partake in an organised visit to the Holy Land. It’s called the Dublin Pilgrimage. The cult surrounding Joyce began during his own lifetime. When the very first copy of Ulysses arrived from the printer in Paris, it was put on display in a glass case in Shakespeare and Company Bookstore and people came especially to gaze at it in reverence, as if it was a sacred object. Joyce surrounded himself with devotees, 12 of whom, including Samuel Beckett, were given the task of writing positive reviews of the book. He called them his “apostles”. Even earlier, when writing Ulysses in Zurich, he had his adepts, such as the artist Frank Budgen. One of his “friends” of this period, a Zurich man called Weiss, like Judas, would later betray him. Joyce Beddoes is befriended by one of the trinity she has just encountered outside the shrine. His name is Weiss.
A few days later, Joyce Beddoes finds herself being treated to lunch by Weiss and his partner, Marianne Kreutzer (possibly a reference to James Joyce’s lover in Zurich, Martha Fleischmann). Weiss informs Beddoes that the restaurant has always been a haunt of famous writers, including “Durrenmatt, Keller, Mann, Frisch”. But where is James Joyce in this list? No disrespect to Nobel Laureate Thomas Mann, but surely James Joyce was the most illustrious of the restaurant’s literary patrons? Even today, when booking dinner, you can still reserve “the Joyce table”. Indeed, the Kronenhalle’s proprietors proudly display on the walls their own original photos of Joyce, much like, well, sacred relics. One could defend the proposition that the Kronenhalle has become something of a temple in the contemporary cult of James Joyce. But the protagonists in this novella seem blessedly ignorant of this fact, and the reader is kept by Self equally ignorant.
Beddoes unwittingly orders Leberknödel soup (liver dumpling soup). The victim of liver cancer tastes the liver broth: “Fleshy dumplings floated in the life-giving broth and Joyce spooned one up and bit into it, releasing tangible pulses of flavour.” James Joyce’s last meal here resulted in his ulcer perforating his intestines and led to his death, but for Self’s Joyce, the meal is “life-giving”.
Joyce Beddoes leaves her miraculous meal, and Weiss and Kreutzer install her in an apartment at Universiteitsstrasse 29. The apartment is the centre of their cult, for it is here that a little saintly girl called Gertrude once lived and, having died of leukemia, she, according to the believers, intercedes to perform miracles, including reversing cancer. But if there is a ghost at work at Universiteitstrasse 29 it is not called Gertrude but probably answers to the name James Joyce. It was in this very house that Joyce lived while working on Ulysses. Again, the protagonists in Self’s novel are oblivious that they are living in the shade of the great Irish writer, and Self’s readers are equally left in the dark.
James Joyce was intrigued by the Zurich spring festival of Sechselauten, in which the spirit of winter is burnt on a gigantic wooden pyre. Although there is nothing sexual about the festival, he, dirty old man that he was, obviously thought otherwise. Sechselauten appears in Finnegans Wake as “Ping-pong! There’s the Belle for Sexaloitez” and “ringrang, the chimes of sex appealing”. Joyce Beddoes attends the festival in one of the most extended episodes in Self’s novella. She then meets Weiss on the steps of the Opera House (one of James Joyce’s favourite venues) and this leads into the novella’s only sex scene. It is graphic, even crude; in a word, Joycean.
Self’s Joyce finds herself aimlessly wandering though Zurich. She is beginning to read the city, much like Leopold Bloom and Stephan Dedalus in Dublin. She passes Fluntern Cemetery often; once she briefly reflects that that path leads to her grave. She seems to be unaware that it also leads to the grave of another Joyce, James, who has lain here since 1941, it’s most famous resident by far. But again, Self informs neither his hapless character nor his readers.
One day, at the height of summer, alone and forgotten by the traitor Weiss, Joyce Beddoes feels the warm wind, known as the Foehn, blowing over the city. James Joyce, like many others, hated this wind. It appears in Finnegans Wake as “in the wake of their good old Foehn”. The line echoes the book’s deathly title, Wake. Self’s Joyce feels that the Foehn is “smothering her”. It is a harbinger of the end.
Throughout Self’s novella, Joyce’s relationship with her 33-year-old highly strung daughter, Isobel, forms an undercurrent of unease. She grieves that the daughter was always closer to her husband, the late Derry. His pet name for his daughter was “Izzy”. Isobel is highly strung and has had a succession of broken relationships with unsuitable men. James Joyce loved his mentally unstable daughter, Lucia, deeply. As she slipped into madness, she attempted to have a number of hugely inappropriate sexual relationships with men. In Finnegans Wake, the main character, Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, has a wife, Anna Livia, and a daughter called Isabel. She desperately seeks a male mate. But the husband-father covets her as his daughter-wife. He calls her “Issy”.
Clearly, the life and work of James Joyce forms a rich source for Will Self’s tale. His is a fictional analysis of the ethics of euthanasia, or assisted-suicide. But at a deeper level, he has written an intertextual tale that gains a deeper meaning only when the older text is approached and recognised. But why, may one ask, is James Joyce never directly referred to? Why, when James Joyce is so obviously present, does Self keep him hidden? When Joyce Beddoes’ liver cancer was first diagnosed, her doctor informed her that the cancer had not originated in her liver, but its origin was “occult”. He explains that this term simply means that they don’t know. But “occult” means secrets or hidden. The origin of her disease is hidden, and its “cure” must remain equally hidden. Jame’s Joyce’s presence in the novella is hidden; hidden from his namesake, the sad Joyce Beddoes, and hidden from the reader. This hiddenness, this gaping absence, is decisive to the story.
Will Self has written an intriguing work of cultic (and Celtic) ghostliness. It is a story laden with a plurality of meanings, where nothing is as it seems, where even the current of the River Limmat can be reversed. British reviewers must be an overworked and under-read bunch of people to have missed it. To quote James Joyce, in Finnegans Wake: “Yssel that the Limmat?”
By Paul Doolan
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