Read an edited version of the lecture that Will Self gave on Dictatorship, Machines and 20th Century Classical Music as part of The Rest Is Noise festival at the Southbank last Friday in Guardian Review here.
“WG Sebald, who died in a car crash in 2001, was an inspired essayist, quite as much as he was a novelist; indeed, I often think of his most achieved fictions – Austerlitz, and The Emigrants – as writing that tests the limits of both forms, blending them together at their margins with a kind of vaporous diffusion of their creator’s lucidity, so entirely are the invented and the real fused together. This essay on the last years of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s life exhibits all of Sebald’s strengths as a writer – and all of his strange, gnomic, secretive foibles. Ostensibly a straightforward account of Rousseau’s exiled wanderings, it begins with his first glimpse, in 1965, of the Ile Saint Pierre in Switzerland, where Rousseau spent the first period of his stateless exile, and where he claimed – in his Reveries of a Solitary Walker – that he was happier than he had been anywhere else.
“Sebald goes on to recount his own eventual landfall on the island in 1996, then employs this – the parenthetic of his own life – to consider the strange denouement and afterlife of the pre-eminent ideologue of the French revolution. It is a technique we are familiar with in Sebald’s fiction: the author is very much present in these lines, and yet simultaneously absent. This is in keeping with Sebald’s themes of exile and misappropriation, because, while he may be writing about another speculative thinker who lived 200 years before, as ever he is attempting to discover the hidden connections that bind human thought both to itself, and to the wider world.
“Of course, what occurred between 1965 and 1996 for Sebald was his own exile: it was following the revelations of the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials in the summer of the year that Sebald visited the island (trials he witnessed firsthand, and which revealed to him the extent of his parents’ generation’s complicity in the Holocaust), and it was following this visit that the young academic took steps that led to his eventual domicile on another island, Britain, where he spent the next three decades at the University of East Anglia. Sebald allows this to lie beneath the text – a discoverable and psychic subtext; and just as he neglects to inform us of why Rousseau’s paranoid and haunted final years should have had such a resonance for him, so this compulsively peripatetic and ambulatory writer also leaves off the list of distinguished writerly pilgrims to Rousseau’s happy isle the greatest British walker-writer of them all, Worsdworth, who tramped all the way there in 1788, en route to his own liaison with revolutionary apotheosis.”
To read James Woods, Iain Sinclair and Robert Macfarlane on Sebald, visit Guardian Review here.
Will Self’s Guardian review of Cities Are Good for You by Leo Hollis.
‘Back in the tail end of 2009, Nigel Farage stepped aside from his leadership of the United Kingdom Independence Party to concentrate on challenging the speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, in the parliamentary elections of 2010. In a characteristically forthright statement, Farage said that Bercow “represented the worst” of a legislature that had “broken the trust” of the British people. In due course Bercow, a somewhat maverick Tory, was returned to parliament and the speaker’s throne, but not before Farage himself had been spectacularly unseated. It was during an election stunt, while he was flying his light aircraft high over the Angleterre profonde of Northants. The banner trailing the plane, and bearing the legend “Vote for Your Country, Vote for Ukip”, created a little too much drag, and the habitually ebullient Farage fell to Earth.
‘In the wake of Ukip’s triumphant outing in the Eastleigh byelection last week – pushing the Conservatives into a humiliating third place – it’s worth asking ourselves if Farage’s party, now indisputably in the ascendant, can maintain its semi-benign cast, or, if the runner-up does indeed begin to run over the Tories, the mask will slip to reveal a more sinister visage. After all, Farage has for some years now been the MEP for the Southeast of England, which means that he sits in a democratically elected assembly the legitimacy of which he utterly denies. A benign view of this would be that he and the rest of Ukip are simply plucky small-nation nationalists standing up against an oppressive suzerainty; a darker perspective would be that some Ukip supporters have a more deep-seated antagonism to our current constitutional settlement, one they share with a quiescent sector of our society, that, when the time is right, will blossom not into a lovely English rose but a poisonous xenophobia.
‘In the spring of last year my then 10-year-old son and I set off from our home in Stockwell, South London, for our annual long-distance walk. On this occasion our destination was the manor house in Worcestershire belonging to friends. Our route took us past the tube station where a middle-aged white woman has a greengrocery stall. I often see her chatting happily with her customers – many of whom belong to ethnic minorities. During the 2010 general election I had conducted a vox pop for the Evening Standard in the area, and asked her how she would be voting: “Oh, BNP, I s’pose.” When I had remonstrated with her, pointing out that, despite their disavowals, Nick Griffin’s party remained racist and fascist to the core, she came back at me with the habitual plaint of the London white working class: “I’m not racial – but …” The “buts” in her case were those so carefully analysed by Daniel Trilling in Bloody Nasty People, his recent study of the rise of the British National Party. She was not opposed to black and brown Britons per se; what she objected to were recent immigrants of any colour scrounging social benefits, including healthcare and council housing. She despaired of any of the mainstream parties curtailing mass immigration, and looked to the BNP as the only credible promoter of what she saw as the rights of indigenous, white working people.’
Read the rest of Will Self’s essay for Guardian Review here.
‘In Barry Lopez‘s haunting, poetic book about the hyperborean realms, Arctic Dreams, there’s a magnificent story about an Inuit family who are washed out to the seas on a calved iceberg. Nothing is heard of them for about 30 years, until one day they rejoin the rest of their tribal group. The reason for their prolonged absence is this: it has taken them this long, on the deserted island where they fetched up, to hunt the seals, narwhals, whales and assorted other fauna, required to provide the skins, the baleen stretchers, the bone needles and the sinewy thread with which to construct a seagoing boat – as soon as it was done they headed home.
‘There’s something about this tale that represents, for me, the quintessence of what I imagine to be the relationship between traditional hunter-gatherer peoples and their world. The Inuit family are simultaneously at the mercy of their environment, and its masters; their capacity to instinctively use every available resource is seamlessly united with high levels of forward planning, so that in a situation that would cost anyone not so attuned their lives, they instead go – literally as well as metaphorically – with the flow.
‘I probably reread Lopez’s book about every couple of years. Arctic Dreams is a more or less perfect example of a tendency in my reading towards what can only be described as “comfort savagery”. Lying abed, in the heart of a great, pulsing, auto-cannibalising conurbation, the supply chain of which girdles the earth like the monstrous tail of some effluent-belching comet, I find descriptions of how I myself might have lived before the great grainy surplus of the agricultural revolution curiously heartening. After all, what does any kind of reading provide for us if not the opportunity to exercise imaginative sympathy? Others may prefer to will themselves into James Bond’s dinner jacket and Aston Martin DB4, but I’d rather slip into a !Kung hunter’s penis sheath and heft his hunting spear.’
To read the rest of Will Self’s piece on the joys of ‘comfort savagery’, visit Guardian Review here.
Will Self recently chose Tenniel’s illustration of Alice with the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland as one of his favourite classic book illustrations:
“When I was a child my parents had a splendid edition of Alice in Wonderland with some of the Tenniel illustrations as shiny colour plates. I was obsessed by Alice – and the illustration that particularly gripped me was of the caterpillar sitting on the toadstool smoking his hookah. It’s easy to see why it exerted such a hold …”
To read the rest of the article, visit the Guardian Review here.
To read Will Self’s review of Kevin Jackson’s Constellation of Genius, 1922: Modernism Year One – which he says is “an insanely readable book about modernism” that is “the primer the subject has been looking for: a way into its symbolic labyrinth” – go to the Guardian website here.
As the publication of Umbrella on August 16 nears, Will Self talks to the Observer about his new Man Booker-longlisted novel (and, briefly, his next novel, which will be “Jaws without the shark”.)
Will has also written a piece in the FT about what he terms “everythingitis”, which he feels every time he finishes a book, and how he conducts his research. There’s also a long piece here that he wrote for the Guardian Review about modernism and how he got going as a writer.