“Sometimes it occurs to me that the job of a serious cultural critic mostly consists in telling the generality of people that their opinions – on films, on books, on all manner of widgets, gadgets and even the latest electronic fidgets – simply aren’t up to scratch. It’s a dirty, thankless task, but someone has to do it; someone has to point out that, no, Inception wasn’t the last word in SF meta-sophistication, but rather a stupid person’s idea of what an intelligent film is like. And by the same token, as the Coen brothers’ True Grit comes galloping into our multiplexes surrounded by dust clouds of Stateside approbation, someone has to take a bead on the whole sweep of their careers, squint, and then if not exactly shoot them down, at any rate cold-cock the notion that the Coens are the great American auteurs of their generation, when, sadly, they are only a moderately clever person’s idea of what great American auteurs might be like.
“I am a regular if not exactly enthusiastic patron of my local bookshop. I try to buy at least some books there because I cling to the belief that it’s important to maintain those businesses that put a human face on the exchange of money for goods and services. If we bought everything on the internet, our eyes and mouths and nostrils would probably begin to film over with a tegument – one initially tissue-thin and capable of being removed each morning, but which gradually thickened and hardened until we were imprisoned in our own tiny minds.
“Each morning at approximately 8.45am any number of yummy mummies, trolling their kids and dogs across the balding sward of Clapham Common might witness this curious spectacle: a tall, slightly cadaverous man, pacing along at speed and ignoring the Jack Russell that nips at his heels while addressing an invisible interlocutor in heavily London-accented French.
“‘Non, elle n’est pas allée dans un magasin de chaussures,’ he tells his inner demons, and then, ‘Elle lui a dit bonjour’. Yes, it is indeed me, listening yet again to Chapitre Dix of the Berlitz audio tape. Indeed, I have listened to it so many times already that despite these playlets being brief and purely instructional I have come to harbour strange ideas about their characters.
“A few weeks ago, a famous – and famously beautiful – young novelist found herself unfortunately seated beside me at an otherwise impeccably Hampstead dinner party. Bemoaning the state of British arts in general, she animadverted concerning our undoubted satirical prowess: ‘It’s easy for us, it’s what we do – we just lift an arse cheek and out it comes.’ Actually, I’m not sure she did say the arse-cheek bit – but it was words to that effect.
“Obviously the most important duty of our new prime minister is to acquaint himself with the circumstances of those whom he is about to immiserate. I suggest a brisk tour of the horizon of poverty and deprivation in order to ready him for the wielding of the axe. Why not begin with Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London? As an ex-public school boy he may find it easier to empathise with an Old Etonian on the skids – alternatively, Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier gives a journalistic – if still convincing – portrayal of what life is like for a working class deprived of both work and a social safety net. For a more elegiac account of poverty, try Knut Hamsun’s classic Hunger – the title says it all.
“I set out on my great adventure to the wilder shores of linguistic competence only six weeks ago – and yet already I feel I’m floundering. Those who read my earlier piece will recall that I had opted for the Berlitz method in order to take my French from the three-year-old-getting-along level: ‘Train station, where, go now, please?’ to one where, by the autumn, when I have a new book out in France, I would be at least capable of conducting a basic press interview.”
The rest of the second part of Will Self’s attempt to learn French is ici.
‘On 18 April 1930, Mikhail Bulgakov ate his lunch in his Moscow flat and then lay down for his customary nap. However, he was soon roused by the telephone ringing, and shortly after that his second wife, Lyuba, came in to tell him that someone from the Central Committee (of the Communist party) wished to speak to him. Bulgakov assumed it was a malicious trick of some kind – such things were common at that time, a grimly antic precursor of the persecutions to come – but when he picked up the handset he heard a voice say, “Mikhail Afanasyevich Bulgakov?” and, when he affirmed this, “Comrade Stalin will talk to you now”. Immediately afterwards Bulgakov heard a voice with a distinct Georgian accent – it was indeed the dictator on the line.
Will Self’s 10 rules for writing fiction, from the Guardian Review:
1. Don’t look back until you’ve written an entire draft, just begin each day from the last sentence you wrote the preceding day. This prevents those cringing feelings, and means that you have a substantial body of work before you get down to the real work, which is all in …
2. The edit.
3. Always carry a notebook. And I mean always. The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper, you can lose an idea for ever.