James Joyce once described Ulysses — in dog Italian — as a ‘maledettisimo romanzaccione’, or monstrously big novel. It has come to stand as a modernist masterpiece, and also the acme of difficult, inaccessible, unwieldy fiction. It is to be read (if at all) effortfully, in sweaty admiration, and mercifully short chunks.
One cannot help recalling Joyce when grappling with Will Self’s big new monster of a novel. And just occasionally, Self allows his formidable phrasemaking to drift towards bad Joycean pastiche: breastfeeding seen in terms of ‘hawsers and pipelines coiled away into milky fartysteam’, the ‘jewfoody stench’ of an old apartment, and the like.
But no matter. Umbrella is a magnificent celebration of modernist prose, an epic account of the first world war, a frightening investigation into the pathology of mental illness, and the first true occasion when Self’s ambition and talent have produced something of real cultural significance. It is also very hard work to read.
The story centres on Dr Zack Busner and his treatment of post-encephilitic patients in Friern Mental Hospital. They include Audrey Death (also aptly known as Dearth), who was committed in a ‘ticcing’ catatonic state following the apparent demise of her brother Stanley in the trenches.
The novel has three time zones: 1918, charting the experiences of Audrey and her brothers; 1971, when Busner rouses Audrey from her 50-year waking coma using a risky new drug; and 2010, when Busner is retired, and mulling over his past.
Self has structured the work as a series of mingled — and mangled — streams of consciousness, with thoughts and words blurring across the decades. So the text has long passages of interior monologue, punctuated by a ‘miserable rondeau’ of recurring songs, faithfully transcribed as if just overheard: ‘Don’t av any more Missus Moore, Missus Moore, please don’t av any more! The more you av, the more yull want, they say, an enuff izzas good as a feast any day.’
Self’s fidelity to the perspective of his creations is sustained and overwhelming, and we feel — as did Ezra Pound with Ulysses — that ‘characters not only speak their own language, but they think their own language’. The effect is to immerse the reader in the novel’s world of confusion and ‘inexhaustible filth’, of uncontrollable fears, of the pitiless brutality of warfare and the devastation of mental illness and its primitive treatment.
This is very much the world in which modernism was first created, but it does Self a tremendous disservice to think that Umbrella is no more than a tribute to a past literary movement. Indeed, the lively
resurrection of the past is itself a significant theme of the novel: Busner is seeking to treat patients for whom symptoms of ‘madness’ constantly threaten to reappear ‘like bones ploughed up from a battlefield’, and spends much of the novel looking backwards to his previous existence. It is brilliantly fitting that the literary tic of modernist prose (with its spasming repetitions and circularities) is recast as another symptom that cannot be shaken.
The genius of Umbrella, then, is the sense of control behind the splurge of writing. Amid the chaos of consciousness, we notice exquisite patterning: the recurrent glimmer of sunlight through a grimy window; the precise lines formed by people (‘the extreme rigidity of her forearm, which she holds at a sharp angle in front of her chest’) and their surroundings (‘the cutlass shadows slashed by a pot plant on geometrically patterned wallpaper’).
And the symptoms of poor mental health, all of those tics and spasms, find constant visual echoes in Self’s descriptions of the ‘entire mechanical age’, right the way through to modern desk-workers ‘twitch-twitch-twitchety-twitching at their computer mice’.
There is, of course, so much more to this novel than its ornamental structures. Umbrella must be recognised as, above all, a virtuoso triumph of emotional and creative intelligence. Just don’t take it to a beach this summer in anticipation of an easy read.