It was certainly not without some trepidation that I undertook the task of reviewing the talk given by novelist and public intellectual Will Self, on Friday evening (September 29) – this year’s Golding Speaker at the start of Marlborough LitFest 2017.
No doubt this feeling was also one shared by many of the audience at the event – an event which transpired to be as unsettling as it was enthralling.
Self is perhaps best known for his numerous television and radio appearances, artfully aggressive and charming in equal measure, and the atmosphere as the Town Hall filled up was one of excitement and nervous anticipation: what would Self be like?
Would he be warm and welcoming or, more likely, erudite and aloof, speaking from his superior intellect in ways ungraspable to the audience? As it turns out, this was all true and yet, confusingly, it wasn’t.
‘Difficult’, or as Self himself begrudgingly termed it, the dreaded ‘D word’, was a word that characterised the talk. Complaining of his tendency to be pigeon-holed as an obscure and incomprehensible writer, he lamented the current state of readership, clearly disheartened by the fact that the young don’t seem to see literature as a central theme of their lives.
Plagued by his reputation, he spoke honestly of believing utterly in his novels, seeing them as zeitgeist fiction, but finding it hard to attract readers.
Self was frequently a rather difficult speaker, singling out members of the audience and, at one moment the sound technician, his witty quips often straying uncomfortably towards personal attacks. Yet he successfully demonstrated through his dynamic readings from his latest novel, Phone, the third in his trilogy after Umbrella and Shark, just how engaging and penetrable his writing actually is.
The evening was dominated by a desire to prove, in Self’s own words, that ‘it’s not that difficult really’.
He came alive when, free from the constraints of audience participation, he read from Phone. As the trilogy’s pithy titles suggest, words are mined for meaning upon meaning with Self, and a reading from Phone’s opening scene which takes place in a Hilton hotel restaurant, provided a confluence of sound and sense.
The description of the sumptuous and often grotesquely sensual food began ‘shimmering into being’ through articulation from Self’s mouth, illustrating words themselves as both delicious and tactile. When allowing oneself to be led by the supple sound of the words, it became easy to see how Self’s central ideas – the interrelation between psychopathology, technology and war – are embodied in the text.
A smartphone is described ‘burst[ing] into life, throbbing in a hand that had forgotten it was holding it’. Here, the technological becomes an extension of the corporeal human frame, infiltrating our minds and our perception of reality. This all serves to demonstrate Self’s preoccupation with the way that technology, instead of being something creative, becomes destructive.
The question is posed: is new technology introduced to make humanity better or, rather more cynically, simply to ‘kill each other at a distance’?
Entering the talk very much as a novelist, joking that quite controversially he’d ‘rather concentrate on the literature’ than Brexit, it was as a novelist that he shone.
Whilst his slight unease at the demographics of the hall was thinly-veiled, it produced a fascinating tension – one that was inevitable but refreshing. As the slightly baffled audience left the hall, there was a sense of excitement, almost of breathlessness.
Introducing the event, Jan Williamson, chair of the LitFest, had remarked that Self has admitted to writing without an audience in mind, wishing only to ‘astonish’. But with this audience in mind, Self did just that. The audience left – whether uncomfortable or delighted – undoubtedly astonished.