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Umbrella by Will Self

Umbrella (original 2012; edition 2012)

by Will Self

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3851927,829 (3.28)1 / 60
Authors:Will Self
Info:Bloomsbury Paperbacks (2012), Kindle Edition, 417 pages
Collections:Kindle Books
Tags:Novel, British, Book Club, London, England, 1970s, 1910s, WWI, Mental Illness, Family

Work details

Umbrella by Will Self (2012)



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English (18)  German (1)  All (19)
Showing 1-5 of 18 (next | show all)
All that I understood with reading a few pages of this book is there is an asylum, a doctor, a mental patient and... and... wait did I get this information by reading the blurb!!!
Totally, I might NOT have understood what was this book was about. Maybe I am dumb. May be the book is DUMBER!! We just didn't get along. ( )
  PallaviSharma | May 9, 2016 |
Didn't finish. I admire a book of this popularity taking risks with form and being a bit experimental; credit to the Booker shortlist for including it.

But for me, it's just not well done. Stream-of-conciousness is where every teenage creative writer starts - it's hard to do well, and setting it in a psychiatric hospital is just inviting comparison to the worst excesses of angsty adolescent individualism. For me, there's not enough here to elevate this novel above that level, particularly when Self's obsession with long and technical vocabulary masks any actual emotional complexity that would do so.

Only read 60 pages or so, so only a partial assessment. ( )
  sometimeunderwater | Sep 3, 2015 |
I really couldn't get into this book. I was only half way through when the library loan ran out and I decided not to renew. I found it rather unpleasantly crude. ( )
  eclecticdodo | Jun 30, 2015 |
Some thoughts on my first reading.

Last winter I happened to read Oliver Sacks’s [b:Awakenings|14456|Awakenings|Oliver Sacks|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1388274053s/14456.jpg|2755549] (see review), which is the urtext for Will Self’s new novel Umbrella. In the mid-60s Dr. Sacks famously gave L-DOPA, a relatively new drug mimicking the neurotransmitter dopamine, to dozens of post-encephalytic patients under his care at Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx, New York. These patients had been infected in 1918 by theencephalitis lethargica virus, or "sleepy sickness" (not to be confused with the Spanish Influenza of the same year). In Umbrella even where references to Sacks’s book do not appear — such as the World War I and present-day sections — it's clear the good doctor's classic collection of case studies serves as the novel's inspration.

Those patients who survived the virus were able afterwards to lead normal lives for many years, sometimes decades, until they were stricken with symptoms similar to Parkinson’s disease: locked postures that turned them into living statuary (akinesia), hurrying gait (festination), frozen skewed gaze (oculogyyric crises) and so on. These patients did not have Parkinson's proper, but since the virus reduced dopamine in their brains to about 10 or 15% of healthy levels, they experienced identical if somewhat more severe symptoms than actual Parkinson's patients. The only difference being that Parkinson’s is ultimately fatal, while post-encephalitics (“enkies,” affectionately) might live for the rest of their natural span with the symptoms. Such is the experience of Audrey Death, a main character here.

Self takes much from Awakenings that echoes the trials and tribulations of Dr. Sacks’s enkies--and Sacks himself--and inflates it into a grand fiction resembling the inspirational text very little. Here, the doctor, Zachary Busner, a psychiatrist of Jewish birth, is adrift in a vast English hospital called the Friern, known for its ½ mile or so of monotonous corridors. Many of the problems Sacks had in the 1960s — like pulling all the patients into a single ward, studying their hyper-slow movements via speeded up film, dealing with a highly political hospital administration, and other details — are dramatized here.

There are also large sections of entirely new invention in Umbrella. In one, we follow Audrey Death in her pre-war family life and war-time work as as a “munitionette,” preparing shells for the British army. We also follow two of her brothers: Stanley Death, a trench soldier, and the soi disant Albert De'Ath, who becomes a big-time government honcho. Stanley has an aristocratic lover, Adeline, who he must leave to fight in the endless and pointless war. One day he is brought to live amid a society of bisexual soldiers from both sides deep under that gap between the trenches known as No Man's Land. I suspect this subterranean world of tunnelers was in part inspired by Alasdair Gray's dystopic [b:Lanark|161037|Lanark|Alasdair Gray|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1327948704s/161037.jpg|958496] (see review). Audrey's other brother, Albert, has Asperger's, and is a savant of Rain Man-like propensities, though much higher functioning. Audrey, during her pre-encephalytic days, was a staunch socialist while Albert was a conservative. These divergent political views lead to much conflict between them.

Will Self is an acquired taste. In the past he has regularly made fun of death and unspeakable cruelty with an almost hysterical glee. His talent is certainly great. It has, however, to my mind, at times been exceeded by his ambition. So that no matter how good his books are, and the ones I’ve read are outstanding, he nonetheless always seems to outstrip it (his talent) by way of a stridency of tone (ambition). Subtlety of tone is not in Self's gift. His is always a full throttle, no-holds-barred kind of narrative propulsion. He doesn't dance elliptically around a subject, but always seems to bore to its very heart. This style leaves us with some very naked prose, a prose that doesn’t skirt its limitations, but is on the contrary quite open about them. I know readers who can't abide Self's deeply cynical trickster prose. So I'm happy to report that the cackling satire of Self's earlier work seems in abeyance here, in favor of something softer, something less shrill, more compassionate.

The story is rendered in an almost pitch-perfect Modernist style. I found this astonishing. How does Self pick up Literary Modernism and its attributes (stream of consciousness, abrupt transitions, multiple unidentified intersecting voices, etc.) and don it like a hat? The choice of style strikes me as perfect. I note in my review of [b:Awakenings|14456|Awakenings|Oliver Sacks|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1388274053s/14456.jpg|2755549] how Sacks’s, by flipping from main text to footnote and back again, actually introduces a kind of novelistic discursiveness into his text that would not be obvious to those reading his book without the footnotes. It's an almost [b:Moby-Dick or The Whale|153747|Moby-Dick; or, The Whale|Herman Melville|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1327940656s/153747.jpg|2409320]-like discursiveness. And I can’t help wondering if Sacks's discursiveness did not in part suggest to Self his neo-Modernist approach.

This is a complex book and a single reading will not satisfy those who wish to know it. On first reading I found some 20% of it utterly ambiguous. So I look forward to rereading it soon, though that will probably not render it more "coherent." A stunner and very highly recommended, especially for those who enjoy challenging texts. ( )
  William345 | Jun 11, 2014 |
  DeanClark | May 6, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 18 (next | show all)
Die Europäische Schlafkrankheit und ihre Symptome erscheinen so grausam wie die Erfindung aus einem Endzeitroman, doch tatsächlich erkrankten während der Pandemie zwischen 1917 und 1927 rund 5 Millionen Menschen daran. Ein Drittel der Erkrankten starb im direkten Zusammenhang mit der Entzündung ihres Gehirns. Bereits 1973 hat Oliver Sacks mit Awakenings ein Buch über diese Kranken und ihren Arzt geschrieben. Wo Sacks den Leser mit Fakten und Fotos absetzt, holt Will Selfs Regenschirm ihn ab – und lässt ihn verstört und nachdenklich zurück.

The influence of Joyce’s Ulysses is everywhere, from a housekeeper’s apron printed with pictures of Georgian Dublin to the seamless fragmentation of the prose. An era, a scene, a character’s age can all change in the course of a sentence.

Every experience is filtered through another, or infiltrated by it. At times, this Self-imposed exile from any “fixed regard”, threatens the narrative’s sanity, and its readability, but that is the point. Whether Umbrella takes experimental fiction beyond the magnificent cul-de-sac into which Joyce steered it is doubtful. But this fresh reminder of the potential of finding new selves – to be and to write with – is extraordinary.
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A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella.
 - James Joyce
For Deborah
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I'm an ape-man, I'm an ape-man...
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0802120725, Hardcover)

"A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella."—James Joyce, Ulysses

Radical and uncompromising, Umbrella is a tour de force from one of England’s most acclaimed contemporary writers, and Self’s most ambitious novel to date. Moving between Edwardian London and a suburban mental hospital in 1971, Umbrella exposes the twentieth century’s technological searchlight as refracted through the dark glass of a long term mental institution. While making his first tours of the hospital at which he has just begun working, maverick psychiatrist Zachary Busner notices that many of the patients exhibit a strange physical tic: rapid, precise movements that they repeat over and over. One of these patients is Audrey Dearth, an elderly woman born in the slums of West London in 1890. Audrey’s memories of a bygone Edwardian London, her lovers, involvement with early feminist and socialist movements, and, in particular, her time working in an umbrella shop, alternate with Busner’s attempts to treat her condition and bring light to her clouded world. Busner’s investigations into Audrey’s illness lead to discoveries about her family that are shocking and tragic.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:21:28 -0400)

A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella. James Joyce, Ulysses Recently having abandoned his RD Laing-influenced experiment in running a therapeutic community - the so-called Concept House in Willesden - maverick psychiatrist Zack Busner arrives at Friern Hospital, a vast Victorian mental asylum in North London, under a professional and a marital cloud. He has every intention of avoiding controversy, but then he encounters Audrey Dearth, a working-class girl from Fulham born in 1890 who has been immured in Friern for decades. A socialist, a feminist and a munitions worker at the Woolwich Arsenal, Audrey fell victim to the encephalitis lethargica sleeping sickness epidemic at the end of the First World War and, like one of the subjects in Oliver Sacks' Awakenings, has been in a coma ever since. Realising that Audrey is just one of a number of post-encephalitics scattered throughout the asylum, Busner becomes involved in an attempt to bring them back to life - with wholly unforeseen consequences.… (more)

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