Will Self: Modernism and Me

An autobiographical essay for The Guardian
Will Self. Photograph: David A. Selby
Will Self reflects on his connection to literary modernism: 'As a bookish adolescent I sopped up texts as if I were blotting paper and they were fluid. My unstructured absorption of the European canon was only intensified by my refusal to submit to the strictures of a conventional English literature degree course: I never took in the historicist perspective that leads ineluctably from Sweet's Anglo-Saxon Primer, through Spenser and Shakespeare to the robust, door-stopping certainties of Victorian triple-decker novels. Instead, already by the time I lay in that Jericho aquarium, I was a devotee of those works marked by an inability to suspend disbelief in their own formal properties. Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel, Cervantes's Don Quixote, Sterne's Tristram Shandy, Melville's Moby-Dick and Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time – these works spoke paradoxically directly to me in their very sense of indirection. I understood intuitively rather than systematically that all these works were examples of a form we might call "pre-modernism", insofar as they anticipated the same existential problems that afflicted Joyce, Woolf, Djuna Barnes, Eliot and other literary modernists to come. That the novel in its inchoate state was more capable of self-questioning experimentation is unsurprising for all sorts of social, cultural and historical reasons, but we can equally ascribe to the writers themselves a sensitivity to what Gabriel Josipovici, in his book What Ever Happened to Modernism?, characterises as an essentially timeless awareness: the simple impossibility of going on, if to go on is to continue with well-established ways of depicting the world in art.' [Read More]

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