It’s a fairly straightforward question to ask, one which most literary scholars would be able to provide a halfway decent answer to based on their own readings. Ernest Hemingway, Samuel Beckett and Gertrude Stein more likely to use short words, James Joyce, Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf using longer ones, the rest falling somewhere between the two extremes.
Most Natural Language Processing textbooks or introductions to quantitative literary analysis demonstrate how the most frequently occurring words in a corpus will decline at a rate of about 50%, i.e. the most frequently occurring term will appear twice as often as the second, which is twice as frequent as the third, and so on and so on. I was curious to see whether another process was at work for word lengths, and whether we can see a similar decline at work in modernist novels, or whether more ‘experimental’ authors visibly buck the trend. With some fairly elementary analysis in NLTK, and data frames over into R, I generated a visualisation which looked nothing like this one.*
In narrowing down the amount of authors I was going to plot, I did incline myself more towards authors that I thought would be more variegated, getting rid of the ‘strong centre’ of modernist writing, not quite as prosodically charged as Marcel Proust, but not as brutalist as Stein either. I also put in a couple of contemporary writers for comparison, such as Will Self and Eimear McBride.
As we can see, after the rather disconnected percentages of corpora that use one letter words, with McBride and Hemingway on top at around 25%, and Stein a massive outlier at 11%, things become increasingly harmonious, and the longer the words get, the more the lines of the vectors coalesce.
Self and Hemingway dip rather egregiously with regard to their use of two-letter words (which is almost definitely because of a mutual disregard for a particular word, I’m almost sure of it), but it is Stein who exponentially increases her usage of two and three letter words. As my previous analyses have found, Stein is an absolute outlier in every analysis.
By the time the words are ten letters long, true to form it’s Self who’s writing is the only one above 1%.
Aspiration: 50/50 gender & POC split (currently at a lame and terrible 20% and 0% respectively)
Samuel Beckett — How It Is
Reaching the conclusion that How It Is represents Beckett’s prose writing reaching its most concentrated point of distillation and intensity is somewhat inevitable, seeing as it was his last novel; the longest prose work subsequent to How It Is barely reaches the length of a novella, almost as if the weight of the novelistic tradition, a form known for its expansiveness and maximalism, couldn’t withstand Beckett’s striving towards a more hermetic and taciturn literature.
Having said this, I don’t wish to fetishise How It Is for its its impecuniousness alone, for there are plenty of sections in which traditionally pretty descriptive prose appears:
we are on a veranda smothered in verbena the scented sun dapples the red tiles yes I assure you the huge head hatted with birds and flowers is bowed down over my curls the eyes burn with severe love I offer her mine pale upcast to the sky whence cometh our help and which I know perhaps even then with time shall pass away
The ‘yes I assure you’ is demonstrative of How It Is’ overriding push/pull dynamic, in advancing an almost sickly description, almost reminiscent of Keats alongside its subverting narrative commentary. But this doesn’t deaden the effect of the writing, just as setting imagery of abject ugliness and inhumanity amid these lyrical digressions intensifies the effects of both:
as it comes bits and scraps all sorts not so many and to conclude happy end cut thrust DO YOU LOVE ME no or nails armpit and little song to conclude happy end of part two leaving only part three and last the day comes I come to the day Bom comes YOU BOM me Bom ME BOM you Bom we Bom
2. Jorge Luis Borges — Labyrinths
In talking about the short story’s as one of the more concentrated literary forms, one in which space is at a premium, and there can’t be too many words that don’t belong there, I think the work of Jorge Luis Borges is most deserving of mention. No other writer that I’m aware of is capable in under five hundred words of totally challenging the ways in which you think, how you think about how you think, and how you think about how you think about how you think. His capacity to do so through use of a style that is predominantly unadorned and perhaps uninviting makes him all the more fit to be praised.
Since ‘On Exactitude in Science’ is the length of just one paragraph, I’ll present it here:
In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.
At the premium of literary art is its capacity to open up entire worlds with just words on a page. For those who believe world-building to be a preserve of genre fiction only, I encourage them to read Borges.
3. J.M. Coetzee — Waiting for the Barbarians
The allegory, and playing with the conventions around allegory, is a way in which Coetzee’s writing career in its entirety has been characterised by critics, but it might be a line of interpretation advanced too tenuously; it might be more accurate to say that his novels reflect a radical scepticism regarding narrative itself; an unwillingness to confront anything directly. In the Heart of the Country is one of the most deft examples of metafiction I’ve ever come across, and in its refusal to fix its plot around any one sequence of events, we see a narrative force that is as congenial to the forces of its unmaking as its genesis.
Waiting for the Barbarians is more contained than In the Heart of the Country in this sense, but in no other. That it has parallels to South African society under apartheid will surprise no one familiar with the rich literary tradition of that political milieu of the past fifty years, but it has also an uncanny capacity to encompass and seemingly respond to the nature of racial prejudice and ethnically-based in general. I was so sure that it was a product of the Bush years, so I Googled it to find out whether it was written in 2007 or 2005, only to discover that it was published in 1980. Not to turn my ignorance into a virtue, but I think this speaks to its universality.
Which is not to say that the narrative entire is grounded in geopolitics — in the colonial administrator’s love affair with one of the supposed barbarians, we are permitted to meditate on the unknowability of any love object, and by extension ourselves, how ‘In all of us, deep down, there seems to be something granite and unteachable.’
4. Don DeLillo — Underworld
To write a Great American Novel has, thankfully, become rather passé, after feminist critics drew attention to how unusual it is for a female author to be feted with this title. The liberal commentariat’s realisation that they have committed the error of elevating Jonathan Franzen to the role of cultural commentator. Underworld, I would say, is one of the few published in recent years that’s worth reading, for the reason that it is a novel about America that won’t allow real life in.
Underworld is a novel supposedly about baseball, the lost era of old New York, the faux-simplicity of the Cold War, and yet there is nothing ordinary, white bread or milquetoast about the America in this novel; the closest we get to a ‘nuclear’ family is the most distorted and unsettling sections in the text.
It is a novel about subterranean connections and invisible intersections. As you read it, you may find yourself compulsively noticing, drawing analogies, knowing that you’re missing others that only reveal themselves the second time around. This is Underworld’s underworld; more so than many other novels from the time, it is pointing you again and again to what is beyond the page, to what’s beneath the words. You could go mental doing it, wonder why some chapters would be more aptly named with the title that a different chapter has, in what precise order the baseball passes from one character to another, which I suppose is only fitting for a novel in which a baseball is semi-seriously analogous to the famous magic bullet. But for once, I’d encourage any potential reader not to spend their time trying to read past Underworld, not when the prose is this good.
Civilisation did not rise and flourish as men hammered out hunting scenes on bronze gates and whispered philosophy under the stars, with garbage as a noisome offshoot, swept away and forgotten. No, garbage rose first, inciting people to build a civilisation in response, in self-defense.
5. Anne Enright — The Green Road
Enright is one of those few authors that refuses to write the same book twice, and never makes you regret it. Because there is, as publishers well know, a great seductive quality in becoming used to one writing style. Many authors who are too protean, simply do not catch on in a crowded marketplace. Well Enright is interested, and is good at, change. This is how she can move from the hilariously picaresque and surreal The Wig my Father Wore through the tortured monologue of The Gathering to an adept Irish family novel about land, which one could almost call realist, so subtle is the indirect discourse which drives it.
Enright is a deeply intellectual author, but unlike many book-readin’ writers, her ideas exists beneath the surface of the words, just gestured towards, to be decoded on repeated readings. For first readings, just allow the sentences to do their thing. You could read The Green Road all the way through and have no notion of the fact that its in conversation with William Shakespeare’s King Lear. You wouldn’t want to, of course, but you could.
It is a novel of many parts. Each of Rosaleen Madigan’s children get their own section and so the novel roves from Clare to New York to Mali and back, before they are all assembled for the set piece of the Christmas dinner. I really can’t emphasise enough how well this is done. It is in the novel’s closing sections that the function behind its structure becomes clear, in seeing exactly where these people are coming from, their ambivalence regarding their role in the family before their adult lives, then watching those roles slowly overcome them is great, hilarious and sad. A novel with characters you care about, things to say and great writing is too rare, which makes The Green Road all the more valuable.
6. William Faulkner — As I Lay Dying
7. David Foster Wallace — Infinite Jest
David Foster Wallace might be said to be undergoing his D.H. Lawrence moment, in having his reputation defined for too long by a reading community of dudey-bro-y dudebro brodudes, and y’know, to look at his representations of women, here and in The Pale King, not to mention his opinions, or life, it can be hard to say his books don’t deserve scrutiny. It is slightly disappointing all the same to see an author who, among the authors of phallogocentric literary fiction, to be tarred as such, considering he’s among the most giving of them. Infinite Jest apportions its fun about twenty per cent more generously than your average example of the genre, and reading about eschaton is about as much fun as you can have with your eyes open.
Its flaws, the sections dealing with the Québecois separatists, the exposition-laden conversations between Hal Incandenza and his older brother Orin, don’t totally come good in the end, but the unavoidable ambivalence one develops when reading a novel Infinite Jest’s length and ambition, is a feature, rather than a bug. As in any important relationship, the challenge is what matters.
So give yourself the chance to read it. It’s more than readable, and far more interesting than Foster Wallace’s persona as it has been construed in the pop-culture landscape since his death; as an icon, he simply cannot compare with the questions that his work throws up.
8. William Gaddis — The Recognitions
William Gaddis’ The Recognitions is a very conflicted novel. It is a profoundly generative work, one which may have given us every maximalist, encyclopaedic 500+ page text in contemporary American letters since, and it is also a profoundly angry text, one which lashes out at everything: organised religion, the commodification of great art, the hyper-mediation of our reality via advertising, the complacently bourgeois creative class, all these and more are targets of Gaddis’ ire.
However, it is also a novel based on profound erudition and cultural awareness. Its most proximate literary cousin is Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and just as gallantly as Proust does, Gaddis manages to balance many portentous thematic concerns with Being, death and sex, alongside a vibrant social comedy. If I had to guess, I would say about sixty-five percent of it is spent convincing the reader how shallow the hipsters of 1950’s New York are.
And of course, the sentences are very powerful
Undisciplined lights shone through the night instructed by the tireless precision of the squads of traffic lights, turning red to green, green to red, commanding voids with indifferent authority: for the night outside had not changed, with the whole history of night bound up inside it had not become better or worse, fewer lights and it was darker, less motion and it was more empty, more silent, less perturbed, and like the porous figures which continued to move against it, more itself.
It can often be a struggle, Jonathan Franzen tried, and mostly failed to deal with it (in a public article no less), but the bonus of my edition is a foreword by William H. Gass himself, who provides us with a great key to the work, as well as a get-out clause, should we find it too difficult:
No great book is explicable, and I shall not attempt to explain this one. An explanation…would defile it, for reduction is precisely what a work of art opposes…Interpretation replaces the original with the lamest sort of substitute. It tames, disarms.
9. William H. Gass — The Tunnel
10. James Joyce — Ulysses
I was once challenged to sum up a novel’s plot in six words, and for Ulysses, my attempt was ‘2 sad men meet. a woman thinks.’ This is a perfect example of how, when it comes to summing up Ulysses, its hard to know where to begin. Humour, bathos, beauty, poetry, history, love, death, family, sex, great writing, it has everything you could ever want.
I won’t contest that it’s a grower, and if you come to it fresh (‘fresh’ in this case meaning, having read Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which will be necessary), expect to find yourself moving your eyes over large tracts of text without quite knowing exactly what’s happening. Reading aloud helps.
For those who may be used to more genre fare, there are sections for you too, there’s an episode written in the manner of a nineteenth-century romance novel, and while the line attributed to Joyce about enigmas codified into the text in sufficient quantities to keep the professors busy for hundreds of years is definitely apocryphal, what it tells us about the novel is definitely true — the novel is so dense with allusion, red herrings and unresolved questions that you’ll find yourself in the role of a sort of detective, which, is not a wholly inappropriate tack to take with Ulysses, since Joyce designed his one day in Dublin with meticulous attention to detail, his notes on how long it takes to walk down particular stretches of urban walkways, or the businesses Bloom encounters in his perambulations, were all derived from sources, and correspondences with people Joyce contacted in Dublin. A staggering work, everyone should make time for it.
11. Ben Marcus — The Flame Alphabet
12. Flann O’Brien — The Third Policeman
13. Marcel Proust — In Search of Lost Time
The term ‘baggy monster’, so often applied to the novel, is a rather ingenious one, as it captures a central ambivalence regarding the form in relation to itself. Both terms can be read negatively, in fact, they are perhaps more on the negative end of the spectrum than not, but taken together there’s something alluring about it, particularly when you have come to know, over the course of reading many of them, how successful a novel can be in reaching for exactly the kind of excess that ‘good taste’ might seem to advise against. Well there’s plenty baggy and monstrous in Proust’s seven volume work In Search of Lost Time, but, as much as it could be said to be in need of an editor, its vices are perhaps indissociable from its virtues.
And this is itself a virtue. What other work of fiction can be so assuming as to impose itself on you 1,267,069 words? Well it isn’t for no reason, and a close reading of fin-de-siecle French bourgeois culture next to the metaphysician Bergson is more than worth the time you’d spend on it. Yes, it is occasionally tedious, and seemingly repetitive, but you’re unlikely to come away from Proust without recognising yourself in at least a few of the characters, nor coming to some disturbing conclusions regarding the way you live your life. Write down your definitions of habit, love and time before getting into these novels. It’s unlikely they’ll have remained intact in your journey through these texts.
But don’t come to it with a pious reverence. James Grieve, a translator of À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, writes in his introduction to the second volume that
Proust’s reflections, his enunciation of philosophical and psychological truths…are often more importance to him than his verisimilitudes. His composition was often not linear; he wrote in bits and pieces; transitions from one scene to another are sometimes awkward, clumsy even…His paragraphing often seems idiosyncratic.
Far from being a virtuoso of words, or a fluent weaver of imaginative reality, Proust is in many ways inept, or amateurish, and it is in this way that we should appreciate him; the idiosyncrasies are what make In Search of Lost Time such a brilliantly bizarre novel.
14. Thomas Pynchon — Gravity’s Rainbow
15. J.D. Salinger — The Catcher in the Rye
Yes, I know, I should definitely have grown out of thinking this novel is great. Well, every time I’ve gotten back to it, convinced that this time, this time, I’ll realise that I am an adult, and that Holden Caulfield is an annoying idiot, and The Catcher in the Rye is a novel for teenagers, well, it doesn’t happen, and I could read him a hundred novels with him just going about his business, being judgemental and obnoxious inside his own head forever and ever. My liking him is somewhat beside the point, and perhaps proves my immaturity, so I’ll try to deal with why these critics are wrong, for the fact that they seem to miss the rather big reveal at the end that Holden’s been institutionalised, and the oscillation between two different periods of time in his narrative; a representation of his thoughts in the moment and his recollection, attest further to his divided state of mind. It’s a bit odd to hear literary critics condemn him so roundly when his curmudgeonly attitude surely doesn’t lack for a cause.
It’s a great testament to Salinger’s skill as a writer that the surface level of the text, a brash, abusive narrator, can seem so available, that going any deeper into it would seem wrongheaded, but I think he, like all unreliable narrators, provides you with a clue up front. The novel begins, after all, with an act of self-censorship, an invocation to silence, as Holden refuses to provide a holistic appraisal of his self or his place in the world, something that he dismisses as “all that David Copperfield kind of crap.”
16. Will Self — How The Dead Live
17. William Shakespeare — King Lear
18. Virginia Woolf — To The Lighthouse
The question that this blog post sets itself is: What differences and similarities can be detected in modernist and contemporary authors on the basis of three stylistic variables; hapax, unique and ambiguity, and how are these stylistic variables related to one another?
I: The Data
The data to be analysed in this project were derived from an analysis of twenty-one corpora of avant-garde literary prose through use of the open-source programming language R. The complete works of the authors James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Sara Baume, Anne Enright, Will Self, F. Scott FitzGerald, Eimear McBride, Ernest Hemingway, Jorge Luis Borges, Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, Franz Kafka, Katherine Mansfield, Marcel Proust, Elizabeth Bowen, Samuel Beckett, Flann O’Brien, Djuna Barnes, William Faulkner & D.H. Lawrence were used.
Seventeen of these writers were active between the years 1895 and 1968, a period of time associated with a genre of writing referred to as ‘modernist’ within the field of literary criticism. The remaining four remain alive, and have novels published as early as 1991, and as late as 2016. These novelists are known for their identification as latter-day modernists, and perceive their novels as re-engaging with the modernist aesthetic in a significant way.
The unique variable is a generally accepted measurement used within digital literary criticism to quantify the ‘richness’ of a particular text’s vocabulary. The formula for uniqueness is obtained by dividing the number of distinct word types in a text by the total number of words. For example, if a novel contained 20000 word types, but 100000 total words, the formula for obtaining this text’s uniqueness would be as follows:
20000/100000 = Uniqueness is equal to 0.2
Ambiguity is a measure used to calculate the approximate obscurity of a text, or the extent to which it is composed of indefinite pronouns. The indefinite pronouns quantified in this study are as follows, ‘another’, ‘anybody’, ‘anyone’, ‘anything’, ‘each’, ‘either’, ‘enough’, ‘everybody’, ‘everyone’, ‘everything’, ‘little’, ‘much’, ‘neither’, ‘nobody’, ‘no one’, ‘nothing’, ‘one’, ‘other’, ‘somebody’, ‘someone’, ‘something’, ‘both’, ‘few’, ‘everywhere’, ‘somewhere’, ‘nowhere’, ‘anywhere’, ‘many’, ‘others’, ‘all’, ‘any’, ‘more’, ‘most’, ‘none’, ‘some’, ‘such’. The formula for ambiguity is:
number of indefinite pronouns / number of total words
Finally, the hapax variable calculates the density of hapax legomena, words which appear only once in a particular author’s oeuvre. The formula for this variable is:
number of hapax legomena / number of total words
II: Data Overview
Even before analysing the data in great depth, the fact that these variables are interrelated with one another stands to a logical analysis. Hapax and unique are best understood as an indication of a text’s heterogeneity, as if a text is hapax-rich, the score for uniqueness will be similarly elevated. Ambiguity, as it is a set of pre-defined words, can be considered a measure of a text’s homogeneity, and if the occurrences of these commonplace words are increasing, hapax and uniqueness will be negatively effected. The aim of this study will be to first determine how these measures vary according to the time frame in which the different texts were written, i.e. across modern and contemporary corpora, which correlations between stylistic variables exist, and which of the three is most subject to the fluctuations of another.
IV.I: The Three Groups Hypothesis
A number of things are clear from these representations of the data. The first finding is that the authors fall into approximately three distinct groups. The first is the base- level of early twentieth-century modernist authors, who are all relatively undifferentiated. These are Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, Elizabeth Bowen, Marcel Proust, F. Scott Fitzgerald, D.H. Lawrence, Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford. They are all below the mean for the hapax and unique variables.
The second group reach into more extreme values for unique and hapax. These are Djuna Barnes, Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka, Flann O’Brien, James Joyce, Eimear McBride and Sara Baume. Three of these authors are even outliers for the hapax variable, which can be seen in the box plot.
Joyce’s position as an extreme outlier in this context is probably due to his novel Finnegans Wake (1939), which was written in an amalgam of English, French, Irish, Italian and Norwegian. It’s no surprise then, that Joyce’s value for hapax is so high. The following quotation may be sufficient to give an indication of how eccentric the language of the novel is:
La la la lach! Hillary rillarry gibbous grist to our millery! A pushpull, qq: quiescence, pp: with extravent intervulve coupling. The savest lauf in the world. Paradoxmutose caring, but here in a present booth of Ballaclay, Barthalamou, where their dutchuncler mynhosts and serves them dram well right for a boors’ interior (homereek van hohmryk) that salve that selver is to screen its auntey and has ringround as worldwise eve her sins (pip, pip, pip)
Though Borges’ and Barnes’ prose may not be as far removed from modern English as Finnegans Wake, both of these authors are known for their highly idiosyncratic use of language; Borges for his use of obscure terms derived from archaic sources, and Barnes for reversing normative grammatical and syntactic structures in unique ways.
The third and final group may be thought of as an intermediary between these two extremes, and these are Katherine Mansfield, Samuel Beckett, Will Self and Anne Enright. These authors share characteristics of both groups, in that the values for ambiguity remain stable, but their uniqueness and hapax counts are far more pronounced than the first group, but not to the extent that they reach the values of the second group.
Gertrude Stein is the only author who’s stylistic profile doesn’t quite fit into any of the three groups. She is perhaps best thought of as most closely analogous to the first group of early twentieth century modernists, but her extreme value for ambiguity should be sufficient to distinguish her in this regard.
The value for ambiguity remains fairly stable throughout the dataset, the standard deviation is 0.03, but if Stein’s values are removed from the dataset, the standard deviation narrows from 0.03 to 0.01.
Two disclaimers need to be made about this general account from the descriptive statistics and graphs. The first is that there is a fundamental issue with making such a schematic account of these texts. The grouping approach that this project has taken thus far is insufficiently nuanced as it could probably be argued that McBride could just as easily fit into the third group as the second. Therefore, the stylistic variables do not adequately distinguish modern and contemporary corpora from one another.
IV.II Word Count
It should not escape our attention that those authors who score lowest for each variable and that the first group of early twentieth-century author are the most prolific. The correlation between word count and the stylistic variables was therefore constructed.
Both the Pearson correlation and Spearman’s rho suggest that word count is highly negatively correlated with hapax and unique (as word count increases, hapax and unique decreases and vice versa), but not with ambiguity.
The fact that the Spearman’s rho scores significantly higher than the Pearson suggests that the relationship between the two are non-linear. This can be seen in the scatter plot.
In the case of both variables, the correlation is obviously negative, but the data points fall in a non-linear way, suggesting that the Spearman’s rho is the better measure for calculating the relationship. In both cases it would seem that Joyce is the outlier, and most likely to be the author responsible for distorting the correlation.
SPSS flags the correlation between hapax and unique as being significant, as this is clearly the most noteworthy relationship between the three stylistic variables. The Spearman’s rho exceeded the Spearman correlation by a marginal amount, and it was therefore decided that the relationship was non-linear, which is confirmed by the scatter plot below:
The stylistic variables of unique and hapax are therefore highlycorrelated.
As was said already, the notion that stylistic variables are correlated stands to reason. However, it was not until the correlation tests were carried out that the extent to which uniqueness and hapax are determined by one another was made clear.
The biggest issue with this study is the issue that is still present within digital comparative analyses in literature generally; our apparent incapacity to compare texts of differing lengths. Attempts have been made elsewhere to account for the huge difference that a text’s length clearly makes to measures of its vocabulary, such as vectorised analyses that take measurements in 1000 word windows, but none have yet been wholly successful in accounting for this difference. This study is therefore one among many which presents its results with some clarifiers, considering how corpora of similar lengths clustered together with one another to the extent that they did. The only author that violated this trend was Joyce, who, despite a lengthy corpus of 265500 words, has the highest values for hapax and uniqueness, which marks his corpus out as idiosyncratic. Joyce’s style is therefore the only of the twenty-one authors that we can say has a writing style that can be meaningfully distinguished from the others on the basis of the stylistic variables, because he so egregiously reverses the trend.
But we hardly needed an analysis of this kind to say Joyce writes differently from most authors, did we.
As has been repeated in any number of the literary outlets which give Will Self column inches, Self has thumbed his nose at the British literary establishment, readers and writers alike, by returning to the ground zero of avant-garde prose writing in his trilogy of Umbrella, Shark and the forthcoming Phone. I held off reading Umbrella for some time, for the same reason that one generally doesn’t read a novel written by one of the authors that one might rate highly, sensing in advance that it will be in some way a disappointment, particularly when said author has set themselves the task of re-invigorating an dormant genre in which one is steeped in, on a semi-professional basis.
But I did listen to, and read, an awful lot of interviews in which Self spoke on why he’s returning to modernism as a wellspring for his own fiction. In one of these interviews, which unfortunately, I can’t seem to find, Self says that one of the things he was trying to avoid, was writing a post-modern version of modernity. At the time I heard it, I had no idea what that might mean, or what a post-modern modernity might look like. After having read Umbrella, whether Self intended it or not, I have a far better understanding of the phrase, because I think that a post-modern modernity is exactly what Self has stumbled upon in Umbrella.
The plot moves between roughly three time frames, centred around four individuals, the primary one being Zack Busner, a fixture in many of Self’s works, Busner generally functions as a composite of the author and the late neurologist Oliver Sacks. In Umbrella, Busner is a psychiatrist based in London, treating Audrey Death for her encephalitic lethargica, which has left her in a catatonic state for decades. In some parts of the novel, Busner is doing so in 1970, and in other parts, he looks back on the affair in 2010. While this is happening, the narrative will jump back to the Audrey’s early adulthood in the opening decades of the century, working in a munitions factory, getting involved in radical socialist circles. Her brothers, Stanley and Albert, are also focalisers of the narrative at points, albeit in very different ways. Indirect discourse and interior monologue are probably the two best known characteristics of modernist prose, and these two take the lion’s share of the novel’s foray into experimentation, allowing for the character’s voices to blend suggestively with the narrator’s, making it difficult to tell where Audrey, Busner, Albert and Stanley are speaking amidst the barrage of music-hall pieces, street rhymes and song lyrics. Side Note: Azaelia Banks and The Kinks feature. Unfortunately, Self generally does so through use of italics. Here’s a typical example:
The boyfriend hadn’t minded gotta split, man and Busner was split…a forked thing digging its way inside her robe. She fiddled with bone buttons at her velvety throat. His skin and hairs snagged on the mirrors, his fingers did their best with her nipples. She looked down on me from below … one his calves lay cold on the floorboards. There was the faint applause of pigeons from outside the window —
Italics are used here to allow us access to Busner’s mind, his memory, and for Lear references. There’s nothing bad in here (or in the novel overall, Self’s sentences are staggering for how rhymically attuned they are, particularly when he dallies with academic verbiage and sub-clauses to the extent that he does), the problem is you sort of know where these turns are coming from the typography. There was a ‘Remastered’ version of Ulysses published about six years ago, produced by Robert Gogan, in which the interior monologue appeared in italics. The three or four people in the world who care about such things were outraged at the simplification, seeing the text as having been purged of its ambiguity. I think this periodic italicisation is to Umbrella’s detriment overall; it substitutes a reading that might have demanded even more of you for a more surreal-looking typeface.
My own notion of Umbrella’s modernism would therefore be rather distinct from the identification made between Umbrella and this rather inflexible and monolithic modernism made in some literary journalism, because I don’t see it as modernist in the same way that the ‘men of 1914’ are modernists. Although they might have one thing in common.
Self’s modernism is a selling point serving a rather specific function in today’s literary marketplace. Self’s modernism builds upon his persona as a surly performer on television news-panel shows and newspaper columns, going out of his way to discourage people from reading his books by his performative hauteur and dismissive attitude regarding everything. Returning to a praxis of literary art some six decades out of date is the logical conclusion of being Will Self. For Self, being a latter day modernist is to reject the commodification of the literary artwork, and insist upon the right of the author to write something wholly non-commercial. Umbrella therefore carries with it a critique of commodity culture, and the proliferation of screens, which Self also decries regularly, believing it to signal an end to the novel. However, the canard of modernism’s opposition to commodity culture has been overhyped after postmodern novelists made such a point of engaging with the novel as a commodity, and one should remember that modernism was deeply involved in the marketplace of its time; Ezra Pound began using zeitgeist-y words like ‘modern’ and ‘futurity’ to draw Marinetti’s audiences, who were substantially larger than his own when he first came to London. Performative modernism, cultivated for the purchasing attentions of a well-groomed and discerning élite is one of the things that Self gets right regarding his channeling of the genre.
Umbrella also seems to draw on modernism’s sometimes overlooked heritage, as it is at least somewhat to blame for the volume of secondary literature written subsequent to its boom and bust. From even a vague knowledge of these texts we might produce some foundational aspects of modernism; that it is taken to entail a shift in consciousness and human subjectivity, that exposure to slaughter and death on an industrial scale led to an ambivalence regarding technology and a sundering of rigid social hierarchies, an increasing mediation of our reality through mass media, growth of radical political movements such as feminism and socialism, etc. etc. etc. Our responses to these texts are thereby pre-determined; we know what we can expect from a canonical modernist text.
Which is why the modernism of Umbrella seems post-modern. It’s hard to read Audrey’s re-animation in the 1970’s, or Busner’s recollection of the time in 2010, as a meta-commentary on Umbrella’s resuscitation of the genre. The fact that Audrey worked in a munitions factory, as a radical socialist and feminist, that one of her brothers, Stanley, went to fight in the war, while her other brother, Albert, Pynchon-like, became an arms manufacturer selling weapons which fuelled the conflict, that in her comatose state she rehearses the actions of her time at the lathe, seems to have been dictated by our relationship to modernism in our contemporary setting. In the novel’s closing stages, Audrey’s status as a symbol of technology’s encroachment into our subjectivity is made overt:
The final words Audrey Death had spoken before relapsing into a merciful swoon were a string of nonsensical fractions — eighteen over four-point-two, ninety-four over fourteen-point-seven, sixty-six-point-three over thirty-three…that, even as he accepted the futility of the exercise, Busner had tried to fit into some conceptual framework. Were they, perhaps, the numerical analogue of her brain-chemistry’s intro-conversions between the discrete and the continuous, the quantifiable and the relativistic?
The irony here is that the paragraph in which Self is telling you exactly what the novel is about, features a character attempting to make sense of a random string of numbers. This is far from what the book is, a novel which has been compulsively over-determined in any number of columns, interviews and lectures which, taken collectively, probably come to a length equal to the text. While the modernists can be considered guilty of pushing particular interpretations — they often wrote about their own work, in the way that authors often do, by pretending to write objectively on other authors, The Waste Land came with annotations (parodic ones, but annotations nonetheless) — it feels as though Self’s foray into it is too overtly packaged as such. It’s probably my own fault for consuming it as I did, a book has to be sold after all, and no one made me read those six Guardian interviews. I should wrap up by saying that this novel is very good, and that you should read it, and, in true modernist style, ‘the rest is noise’.
Folk who know nothing else about the Czech novelist Franz Kafka know that he wrote a short story in which the protagonist, Gregor Samsa, is turned into a cockroach. The irony is that this is more a function of illustrations of the novella than it is derived from the text. In the below talk on translating Kafka from the London Review of Books, (featuring Will Self, translators Anthea Bell, Joyce Crick, Karen Seago and Amanda Hopkinson) one topic of conversation is the fact that this boils down to a mistranslation of the first sentence of The Metamorphosisfrom the original German.
The word ungeziefer is more accurately traduced as ‘vermin,’ ‘pest’ or ‘insect,’ than ‘cockroach.’ Although trying to get a firm grasp on what kind of insect Gregor Samsa has become, not to denigrate Vladimir Nabokov’s efforts, is irrelevant. Kafka specifically directed his publisher to not provide any illustrations of Gregor post-metamorphosis: “The insect itself is not to be drawn. It is not even to be seen from a distance.” Retaining indeterminacy = the order of the day.
Some anatomical features that are reported – lots of adhesive legs, a sensitive head, a hard back, suggestive of a thorax or carapace, indicates that has become insectoid, but exactly what kind is never said directly. The chambermaid addressing Samsa, almost fondly, as a ‘dung-beetle’ shouldn’t be trusted; it is more suggestive of her idiosyncrasies than suggestive of Samsa’s new form.
‘Vermin’ would seem to be a far more resonant translation in this case, as I would argue that it conveys another layer of meaning, beyond the surface monstrosity of Samsa’s condition. ‘Vermin’ amounts also to a subtle condemnation of his environment. In the same way that the word ‘weed’ refers to a plant growing where it is unwelcome, a ‘vermin’ is an animal in an environment where one judges it to be intruding. ‘Vermin,’ could just as easily refer to rats, foxes or even dogs.
The word ‘vermin’ in the first sentence therefore anticipates the Samsa family’s attitude to Gregor, as they becoming increasingly unwilling to share their household with him, no matter how certain they are that the insect is their son, though how they come to believe this is never outlined. The Samsas take action to euthanize him, ironically, after Gregor is tempted out of his room by the sounds of his sister playing the violin, appealing to his inner, very human, self. In some ways this is surprising; as the story continues, our sense of Samsa’s interiority recedes. Although on the other hand, he has been kept in a room for a few months and has been reduced to overhearing his family’s conversations in the other room. One shouldn’t necessarily blame him for withdrawing into himself, away from the reader’s vantage point.
In another sense, Gregor’s loss of personality traits or human characteristics has also begun long before the narrative proper begins. On awaking to this new state of affairs, he seems utterly unperturbed, regarding it as a mere inconvenience, and is far more troubled by the time that the train he intends to catch to work leaves the station, how much time he must allow himself if he is to catch it etc, rather than finding himself no longer in his own body. The tone of commonsense pragmatism with which he attempts to placate his freaking out family members, (he has lost the ability to speak) is one of the most horrifying aspects of the text, and points to how alienated Gregor is from himself:
“Do you want to let me set out, do you? You see Chief Clerk, you see, I’m not stubborn, I like my work; the travel is arduous but I couldn’t live without it.”
Perhaps the most obvious reason for this is the menial nature of Gregor’s occupation as a travelling salesman; based on how quickly his supervisor turns up at his home to reprimand him, one might conceive this text as a fabulist critique of the dehumanising nature of modern work.
One should also remember also that the word ‘vermin,’ and words like it, were used in the Nuremberg rallies, and the belief that the Jewish people were unwelcome within the lebensraum in the same way that Samsa is in his own home, was to have disastrous consequences in the decades following Kafka’s death.