Strong coffee and instant karma

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Will Self's very attractive home in Stockwell, south London, may be newly drug- and alcohol-free, but it is, fortunately for me, not caffeine-free. The excellent, strong coffee he makes is the real thing: dark, bitter, aromatic. While he's busy in the kitchen, I am happy to relax in the impeccably designed living-room, listening to a musical assortment of south London birds emanating from the garden. I ponder the fact that, while Self's new novel How the Dead Live (Bloomsbury, £15.99) is about death and dying, this house is so effortlessly inviting that one could be forgiven for just wanting to live in it.

Will Self's very attractive home in Stockwell, south London, may be newly drug- and alcohol-free, but it is, fortunately for me, not caffeine-free. The excellent, strong coffee he makes is the real thing: dark, bitter, aromatic. While he's busy in the kitchen, I am happy to relax in the impeccably designed living-room, listening to a musical assortment of south London birds emanating from the garden. I ponder the fact that, while Self's new novel How the Dead Live (Bloomsbury, £15.99) is about death and dying, this house is so effortlessly inviting that one could be forgiven for just wanting to live in it.

As if to complete the idyll, a little boy wanders into the room, smiles a big, big smile, refuses to tell me his name and disappears. His father, on the other hand, is willing to discuss everything I want to know. At 38, Will Self has published 10 highly noticeable books, and it would be hard to imagine contemporary British literature without his smoothly subversive presence. Yet his public profile seems to be based less on his writing and more on his glamorously scandal-ridden personal life, with much emphasis on his severe and recurring - but now beaten - drug and alcohol addiction.

He is prepared to talk about this, but the truth is I'm not interested. I tell him so, and he seems relieved. If Self's life is defined by a constant tension between immense self-destructiveness and immense creativity, one need only study his writing in order to understand both. "I've dealt with self-destruction throughout my literary work," he says. "The lead story of my last collection is a suicide note. If you write things like that, you have to ask where it comes from."

So where did his new novel come from? The narrator is an old woman who is dying, then dead, of cancer. As in most of his fiction, Self invents an impossible possible world and then plays strictly by the rules of its inherent structure. It is a winning combination of unrestrained fantasy and disciplined thinking. In this case, the world he describes as if it were a reality is the life of the dead. Any dead? Not exactly: "I wanted to write a book about what happens to a materialist after death. The whole scheme of it is borrowed from the Tibetan Book of the Dead."

The materialist in question is Lily Bloom, an angry, outspoken American Jewish woman living in London - just like Self's own mother. Is this a book about his mother? "No, it's not," he says, emphatically. "It's about as much about my mother as Bellow's Ravelstein is about Allan Bloom." (A lot, I could counter.) "The biographical elements in common with my mother are the same origin, the birth and death dates, the breast cancer. Both had a strong strain of Jewish anti-Semitism. There the similarities end."

He then concedes that Lily Bloom shares quite a few other characteristics with his own mother - the sharp Jewish wisecracking, the dark humour. There is more: he has read some of his mother's very extensive diaries, and has "stolen" or paraphrased some of her own writing, which is "pithy". "There is an expression somewhere in the novel, about a man, with a mistress and a wife, described like a little boy with an ice lolly in each hand... That would be hers. Unlike the character... my mother was a very, very literate and literary person."

Lily Bloom dies and discovers that things don't exactly end there. There is a whole new parallel world --in London! - in which she continues to "live" after her painful death. She retains her character but with only a so-called "subtle" body - no smelling, tasting, feeling. Lily's razor-sharp tongue is an excellent tool with which to satirise London.

I ask Self how his own mother felt about England. "She was torn. She used to say she hated the States, hated American politics, found England more civilised; then she would turn and say, I hate England, it's po-faced, desiccated, mean.

"She was a profoundly uncomfortable person, and I think it's not unfair to locate the core of this in her Jewish anti-Semitism. Because to be uncomfortable with your Jewishness in that way, it's got to leak into everything. It must have come from her parents. My grandfather had been abandoned by his father, and I think there was a sense in which that whole side of the family were lost people." Is the issue of Jewishness coming back for Self? "I really think I'm half-Jewish, I really feel I'm half-Jewish." And did he discuss it with his mother?

"Of course. I grew up in north London, most people I went to school with were Jewish... She bought me a picture book, History of the Jews. But culturally, well, we went to Woody Allen movies; New York Jewishness was held up as a kind of ideal. And in the book, the character is quite true to that: the lame bastion of English Jews is made to look pathetically grey, a sort of simulacrum of the English."

We are talking about Self's mother so much; does he miss her? "I miss her in relation to being a parent myself, not having that other generational presence. But the reason I don't really miss her is because - and this is one of the fundamental reasons for writing the book - as a materialist, she's willed her own extinction that way.

"What I realised, especially when remarrying and trying to explain my mother to Deborah, my wife, was that immediately after she was dead it was easy to imagine her still alive; five years later it was still about possible to conceive of her in this context; after 10 years she was deader. And I'm not sure that is so true about people who had some belief in the spiritually transcendent."

The obvious question is whether he believes in Tibetan Buddhism himself. No, he says; then admits there's room for doubt; then asserts that he is "very interested in the transcendent". Does this interest (and the novel's theme) have something to do with Self's having been so near death, as a result of his addiction? "Undoubtedly... It's to do with recognising in myself a profound level of self-destruction. Death is very concrete to me. It was an enormous and very, very dark tangible shadow over my life. I was really rushing myself to an early grave. I do feel saved from that."

Well, today, he looks as if life were far more concrete to him than death. He looks good: contented, comfortable. And this immaculate house, is it a reflection of his new vitality? "Well, yeah, but if you saw the room that's really mine... you'd be shocked at the distinction. The room I work in is filthy, incredibly untidy. There aren't any aesthetics in it. The aesthetic is creation."

What sort of music does he listen to these days? "That is a really really good question... because one of the things that I bemoan at the moment is that when I cleaned up from booze and drugs - I didn't finally get rid of everything until seven or eight months ago - my sense of music hasn't come back. When I was doing drugs and drinking, music was simply a beat and a distortion; but for me, an involvement with music is the sign of a spiritually healthy person. And I'm not open to it at the moment. But I will be. That's when I'll know that I'm better, really better."

I should have asked whether he could, at least, appreciate the birds making music outside his window. I have them on tape.

Comments