And who the hell is Will Self? • part two

There's a quality to Self's low-decibel articulacy that seems to suck the words from those around him. I have seen it happen at parties. Self, pipe in hand, expounding. And a circle of people looking stun-gunned. But as a boy, he was oppressed by the words of others. "I was a quite committed and precocious reader," he says, fixing me with his pale-blue eyes and raising a fat cigar. "In early puberty, I was already reading Turgenev and at 12, 13, 14, 15, I was absolutely overawed by the canon. It really stifled my ability to express myself. I wanted to be an actor until I got to Oxford and was revolted by what thespians were like. I thought 'OK, I'll have to do the writing thing then.'"

Self grew his journalistic and literary careers in tandem. "I couldn't get in through literary journalism," he says, "I was too Caliban-like. Too uncouth. I couldn't do it. And I didn't want to, I wanted to write fiction. I was 27 and I thought, 'If I don't write a book now, I won't ever do it.' I got up at 6am and did an hour or two on The Quantity Theory of Insanity before heading into the office. That collection received what Cocteau has described as a 'terrifying baptism of caresses'. Instantly, overnight, I could call up an editor, pitch a piece and get it accepted. I like maintaining the two careers. The journalism gets me out. Although people who see me primarily as a journalist find the idea that I write fiction intolerably pretentious, while people who see me as a novelist find the idea of journalism rather vulgar."

His only concern is that he writes too much. "At least 1,000 words for publication every day. I'm incontinent about it. Of course, it's all exquisitely crafted. Hmmm. Who was it who said of Jack Kerouac, 'he doesn't write, he types'? That's what I worry about too. But I work at it. I work at my typing." We laugh. He pauses. "I'm afraid if I stop, I'll be overwhelmed. But mostly it's genuinely that I have so many ideas. I think that what blocks so many writers is a platonic view of the text - the need to write an ideal. I've always subscribed to the other view that everything is a version. The best I could do at the time. That comes out of being a working writer. I don't have a private income or a sinecure of any kind. It makes good sense for me not be too precious, and to hope that somewhere between the art and the craft it will out."

Despite all the TV and radio appearances, he says writing "is the way I engage with the world. And when I'm not writing, I feel stupid and very easily influenced - a coward. Writing - collecting metaphors, tropes, images - is my 'Windows', my operating system for the world."

But that operating system comes with lots of bells and whistles. Does he see himself as a show-off? "Definitely. Slightly Tourette-ish. Like any person who has difficulty with the normal range of relationships, I either do enormous intimacy or 'wordy bastard persona'. I feel quite compassionate towards myself about it. I know what the motivation is. But as the years have gone by it has jibed more. I am essentially a solitary person. Apart from spending time with my family, I like long-distance walking and cycling. I just walked from London to Oxford in a weekend. I'm obsessed with high mileage. People ask if that's where I do my thinking, but it's quite the reverse."

The most beautiful passage in The Book of Dave is where the cabbie renounces his Fairway and takes a long walk out of London. The Knowledge "falls out of him". He heads north, past "industrial estates where metal tortured itself and ducked under the echoic stages of elevated roadways". Towards evening, he mounts a hill, passes nettles and brambles and lies back on the crushed grass. "He was disembowelled - he was losing it; and as he lost it, the crushed plastic bottle of his soul expanded with sudden cracks and pops." It's a modern, urban version of Levin's scything moment in Anna Karenina. "Yes, you're right," says Self. "I hadn't thought of it like that… but it is very Levinesque. Yeaahhhhh. Good old Levin."

Finishing our coffee, we bat about ideas of cultural anthropology. Narrative. God. Cohesion and correspondence. "The book is arguing that what you need for a revealed religion is any old bollocks, it just has to be there in the right place at the right time," says Self. I wonder what a future might be like, had it taken the complete works of Will Self as its holy texts.

"Hnph!" he snorts. "I don't think civilization could ensue."


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