Recommended by David Stewart (no, not that one)
I met Dave in 2001 – a man tumultuously quiffed and esoterically, Orphicly spectacled. He played a mellifluous bass guitar in a Sibylline so-called pop band – feel free to utter a scrofulous curse at such an anfractuous description – and was part of a corpuscular friendship group of jocose piss-artist bastards.
Lovely, clever, beardy Dave loves huge, mad, whirling books with big ideas in them. For example, he recommended me Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker last year, which I read on holiday in Croatia last summer. Bloody hell. Under blue skies, on hot white beaches, in the most idyllic of circumstances, I fell in love with a dark, deep, muddy, murky book about a world after a mysterious apocalypse, written in a language dredging up memories of ancient Kentish tongues. It was hard work, but I was consumed by it; it worked its way through my mind for weeks afterwards.
It was one of the books that inspired this project. It was also the book I nearly recommended to Jeanette, before I went for another.
Dave gave me three choices for this week, but I went for Dorian: An Imitation. I’d read A Picture Of Dorian Gray on a holiday, with family, years ago; I’d also met Will Self too in about 2005, at a book launch in a disused underground station in Central London (how perfect). I was there with Matt, my fellow co-editor of Smoke magazine, hiding in a corner among the cobwebs and glossy tiles. I remember Will being introduced to us, and him being ten feet tall, and chatty and warm, like a big friendly giant.
I love so much his writing too – find his New Statesman restaurant columns for a gentle introduction. It’s so grandly verbose and facking common at the same time, but it’s also, almost always, spine-bruisingly funny. It’s everything Martin Amis’ work is meant to be, but I’ve never found to be. Amis seems to be about showing-off and technique, while Self’s stuff – however cruel and dark – has got heart and warmth in there somewhere.
Dorian: An Imitation is Self’s very literal re-rendering of Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait Of Dorian Gray, transported from the late 19th century to the late 20th – another fin-de-siecle drama, only 100 years on. Self had been asked to adapt Wilde’s novel into a script in the 1990s, but that project never worked out, so this is what he did with all that meat and matter.
As my mother occasionally reads this blog, I should not reveal that this is a very rude book indeed. OH BUT IT IS, MAM, and oh, I enjoyed it. Every character is a modern facsimile of a person in Wilde’s original – e.g. figurative painter Basil Hallward becomes conceptual video artist Baz, while Sibyl the Whitechapel actress becomes Herman the rent boy. Yes, this imitation, this homage, becomes a fully-fledged gay novel, and Self attracted criticism for writing it, him being a heterosexual gentleman after all. If he’d made these characters meaningless ciphers, I might have had reason to agree. But he doesn’t. And are writers meant to write about people who are exactly the same as they are? How calumnious (er, I think). I think not.
Two other things creep perniciously through this book: the arrival and impact of AIDS, and the life of Princess Diana, whose rollercoaster existence frames Dorian’s experience. This is another structural device that works – asomehow it shouldn’t, but Self’s writing is buoyant enough to make everything hang together with a dazzle. (Reading Diana being described as “Her Royal Regurgitation” and “Thickie Spencer” were also timely this week, as Hilary Mantel’s LRB talk was being filleted by news agencies, pulled clean of its subtleties, and reappropriated, with no irony, by the papers she was criticising.)
The way in which Self evokes the period between 1981 and 1997 is also refreshing, taking us from the fuggy days of early Thatcherism to the peculiar lightness of the Blairite mid-90s. Odd references to pop songs or news headlines never feel forced either, just part of the world circling around Dorian’s infuriatingly beautiful light.
Things only shift at the end, with an impressive twist that bent my mind backwards. In a busy week that saw me travelling to Norway, and back again, and speeding around London, I would love a clear fortnight, and some quietness, to take all of it in again. But for now, I’m happy reading interviews with Self about the book, and wonderful statements of his, like these: “The Picture Of Dorian Gray is the prophecy and Dorian is the fulfillment”.
Will, you coruscatingly guignol bollock, you’ve done it again. And Dave, so you have you.