Book Review: Self and I

Self & I, by Matthew De Abaitua, is a cautionary yet always engaging tale, ideal for anyone who dreams of becoming a published author. Written in the form of a memoir it recalls true events and interactions from the author’s earlier years. It offers a reflection on a bygone era capturing how life was experienced without the maturity of hindsight. It remains mindful of those involved at the time.

In July 1994, twenty-two year old Matthew Humphreys was employed by Will Self as the newly divorced enfant terrible of the British literary scene’s amanuensis, translated as slave-at-hand. Matthew lived alongside the in-demand author in a remote cottage in Sussex. He was eager to learn from his new employer and develop his own writing. Matthew grew up in a Liverpool dormitory town, took a holiday job as a security guard on the city’s docks, attained an English Literature degree from the University of York, and studied creative writing at the University of East Anglia under the tutelage of Malcolm Bradbury. He was still waiting for his expected coming-of-age moment that would define what he would afterwards be.

1994 was before the internet and social media. Authors expected to be revered, to have readers accept whatever they were given. Writers sought validation from other writers, feeling anger and frustration when readers didn’t pay their work the attention they believed it deserved.

“A sympathetic protagonist, an easy and unassuming prose style, and a strong plot – these were marks of weakness. Signs of pandering to the reader. And who wants to hang out with that loser?”

Matthew was a naive young man full of big words and little understanding. Now a creative writing lecturer at the University of Essex he may well have written this book with his students in mind. It is very funny in places and offers an insight into the mindsets of both an aspiring and an established author. Will Self was well aware of how the world viewed him and worked on maintaining his reputation despite the personal costs. He offered the young Matthew practical help and advice whilst warning him against the excesses in which he himself regularly indulged.

“Play up the vivid persona and use it to smuggle the work into the culture. The side effect of such a public persona is that it becomes the object of other people’s frustrated ambition, and they take out their grievances upon the work.”

In the period covered Matthew is attempting to find his place in the world whilst learning to accept his own inadequacies. At times he struggles with the lonely life in the cottage and his relationships with the people he interacts with, including those from his home town.

“The people you leave behind, the life you reject. Old friends are signposts down an untaken path. Ambition requires betrayal.”

Matthew worked for Will Self for six months although they remained in contact for longer. As well as relating thoughts and incidents from this time he offers the reader pivotal periods from his background, and what came after. He recognises now that he didn’t yet have the lived experiences needed to strengthen his writing. He was impatient for the life he craved to begin.

“I was a young man who compared the books I read with the books in my head, and found them wanting.”

He quotes author Jenny Offill who wrote

“You are not allowed to compare your imagined accomplishments to our actual ones.”

The ups and downs of living with a big personality like Will Self is fascinating but the insights in this book come from the author’s musings on his own thoughts and actions at the time. He has captured the intense certitude of a young person alongside that giddy concern encountered when they realise achievements beyond qualifications do not come with a map. In time Matthew will become a published author. That path is but one in a life chequered by mixed experiences and not coming to an end with the longed for publication.

As a reader with no illusions of ever acquiring the skills needed to write a book I am probably comparable to the nineties authors’ derided fans. I wonder if, in private, we are still thus perceived.

“Novels give us access to other lives, a few of which might be our own. Literary ambition belongs to readers as well as writers.”

An original memoir that is both absorbing and highly entertaining. Recommended to all with an interest in the world of creative writers, their yearnings, perturbations and conceits.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Eye Books.

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Book Review: The Hurtle of Hell

The Hurtle of Hell, by Simon Edge, opens with a near drowning during which the protagonist, Stefano Cartwright, has an out of body experience. He views himself from above surrounded by a concerned crowd as a stranger attempts to give him the kiss of life. Stefano then travels along a tunnel of light before briefly encountering a being he believes to be God. Prior to this Stefano would have regarded himself as an atheist having rejected Christian beliefs and teachings as a teenager. Now he faces a personal crisis, fearing his current lifestyle will result in an eternity condemned to hell. Stefano’s long term boyfriend, Adam, cannot understand what has happened. A gulf opens between them.

Meanwhile God is growing bored with his lonely life at the centre of the universe. He travels to its outer edges and contemplates what may lie beyond. He is perturbed to have been glimpsed while looking through the seeing tube that enables him to zoom in on features that grab his interest by a hominid from

“the third rock from a middle-sized star in a spiral galaxy in a part of his universe that he technically classified as ‘over there'”

God’s interest is piqued. He has never before been seen. He seeks out the hominid from time to time casually observing its strange habits and interactions with little understanding.

Stefano cannot shake his fears. Everywhere he looks he sees messages that he believes could be spiritual warnings meant for him. When Adam tries to help the situation worsens.

The narrative takes the reader back to Stefano’s childhood and the expectations of his parents. As he was coming to accept that he was gay, the AIDs epidemic was garnering media attention. Finding his home life intolerable Stefano moved to London, effectively reinventing himself and setting aside the family he left.

Following an unfortunate accident with his seeing tube, God must spend time learning more about these hominids. He discovers that they have attributed a great many strange powers to him which he regards with incredulity.

“Hominids could never have a realistic grasp of how insignificant they were, of the different scales on which they and the creator existed”

Nevertheless God makes the most of his new experiences, even growing fond of some who he observes. Their perspectives of the god they have invented and the universe in which they exist may be incompatible with practical reality but God derives pleasure from learning more about how they think and act during their brief lives.

The structure of the story flows with ease through the varying voices, providing insights into the prejudices, concerns and selfishness that each of the characters must face. The character of God adds much humour, his observations an effective commentary on organised religion and man’s exaggerated sense of his own value. It is both amusing and sobering to reflect on.

This is a light read but provokes sufficient questioning to maintain interest. An entertaining addition to my summer list.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Lightning Books. 

Book Review: Their Brilliant Careers

Their Brilliant Careers, by Ryan O’Neill, is a collection of sixteen short biographies of Australian writers you will never have heard of. This is because they don’t exist. Taking all the tropes and conceits of the highbrow literati, the author has constructed a literary world that is entirely believable. Many of the supporting characters are real whilst others are renamed but recognisable. This is a razor sharp satire but presented with dry wit and laugh out loud humour.

Such is the apparent authenticity of the presentation it is left to the reader to determine (or investigate – yes, I did) what is actually true. Did this book win the prizes or make the shortlists detailed on the cover? Is the author bio on the back flap authentic? As the author is a character, and his late wife (to whom the book is dedicated) one of the ‘extraordinary’ writers included, all is up for question. Even the index contains nuggets that should not be missed, for reasons that will become clear in the reading.

Given the often incestuous relationships between writers, editors, publishers and critics there are many overlaps between the biographies. Manuscripts accepted for publication, and those that are rejected, are too often selected by criteria that has little to do with what is contained within the pages. Names matter, especially when a serious tome is submitted bearing a female moniker. Misogyny is just one of the many prejudices ridiculed here.

Another is the pretentiousness of those who believe themselves arbiters of quality, especially within the sphere of the avant garde. I enjoyed the idea of an 800 page opus that stands out due to its exclusion of the letter e, being seen as somehow worthy for that reason. As with several of the biographies, the cause of this author’s death provided a fitting punchline to his entry.

Literary magazines and their editors’ desire to find the next great writer are lampooned. There are numerous quotes from submissions, amongst them a poet whose nonsensical words are considered thus:

“Chapman’s nihilistic, ambiguous poems were unlike anything Berryman had come across […] opaque, allusive verse the work of a genius”

Another entry is for the daughter of an influential publisher who grows up considering herself a muse, insisting that every writer she meets include her in their books, or else. Another is for a writer who comes across the unpublished work of a nineteenth century author whose work appears to have inspired numerous classic novels. Plagiarism is explored, as is the art of biography itself. The meta aspects of these entries add to the humour.

Tempted though I am to highlight the wit behind Sydney Steele’s entry, my favourite is that of Helen Harkaway. When Helen was told that her debut had become a runaway bestseller she baulked at the idea of fame and eschewed the usual promotional publicity. Instead she chose to live incognito at her remote estate. She feared that anyone straying onto her land could be a fan or reporter. Unable to countenance an increase in such activity, she instructed her publisher to hold her subsequent manuscripts until after her death. The run-ins with the public that she did experience merely exacerbated her concerns. Weaving Helen’s paranoia into the book’s real world was a fabulous play on certain celebrated writer’s conceits.

Rivalries and jealousies are satirised. Writers’ friendships are milked until they sour when glittering careers wane. The invented authors may be pastiches but their biographies could almost be authentic. They play on commonly mocked elements yet remain amusing rather than cruel.

An inspired concept written with deadpan humour that is throughout engaging and entertaining. For anyone with an interest in the rarified world of publishing, this is a recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Lightning Books.