I like hearing Will Self speak and I like to read his writings, though I have to admit that, to date, it would appear that, perhaps tellingly, I don’t like them enough to want to buy one of his novels. And it was while reading an article of his in the Guardian online today that I was able to pin-point why I’ll probably continue to politely decline his longer written offerings; simply, they would take me too long to read.
Listening to Will speak or reading his written works is like – for me – learning English all over again. I always emerge from our encounters feeling like I’ve had a damn good workout; a bit knackered, though, despite the discomfort, suffused with a sense that I’ll be better off for it in the long run. He routinely uses words I’ve literally never encountered before and he throws around an immensely wide-ranging and, on occasions, a selectively arcance vocabulary with consumate ease. He’s brilliant at it and I really enjoy engaging with his use of language, but I’m never in any doubt with Will that there will come a point somewhere – and it usually happens pretty early on – that the inadequacies of my literary education will reveal themselves only too clearly and I will have no other discernable option other than to reach for the dictionary to discover the meaning of yet another new word that he’s mined from his vast lexicon.
The article I referred to, “Will Self: The trouble with my blood” is neatly summarised in a sub-heading, “Diagnosed with a rare blood disease, Will Self has to endure weekly ‘venesections’ in hospital. He reflects on illness, addiction and mortality”.
And so he does. In the scheme of things an article of this length would normally consume no more than a minute or two of my time and would rarely trouble me in terms of getting to grips with mere wordage. But with Will, well things are different. It took nearly half-an hour and much looking up of words. Here’s just a few words and phrases that I’ll admit to having had need to check out in a process of on-going diligent self-education:
Iatrogenic, apoptosis, acuminate, ‘veridical Guignol’, ‘fictive inscape’.
It’s heady and intoxicating stuff. How about this for a gem of a sentence:
“I had trafficked in disease as a metaphor for 20 years now, grafting the defining criteria of pathologies – their aetiology, their symptoms, their prognoses and their outcomes – on to phenomena as diverse as the human psyche and the urban fabric, yet now I had a disease that seemed to me to be a metaphor – although of what exactly I couldn’t yet divine – I found myself in a viscid substrate, cultured with rapidly multiplying literalisms. “
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not taking the mickey here. In a world in which txtng m8 is the norm and which there seems to be so much slack, casual and plain lumpen use of language about that to come across writing of this complexity – and let’s be honest – challenging complexity for many (most certainly for me at any rate) is to savour very nutrient-rich fare indeed.
That said, just as with so much richly flavoured cuisine, it’s fine as an occasional treat for which one is happy to put the time aside and make a special occasion of it, but, as likely as not, at a daily level you can have too much of a good thing.