Published: Eye Books (March 2018)
A memoir of literary ambition
‘A moving lament for a vanished age’ – Financial Times
The scene is a remote cottage in Suffolk in the 1990s.
Will Self, newly divorced, is the in-demand enfant terrible of the British literary scene. Matthew De Abaitua, an eager young writer fresh out of Malcolm Bradbury's Creative Writing course at the University of East Anglia, is excited to be hired as his ‘amanuensis’.
It’s not obvious what that intriguing job title will entail. In this unique, frank and often very funny portrait of one of our most talked-about and controversial literary figures, Self & I charts the highs and lows of the experience.
It is a compelling account of a remarkable time in Britain and British literature.
NICE YOUNG MAN
For six months in the early Nineties, my employer was the writer Will Self. I worked as his live-in assistant or amanuensis, an obscure word that translates as slave-at-hand, a person to take dictation and copy out manuscripts. JG Frazer, the anthropologist and compiler of The Golden Bough, also employed an amanuensis after his eyes filled up with blood during a lecture. My appointment was made after a similarly traumatic incident: Will’s divorce, and his move out of the family home and into the rented, three-bedroom semi-detached residence of 1 Hall Cottages, Church Lane, on the outskirts of the quiet Suffolk village of Knodishall.
I started work at 1 Hall Cottages on 20 July, 1994, the day before Tony Blair became leader of the Labour Party, and this memoir – the memoir of a literary footnote – concludes with the election of Tony Blair to the office of prime minister three years later. Blair’s journey from opposition leader to prime minister was indicative of a cultural shift across these years, a change which moved through our lives as stealthily as a pickpocket.
Will Self was prophetic when he wrote that ‘The 1990s will come to be seen as the Götterdämmerung of periodicity itself. [N]ever again will the brute fact of what year it is matter so much in cultural terms.’ This memoir covers the three years of 1994–1997, a sliver of history suffused with never-againness and no-moreness, and perhaps the last moment in the West to largely evade the digital recording of daily life. It was a time when great parties went untweeted, your relationship status was never updated, and the bleakness of London’s municipal parks had to be borne without the soft haze of an image filter. Because I cannot cue up the good old days on YouTube, I am writing this down.
No detail will be too trivial for inclusion in this memoir. Writers tend to be informal – silly, even – when socialising. Seriousness is kept in reserve for the books, for the paid words and august appearances. This is not a biography of Will Self. He appears in it as he appeared to me then: inscrutable, unpredictable, always thrilling. It’s a memoir about the ambition of a writer, and that writer is as much myself as it is him. The philosophical and cultural implications of Will Self’s work are beyond my purview. I will refer only to his books and articles from this period. The miniature is an appropriate aesthetic. Discussions in 1 Hall Cottages revolved around tiny things – model villages, post-it notes, small jobs. As Will Self has observed, ‘you can uncork the meaning of something by using scale.’
In our tiny cottage, enormity resided in the inner landscapes of memory and imagination, and this topography was contiguous with the flat corn fields, the sloping pebbled shore, the slate sea. Our ambitions were equally vast. In fact, as a young man, my literary ambitions were so grand that it’s hard to know what might have constituted their fulfilment. The reinvention of the novel? The transformation of the spirit of the age? Or prose that reprogrammed the mind of the reader? If this is a cautionary tale then it is a warning about ambition.
I hold up instances from my life as typical of the pains of an aspiring writer. For my transgressing upon the life of Will Self, I offer the following mitigating circumstances: there is nothing here as personally revealing as his journalism or his novels, when read in totality, or in the sourced gossip of Sunday supplement profilers. Also, it was more than twenty years ago. I am compelled to remember this time while I still can. For once in my life, I want to set things down as they seemed to me at the time. I want to write honestly and risk error, and do so without the greasy, insulating caution that has served me so ill.
There are gaps in my memory. Of course there are. There were gaps in our existence too: daydreams, undistracted afternoons of solitude with novels and something smouldering in the ashtray, the gaps between ambition and the realisation of success or failure. The lost boredoms of yesteryear. I am nostalgic for those gaps. I grew up in them.
Although the memoir covers a period of scant consequence in the florid life of Will Self, it was important to me. My six months in 1 Hall Cottages were rites of the imagination. I emerged a changed man. Not all of those changes were for the better. As Will said to me, over dinner a year after leaving his employ, ‘Well, Matthew, what happened to the nice young man you used to be?’
* * *
I am twenty-two years old and my name is Matthew Humphreys. After an unfortunate undergraduate attempt at self-reinvention, some people call me ‘Maff’. I am broad- shouldered with large soft hands, perfect for the rugby team, had I gone to public school and not a comprehensive school in a Liverpool dormitory town. I have a puzzle ring on my little finger and a silver ankh ring on my forefinger. Around my neck, tied to a leather strap, I wear some ethnic tat from the accessories counter of French Connection. My outfit is standard down- at-heel student: sixteen-hole Doc Martens, striped Duffer of St George beanie, black jeans, a long black charity shop coat, and wool-lined lumberjack shirts. I have a long-term girlfriend called El, who is also from Liverpool but we haven’t lived in the same city for four years.
When Will Self blows through town, I am halfway through a master’s degree in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, so Will Self is already on my radar. The previous August, I had attended a talk about the comic novel at the Edinburgh International Literary Festival; the panel consisted of Paul Magrs, Professor Malcolm Bradbury (my soon-to-be tutor), the critic James Wood as compere and, at the end of the line, a black-clad Will Self, fitted with a throat mike. As James Wood nervously introduced the talk, this throat mike amplified Will Self’s sub-vocal noncommittal snorts.
Afterwards, I stood in Waterstones considering the hardback of My Idea of Fun, Will Self’s first novel, which had been published with a froth of controversy: a Snipcock & Tweed cartoon in Private Eye, and a review in the London Review of Books which dwelt indecently upon the photograph of Will Self on the book jacket, the ‘author as knowing addict’, whose ‘cigarette...is held at the precise angle guaranteed to cause the most severe nicotine staining of the fingers.’ (The miscegenation of the classes entailed in early Nineties drug culture can be discerned in the social mobility of various cigarette grips – I favoured the old man’s pinch-and-draw, the hand acting as a sheltering terrace over the fag, a pose filched from my former workmates on Liverpool docks, who were accustomed to smoking in the wind and the rain.)
I want to dwell on the novel for a moment, before getting on with my own story.
My Idea of Fun was notorious upon publication for its lurid descriptions of psychopathic sexual transgression. Protagonist and narrator Ian Wharton, on being asked his idea of fun by the host of a dinner party, considers an act performed by one of his concealed and rotten selves, wondering how to describe how he ripped away the head of a tramp and then inserted his penis into the ‘ribbed ulcerated gullet’ of the severed neck; could he describe it in such a way that she could actually experience ‘the cosmological singularity’ of this horrific act, as if language – artfully deployed – could stand in for reality. He decides that the simile of a mackerel’s flesh would evoke the tightly-packed flesh of the severed neck but even such a ‘painfully acquired’ description would be insufficient. If he confessed his idea of fun, it would become – no matter how horrific or outré – merely another dinner party anecdote.
Ian keeps his murderous self concealed so as not to hurt his wife Jane who is pregnant with their first child. The depiction of necrophilia is embedded in a scene of contemporary middle class domesticity, forming a dark vortex beneath the weary routines of social life. Unlike Patrick Bateman, the lone-wolf protagonist of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, Ian Wharton’s vile acts take place within the context of the family, and the novel explores the seething tension between a secret life and family life.
Reading My Idea of Fun from the perspective of an aspiring writer, Ian Wharton’s psychopathic acts are a symbolic disguise for the hoarded grievances and incipient destructiveness of the frustrated author. The act of becoming a writer suggests a violent relegation of the domestic realm, making it subservient to the imaginary. In her novel, Dept. of Speculation, Jenny Offill imagines becoming an ‘art monster’ – the kind of artist who dismisses the good manners of common humanity and takes the kind of individual licence Nabokov exercised when he would not even deign to lick his own stamps. By refusing the demands of the domestic realm, the writer can give themselves over entirely to the needs of fiction. On these terms, striking a balance between the two demonstrates a lack of ambition. It was this kind of thinking that as a young man almost destroyed me, as this memoir will explore.
A debut novel, My Idea of Fun dramatises the rites of imagination required in its composition; that is, the rite of passage a prospective author must undergo to write a novel. Will Self’s previous book, the novellas of Cock and Bull, had featured ‘grim party turns’ of grotesquerie. The violent psychosexual fugues of My Idea of Fun are of a different order. They are preliminary rites auguring a profound metamorphosis of the self. But metamorphosis into what?
Metamorphosis is one way to avoid or deny responsibility. In Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning and discovers he is a giant cockroach (or some kind of vermin or a bedbug: translators differ), and so cannot meet the demands of family and men of business. It is the greatest sick note in literature. Likewise, the metamorphosis of Ian Wharton is intended – like Samsa’s – to defy some unwanted obligation.
Ian Wharton is the demiurge of dissociation, a hollow- centred Russian matryoshka doll in which various other selves nestle. Faced with the prospect of assuming the mantle of middle-class husband and father-to-be, he is indifferent to it all: he might just as well be ‘slumped against the weeping bricks in some shooting alley off the Charing Cross Road’. In other words, reverting to the addict self. Intoxication is a way of blurring the lines so that you are not confronted with the cold hard type of your own writing, and its insufficiencies: speaking of his time as an aspiring writer, Will Self observed that, ‘The abyss between my aspirations and what was appearing on the paper was so hideously large that I can relate almost every aspect of my aberrant behaviour at that point to my thwarted writing ambitions.’
Toward the end of the novel, Ian Wharton tortures and disembowels a pit bull then curls himself up into the foetal position to idly fellate its severed penis. Dangerous dog and dangerous dog owner were a symbolic unit on the housing estates of the early Nineties. Such homo-canine eroticism transgresses against exaggerated working-class masculinity just for the hell of it. In the novel, the killing of the dog and subsequent mutual debasement is a preliminary rite to Ian’s final metamorphosis.
After fellating the severed phallus of the dead dog, Ian Wharton shambles into town, hauls a passing man called Bob Pinner onto a building site, strips a suit from him, then kills him by gouging out his eyeballs. Ian wears the dead man’s suit, parades around in it. He is a sociopath with an unstable or vacuous sense of self, taking on the identity of his victims in an act of sympathetic magic. This play on the mad or bad figure of the sociopath provides cover for underlying anxieties concerning paternity and creativity.
Ian Wharton’s crisis is brought to a head by the impending birth of his child. When I ask Will about how he became a writer, he says that he only started writing in earnest after the birth of his children, ‘because I realised I was about to be replaced and so better get on with it.’ Or as Ian reflects, ‘I was certain that the prospect of children, of willing my peculiar characteristics on to a new individual, would force me to confront myself.’ Before that confrontation can take place, the unanswered question of the father’s self must be resolved: writer or not-writer?
Frustrated literary ambition creates a secret self; the writer- to-be is an arrested imp in foetal position, always self-soothing and self-sucking. The father-as-writer threatens the family, introduces economic instability and rival offspring in the form of novels. A new father becoming a writer is an act of selfishness at the very moment selflessness is demanded. But, unlike addiction, which it resembles superficially in its satiation of a private urge, writing has a claim to a greater good. If the father sacrifices his writing self to fit into a deranged social system, then his paternity will pass that subordination and corruption on to another generation. He will raise another capitalist sybarite, another Fat Controller – the name Ian gives to his demonic mentor and the one who inducts him in his peculiarly talented imagination. His wife Jane is pregnant but it is not Ian’s child. Rather, Ian believes the Fat Controller has miniaturised himself, crawled down his urethra, and at the moment of ejaculation, replaced Ian’s spermatozoa with his own demonic seed.
The novel twists and writhes against conformity on every level. The reader is flicked repeatedly on the nose to resume their disbelief – as if taking pleasure in the escapist potential of fiction is an act of complicity with a corrupt regime. Unthinking acceptance of the forms and techniques of conventional narrative fiction is congruent with a complacent view of social norms: both are open to debate. What in public may be a sub- vocal noncommittal grunt becomes, in the text, a baroque berating that sews and unpicks fiction and refuses to offer certainty or solace.
* * *
Will Self is one of a legion of writers who visit the University of East Anglia throughout my year of study. The creative writing students attend their readings and jostle awkwardly around the writers, making conversation with them and then destroying it by bringing every promising sally back down to the subject of their own unwritten novels.
This is the price the established writers have to pay for reading aloud from their novels for forty-five minutes. Try reading from your novel for forty-five minutes now without gussying-up your act with a PowerPoint deck or a DJ set and you’ll be drummed out of the marquee. In the early Nineties, literature dictated its own terms. So: forty-five minutes of carefully intoned literary prose, ten minutes of questions, and then queues around the block to sign hardbacks.
The university bookshop kept cases of Bulgarian wine for these occasions, and sometimes, if Professor Malcolm Bradbury was in the mood, then he would dispatch me under the tables to open another case, and if the bookshop manager caught me under there, twisting away with the corkscrew from my Swiss army knife, then the Professor would quickly find another conversation on the other side of the room to detain him.
During the Will Self Q&A, I writhe and roil at the back, making my own sub-vocal stops and harrumphs of qualification and disagreement. God knows what they were. It really doesn’t matter. I buy the book anyway and offer it to be signed. Afterwards, instead of downing Bulgarian red with Malcolm and the misfits, Will sods off with Terence Blacker, the writer-in-residence, and they tie one on elsewhere.
I head up to York to visit former undergraduate housemates, in the hope of foisting my new status as writing acolyte upon them. They largely ignore me to undertake a two-day amphetamine-and-video-games bender in an attempt to complete the Sega Megadrive game Kid Chameleon. On a borrowed mattress, I fizz with sleeplessness, cheap uppers and frustrated egotism, then cross the country by train. Criss-cross. Cross-criss. Reading My Idea of Fun until my inner voice takes on some of the novel’s scabrous eloquence.
I arrive home in Norwich to a phone call from a friend suggesting I meet her and Terence Blacker in the pub.
I’ve been awake for forty-eight hours. I should go to bed.
I go to the pub.
Over pints, Terence says that he went out drinking with Will Self. It turns out that not only is Will Self looking for an assistant, he wants Terence to find one from the ranks of the creative writing students, as the position will require a great deal of solitude, and so he thinks it will suit an aspiring writer.
‘I’ll do it,’ I say.
‘You’ll have to live with him.’
‘In a cottage in Suffolk. It’s very remote.’
‘I’ll do it. I have no other options.’
The job interview takes place during a party at Terence Blacker’s farmhouse in Diss. A few of the other students gather there, the ones who like a drink, the ones who – along with myself – form the Creative Writing MA football team. (The team is mixed gender and plays in black polo necks and black track suit bottoms: Terence invited Will Self to join us in a game but he refused on the grounds that writers are not team players.)
A local couple call in at Terence’s party. Let’s call them Sid and Doris Literary Bonkers. In the Private Eye of the period, Sid and Doris Bonkers are recurring characters, the long- suffering and sole fans of Neasden FC, a hopeless football team. Sid and Doris Literary Bonkers, then, are the peculiar people who follow the hopeless cause of Literature FC. It’s Will Self’s term. They are the people who, for want of a better term, I could call the fucking readers.
There had been almost no talk of readers at the University of East Anglia MA in Creative Writing. Frankly, in those days, readers got what they were given. Readers were basically losers. Now, the opposite is true, and writers are the losers constantly trying to insinuate themselves into the affections of the winners, the readers. (My nostalgia for this period is partly due to the sense that the literary novel was still a force in contemporary culture.) The modern creative writing course includes genre; at its worst, it can degenerate into a debate about whether a sado-masochistic erotic novel featuring unicorns and vampires will sell twice as many self-published ebooks as an erotic novel featuring only unicorns. We didn’t have these kinds of conversations in the Nineties. Then, no-one talked about engaging characters, genre, trilogies or – god forbid – whether the protagonist was sympathetic or not. Nor do I remember Professor Malcolm Bradbury puffing on his pipe and opining that what the post-modernist novel required in the post-colonial moment was more unicorns. 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?
After a tequila slammer, Doris Literary Bonkers sits on the laps of the various students, and then becomes over-attentive to me, pawing at my forearm, checking on the solidity of my thigh in a way that makes me realise that she is not merely drunk but having some kind of allergic reaction to the booze. But instead of going into anaphylactic shock, Doris flirts insistently and erratically, spinning through the cottage like a helicopter with a broken rotor. She is so obviously not-herself but she will hear none of that sensible talk. With a couple of other writing students, we explore Terence’s barn, and Doris staggers out after us. Before I know it, the other students have slipped away, and there in the quiet, dark barn, she makes woozy conversation with me.
‘I’m a big reader,’ she says, taking a step forward, a step backward. ‘Tell me about your novel.’
I nervously explain a novel I am planning about the men who work in a factory raising pigs filled with human organs.
‘Oh,’ she says, disappointed. ‘Science fiction. Why are you writing genre?’
‘I want to write science fiction that has none of the pleasures of genre, and all the strangeness of technology,’ I reply.
She slurs a question. I ask her to repeat it.
‘Why a-fuck you wanna do that?’
I am stumped.
She looks askance at me, as if my voice is out of tune, then she stumbles backward and grasps my bicep to steady herself. Over her shoulder, lurking in the shadows at the back of the barn, the balding pate of Sid Literary Bonkers gleams briefly in the moonlight.
Doris’s wayward manner adds to the faintly hysterical anticipation of our notorious, imminent guest. Will Self arrives: six foot five, thirty-three years old and dressed entirely in dilated-pupil black. Light bends towards him like he’s a black hole. Terence points me out to Will and I am beckoned over.
We sit at a large round table. Will flicks a tobacco pouch and a large baggie of weed at me and says, ‘Make something out of that.’
I make the special cigarette, and thus the first interview proceeds. (The phrase ‘special cigarette’ is Will’s, although I only heard him use it once, when we were on a beach and I was flicking sand with my feet and Will – midway through the act of rolling one – said, ‘Please don’t do that. You’ll get sand in my special cigarette.’)
What qualities do I present for the position? I am sufficiently au fait with soft drugs to be comfortable with his narcotic regime, while also displaying none of the signs of an addict to Class A drugs. I have a healthy regard for literature and I can take my booze. What other qualities do I display? I am a nice young man and – oh yes – I am the sole applicant.
Will’s senses are attuned to mental illness, whether it’s the high-octane whiff of psychosis ‘like cat urine’, or the ‘fateful snicker-snack atmosphere of a closed psychiatric ward’. Having taken a sniff of me, and discovered that I am thoroughly stolidly sane, he moots a second interview. Doris Literary Bonkers makes her way over to Will. He blanks her entreaties, completely disinterested in the reader. Resisting the party’s efforts to detain him – drink this, smoke that, let me sit on you – Will Self leaves the party, blinding us with headlights, gravel scuffling from the rear wheels of his white Citroën. We wave goodbye until we realise how uncool it is.
Terence’s cottage is large. I crash on yet another borrowed mattress, my head a waltzer, the tequila and the marijuana the mischievous lads who leap on the back and give the cars an extra spin. Around and around the oily night I fall, spiralling down into fathoms of dreamlessness.
* * *
The second interview takes place in the cottage Will is renting in Suffolk. He collects me from Saxmundham station in his white souped-up Citroën. He rarely drives now, I believe, for philosophical reasons, but I wonder if this decision owes something to the four or five occasions that he nearly killed us in that car. On the drive to the cottage, he changes gear the way a singer goes up an octave: as an intensifier. The car provides him with an angry voice with which he conducts an unending and furious argument with the system – the system being, in this case, the tedious conformity of traffic that keeps everyone alive.
I am attempting to make intelligent conversation when – for reasons neither of us can quite fathom – Will puts his foot down to overtake a hay wain on a blind bend. Loose strands of hay escape their bales and whip in through the open window. My fingertips prickle. Who or what waits for us on the other side?
Open road. Close one, though. Close enough to warrant a remark, if not an apology. Will mutters something about taking it easy.
I have brought with me a copy of William Gaddis’ J.R. A truculent post-modernist, Gaddis had recently visited the university, and so Terence and the other staff were obliged to read his difficult novels. Terence did not put up much of a fight when I offered to borrow William Gaddis’ J.R. I and a couple of my fellow students dallied with experimental literature – Raymond Roussel, Raymond Queneau, Pynchon, Burroughs, Boris Vian and André Breton, the nouveau roman, and bloody William Gaddis, in town to promote – no, entirely the wrong verb, he was in town to warn us of the approach of another impregnable vessel of his prose – the jauntily-titled A Frolic of His Own. In person, it was clear that the frolic was not autobiographical. Gaddis had the curmudgeonly turn of an ignored genius. He was a living warning against taking the experimental path. If Gaddis felt he was ill-served in life, it is for the best that he did not survive to see his legacy played out in Amazon reviews (to quote: ‘Will I read Gaddis again? – hmmmmmmmmm, maybe I’ll just stick pins in my eyes’) If experimental fiction is read at all, it is as an act of nostalgia, a let’s-pretend that we live in a bygone age of progressive culture, in which today’s formal innovation will inform the mode of tomorrow. Or to recapitulate a lost era of difficulty as a rebuke to the present. The lot of the literary experimentalist is satirised in Martin Amis’ The Information. I think Gaddis’ way of interweaving voices was on Amis’ mind when he devised the scene in The Information, from Richard Tull’s experimental novel ‘Untitled’, in which ‘five unreliable narrators converse on crossed mobile phone lines while stuck in the same revolving door’.
Anyway, as opening gambits go, for a job interview with a writer like Will Self, packing Gaddis is a sound one.
Will asks about the Gaddis as soon as I am through the door.
‘What’s it like?’
‘Difficult. Like an echo chamber of different speakers and you have to discern who is who by their rhythms of speech. Not entirely rewarding.’
‘I haven’t read it,’ he says. ‘He’s the one I’ve never got around to.’
‘I think that’ll be on his gravestone: “Here lies William Gaddis, the one you never got around to.” You can borrow my copy when I’m done,’ I say, joining a long tradition of readers keen to hand on the obligation of Gaddis.
The interview is conducted on deck chairs in the back garden of the cottage beside the rusting frame of a greenhouse. We begin by shooting whisky bottles with an air rifle, then follow up with the special cigarette. And how am I to interpret the air rifle? Male writers and their guns: Hunter S Thompson, Hemingway, William Burroughs with his William Tell act. But this is an air rifle, such a diminished phallus to wave around when compared to the lethal members of the American literary tradition. Will takes deliberate pleasure in this irony.
With the informalities out of the way, Will lays down the responsibilities of the position of amanuensis: I am to acquaint myself with the oeuvre – not merely his works, but the works that he will be writing about. I must read the library of influential literature in the study, and related works concerning drugs, psychoanalysis and anthropology. Secondly I can bring no Class A drugs into the house, nor am I permitted to drink more than the government-recommended twenty-four units of alcohol a day. I am to do whatever I am asked. Nothing is beneath me: laundry, transcriptions, fetching and carrying.
‘Any questions?’ he asks, observing the standard form of the interview.
‘Do you want some more of this?’ I ask, handing over the special cigarette.
I get the job. I am to return to Norwich to tie up my affairs and then, in a couple of months, he will come in the Citroën to collect me.
I ring my girlfriend El to tell her. She is pleased. It will be an adventure, and that’s what she wants for us. She is not ready to go back to Liverpool. It’s still a recession out there. We’ve come this far on our wits. Why stop now?
‘Painfully honest and extremely funny’
‘An utterly compelling account of what it means to read, write, live and breathe literature. Anyone interested in the world of letters will devour this book with delight’
‘The only work of non-fiction that really got me excited this year’
‘Very funny but with an undertow of melancholy, Self & I is at root a hymn to the vocation of writing and, as such, sings to all us nearly-writers, wannabe-writers and sometime-writers (i.e. all writers) with the ecstasy of scripture’
Will Ashon, author of Strange Labyrinth
‘A delicious peek into the Will Self 'industry' and the vanished publishing world of the Nineties, but it's also a wonderful, highly readable book about love and dedication’
Lauren Elkin, author of Flâneuse
‘I hugely recommend Self & I. The subtitle matters: it’s a book on the craft (and graft) of writing – ‘hustle’, as Matthew calls it – rather than focusing solely on Will, er, himself. A section in Liverpool’s docklands is a novel all of its own’
Matt Hill, author of Graft
‘The title might nod to Withnail, as do some of the odd couple’s odder exploits – including the consumption of many a “special cigarette” – but this erudite yet hilarious account will resonate with anyone trudging in the footsteps of a more successful figure’
‘This book comes very close to being a classic memoir of literary apprenticeship. Hilarious..’
‘De Abaitua’s prose... is full of wit, playfulness and intelligence. Though he mourns the fact that literature since the 1990s has lost its cultural force, the denouement to his smart, funny memoir ends up being a paean to the novel itself’
‘A study of working-class ambition, an exegesis of the Self canon, a critique of masculinity, a window onto the last pre-digital moment, and a review of that hollow decade in which even the counter-culture was in hock to the establishment...’
‘[Matthew De Abaitua’s] memoir of six months working for Self begins as an intoxicated, madcap romp, before it takes some unexpectedly touching turns… The Self & I title is a deliberate homage to the funny, melancholy slovenliness of cult film Withnail & I… As we find out more about the author’s early life, myth separates itself movingly from reality… A final section about an old lost school friend is devastating too, beautifully exploring what happens when our dreams run away from us. Standing alone, Self aside, his tale really ascends’
Mail on Sunday ****
‘This ‘memoir of literary ambition’ is also a lament for a vanished age of publishing and writing, seen from across the gulf of digital media. This was pre-Harry Potter, and thus predates the infantilisation of an entire reading generation. Sales of literary novels were substantial, large advances relatively common and book prize-winners worthy and uncontroversial. The fact that a cult author could want, could afford, a live-in assistant, however lowly, now seems astonishing’
‘De Abaitua is a good storyteller, and his book gives us precisely the Self we might hope for... possessing a feverish hilarity that owes a debt, as De Abaitua acknowledges, to Withnail and I’
‘This sincere, touching book’
‘If you love Withnail & I, you must read this hilarious and unexpectedly affectionate account of the period the author spent working as Will Self’s amanuensis in a cottage in Suffolk in the mid-90s, a job which required ‘a relentless willingness to participate in the unusual’. Self was then newly divorced and the in-demand enfant terrible, but really the book is about De Abaitua, a thrusting young writer fresh out of the UEA Creative Writing MA, and keen to learn from one of his literary heroes, as he tries and fails to write a novel’
‘There are many droll and well-evoked comic set pieces, and the relationship between [Self and the author] is beautifully written. However, de Abaitua is less interested in a piece of cosy nostalgia than in an interrogation of what it means to be both a writer and an honest human being’
‘For some reason, the best books about writing are by would-be authors, following and studying the habits and behaviour of an older, established writer. Funny, perceptive and occasionally tender... Self & I is an entertaining and original study of literary ambition, masked and unmasked’
‘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’
‘I fully expected both an insightful and a witty read. Did the book live up to expectations? Well, yes it did!’
‘A little classic, Self & I is a candid and revealing portrait of a particular artist at a particular time. It is De Abaitua’s book far more than Self’s, and coming from a writer who has already provided us with some of the most original and brilliantly executed science fiction of the past decade, it should be counted as a significant achievement’
‘The book is marketed as being a real-life Withnail & I – and it certainly fulfils that brief, but it is also a serious look at why on earth so many of us are willing to risk starving to death in order to be free to write what we want’
Read a preview of Self & I in the TLS
We celebrated publication of Self & I with a substantial excerpt in the Sunday Times magazine. You can read the extract here (paywall).
And here's a 12-minute podcast of Matthew talking about (and reading from) his memoir on the Janice Forsyth Show on BBC Radio Scotland.