- Umbrella by Will Self
Bloomsbury, 397 pp, £18.99, August 2012, ISBN 978 1 4088 2014 8
‘I have forgotten my umbrella,’ Nietzsche wrote in the margins of an unpublished manuscript. Whether he wanted to remind himself of the phrase, which he put in inverted commas, or of the umbrella itself, isn’t known. ‘It is always possible that it means nothing at all or that it has no decidable meaning,’ Derrida commented. ‘What if Nietzsche was only pretending to say something?’ The forgetability of umbrellas – as Will Self suggests in his ninth novel – tells us something about modernity. ‘When did the umbrella first become an article to be routinely forgotten rather than assiduously remembered?’ Self asks. ‘Surely, to begin with, they would’ve been expensive items, invested with strong affect and not to be casually abandoned,’ as they are nowadays, ‘given their cheapness and ubiquity’.[*] Umbrella finds its title in Ulysses (‘A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella’) and it bulges with the objets trouvés of the early 20th century: shells, radios, kinematographs, advertising slogans, telegraphs and omnibuses. Umbrellas seem appropriate objects for Self’s attention, with their combination of engineering elegance and absurdity. They lurk in the wings of 20th-century history: the Hindenburg, a cloth bag stretched over metal struts, was essentially an enormous, gas-filled umbrella; in 1971 the Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov was assassinated by a pellet of poison shot from an umbrella as he crossed Waterloo Bridge. With its lightness, strength and tricksy mechanism the umbrella has many of the qualities of Self’s prose.
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[*] Oddly, the statistics tell a different story. According to the London Lost Property Office, 87,356 umbrellas were lost on the Underground in 1934 (when records began); last year the figure was 7798.