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(Umbrella #1)

3.18  ·  Rating details ·  1,756 ratings  ·  328 reviews
“A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella.”—James Joyce, Ulysses

Audrey Death—feminist, socialist and munitions worker at Woolwich Arsenal—falls ill with encephalitis lethargica as the epidemic rages across Europe, killing a third of its victims and condemning a further third to living death.

Under the curious eyes of psychiatrist Dr.
Paperback, 448 pages
Published October 8th 2013 by Grove Press (first published 2012)
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Average rating 3.18  · 
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Feb 09, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction, 21-ce, uk
Some thoughts on my first reading.

Last winter I happened to read Oliver Sacks’s Awakenings (see review), which is the urtext for Will Self’s new novel Umbrella. In the mid-60s Dr. Sacks famously gave L-DOPA, a relatively new drug mimicking the neurotransmitter dopamine, to dozens of post-encephalytic patients under his care at Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx, New York. These patients had been infected in 1918 by the encephalitis lethargica vi
Jenny (Reading Envy)
I slogged through this in order to say I had read all of the Booker shortlist before the award was announced, for once. Let's make one thing clear - without that compelling reason, I would not have kept with it.

There is a difference between difficult writing and good writing. I personally think Will Self careens toward difficult without giving a thought to the reader. Oh, I'm not just complaining because this is hard to read. I get many of the references and imitations, I just didn't
Aug 21, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition

Umbrella tells the simultaneous stories (-well okay this is not the simultaneity that one finds in the Wake for instance, which, as far as I know, might be the only way to really really do simultaneity in prose, and that is definitely not what is happening here - what is happening here is more like narrative enjambment, or collage, or a kind of radical undifferentiation of plot lines/perspective-) of Dr. Zack Busner, a charmingly sympathetic character loosely based on Oliver Sacks, who is given/>
Manuel Antão
Nov 19, 2018 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2012
If you're into stuff like this, you can read the full review.

Rarefied Heights: "Umbrella" by Will Self

(Original Review, September 30th 2012)

And people are entertained by different things. Some people are entertained by cat videos. Others are entertained by football or motor racing. Others are entertained by mathematical or philosophical problems. Others are entertained by jigsaw puzzles or their literary equivalents. Others are entertained
Jul 12, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
There's a rumble in a Brighton-bright Lit-bulb fried-dust aromatics for your lifestyle no matter the wattage to The Council (not Style) always a dim Heaven 17-er (assymetrical 'do gone as ReagancrossThatch) doomed as rent-rooms to shriek a Being-Boiled "I DON'T UNDERSTAND THIS FUCKING BOOK" or so Frankie say.

It's not because there are no chapters and so very few paragraphs and dialog attributions; it's not because the point of view shifts from one person's to another, decades later or before, in the middle of
Nathan "N.R." Gaddis
Apr 18, 2013 added it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Nathan "N.R." by: William2
It’s been ages since I had to be won over by a book (if ever). Typically I’m won over already before I open the cover. Whatever my system of second=hand knowledge and magic=words may be, however it is that sifts through the hype and the recommendations, I seem to mostly always get it right. Sure, occasionally, I’m not blown=out of the water by a big book with a big reputation, but I’m nearly always quite satisfied (I can’t get into reading so=called one/star books). But Self’s Umbrella sort of demanded ...more
Excellent book; one star off only because I found the story (i.e. Audrey's story) very draining.
Combines avant-garde structure with the highly evocative and emotionally involving, great sense of historical place/time - including working class characters less frequently found in historical fiction, and a political focus which is genuinely about its time - not contrived to please the contemporary reader - yet also of interest to modern sensibilities, a bawdy humour too rarely found with those pol
Aug 24, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
There are three main narrative strands in Umbrella. The first follows Zack Busner, a psychiatrist working in the 1970s at the huge Friern Mental Hospital near the Alexandra Palace in London. He becomes fascinated by the brain disease encephalitis lethargica, and by one particular elderly patient who suffers from the condition. Audrey Death was admitted to Friern when she was struck down by this disease in 1918. She is semi-catatonic, able to walk but plagued by tics which overwhelm any natural m ...more
Ben Dutton
Aug 20, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Will Self has always been one of those writers whose work I hear about. His novels all sound tricksy, clever and comic – three qualities I adore in fiction, and yet, somehow, I’ve managed to avoid reading his fiction all these years. This is not to say I’ve not read his other work – his occasional pieces in British newspapers have been interesting, insightful, if occasionally sending his readers to their dictionaries. This later quality is often seen as a negative to the Self-bashers – why does ...more
My first review was a bit harsh, so here's the new version edited after I had time to distance myself.

I am not the best reader, but Umbrella was really hard to read. Run on sentences and giant page long paragraphs. I spent 5 hours on the first 100 pages and a mere 3 on the remaining 300. Conceptually I was looking forward to the novel and I really tried to invest time to follow the story. I like stories that span generations, world war 1, mental illness, and regret. Parts I understood were good
Sarah Goodwin
Jan 17, 2014 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: did-not-finish
DNF after about ten percent of pretentious babble.

Using some of my issues with this book, I have compiled the following checklist:


1. Use a thesaurus on every word. Better yet, use hyphens and run together words to create new, meaningless balderwank (see I can do it too).

2. French est du rigour. So your main character is English? No matter, they should still spout French, Latin, mandarin and ancient atlantean.
Steven Godin
Sorry to say but this was a complete and utter mess!, I never actually got to finishing it the first time around so gave it another crack recently but shouldn't have bothered. I can fully understand those who rated this much higher but it's just not the sort of book I would normally read and at the time thought to try something different for a change. Different it definitely was but that's the only positive I can think of. Will Self does has an audience but sadly I am not comfortable in my seat, ...more
Jul 25, 2012 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-in-2012
Please save yourself from ending up with Audrey in the asylum and don't even bother with this book. WHAT?????
When the war has took its part, When the world has dealt its card ... The pile of folded papers lay on the table in front of Colin. His eyes play across them: choosing, selecting, winnowing out the wrong ones. There is no difference between them that he can see: some are smaller, some larger; some are folded more tightly than others. He chooses at random and reads it out loud: Umbrella (Ella ella eh eh eh) — What kind of a title is that? Donna shrugs at her boss as she looks up from the roughly tied ma ...more
Anthony Vacca
Dec 02, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Postmodernism is dead, long live Modernism!
Anne Charnock
Umbrella proved to be a challenge but not consistently so. Don’t be put off if you haven’t read this novel as yet. I occasionally lost the thread – not knowing which character was speaking, not realizing that the setting had changed half a page previously, and that the story had jumped back or forward in time. These shifts, I soon realized, were happening mid-sentence.

I decided to go with the flow, not worry if I briefly lost a handle on the story. Nevertheless, for the most part I k
Oct 29, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
'Umbrella' will, like many of Self's other writings, divide readers. This is not an easy read, and yet, similarly to its Modernist precursors, it demands that you read it. Its convoluted style, schizoid narrative and predilection for semantic impenetrability almost goads you to read on; it is unapologetically complex, and dares you to have the audacity to try and conquer it. It is precisely for these reasons (and many more) that, for me, it is THE book of 2012.

Many reviewers (some bemoaning it)
Simon Robs
Apr 26, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
There are recurring not-really connected umbrella iterations in various contexts -ella ella eh eh eh throughout, beginning with JJoyce quote "A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella" and off we go Self unto Modern turn at the helm Stream novel with his alchemic mandala of life in the looney. He trots out Dr. Zach Busner again like a Pig Bodine in shit, this one's bughouse castle where 'ticcy' ain't tacky 'cause ever body is whacky. Yep, Pynchon had his paranoia and rockets so too Self's ...more
Karli Cude
2.5 stars: Umbrella should be a compelling read about war, modernity, sex, gender, experimental medicine, and the lack of accountability in the mental health system - but it's not. Well, it might actually be about those things, but unless you're armed with a pretty highfalutin vocabulary, a working knowledge of Cockney accents and London slang, and the 3D decoder from the accompanying Umbrella cereal box, then you might just find yourself completely lost in the literary rain without a literate u ...more
Sep 24, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: library-audio, ebooks
The quote from James Joyce that 'a brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella' forms a metaphor for this novel and is a recurring motif in the early part of the book.

It is the story of Zachary (Zack) Busner, a psychiatrist, and his patient Audrey Death* who is incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital just after WWI during an epidemic of encephalitis lethargica. The illness as the name suggests rendered people asleep and sadly this could be for years. There are three strands: Audrey's life befo
Leo Robertson
Check this out. Who the hell is that? What happened to the pessimistic, narcissistic needlessly sesquipedalian ponce whose work we all wanted nothing to do with? Who is this relaxed, open and engagingly pleasant gentleman? Was it all a media persona? (I suspect not, I think he did use to be a prat, but he totally isn't anymore!)

This is the guy who wrote Umbrella.

So... like loads of great authors, Will Self read Ulysses and loved it if it weren't for all the incomprehensibility, thought 'I'll do that' and/>
Apr 12, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I found this to be a difficult but rewarding reading experience. Hats off to Will Self for pushing himself and the modern novel to a bold new frontier; a highly literary and chaotic free form, sprinkled with the hundreds of dormant gem words of the English language.
With no paragraphs, let alone chapters, it was difficult to plunge in and bow out of my reading sessions. It takes a while to pick up the thread of the nutty ramblings and honestly, I didn't know what was going on about a third of t
Jul 24, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Superb - a novel that gives one faith in contemporary English fiction. There are minor faults - the representation of accent in places, the tone and accuracy of his reproduction of early twentieth century/late nineteenth century english - but the strengths are numerous and determining. It is, contrary to reviews, not a modernist novel although late Woolf comes often to mind. Self writes as if the discoveries of modernism are an established, historical set of facts that one cannot hide from - a c ...more
AJ Dehany
Sep 12, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Dictionaryswallowing (v. intrans.) is one of the pleasures of reading Will Self. In my peregrenation through his latest novel, I encountered a number of words I’m unlikely to ever look up: kyphotic, marmoreal, akinesia, abulia, campanile, vermiculated quoins, sphygmomamometer, seborhhoeic (something to do with oil presumably), gazeekas, billikens, oculogyric crisis, gastrocnemius, désordeonné, cachexia, resipiscence, palilalic verbigeration, opistothenos, apharesis, convolvulus, hepephrenics, me ...more
Lou Robinson
Jul 16, 2014 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I'm with you, Robert, nearly 70 pages in and I just can't read any more. And despite James's protestations of greatness, it's too boring for me. I'm going to go and read something more interesting instead.

Aug 07, 2012 marked it as tried-but-not-for-me  ·  review of another edition
Umbrella was a disappointment - the kind of book with all capital words, exclamation points galore etc that seems to be written by an excitable teenager or someone on drugs, books that I tend to dislike profoundly
Dec 18, 2015 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2015
Do you like confusing passages written half in italics for no discernible reason? No, no you don't. Nobody does. The end.
Jul 16, 2014 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Quite possibly an excellent novel, but sadly I'll never know. I read to enjoy and the writing style just isn't enjoyable for me.
Jake Goretzki
Sep 09, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Hard going, but worth the effort. My appreciation of it is probably still more about the fact of there being a modernist in the Booker longlist than about the book itself, but this one feels like a laster.

What can I say: it’s rich, immersive and verbally engaging. There’s some fabulous language in there: ‘His hand ivy on the doorjamb, his carpet slippers mossy on the mat’. Head wounds like strawberry jam. Carpet worn like punctuation. Liver and onions in the retired Jewish psychiatrist’s flat.
Oct 29, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: booker-prizes
If you decide to read this book send the children off on an adventure holiday, the other half to the football or shopping centre as appropriate, shut out the pets, unplug the phone and call in sick at work.
You need to concentrate.
You will resent any interruption, partly because this is good and partly because each time you are torn away from it you will need a few minutes to get back into the flow. The narrative switches point-of-view and / or time frame without warning, sometimes in
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William Self is an English novelist, reviewer and columnist. He received his education at University College School, Christ's College Finchley, and Exeter College, Oxford. He is married to journalist Deborah Orr.

Self is known for his satirical, grotesque and fantastic novels and short stories set in seemingly parallel universes.

Other books in the series

Umbrella (3 books)
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“...catching a glimpse of his rather hippyish form in a mirror, he wonders at this atavism of apparel, is it an inversion of foetal ontogeny, in which the phenotype passes through previous fashion stages? Soon there will be gaiters and gloves...I will probably die, he thinks, clad in animal skins.” 3 likes
“Thought is a melody, Audrey thinks, while the body is an inert mechanism of cogs, springs, chains and ratchets...” 1 likes
More quotes…