A Brother is Like an Umbrella

IMG_4387I bought Will Self’s book on the basis of the epigraph that appears after the title page: “A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella” — James Joyce.

I’m glad I did. I wish I hadn’t.

It’s a difficult book, almost without paragraph breaks, slipping centuries with little warning, and wild with words I’ve never run across in sentences as complex as consciousness itself.

The novel ends as Busner, a psychiatrist who for a short time rehabilitated a set of patients who had suffered from encephalitis lethargica for decades, reflects on his personal limitations. It all comes back to his brother:

“Colonel Blink sees clearly the vestibule fashioned from a mere fifteen feet of the old hospital corridor: those aren’t Barbour jackets hanging from the pegs but . . . bodies . . . the corpse of his schizophrenic brother, Henry, who committed suicide at fifty-two, after thirty years as an inmate of psychiatric hospitals . . . I visited him — but never enough.”

Audrey, the patient for whom he had the most hope, having fallen back into her troubled state, now appears as an umbrella: “her neck, gripped in the kyphotic vice of her extreme old age, curves up and over into a hook, so that levelled at him is its very blunt and accusatory end.”

The novel will trouble me till my last days. It gets at my deepest fears — that I will forget the brother whom I largely abandoned when he was alive and that my grown children suffer while I go on with my selfish life.

About Scott Abbott

Ph.D. in German Literature from Princeton University, 1979. Then I taught at Vanderbilt University, BYU, and Utah Valley State College. At Utah Valley University, I'm Director of the Program in Integrated Studies and former Chair of the Department of Humanities and Philosophy. My publications include a book on Freemasonry and the German Novel, two co-authored books with Zarko Radakovic (published in Serbo-Croatian in Belgrade), and translations of a book by Austrian author Peter Handke and of a catalogue of an exhibit called "The German Army and Genocide." More famously, my children are in the process of creating good lives for themselves: as a model and manager, as a teacher of Chinese language, as a watershed scientist and science writer, as a jazz musician, as a corrections officer, as university students, and as parents. I share my life with UVU historian Lyn Bennett and our yellow dog Blue. Some publications at http://works.bepress.com/scott_abbott/
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2 Responses to A Brother is Like an Umbrella

  1. Mike Roloff says:

    I read several fascinatng reviews of Self’s book, and if I had the time, but I dont at present. Self on first encounter a decade ago I thought stank, then I ran across his description of wandering the coast of England and was amazed….” kyphotic” instead of hunchbacked…. definitely out of Joyce’s bag he seems and to delight in language. No need for the fine Abbott to be put in a state of self-mortifiation! http://www.facebook.com/mike.roloff1?ref=name


  2. Scott Abbott says:

    you are right about the language, it’s joycean and precise and celebratory and profound and witty all at once.
    self-mortification is absolutely required for all abbotts, that comes with the office.


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