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Authors: Will Self


BOOK: Dorian
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Will Self is the author of three short-story collections,
The Quantity Theory of Insanity
(winner of the 1992 Geoffrey Faber Award),
Grey Area
Tough, Tough Toys for Tough, Tough Boys
; a dyad of novellas,
Cock and Bull
, and a third novella,
The Sweet Smell of Psychosis
; and four novels,
My Idea of Fun, Great Apes, How the Dead Live
(shortlisted for the 2000 Whitbread Novel of the Year Award) and
. Together with the photographer David Gamble, he produced
Perfidious Man
, a sideways look at contemporary masculinity. There have been three collections of journalism,
Junk Mail, Sore Sites
Feeding Frenzy
. Most of his books are published by Penguin.

Will Self has written for a plethora of publications over the years and is a regular broadcaster on television and radio.





Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London
, England

Penguin Putnam Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA

Penguin Books Australia Ltd, 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia

Penguin Books Canada Ltd, 10 Alcorn Avenue, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
M4V 3B2

Penguin Books India (P) Ltd, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi – 110 017, India

Penguin Books (NZ) Ltd, Cnr Rosedale and Airborne Roads, Albany, Auckland, New Zealand

Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank 2196, South Africa

Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London
, England

First published by Viking 2002

Published in Penguin Books 2003


Copyright © Will Self, 2002

All rights reserved

The moral right of the author has been asserted

Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser

ISBN: 978-0-14-196097-5

For Ivan

And with thanks to Jack Emery and Joan Bakewell

There is an unconscious appositeness in the use of the word
to designate the human individual, as is done in all European languages: for
really means an actor’s mask, and it is true that no one reveals himself as he is; we all wear a mask and play a role.


Once you were inside the Chelsea home of Henry and Victoria Wotton it was impossible to tell whether it was day or night-time. Not only was there this crucial ambiguity, but the seasons and even the years became indeterminate. Was it this century or that one? Was she wearing this skirt or that suit? Did he take that drug or this drink? Was his preference for that cunt or this arsehole?

These combinations of styles, modes, thoughts and orifices were played out in the gloom of the Wottons’ dusty apartments and the brightness of their smeary water-closets, as if artefacts, ideas, even souls were all but symbols inscribed upon the reels of the slot machine of Life. Yank the arm and up they came: three daggers, three bananas, three pound signs. At the Wottons’, three of anything paid out generously – in the coin of Misfortune.

But such was the particular correspondence between the year our story begins, 1981, and the year of the house’s construction, 1881, and such was the peculiarly similar character of the times – a Government at once regressive and progressive, a monarchy mired in its own immemorial succession crisis, an economic recession both sharp and bitter – that a disinterested viewer could have been forgiven for seeing more enduring significance in the fanlight and the dado, the striped wallpaper and the gilt-framed mirror, a reproduction bust of Antinous and a very watery Turner, than in the human figures that actually stood in the mote-heavy beam of light which fell to the runner.

Upper-class people – that much was clear. Anyone would’ve judged Henry Wotton to be so by his hauteur alone, by the way his arrogant, supercilious face was looking past its own image in the mirror, as if searching for someone more interesting to talk to. Someone who didn’t have reddish curly hair, and eyes like the buttons of an undertaker’s suit sewn on to an expanse of waxy pallor. There are those for whom all existence is the first hour of a promising cocktail party, and Henry Wotton was one of them.

If any further confirmation were needed, it was provided by his tailoring: Wotton was swaddled in class. His immaculately-cut three-piece Prince of Wales-check suit bagged slightly at the knee; his off-white butterfly-collar linen shirt frayed a tad at the cuff and the link holes; his red knitted silk tie was casually knotted. But only a slice of this costume was on view, a long stripe from his knobbly Adam’s apple to his scuffed loafers. (An English gentleman never polishes his shoes, but then nor does a lazy bastard.) The rest of his finery was hidden beneath a full-length black Crombie overcoat; a garment that was also perfectly crafted – if, that is, you like the skirts of overcoats to be overfull, and distinctly epicene.

Behind Wotton stood a scarecrow woman, black hair flying away from her broad brow, which was buried in the hollow between her husband’s shoulder blades. He was sorting through the mail, mostly a stack of pasteboard invitations, some inked, others engraved. Wotton tapped these together on the credenza in front of him, with disconcertingly fleshy and spatulate fingers, then riffled them as if he were shuffling a pack of cards. His wife, Lady Victoria, snuffled at his back. Her skinny arms, like animated pipe-cleaners, writhed in the stale air. Wotton laid the invitations down among overflowing ashtrays, empty bottles, stained wine glasses, crumpled bits of this and that. On the floor at their feet, tumbleweeds of dust sauntered in a febrile draught.

It’s worth remarking at this stage on the precise character of the Wottons’ house unbeautiful. Please don’t let it be misunderstood that this was a filthy mucky home. Like any marital estate it had its ebb and flow of order and disorder; it’s just that this disorder was extreme by anyone’s standards. The ashtrays were huge, as big as geological features. Cigarette and cigar butts were buried in their cones of ash like the victims of a volcanic eruption. As for the empty bottles, these were so numerous that their ranks formed a kind of anti-bar, offering up a fine selection of dregs, lees and spiritous vapours. And the many glasses which accompanied them were so casually abandoned as to suggest the recent dispersal of a considerable body of people – yet no one had visited the house in days.

Lady Victoria, whose family and friends knew her by the sobriquet ‘Batface’, was still attired for this long-gone party in a girlishly tiered ra-ra skirt of navy crushed velour. Her hair was a mess and so was she. She wove, her arms snaked, she was so irrefutably aristocratic that she was allowed to do almost anything – short of pissing herself – while remaining altogether acceptable.

And, truth to tell, she
have pissed herself as well – nobody would’ve judged her. Her father, the Duke of This or That, was a dandified bully, a preposterous little popinjay of a man who privileged his children with his superfluous anger. He had so much of everything that there was plenty to spare. When he first came across the infant Victoria, who was by then aged three or four months (His Grace having spent the preceding year – after having mounted the Duchess in the enclosure they kept for rare goat breeds – gaming at Biarritz and game-pie-eating in Caithness), on seeing her vast eyes, her triangular face and her elegantly enlarged ears, he had exclaimed, ‘Batface!’ Naturally, she adored him, both ultrasonically and stridently. The way her body and her mind both jibed with the world, the way she wriggled and writhed and gurned, all of it derived from his rejection. Lady Victoria stunted herself so as to tenant the queer space of the Duke’s contempt.

‘Lots of oblongs –’ she squeaked on this occasion. They were the first words she had spoken to her husband for some hours. Not that they had been asleep – far from it. In their separate portions of the house – he below, she above – they had spent the hours of darkness secreted in their own ways, observing silence in lieu of repose.

‘Sent out by squares.’ His tones were deep and cold, a contaminated reservoir of inky disdain.

‘We hardly go anywhere… any more… at least not together.’ But there was no captiousness in her tones; Lady Victoria cared entirely for Henry, and cared for her own caring for him. Thus she did the sympathy for both of them.

He felt for her, too. He lay down the oblongs, and one of his hands first went to his eye to remove some wakey dust, then came groping behind her, to where one of the tiers of her skirt had become caught up behind the waistband of her tights. This he untangled and set to rights, before turning to face her. ‘I don’t give a shit about going to any of them, just so long as they keep inviting us.’ He kissed her lightly on either eyelid; then, releasing her, he glanced around as if looking for a briefcase or a newspaper or some other staff of workaday righteousness, but finding none he opted instead for a bottle of Scotch within which a couple of inches still remained, and, tucking the furl of glass under his arm, he swivelled to depart.

‘Have a good day, darling…’ Lady Victoria trailed off. She was always trailing off.

‘Yeah, fuck, whatever – you too.’ They kissed again, this time on the lips, but sexlessly. He opened the front door and descended the front steps to the street, scrunching up the pocket of his coat to feel for his car keys.

It may have been the beginning of the Wottons’ day, but outside morning had passed. It was noon, a noon in late June. The street, although bathed in sunlight, had no freshness about it, but was baking to a harsh monochrome. For this was an impossible late June, with the fruit trees in blossom as well as the flowers in bloom. All along the terrace of off-white four-storey houses, cherry and apple trees were bowed down with their gay burden, like willowy brides, their veils scattered with confetti. In window-boxes and the crowded little front gardens, a thousand stems effloresced: tulips, magnolia trees, desert orchids, snowdrops, daffodils, foxgloves. It was a veritable riot of verdancy against the urbanity all around, and above it spore hung like a mist of blood over an ancient battlefield.

Wotton hung over his own front railings, as if speared by them, like an overdressed St Sebastian. He pulled the folds of his overcoat about him and shivered. His pocket trawl had resulted in the netting of two pairs of Ray-Ban Wayfarers. Levering himself upright he clamped first one pair and then the second on to his face. ‘It’s perfectly all right to stare into the abyss for days at a time’ – he addressed the empty street – ‘so long as you’re wearing two pairs of Ray-Bans.’

This was the manner of man he was – supremely mannered. A collector of
bons mots
and aperçus and apophthegms, an alfresco rehearser of the next impassioned, extempore rodomontade, whose greatest fear in life was inarticulacy, or worse,
esprit de l’escalier
. Henry Wotton might have professed an indifference about his position in society, but in truth, like all those who have ascended too high and too fast, he had failed to acclimatise, so he gasped desperately for the next inspirational acknowledgement that he existed at all.

BOOK: Dorian
4.46Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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