When setting out to write Dustless, I had a relatively clear sense of the spiritual temper of the book I wished to create. I’ve already mentioned [in an earlier post, Ambient fiction | 2] how I wanted to build a novel that gave the reader a similar experience to the one I used to have when I read as a child. This was an immersive experience. I didn’t want to draw attention to my own writing, or for Dustless to be self-referential, or to play meta-fictional games. I wasn’t even concerned with developing a particularly distinctive style. The tone of the novel would be flexible, but the central narrative would be quite neutral. With Dustless, I wanted to get away from modernity in terms of the language I used – I don’t mean, to create a nostalgic work, either stylistically or spiritually, but I wanted to build a universe in which my characters were uncluttered by contemporary noise. I didn’t want an overtly ironic writing, or anything flippant or streetwise, cynical or romantic – just a very straightforward, workmanlike style, like a powerful railway engine that would be able to draw many carriages for a great distance…

I would say that, very broadly, the great 19th century realist novels were the kinds of books that are “in the brickwork”, so to speak, of Dustless. Dickens, George Eliot, Thackeray, the Victorian “triple-decker” novel, works with space and breadth – what Henry James described1 as:

…such large loose baggy monsters, with their queer elements of the accidental and the arbitrary…

In terms of direct literary models, it’s hard to speak of any obvious influences. Like anyone, I live in atmospheres of thought. Everything is influential. As to actual books, for me, a poor memory – created, in part, I sometimes think, because of the long periods of time I spend in composition of one sort or another – tends to create a sense of a haze of influence, rather than anything as clear and linear as a cladogram or family tree. I don’t make many notes on the books I read, I don’t keep a written record of them, or of my reactions to them. (My own work, I suppose, my poetry and fiction, is my reaction to them.) My background and taste means that I haven’t actually read a huge amount of fantasy or sci fi. I read more sci fi when I was younger – Asimov is the writer who has stayed in my memory the most clearly, but even with him it is a question of tiny fragments. For a long time, now – well over a decade – I haven’t actually read very much fiction. Before that, I studied English, and my reading was concentrated on English and European, and some American, ‘classic’ literature.

So, in a way, I imagine, my literary influences will be unusual for someone writing fantasy. Tolkien is a writer I adored when I was younger, and I’m sure his influence is diffused throughout Dustless. Tolkien was a world-builder, with his languages and histories, his great sense of time passing and of orders of civilisation changing. I think fairly early in the composition of Dustless, I re-read The Lord of the Rings, and I remember feeling a bit shocked, because its narrative tempo was quite fast when compared to Dustless. I was tremendously impressed with that aspect of the novel. At the same time, (and I in no way wish to denigrate Tolkien), I did feel that I wanted my characters to have much greater psychological depth and mystery than those in The Lord of the Rings2.

For a long time, it’s been my habit to watch films rather than to read novels, or even to read poetry. So, with Dune, for example, it was David Lynch’s film, rather than the novels themselves (which I’ve never read), which was influential.

I’d also say that Russian literature has had a profound influence on Dustless, especially on the first volumes of the novel. I’m a fan of Turgenev, and of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Pasternak (although, again, it’s a long time since I’ve read those writers in any depth). I think I have a kind of generic sense of a literary Russia, and especially of a specific melancholy, to do with what Mandelstam has called Russia’s “watermelon emptiness”. I’m drawn to the idea of the eccentric Russian landowner, a widower, perhaps, out in the provinces, walking around a fairly dilapidated mansion with his hounds following him about the place, their claws scraping on the floorboards. Rooks, and deep winters, and sleighs… The sense of space (so very different to my native England), of hardly populated and apparently limitless terrain, with gigantic skies and clouds, appealed very deeply to my imagination…

1in the Preface to volume 7 of the New York edition of his complete works, containing The Tragic Muse, 1908

2Simply from a moral and philosophical point of view, I don’t want to be overtly critical of any other writer. I get quite irritated when commentators have a go at established writers, especially at writers who have made the huge faux pas of being dead. T.S. Eliot wrote (in Tradition and the Individual Talent:

Some one said: “The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.” Precisely, and they are that which we know.

I’m not suggesting that it isn’t healthy and important to be ‘critical’ over work, but quite a lot of what passes for criticism reminds me of a poem by Harold Nemerov:

ON CERTAIN WITS
who amused themselves over the simplicity of Barnett Newman’s
paintings shown at Bennington College in May of 1958.

When Moses in Horeb struck the rock,
And water came forth out of the rock,
Some of the people were annoyed with Moses
And said he should have used a fancier stick.

And when Elijah on Mount Carmel brought the rain,
Where the prophets of Baal could not bring rain,
Some of the people said that the rituals of the prophets of Baal
Were aesthetically significant, while Elijah’s were very plain.

Tolkien seems to attract a great deal of hostility. Of course, he’s a limited writer – so was Tolstoy, or George Eliot, or T.S. Eliot. Writing, in some ways, is a system of limitations. Each writer brings what they can to the language and to the world, and it seems graceless and mean-hearted to attack writers because they are limited in certain ways, even if the same writer is extremely creative and original in other ways.

Advertisements