It’s a complex issue, the nature of influence. There are certainly moments of Dustless where I might be able to say, “Oh, I really wanted to emulate The Seven Samurai in this part”, or “I wanted to bring in something of Swann’s Way [Du côté de chez Swann] at this point”. These are conscious emulations, quite possibly recognisable to someone who has seen The Seven Samurai or read Swann’s Way.

I would say, though, that these kinds of one-to-one match-ups are quite rare in the novel. Match-ups, I mean, where you may be able to isolate the vivid point where the current from one work of art can clearly be seen entering another work of art.

Influence, though, doesn’t necessarily or even usually flow along lines of literal transmission. The world is too subtle for us: we’re always using bold crayons to depict it. And we can concentrate too much on what is there, when what is not there may be of equal or greater importance.

In an earlier post [Ambient literature | 2], I suggested that, when we’re strongly affected by things we don’t like, these dislikes can become very important to us, and even precious – they may, paradoxically, form powerfully benevolent and creative forces in our lives. In terms of the subject under discussion, we might describe this process as a form of “negative influence” – a concept vaguely and mis-shapenly analogous to the idea of “negative space” in art theory. We react against cultural works, disliking them, and this reaction shapes us and what we create. This absence of matter, these missing tones, those disused procedures, constitute a space surrounding the constructed work of art. What we put in is shaped by what we leave out. And this process of negative influence doesn’t have to be overt – the work of art doesn’t have to proclaim its negative influences by insisting on its own difference from them, its novelty, the reaction against what we dislike doesn’t have to be made explicit within the work of art we do produce – it can be gentle and diffusive.

Works of art influence each other, and the work of life, distantly. In terms of plot, for example, I’d very broadly describe Dustless as a quest or journey – a “road movie”. In terms of “positive” influence, we could take a trip back, perhaps, to visit the great sites of the texts and works of the past – see how, for example, The Odyssey, has flowed out and influenced many other stories and poems and other works of art, which have in their turn flowed on and performed the same transformations on neighbouring works. As narratives and images and tropes disperse and mutate across time and culture, tracing the lines of the literal transmission of influence becomes impossible, but is it so far-fetched to say that, as we are supposed to contain particles of the very first moments of birth of the universe, so Tokyo Story or North by Northwest, or a minimal techno track, or even a game of tennis or chess, may well contain within them particles of The Odyssey?

I imagine many of the influences on Dustless are there in a diffuse form. Myths, folklore, and fairy tales, for example – these are all part of the ambience of the novel. Things that are atmospheric, that we breathe. Fragments of sacred texts, nursery rhymes, cartoons from our childhood (Boss Cat, and Tom and Jerry)…

One way of describing Dustless might be to say that it is panoramic. In filmic terms, the narrative pans slowly across a vast landscape. The landscape is cultural – the landscape that is feeding into my mind as I write, over the years, encountering new works, remembering encounters with older works. So gradual and extensive is the panning action that, in turns of influence, a huge amount of material ends up being fed into the story.

Cinema itself is very, very important to the world of Dustless. The early volumes, for example, are heavily influenced by the Westerns I watched as a kid. John Wayne, James Stewart, Jack Palance, Gary Cooper. Many of those films had faded or bleached out of my memory by the time I actually came to start composition, but Sergio Leone’s Westerns, and Clint Eastwood’s films, such as High Plains Drifter, entered the DNA of the novel. It wasn’t so much any particular incident in these films that stirred my imagination, but more the atmospheres – again, the scale of the landscapes involved, the emptiness, the sense of settlements isolated in near-wilderness. Or fragments of gear: the immortal sound of boots and spurs jingling on steps and boardwalk as the protagonist approached the saloon. Space and distance, and travelling through difficult terrain, and what these elements do to people, the kind of person who is fitted to such environments – I think of Clint Eastwood’s lean, languid figure in the saddle, the way his eyes seem to have been sculpted into slits by his facing into sun or snow – those Westerns were really important to me.

It’s fitting that Sergio Leone’s name crops up, because he’s a well-documented example of the diffusion of influence. Leone was influenced by Akira Kurosawa, who was in turn influenced by the Western, particularly by John Ford. This wonderfully fertile cross-pollination of works of art, and specifically those of occidental and oriental cultures, resonates through Dustless. I absorbed atmospheres, and Dustless was the arena in which those different atmospheres mixed, like a sky that contains different kinds of clouds.

During the long years of composition, it was a kind of technique of mine to immerse myself in films, and particularly in Japanese period dramas. I was fascinated by the formality and (to occidental eyes) hierarchical rigidity of the societies depicted in many of these films. I don’t think it would be too absurd to say that the greatest work of art to influence Dustless is Japan itself. (I’m guilty of huge generalisation, here, for which I hope you’ll forgive me, but of the nations I know [which are very few, and those few I don’t know very well!], I would say that the one that most approximates a work of art is Japan.)

I find Japan endlessly fascinating. The main ‘religion’ depicted in Dustless is that of TanZo, the ‘simple Way’. TanZo is clearly influenced by Buddhism – the title, Dustless, is in part derived from the Buddhist notion of ‘the six dusts’, and the search of the characters to transcend the ‘dusts’ and become ‘Dustless’. Although Buddhism flows from India out to China, and so to Japan, it is the Japanese Zen inflection of Buddhism that is probably most important in the novel – which is probably not a very Zen observation to make, I’m afraid, being so caught up with differences and distinctions.

Through my reading, and poring over woodblock prints, and watching films, a huge number of Japanese artefacts – from different historical periods – enter and influence the novel. Of course, they are all transformed into their equivalents in the imagined world of Dustless: some are hardly affected at all by the transformation, others are considerably adapted, or the model effectively vanishes into the mutated equivalent.

One of the key artforms to influence the world of Dustless was that of animation in general, and Japanese animation (anime) in particular. I’d like to discuss animation and anime in subsequent posts.

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