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From the notebook of Amza Iyaa, minor novelist of the Era of the Empty Sky:

So: there are the unwritten books. I’m sure there must be a philosophical category for such, but I don’t know it offhand, and I certainly can’t be bothered to look it up. (A writer who depends on other people’s definitions is hardly a real writer, in my opinion. And research is too pedestrian an activity, like moving goods from shelf to shelf in a shop, to be considered suitable work for a truly creative artist.)

We must grant that an unwritten book certainly possesses some life, even if it is only that of the most ephemeral inkling.

Next in my catalogue of futility come the unfinished books. Ah, a sad, sad species, one with which I am all too well acquainted: there are a handful of such creatures lying around in my own study — too many, really.

Another vast library could be dedicated to unfinished books. And for each book, a story might be written, detailing the reasons for the failure of the writer to finish their work. The Catalogue of Interruptions — that might be its title.

Let us deal promptly with what I will call “victorious failures”. These, I suppose, are the sorts of failures Kayza has. I heard him with my own ears say, in Kasamono’s the other evening (where he was holding court in the most shameless fashion), “I got about half way through, and I thought

Aha — this won’t do at all!

But I saw straightaway what was to be done about it, and I started again, on a much stronger book”.

Typical Kayza! Why do people swallow such pompous stuff? Really, the number of toads around him, licking up his radiance! Absurd…

Well, in any case, that’s what I mean by “victorious failure” — a book that is unfinished because the writer is strong, and can see their way opened to a better book.

It’s admirable, I suppose, if irritating. A weaker writer won’t let go of a bad book so easily: it’s like a raft they cling to, even if they know (deep inside) the raft is slowly sinking. A writer’s life is generally a kind of permanent shipwreck. Mine is, anyway, and most of the writers I know are floundering about in one sort or another, young or old, it’s the same, debts, collapsed marriages, scandal, hopeless crew, the lot of us… But their book, their precious book — well, that’s the one thing that keeps them afloat in all the turmoil, the roll and the spume. And the weak writer — young, maybe, no confidence, poor technique, loss of nerve, whatever — is much, much less likely to let go of a bad book, on which so much appears to depend, than a strong writer (or a “successful” writer, like Kayza, who are so stolid with fame and flattery and flannel and flappery, they don’t know what it means to be a real writer, anymore, I quite insist).

Who can blame them, these desperate fellows, bleeding their ink away into a useless book? That manuscript, it’s their raft. Are there any other rafts in the vicinity? No, they can’t see any. And they took so long, expended so much effort and ingenuity, such love, such dream of reputation, and it isn’t really a bad raft — is it? — so why should they abandon it? The saints of all TanZo know that everything else in their life is chaos! But at least they can stay afloat, have some hope that the next morning will bring progress, some sight of land… Well, and so it goes on (rather like this raft metaphor), and the weak writer sticks with the bad book, revising, crossing out, re-starting, changing a name, and generally puts such a bother of tweak and splice and hesitation into the work that it becomes merely a lamentable trail of doubt and botch and second-thoughtery, until finally they end up with a disaster that is so obvious, they are forced to give up, and possibly accept that, for the time being at least, paid employment as a government clerk or tutor to the inane offspring of some local lordling will have to do for now, and that their masterpiece will remain unfinished for a year or so…

What writer of substance hasn’t experienced such a mess? I know I have, several times — even a writer with my polished reputation, I can freely admit, has bodged a story or two…

Another thing I overheard Kayza say was

Genius is certainty

(I’m almost entirely sure that isn’t his own saying, but something he’s borrowed from Yala Dona, but he passes it off as his own wit, and of course his entourage of poodles and creeps will hardly challenge him, or even care about so small a thing as genuine originality)…

Yes, certainty…

And he also said:

Genius is play

(he seems to have so many definitions of genius, he may as well say “genius is three pebbles one stacked on top of another”, or “genius is mud”, but of course, he is the great genius, so who will argue with him? Not I, in any manner: it is beneath me to twiddle categories with Kayza, and he knows it, too)…

Anyway, back to the core of my subject: unfinished books! They must be accepted as possessing still more life than an unwritten book. And yet, in some ways, are they not also more dead? Do they not die more completely? Their death more lingering, more terrible, more deathly? For a totally unwritten book could still, in some abstract notion, be a great book. But a failed book — I am talking about failures, here, among the unfinished — how can that be said to be great? The writer gave up on it, and left it to die. A horrible situation, really, not one I’d wish on anyone, not even “the Master of the Clouds” (wretched title! but I know Kayza likes to be called it. Really, who thinks these things up?)…

No, the more I have thought of it, the more I am certain, that an unwritten book is preferable to one half written. I know, of course, there are so many more reasons a book is never completed — from the prosaic heart attack, or being hit by a carriage, that sort of inconvenient end, to war, losing the manuscript (awful!), fire, and so on — but those books with which we fail, they die a most grisly death, in my opinion.

In fact, as I consider these things now, I grow more and more convinced that the only books that are really safe from death are unwritten ones! All the other categories of book are fated to die.

It is late, I will interrupt myself here: I am expected at the Gryso Theatre, to see the re-working of Kayda’s The Zarens. I don’t have much hope of it, it is terrible rough work, Kayda, he was a brute with all his swords and murders, probably another wasted evening, but it is a fine summer evening, and, as the poet says

to waste an hour of a summer’s night | shows the heart negligence and is a slight | upon the very spirit of a living chance…

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From the notebook of Amza Iyaa, minor novelist of the Era of the Empty Sky:

Certain books die. This much is clear.

Certain books – many – perhaps even most? – can hardly be said to live at all. These are the books that are unwritten – the glimmers, the amusing sketches (to be worked up at a later date) of dilettantes, notes jotted down on napkins, half-thoughts from people half awake and half asleep, thoughts that seem urgent, requiring prose.

Ah, the unwritten books! Surely, the vast numbers of books published through the ages, gathered together in a mountainous heap, must still be just a flash, a quibble, a fraction, compared to the books that were never written?

What a stupendous library it would be, the one that held all the unwritten books of our world!

What a ghostly babble, those pages will contain… Such a crowd, a roar, the rustle of a thousand weak intentions, the riffling plod of a hundred million half-hearted notions…

I have run out memory, the number of people who, on finding that I am the Amza Iyaa, have told me: “Ah, I have the idea for a most splendid story!”, or “I wish I could write a book. I have often thought of writing one…”

Yes, yes

I say, moving away from them as quickly as I can

I’m sure you have it in you

although, of course, in my mind, I think: Ah, but if wishing were doing, then doing, and life in general, would be far less interesting…

— something of that kind, in any case.

Yet, who can say these unwritten books never lived at all? Certainly, they were never given the cool reality of ink; certainly, they remained stumps and visions, they were never granted articulation, their plots were never worked out, their characters were mere phantasms, schoolboy crushes, lumpy exaggerations… but, still, there they were, for those moments or days, or even years, those unwritten books, they certainly existed, didn’t they?

Isn’t it possible, that somewhere in that library of unwritten books, by far the greatest masterpiece ever created languishes?

A wonderful, wonderful book?

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.

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.