In our naive attempts to write the great Canadian (American?) novel, we think our text is going to be pristine and pure, that no one has ever done it before, that this is straight from the horse's mouth.
Chances are, somebody has already done it. And better.
Let me show you my opener for my um, magnum opus, The Hat People:
The year was rife with signs, entire series of strange occurrences and unlucky portents, events so ominous that the superstitious in Toronto's great European community took immediate alarm and even the less skittish native Protestants began to entertain secret misgivings.
On the westward commute, on the QEW to Hamilton, a new object had appeared in the heavens, an L-shaped chunk of what appeared to be a Corinthian column, larger than the moon and out of all proportion to earthly size. Hardly anyone noticed, in the lengthening days of February that an eclipse had occurred at about the same time, appearing to have the sun setting at five-thirty p.m. instead of a quarter to six. Only on the eleven o'clock news did our commuters learn that the fiery column, replete with its lower chunk of plinth, was an unexplained phenomenon by the local observatory and someone must have been sleeping at the switch, since the accompanying eclipse hadn't been predicted either. A satellite did pick up the torus, and all agreed, that from some angles, it did look like a hat. Torontonians shrugged and waited for other events.
Something was happening to the money. The paper banknote seemed to change colour every day, while at the Royal Canadian Mint, die makers were already tooling up to turn old American-style quarters and dimes into huge coins resembling Mexican pesos.
Three Conservative political campaigns fell as they rose, giving Bay Street a shudder, and in one Ukrainian Catholic Church, the very pillar of a conservative people, a priest went mad. In the midst of high mass, when the great onion-topped cathedral was crowded to its very doors, the Reverend Moisei Papryka, leaped to the altar, and shouting blasphemies, proceeded to lay violent hands on the Sacred Host, understood by all to be the body and blood of Christ.
Now here is how Dostoevsky handled something like my poor attempt:
Somehow it happened--no one knows quite how, or why--that the incidence of robbery and violence has doubled. Arsonists' fires have ravaged towns and villages, and in some places there is even disease: plague, and the threat of a cholera epidemic. The manager of a factory in the town of Shpigulin has shamelessly cheated the workers, and working conditions are very poor; subversive leaflets have appeared, urging the overthrow of the existing order; the idle, prankish company that routinely gathers in the Governor's mansion is becoming involved in adventures of and increasingly reckless kind. (They are called the Jeerers or the Tormentors.) The historic Church of the Nativity of Our Lady is plundered and a live mouse left behind the broken glass of the icon. Fedka, the escaped convict, a former serf who was sold into the army, many ears before, in order to pay his master's gambling debt, roams the countryside committing crimes--not just robbery but arson and murder as well. The police seem unable to find him. "Strange characters appear--a human flotsam that comes out of nowhere to plague society. Madmen erupt. Women become obsessed with feminism. Generals transform themselves into peasant costumes...
A nineteen-year-old boy has committed suicide and a party of pleasure seekers crowds into the room to examine him: one of the ladies says, "I'm so bored with everything that I can't afford to be too fussy about entertainment--anything will do as long as it's amusing". It seems that a number of people have taken to hanging and shooting themselves. Is the ground suddenly starting to slip from beneath our feet? Is the great country of Russia as a whole approaching a crisis? Demons begin to appear, licking like flames about the foundations of order: a Trickster-demon springs out of nowhere, and, very much like the gloating Dionysus of Europides, The Bacchae, want only to sow disruption, madness and death. "We shall proclaim destruction," Peter Verkhovensy tells his idol Stavrogin, "because, --because...the idea is so attractive for some reason! And anyway, we need some exercise.”
The Possessed, Dostoevsky's most confused and violent novel, and his most satisfactorily "tragic" work began to appear in serial form in l871, and strangely, did my own work in 1972. I took it to my old professor of English, himself a published novelist. I hardly expected his response. "You are Dickens”, said the overly kind teacher, "You are Balzac." I should have known he was damning with loud praise because he did go on to say that my The Hat People didn't have much of a plot, huge holes in the story and that I'd better pick a plot, like Bernard Malamud did in The Fixer, and write to it. The sentiment was echoed some time later, when I met Susan Sonntag in Copenhagen, who remarked, after I laid out my book to her, "What, you wrote without plotting? No wonder your book was rejected. You can't just write and write and not structure."
But I just kept writing and writing. I found plotting boring. I thought the novel would come to me almost whole out of my subconscious, like Shakespeare's writing process, first draft, complete, hardly any corrections. And every time.
Needless to say, I was not Shakespeare or even Harold Robbins--not even close. Come on.
Yet I had a young writer's arrogance. So I finished the book, all 50,000 words of it, sent it out, same response.
"You wrote too much and didn't structure enough. Go to the masters, go to Dostoevsky. It's probably what you're bumping up against
Aping Dostoevsky. And I didn't even know it. And maybe Dickens too, though A Tale of Two cities is a different kind of book And who was I to believe my teacher, who had said, fingers crossed, that I may be a Dickens.
How ambitious we are at thirty and a bit beyond.
"Do not write much before thirty, the canny and successful John Braine used to warn. And he was so right.
How the demon had possessed me. How he had taught me to be selfish about the writing. How he facilitated the wrecking of my marriage, the near-abandonment of my children.
And now the proof is in the puddin'
The book she is writ.
Sometimes I think I should have left writing to writers, gone the way of the bureaucrat and made a pile of money.
But the bureaucrat must be an organized controlled person, have good work habits and possess fine handwriting. I was not particularly organized. I had really crummy handwriting. But then I read another author, a distant countryman, one Nicholas Gogol (Yes.). And in Diary of a Madman, a bureaucrat too, is not inured against compulsive behaviour and even madness stemming from his pigeon-grey craft in his pigeon-gray office.
I had made my choice. Yet the book was found wanting. I had invested years, laboured mightily, and had produced a mouse that roared in the face of Dostoevsky. This was doubly corroborated as the rejection letters came in.
But finally, an encouraging one. "An interesting story, the tragicomedy of a culturally displaced person trying to hold it together in Toronto. You do set up scenes well. I would say work it over and try us again with it, though I'm not sure it's Anansi's kind of book to begin with."
I worked it over. He said "Do no more work on this."
I applied to the Ontario Arts Council, hoping to get a grant for the book. It worked I got the grant.
Different attitude from the editor once he found out.
"This is where it starts." He had uttered the magic words. I was in. But only because of the promise of money, the money to print the book, the publicity, all the government emoluments. So that's how it works, I told myself. It's the money.
But it wasn't enough money, apparently and soon I was back in the street, manuscript in hand, the editor's comforting words still in my ears. "I have to admit I liked the book, the paranoia, the social paranoia. And you had set up your scenes so well."
"Have to be honest with you. It's finding the money to print the book. There just wasn't enough.”
Whatever. I put the book out at my own expense. The Uxbridge library soon found some money and issued the book. It was a kind of victory.
And yet and yet? Was I really aping Dostoevksy, who knew so much about social dislocation, nihilism and the dark spirit of an age? Maybe I'd had too good an English course and later, too good a Russian course.
Oh well, imitation is flattery, yet it wasn't conscious imitation.
Probably because Dostoevsky was part-Ukrainian, a culturally displaced person because of the great diaspora and I had felt something going by.