Monday, September 07, 2009

I could be Allen Ginzburg, but I am not as well hung.



When a writer plagiarizes himself, or worse, others, he's in trouble.
I am in trouble.
Long ago knowing in the dog-eat-dog literary world that one has to be so eccentric that no one would want to compete with you--who would want to?--I have become so eccentric that four-inch fingernails are not enough. I moon about town, pirouetting while not revelling and carousing. I clutch at stars. The cops just say, "Oh, you'd never met Ivan before?"
So broke again and half mad (What else is new?) I'll give you a recycled column by yours truly.. Would you take a used column or blog from this man?
..............

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.

##

28 comments:

the walking man said...

The cave paintings in France are how old? 35,000 years give or take. I simply ask because I have tagged that moment in the paleolithic where man began to write.

And now we are supposed to come up with a new idea and communicate it in a story never seen before?

If i were God...perhaps.

But it is fortunate that man needs redundancy in order to learn and see a point new in every generation. Comparisons are OK but I'd rather hear a WOW! or an aww shit.

Dostoevsky was Dostoevsky and Prokopchuck is Prokopchuck they may tell a similar story but that is because they experience similar times a century apart. The more I read of The Hat People the more relevant it becomes to this day and age thirty years after it was inked.

Which if my math is correct makes it a write written before its time. Tidy it up, and send it out again for its time has arrived old man.

TomCat said...

Ivan, I agree with Mark. When I took Philosophy 101 in college, I was shocked to learn that some of those ancient Greeks had the audacity to steal my best ideas thousands of years before my birth.

ivan said...

Tomcat,

It is amazing. Plato's Myth of the Cave could well be about television and the media!

ivan said...

Mark,

You so remind me of my prof from the old days. Kindly soul.
Thanks.

Charles Gramlich said...

I once thought about trying to write the Great American Novel. I drank the thought away and went back to genre work.

robert said...

Interesting to read indeed, as one of my favourite books was written by Dostoevsky.
With the question 'whether one can hear light' in my mind, looked up to my ceiling and wrote about it.
A light filled new week for you.

ivan said...

Robert,

Why thank you!
It did look like a slightly forboding week for me comiing up as my accountant is on my back.:)
Maybe manna will fall!

Midnight said...

Ivan, this is off topic, but have you ever tried to barbeque a frozen perogy?

The trick is to poke them, once.

Then they won't unexpectantly blow up in your face.

I hope this helps.

ivan said...

Charles,

I think I should have drunk the idea away as well. My father used to say, "What is the matter with you? You are independently wealthy, educated. Why go off on a fool's quest to write some dream book? Don't you have enough to eat? Wny do you want to lower yourself to become a bum in Mexico?"
Well, I found the "dream book" very hard to write. I atttempted a plot with a kind of Man From Uncle character pursued by agents of the evil forces... trapped finally under a waterfall where they seek me with their Man From Uncle, drum-shaped telescopopes on thieir rifleds I am running from them. I come to a river. I make for a waterfall, somehow walk right through it as if doing a Jesus on the water. It is in a cave under the waterfall where I finally hide and am not found. Frustrated, annoyed at not being able to find me, the agents of evil then go after my family not too far away-- my family, my mother and father. The family suffers because of me. They torture my father. They ask about me, the quasi- Man From Uncle guy and his stance against them.

Gradually, I realized the book was a negative self-projection.
My uncle told me that I hadn't even scratched the surface, that I was trying to be Ian Fleming and botching it. What did I know of geopolitics, what did I know know of Marxism? (my uncle's real philosophy)."What do you know of the real fuse of Canada, what makes it go?"
...I had to listen because he had just published, under my nose, with the same publishing company I i was working with, something titled "Sharp Tooth. The Year of the Beaver."
Well durn. That was way- Canadian... Canada's symbol is the beaver.
...And he got the book published and paid- for long before I did

...Anyway. Once back in Canada, I decided the book was all wrong. I couldn't plot worth beans. There was only one way out. Tell the story in the first person about a displaced person in Toronto trying to hold it all together through his paranoia about being foreign, accented, about being ridiculed while young, called a DP.
Well, it all kind of worked. At least in real life.. I got to page 300 at about the point here the author-- the displaced person-- gets a bailout package from his father-in-law since the book itself had had no commercial value.
Moment of clarity: I had somehow written my way into a fortune.
Heh. I could almost see the income tax write- off over my father-in-law's expenses over my writing of the book, his cheques going out to Mexico to support me and my wife. "Supported in 1974 a family member who was mentally infirm."
I was thinking, half smiling, thank God I had a lustful wife

I had failed the book, but won the Absentminded Professor Sweepstakes.

As in the old joke, it was dick who did the shooting.
I had no head. I was all dick.

But I could not acept the failure of my upper head.

...I had to get away again.

There were books to write. Themes of espionage, ingrigue..
The planet is polluted with them!

Well. Didn't Nikolai Gogol hit it on with his Diary of a Madman?

Heaven forbid it shoud run in the Ukrainian family...Of which my hero Gogol was a member. :)

ivan said...

Midnight,

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

Like half of my projects!

Midnight said...

Ivan, I recently read Gogol's 'Taras Bulba' (through the net's 'Gutenberg Project'). Far be it from me to criticize his genius, but I think that he projected more of his own depressed unillustrious imaginings of history onto our glorious ancestors, then should be warranted. History, I was taught, is whatever you want it to be. While his brilliance and deep thrust into the Kozak Spirit is unrivalled, and perhaps never will be, I think his own fear and insecurity of death, made him say that a Kozak always yearns for the glories of his youth, and spends the rest of his life in an eloquent attempt to recapture that rapture.

No Sir. Anytime a Kozak lives, he or she is alive. We live, and die young.

Perhaps I've read too much Zen in my life. Since Kozak skills and philosophies were hard to come by in Western literature, I decided to read every Zen Master and Martial Artist that I could find. Out of respect for my ancestors.
At 12 years old, after three years, I was given a Black Belt (first degree - meaning I have reached the first step) by my Hapkido (Korean), Master and Teacher. I couldn't believe that I was anywhere close to that level. It was only later (through further reading) that I realized that sometimes one is granted a level, for the sole reason that one is expected to eventually live up to it.

Even before I read that, I was already firmly resolved.

Thanks for the Bushido.

Ivan, I'm only in my Forties, and you have reached your Seventies. In another life, we could both live or die, as the swing of the Sword would have it.

Let us never forget
the Kozak Spirit,

That drives our soul.

Midnight said...

Ahem. Should read :

"...that should be warranted."

As you were....

Midnight said...

Yes, we live in a Universe that is sometimes starved for topics of conversation. Behold, the flirtatious congruence of eloqence, the slutty realms of indifference, that only matter to some of us. Where, before now, can such matters fore to the front?

Dreams are for poets and dreamers, yet the collateral scrapings of our infrequent side-slashing burns, drive your subservient silly souls into a percussive divide, where you can either slink or squirm. Much to our delight.

Oh, sorry Ivan ; I thought this was the Vampire thread.

ivan said...

Or the Coliseum thread:

A lion pads up to a Chlristian and roars, "I am going to f*cking well eat you!"
The Christiean pulls out a pistol and prompty shoots the lion.

Moral of the story:: It's better to ba a Christian witha pistol than a foul- mouthed lion.

Midnight said...

The Roar of the century, no doubt.

Lions in Scarborough, are not toothless, you see....

They shoot Jane, and Finches,

And they do it with glee.

ivan said...

No Christians.
Cannibals and gang bangers.

TomCat said...

Excellent point, Ivan. You mean all those Republicans I see whining on TV are just shadows? ;-)

ivan said...

Tomcat,

And their penumbra, even. Those "grandma's death committee" clones.

Jo said...

"Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose."

I guess the trick is to take something old and make it new again.

I think that is why I stopped reading fiction several years ago. I had read all the good fiction, and now it was all starting to repeat itself. And even worse, it is all being stifled by political correctness -- as you have so aptly mentioned. It smothers any originality.

It's no accident that "The Handmaid's Tale" was written by a woman, depicting men as chauvinistic, racist, militaristic. That book has sort of set the tone for literature. I find female writers really boring, but that's pretty much all you get anymore.

Give me a good rollicking tale à la Hemingway, O'Neill, Wolfe, O'Hara, Updike, Williams, Waugh, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck (!!!) even Dickens. Dickens probably would not get published today, he would be so politically incorrect. Actually, Shakespeare probably wouldn't either -- not without a lot of edits. Come to think of it, Steinbeck would probably be edited to death as well. And Tennessee Williams? Well, he wouldn't even get published.

I think male authors are fighting a losing battle, sadly.

Donnetta Lee said...

Oh, there is nothing new under the sun. Who said that? I think it was Solomon or someone like that. Imitate we must. At least to a degree. D

PS And isn't that a lovely picture.

ivan said...

Jo,

Yes, those were the days, just a generation ago when writers were writers and not poseurs, it seems to me.
Over here, we had W.O. Mitchell, Hugh McLennan, and, I think, even Evelyn Waugh when he visited Toronto. I found his writing side-splitting at times, especially in his memoirs as a war correspondent. (He wouldn't actually visit a war torn country...Write it out of London or somewhere, make everything up).
Oh for a Salinger today!
At least Leonard Cohen used to write amazing and funny novels when he was younger.

ivan said...

Donnetta,

Yep it's Solomon in the Apochrypha, or "added to."

The pic. Handsome chap, sort of.

Too bad no chicks under his bed. Waste.

Midnight said...

Ivan, I can read and re-read your posts over and over. I hope you (and they) never disappear. I dare say, that you envelope and encompass the multitude of dreams and expressions available to fathom. And you are often unwittingly in tune with a humour that we've only imagined, until now. And you are funny, too.
And as I struggle to eloquently get out of this paragraph, my forebodence is soothed, by the knowledge, that these are just words ; ethereal. And concepts, extra-ephemeral.

Good days, indeed.

Midnight said...

Back on topic :

While I don't wish to scare or antagonize some of you old guys out of your wits, I think a fitting epitaph for some of you (and eventually us), could be :

'I was almost hung'.

Mona said...

I find similar writing ALL the time EVERYWHERE. & I know why it is similar. Because it is about LIFE. which is almost same everywhere.

That story of yours, & Dostoevsky's too, it is there everyday in papers..it is all too familiar because we live it some way or the other...

..there must be some reason in madness...

I must admit, the first line I read reminded me of Dickens.But what the heck, he was writing about Life too...

Yea, I know. Writing a book is a one business, and getting it published is real 'business'. It is to more extent than not, about money...

Getting published cannot, be a fair judgment to writing or creative work. If it were so, so much trash wouldn't be there on the book shelfs...

I like your writing...I guess you did post a part of this earlier. I remember reading about 'the hat' :)

ivan said...

Midnight,

Aw,just stick out enough to win. :)

ivan said...

Mona,

Thanks.

Ah that mysterious hat man.

I finally met him, I think, on a bus. He looked a little like Michael Jackson used to, made up, and he was wearing a panama. In the seat next to, me he seemed to be almost cuddling up to me. I said, "Wow, you must be a lonely little alien."
He backed off and ssaid "quantum, leap, quantum leap."
I said WTF. Chamged seats.

Midnight said...

Ha Ha Ha!

Ivan,

Judging by your eloquent reservation,
I must unreservedly conclude
that your restraint is (perhaps)
admirable.

Keep it up!