Under the influence
One question, eight writers – we asked a collection of those taking part in the Dublin Writers’ Festival one question: what writer has most inspired you?
ALAIN de BOTTON
If Arthur Schopenhauer still merits our attention today, it is chiefly because few men have ever matched him in terms of the thoroughness and relentlessness of his pessimism. Even among German philosophers, who already by no small measure outstrip French 19th-century poets for gloom, Schopenhauer stands out as an icon of despair. His motto was: “It’s bad today, and it will daily become worse – until the worst of all happens.” If Schopenhauer’s pessimism is so valuable, it is because it coincided with the birth of an age of relentless optimism which continues to rule over us to this day. From the early 19th century onwards, the west assumed a resolutely bourgeois, scientifically-based world-view where a belief in progress and technology was united with a faith that every human problem would one day find a solution. Never before had so many people believed so many cheerful things. At just the moment when such pessimism was disappearing from the public sphere, Schopenhauer gave it a new, appealing, crystalline form and, in the process, gave us much to smile about. I say smile because, however sad we are, nothing improves our mood faster than to be made aware of someone else who is enduring even greater sufferings.
* Alain de Botton will speak about his new book, Religion for Atheists, tonight at 8pm at Liberty Hall
There is no honest answer to that question. Writers usually quote their “favourite writers” for pragmatic reasons. If you say publicly that your most inspiring writer is Vladimir Nabokov, for instance, you can soon expect your own writing to be compared to Vladimir Nabokov’s. Writers are getting inspired by other writers at the age when they are not aware that they have been inspired at all. When I was a child, for instance, my absolute literary authority was Margita, a local librarian, who forced me to read Kafka because a guy who wrote so nicely about a person being transformed into an insect can’t be a bad literary choice. We are not inspired by one but by many writers. Opting for one writer, or one book, is like opting for “Bible”. Such a choice would send a strong anti-intellectual message. In that respect my answer is: I am inspired by many wonderful books.
As a teenager, I resented any interruption from my reading of Émile Zola. Between the ages of 16 and about 25, I read (most of) Les Rougon-Macquart novels and have never recovered from the experience. Not many men insist upon a honeymoon in the Goutte d’Or ghetto of Paris – Provencale in Zola’s time, Algerian by 1982 – in order to summon the ghost of Mes Bottes sipping absinthe and workers’ boots pounding the cobblestones of Rue Faubourg Poissonière – but I was one of them. Maybe that’s why the marriage didn’t last.
Zola depicted essential human struggle, epic and vernacular – love, rage and laughter – but was the foremost literary exponent of the Naturalist notion that everything is subordinate to nature, and that nature has no purpose. And neither, it emerges, do we. Two of my recent books, Amexica and The War is Dead, Long Live the War, are reportage, but share an undeclared philosophical rip tide which I draw from Zola, among others, as well as from experience: the fantasy of progress, the lie of Telos. The danger of this appalling addiction from which all political, economic and theistic thinking suffers, that “There’s a better world a-comin”, as the spiritual insists. Who matched Zola’s anti-teleological vision? Beckett (arguably) and Steinbeck in the 20th century, and Cormac McCarthy into the 21st, but certainly not the literati who sit around north London’s dinner tables and write culpably inconsequential crap while Europe – and especially their Broken Britain – goes down La Chute. If only Zola were among us now, eyes twinkling from behind those spectacles: “J’accuse.”
* Dubravka Ugresic and Ed Vulliamy will discuss Bosnia: Twenty Years On on Saturday at 6pm at the Samuel Beckett Theatre
If I were to be asked which writer(s) I would most like to be regarded as writing similarly to, it would be some weird Chekhov-Spark-Bolano-Kanafani hybrid, but in terms of who inspired me to write fiction, I would point to one novel, The Long Night of White Chickens by Francisco Goldman, which I read in my 20s. At the core of this novel is the deep urge for mental (and often physical) intimacy two men feel for the same enigmatic woman who is dead before the story begins. In basic terms, it’s a love story and a whodunnit, but set in a country, Guatemala, that is being decimated by the most extreme (mainly state-sanctioned and US-backed) violence.
I knew nothing about Guatemala before I read The Long Night of White Chickens and felt I could not know too much about it afterwards. If only I could do that with Palestine, I thought, make it alive, with a beating heart, draw people in who have no idea about the politics and history and make them curious, tell it as a story, not as a catalogue of statistics, or as a narrative of despair. How could I do that, I wondered. It took me almost a decade to figure it out.
* Selma Debbagh’s debut novel is Out of It
I spent the summer of 1981 up on the roof of my block of flats in Camden, with the help of the Oxford English Dictionary, reading the entirety of Joyce’s Ulysses. I traced the words of the “Anna Livia Plurabelle” section in Finnegans Wake with my finger, along to Joyce’s 1929 recording, which I had been ecstatic to find at Swiss Cottage Library. Later that year, finishing Richard Ellmann’s biography, I went to Paris, to visit as many addresses as I knew Joyce to have occupied. The group I play accordion for, for heaven’s sake, took their name from an outburst by Buck Mulligan in Ulysses: “Pogue mahone! Acushla machree! It’s destroyed we are from this day!” Imagine my excitement, in preparation to come to the Fair City to take part in the Dublin Writers’ Festival, at being able to name Joyce as the writer who most inspired my own writing.
Except, it turns out to be Gerard Manley Hopkins. Like Joyce, Hopkins searched for revelations, which Joyce called “epiphanies”, Hopkins “inscapes” – both terms which strive to show that ordinary experience can shock with a sudden vision of truth, the expression of which cannot be expected from conventional verse or prose. It’s Hopkins’s daring which is inspirational, born 40 years before Joyce and writing in obscurity. He died in 1889, when Joyce was seven years old.
* James Fearnley will discuss his book Here Comes Everybody: The Story of the Pogues on Friday at 8pm at Liberty Hall
Not one author, but a year: 1927. In this extraordinary year, Elizabeth Bowen, Rosamond Lehmann and Virginia Woolf all published debut or second novels: The Hotel, Dusty Answer and To the Lighthouse, respectively. The three writers are among my favourites, and it’s thrilling to think of them writing and publishing alongside each other. All are real stylists: in poised, precise, quicksilver prose they chart the depths, complexities and mutability of consciousness. At times, it’s as if, rather than merely reading it, you feel their writing on your pulses. It’s strange to think that it’s almost a hundred years ago now, because all three novels are as fresh and lucid as they must have seemed then. I re-read them frequently, in envy and in awe, and in hope of one day writing a Death of the Heart or a Weather in the Streets.
Several years ago a Polish writer – who had read my novel Animals – remarked to me that Witold Gombrowicz was obviously a big influence on my work. “Who?” I asked. I had never heard of the remarkable author of Ferdydurke, Trans-Atlantyk and Cosmos, never mind read him. So I investigated. And I discovered a body of work that has completely changed my view of the world, of myself, and of writing.
This at first was disconcerting. Gombrowicz does so brilliantly, so effortlessly, what I had begun to try and do so laboriously in Animals, that I felt it pointless to continue. I stopped writing for a long time. But eventually his exuberance and enthusiasm for tackling the terror of being alive, for capturing that confusion and bafflement that is the dirty secret of life, and which is so well hidden in most contemporary literature, made me want to write again. Only this time more openly, more directly, with less artifice and more of his murderous joy. I love Gombrowicz. I think of him, of his strange life and his fascinations, and it makes me, uncharacteristically, brave.
I take my hat off to Toni Morrison for her way with human blind spots. In the opening chapter of A Mercy, Jacob is in Virginia, visiting a tobacco planter who owes him money. Jacob dislikes D’Ortega, because he is dissolute, and uses slave labour. Over dinner, he dwells on how distasteful the man is, and how obviously broke. Later, D’Ortega shows him the failed harvest, returning through the slave quarters, stopping at a shack with a young girl outside. It dawns on Jacob he is being offered the child in payment. The idea repels him, but seeing no chance of recouping his loss, he quickly begins to justify the deal to himself: the girl will be a comfort to his wife, a surrogate for the daughter they lost, and I think surely it is better she lives with Jacob than D’Ortega.
But then, upon leaving the plantation, Jacob reflects that female labour is more reliable than male, and I realise the man who thought himself above D’Ortega three pages ago is now a slave owner himself. Morrison shows us, deftly, subtly, that where injustice is part of the system, it is horribly easy to participate.
* Keith Ridgway, Rachel Seiffert and Lucy Caldwell discuss Cultural Connections on Thursday at 6pm at the Samuel Beckett Theatre