There is a lot to this: questions of language, its “grammar” and history, of translation, of attitude, of cultural nuance and perceptions, and the more you go into it, the deeper you go, the more amazing it turns out to be. Take one example of this: “a” v “he”:
In the Arden edition of Hamlet edited by Harold Jenkins, there are numerous examples of “a” when “he” or “it” is meant. In a note, Jenkins says the “a” is a colloquial rendering of “ha” for “he” that was common in Elizabethan drama. To get this, both the “a” and the “ha”, to bring it into oneself, to live with it, so that one reads or hears it spoken in performance as natural and “correct” (because it is), is to bring the Elizabethan age, in this intimate if tiny aspect, into one’s heart through imaginative understanding. As I have written in an earlier post, it means not only that Shakespeare reaches out across the centuries to communicate with us, but that through this kind of understanding, we are able to “talk back”, to respond creatively. It’s teriffic! It’s thrilling! We are taken out of our time, delving deeply in another, only to find, when we surface, that we are in our own place but with an enriched understanding that spans the centuries while telling us something about “now” and about ourselves. That’s what being “universal” – “for all time” as Jonson had it about Shakespeare – means, sez me.
This is a long way around to get into the aura of Dostoevsky and Berdyaev that I was living in while writing The Russian Idea but may help explain how while writing that book, I was prompted to want to write another one by my feeling for the moral universe of this pair, in particular Dostoevsky, and to want to write a book something like he might want to write today (so say I) – not in terms of his genius, which of course I do not share, but in terms of his concerns, which I do, even if I find some of his urges unpalatable.
This is not the first time one of my books has been prompted by a previous one. The Kleiber Monsterled me to write another book, Tobi’s Gift (unpublished) because I felt I had not dealt with something frontally enough. And that led me into new places that prompted Savonarola’s Bones.
Demented, however, the book that followed Savonarola’s Bones, was not prompted by its predecessor, but sprang out of another set of concerns and experiences. What this says to me is that each successive novel is not, or not necessarily, the “sum” of an author’s life to that point – in style, in theme or focus or what have you, it may not only not be an advance, but may even be worse than earlier work, and often a “sideways shift” into something new and different, but not necessarily better. Second novels are said to be the most difficult books for fiction writers, as the first one may all but leap from the mind to the page, and many second efforts are disappointing to the public as well as to the writer. Evilheart, my second novel (the first is unpublished), was very hard to write, and despite many revisions over a decade, is far from perfect. Though I think in some aspects it is an excellent book, in others it remains very disappointing to me.
But even later works can be poor. Raymond Chandler’s last book for example must have been an embarrassment to him, and is certainly so to his memory. Any writer would – or at least should – find that worrying. Certainly Kaos is worrying me in that sense: much of the first draft seems quite shockingly written, and I know that later drafts are going to be pretty hard work if the thing is going to be worth reading, and hence worth bringing into public view.
So I am not sure about this one. The premise is good, and as with my other books, has something to say about the world around us and how we might navigate our way through the sometimes tortuous moral maze that can be any individual’s life: the choices that confront us, the temptations we are asked to avoid, or invited to sink ourselves into, never to emerge…as I write, I am not sure if the anti-hero becomes a hero, or if he is a hero who becomes an anti-hero: this delicate balance is something that ultimately is going to define the book, and understanding how to express both of these elements of the human personality warring within an individual, so that one emerges at the end to vanquish the other, is the greatest challenge in writing I have ever faced: words that, as it were, “face both ways”. Is that Dostoevsky peering over my shoulder, shaking his head in vigorous disapproval, wagging his finger at my poor offerings? Perhaps. I am trying my best, Fyodor! What’s that you say?
If you are reading this, you can award as many stars to yourself as you wish, provided that none of them is purple.