Kaos is the ninth novel I’ve written and the seventh I’ve “e-published”. Two others remain in the bottom drawer so to speak. As I wrote, it kept occurring to me that other writers, and those curious about writing, might be interested in the process as one writer has done it. It’s not really my idea that people will go on to read the book though of course more readers are always welcome. There will not be any “spoilers” but this is about writing, not marketing – “telling not selling”.
The novel I wrote before Kaos was The Russian Idea. It had been in my mind for a long time to do a novel revolving around the thinking of the Russian religious philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev*, and circumstances allowed me the time and ideas to work up a plot and write it.
The Russian Idea is not nearly so good a novel as I would have liked it to be. For one thing, it is too “intellectual” or more woundingly, “pseudo-intellectual”. All my novels from the first have been so-called novels of ideas cloaked in the garb of thrillers, but this one had too many ideas not well-clothed enough – or perhaps, given the genre, not ill-clothed enough. To me it is still not a bad book, but it is not my best by any means.
Even so it had something in its structure and in its basic theme that I rather liked. Moreover, Berdyaev was heavily influenced. as I am, by the 19th century Russian novelist and wild man Fyodor Dostoevsky, and in the course of research on Berdyaev, I ended up rereading a lot of Dostoevsky as well as Berdyaev’s book on him.
Something like a revolution has gone on in Dostoevsky studies since I first read his great novels longer ago than I really want to admit. New translations** have piled onto each other as new generations bid to make the Russian accessible as he meant to be in his own time. His strange “feuilleton” A Writer’s Diary*** has been half-translated with claims that if true make it far in advance of its time. As I reread the great novels, read a volume of a five part biography, some specialised religious material**** and read the Diary my appreciation of Dostoevsky was more than renewed; it was broadened and deepened. Much better translations revealed aspects to Dostoevsky’s writing that had previously been poorly shown, if at all. Berdyaev became – as he himself said – a follower of the novelist, in a prophetic Christian tradition few non-Russians would have imagined
him to inhabit.
The Russian Idea turned into a homage to Dostoevsky as well as Berdyaev.
One of the things I admire about Dostoevsky was that he wrote thrillers. Like Shakespeare he explored great themes with great writing in a popular genre. As Shakespeare took the popular forms of writing in his time and made them something more than his peers, Dostoevsky took a popular form of fiction and made it more than his contemporaries.
The Idiot, Brothers Karamazov, Demons…three of his last four novels are enduring masterpieces all the more compelling for their dark themes. While I was writing The Russian Idea I had them in the back of my mind.
Unsatisfied with The Russian Idea, I nonetheless kept the basic approach of that book for Kaos, with Demons my guide. I wanted to write a book that began one way, and turned inside out, as Demons does: : the first section of Demons is often hilarious, with a gentle mockery that makes it seem a comedy of manners. By the end, as one of the editors writes in the Penguin edition, “this is a scary book”.
Well, I have my own things to say. I’m not Dostoevsky either in outlook or talent, but as I was writing Kaos I kept that transitional approach in mind, that things should turn “inside out”. They do, if in a different way, and I am much happier with the result.
Yet the impulse for writing Kaos lay as much in Shakespeare as in Doestoevsky, in the Bard’s strange play Troilus and Cressida^. In one sense “T & C” has a walk-on part in Kaos, but in another its underlying theme is the larger theme of Kaos, which is – ahem! Pay attention now! – a study in gender politics whose multiple foci shift as the novel shifts. Oh, dear!
Of course the stuff of writing – plot, characterisation, dialogue, description, and so on, the meat if you like, may look far removed from this. There are heaps of “how-to” writing guides that will sell you the hows and tos, and lately a number of blogs I follow have patiently explained various aspects of the technical facets of writing. Each is worthy in its own right, but all are and can be no more than elaborations of Raymond Chandler’s three word short course: “Analyse, and emulate”. My aim, of having a serious purpose in a frivolous genre, comes from reading on both levels. Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Len Deighton, Ross Macdonald^^, Margery Allingham, Agatha Christie…and the greats, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Euripides etc as you can find in the earlier posts of this blog. There are others, and I’ll perhaps approach them in time.
The idea has always been to offer a “good read” with some food for thought for anyone who wants it, and for me Kaos manages that. The more successful I am, the less the reader will notice.
Well, there you go. Hopefully you found this interesting, dear reader. If you didn’t – my apologies, with thanks for getting through it.
* Most of this unusual man’s works are in print in hard copy and his shorter works are on the net. A book about the Catholic Worker movement, which he strongly influenced, was published in the 1970s: William D Miller’s A harsh and dreadful love.
** Every Dostoevsky lover is likely to have her or his favourite. My preference has been the Penguins – for Demons, the Maguire translation.
*** The editor of the English translation keeps calling the diary a “project”. See an online dictionary for a definition of feuilleton.
**** The rare book by Nicholas Zernov, Three Russian prophets, is still in print. Dostoevsky is the middle prophet, sandwiched in between Khomiakov and Soloviev. The chapter on Dostoevsky is extremely good.
^ As in an earlier post, my plan is to treat Troilus and Cressida separately.
^^ These are the so-called hard boiled school. Hammett is the master, Chandler his pupil who added some qualities of dialogue. Len Deighton’s early novels took these and made them a part of espionage fiction; Macdonald added nothing but was a success. Allingham and Christie worked in the earlier “puzzle” style for the most part but added something for me.