Sunday, August 09, 2015

Favorite Writers

When asked (which is rare) and even when not (which is often), I will state that there is a seven-way tie for my favorite book ever.  The seven:

The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov
The Sound and the Fury – William Faulkner
Three Trapped Tigers – G. Cabrera Infante
The Obscene Bird of Night – Jose Donoso
Vilnius Poker – Ricardas Gavelis
The Color of Summer – Reinaldo Arenas
Belfast Confetti – Ciaran Carson

And that’s not counting Finnegans Wake, which I’m still reading and barely, if at all, comprehending, yet is so remarkable an achievement I have to add it as an honorable mention.  And “Bartleby, the Scrivener” a novella that ranks up there with the best things ever written. And there’s Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson, which should make the list as it represents a lot to me personally, but we won’t get into all that now, thank you very much.

I list these as my favorites because each of them has produced in me a moment of awe the likes of which are uncommon.  That, for me, is the test of a favorite book. 

But not really.  There are authors of this caliber that I might investigate further were I so drawn to big books written in (let’s call it) experimental prose.  Virginia Woolf, who I’ve only read a bit of, or László Krasznahorkai, who I’ve never looked at—I should be drawn to these writers.  I should be emulating them.  But when I look at my poems, my stories, even my essays, I don’t see that level of literary ambition.  The need to reach new places is not really of interest to me.  No, my own work seems to be more in line with the writers I cite as favorites who have not made the above list: Kurt Vonnegut, Charles Bukowski, and Sergei Dovlatov.

These three writers are the ones I keep in mind when writing prose.  And for good reason: they all stress clean, economical writing.  I’ve read their books and been astounded by the brevity, the way they are able to compress so much into quick, seemingly effortless prose.  Vonnegut is tops at this.  The big ideas that permeate his best work (and even his worst) are worthy of dissertations, yet his books are constructed to be polished off in an afternoon. 

Consider Cat’s Cradle, one of Vonnegut’s more celebrated novels.  In this slim book of incredibly short chapters, Vonnegut confronts technology, military folly, religion, persona, provincialism, love, death, the apocalypse… No small feat!  And he does it while eliciting genuine laughter.  The metaphor of the cat’s cradle, as employed by the character of Newt Hoenikker, is perhaps the best I’ve ever read in any book.  Surely on par with the albatross. 


I first read Cat’s Cradle on a train from Homewood to Matoon, Illinois.  During the trip, I began having a nic fit (I was deep in the dungeon of cigarette addiction) and to relieve my anxiety I began tearing pages from Cat’s Cradle.  One page was only slightly damaged, but I couldn’t read the last word.  Just one damn word.  Surely I’d live without it.

I ended up buying a new copy.  Were it any other book, I wouldn’t have bothered, but I needed to read that one missing word.  Vonnegut always picked his words so carefully; it seemed criminal to ignore any of them.

By the way, I put a semicolon in that last sentence, a punctuation mark Vonnegut advised against using. 

Bukowski is another writer who taught me the most valuable lesson of all: you may not be exceptional, so you need to work hard.  To quote from his gravestone: “Don’t Try.”  Many have misread this quote as Buk’s advice from the dead to give up and be a bum, a lamentable though understandable misreading considering the many stories and poems he wrote about being unemployed and drunk.  But Hank is really telling us not to try but to do. 

In his book Women, which is just below Factotum if you ask me, the Bukowski stand-in Hank Chinaski is having it out with a young woman.  She tells him that she’s going to one day be famous, that she is a better writer with more potential.  Hank answers something like: Every baby in every crib has more potential than I do.  The difference is: I do it. 

That lesson is an important one for any writer, not to mention any teacher, plumber, CEO, or bricklayer.  Talent and aptitude are great, but working steadily is what keeps you in the game.  And Bukowski was not a master craftsman in the sense that his prose, while readable and often very moving, is not polished and beautiful on the level of Joyce.  But Bukowski wrote every night.  He went up to his room, opened a bottle of wine, tuned the radio to the classical station, and wrote while the cats played at his feet.  This was how he managed to produce a staggering number of publications.  (Of course, it helped that he had a friend who basically published everything he wrote without much interference, but still, the guy produced a considerable amount of writing.) 

I would be a better writer if I followed Hank’s example, but I have my obligations and excuses, often one and the same.

More recently, I started reading the novels of Sergei Dovlatov, a writer who makes simplicity look easy.  Apparently, this was not the case.  Dovlatov spent hours painstakingly crafting each sentence.  His daughter, who translated the most recent of his books to appear in English, discussed this along with his infamous rule of not using a word in a sentence that started with the same letter of any other word in the sentence.  So, I could write: I went for a walk with my dog, but it would break the Dovlatov rule (three W words).  I took my dog for a walk—that would work.  Of course, this is perhaps easier to do in Russian than in English, and the rule is, really, not all that practical or appealing (I like alliteration), but it speaks to Dovlatov’s precision.  Of the three writers I am discussing, Dovlatov is the only one I read in translation, which means I am reading him and his translators.  Without going into a whole tangent about translation theory, or why it is of great importance to translate and read world literature, let me state that I see in his novels a certain deceptive directness that is delightful (sorry Sergei, three Ds there), one that allows me to shelve any concerns about the authenticity of his work. 

Nothing bums me out more than people who tell me they can’t read translations because they don’t like the layer of removal from the original text, save only for jerks who rant about how I am not reading the real Dovlatov or Dostoyevsky or Vallejo because I am reading it translated.  Both of these types can, to quote Vonnegut, take a flying fuck at the mooooooooon!

Dovlatov, like Bukowski, wrote about work, though where Bukowski’s concern has to do with the drudgery of menial labor and its imposition on the artist, Dovlatov’s best writing often deals with the absurdity of working life under the Soviet regime.  I’m thinking of The Compromise—my favorite of his books—and The Zone as well as Pushkin Hills. All of the drinking, hitting on women, indifference to work, short tempered exchanges with supervisors… it feels familiar—we’ve read these sort of stories before— yet I am still delighted by the efficiency of Dovlatov’s writing as well as the humor.  Without a few well-placed laughs, the story would be no more than a pile of solipsistic moaning.  Dovlatov’s humor, like his humanity, is lovely.  The uncluttered prose certainly helps. 



Speaking of bureaucracy, for whatever reason, I just read a blog written by a former colleague who has remade himself as a literary critic and poet.  He is employed by a top university, a fact that has ensured that his criticism is sharp but cumbersome and that his poetry is a yawn.  His blog fares better, though I was taken aback by his dismissal of Vonnegut.  (I can guess his thoughts on Bukowski.  I doubt he’s read Dovlatov.)  One of the points he makes is that Vonnegut is a writer who appeals to the young, as Vonnegut often wrote of bureaucracy in a satirical way.  I don’t know that I agree with that assessment. (Vonnegut’s themes are larger than that. Maybe he was mistaking Vonnegut for Kafka?)  Regardless, the academic poet wrote that lampooning bureaucracy is a trait of the young would-be revolutionary and that adults realize that a certain level of bureaucracy is needed.  This may not be an indefensible statement, though on its face it’s as dumb as a bag of hair.  I assume that a career academic is likely to make such a claim, though I know many people who teach (myself included) who view rigid bureaucracy as more than slightly irksome.  I suspect my old acquaintance has his sights set on becoming chair.  Good for him.  He can polish his papers on Adorno and assume some administrative duties while I reread Hocus Pocus.  I think I’ll get the better end of that deal.


And then I see my own writing.  The cluttered sentences!  The unnecessary similes!  How shameful! 


I wrote the above four sentences (most of them fragments) at the end of April with a semester’s worth of work behind me as I entered a summer that was filled with editing.  Editing is a painful process.  Some thrive on it; I know a few writers who feel it is the most invigorating part of the composition process.  Me?  Not so much.  I tend to see it as a chance to feel rotten about my work.  I see the mistakes, the awkward phrasings, the lazy metaphors, but, worse: I see the residue of a good idea that was never fully expressed.  I have great ideas.  I know this.  But the execution of these ideas is hazy.  Making them vivid is difficult.  Frankly, it is unnatural.  We are not born with language skills.  It takes a lot of practice to effectively communicate with words.  But it is our task and, thus, our responsibility to do it well.  This is something I consistently remind my students:

“You are a writer whether you like it or not,” I say.  “You get to choose what kind of writer you are: the kind that gives up after the first try or the kind that strives to better communicate your ideas.  Either way, you can always do better.  We all can.”

I will keep this in mind as I revise my own work.