Influence: Three and a Half Metaphors

During my youth, I thought of influence as a type of combat. In the pleasant years of literary apprenticeship, one reads endlessly, and some of the writers that one reads are elevated out of the library and placed in the arena. There, the young writer does battle with his masters, pitting his words against the ages. He undergoes a multitude of false starts: derivative works, displays of words carved out of the masters’ examples; one day, he hopes to forge a weapon with which to slay his influences: words that would emerge as his own. This, I thought, was the history of literature: a history of battles, in which each unique voice conquered all the voices that attempted to speak through it.

This is a young man’s dream of writing: influence as metaphorical combat.

A less agonistic metaphor is found in the idea that influence is a question of “standing on the shoulders of giants.” We each have our own giants. I imagined myself wandering around the feet of Hermann Broch, before setting off on a parlous climb – clambering up the legs, scaling around the hips, and then preparing myself for the final assault on the giant’s chest. I would only begin to grow to my proper dimensions as a writer, I told myself, up in the rarefied air around Broch’s head, standing on his shoulders.

It would be a long journey – and that is just Broch’s body! In reality, each writer (and, why not say it: each work that one undertakes) begins at the bottom of a human pyramid of influence. There, at the base of one of my pyramids, would be Shakespeare (he is always somewhere), Robbe-Grillet, four lists found abandoned in Paris early one morning, three photographs I have never been able to forget, and the cadences of English spoken in both Oakland and West London.

Even if I managed to climb up past this first, impossibly broad base, the pyramid would narrow, and I would be presented with a new set of obstacles: some old Westerns, Cervantes’ Dialogue of the Dogs, two letters my father wrote to me.

After that, there would be yet another, narrower layer of the pyramid, and after that another – endless levels of influence reaching up to their apex in the clouds.

Now assuming – and it seems a very dubious assumption – that this second metaphor holds and each influence does not simply recall more influences (an infinite pyramid, spreading out in all directions, that one hopelessly tries to navigate; the destruction of the metaphor), then the apex of the pyramid would be where I could finally stand upon the shoulders of all that came before me, freed from influence, my apprenticeship finished.

Finally, I could begin to write.

If the first metaphor could be called “influence as combat”, then the second would be “influence as a journey” (and the destruction of the metaphor alluded to above could be called “influence as infinite journey”).

Neither metaphor seems particularly to the writing life.

It is, unfortunately, hard to know precisely what one’s influences are. If one knew, at least then one could be done with it: the chapter written, the book closed. Perhaps, in any case, influence is not a question for the writer, but for the academic, who can ceaselessly work out the borrowings and similarities between different authors. (Though, sadistically, if we could work out by whom we are influenced, at least we could put the academics out of business).

For the writer, literature is unwieldy. I remember with shock the moment I read Italo Calvino claiming, in The Literature Machine, that Hermann Broch was one of his greatest influences. I find Broch nowhere in Calvino. Perhaps, though, this is an influence too: the writer who takes up all the roads one might have gone down: the influence who is nowhere on the page, but in each unwritten word. Or perhaps Calvino chooses his influences for himself, and this genealogy is less a question of real influence on the page that it is a statement of purpose; as if by giving oneself an illustrious set of forefathers one might acquire talent. Sadly, we can’t choose our parents.

This notion of influence as the invented genealogy of our destiny is too far from my experience of writing to satisfy me. It is a story we tell ourselves: a roadmap for a journey that has no signs, no road, and no real use for any maps.

I wish my favorite writers were indeed my influences, and that I could find the indelible stamp of Beckett on every page that I write. I look in vain. Concrete works offer more clues. Each novel, each new short story, reconfigures the map of influence. As Jonathan Franzen recently remarked, every new work finds new allies, rediscovers old friends, and makes new enemies.

One part of the working of charting new influences is relatively easy. I can, for my last story, tell you everything I “borrowed”: five phrases from Godard’s Letter to Jane, reworked until they were unrecognizable, two lines from Emerson (ibid), paragraphs from both Beckett and Kiš, meditated on and transformed. I could tell you at least some of the worlds that I stole, ate, incorporated, and spat out again. None of this, though, really gets me any closer to working out why I find influence such a difficult question, and why the two metaphors that opened this essay are so unsatisfactory.

Last November, while writing Poindre, the novel whose creation I have been occupied with for the past two years, I came upon what I took to be a novel solution to a certain technical problem I had with the presentation of one of the characters. His narrative was to unfold within an interview, with a questioner that I wanted to be almost totally without subjectivity. I decided the questions would not be present in the text. Instead, blank spaces would represent the space of the question, and the character’s responses would be below the blank space, rather like the form of a documentary film.

It was only two months ago that I read Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, and realized that David Foster Wallace had already come up with this technique many years before me. This has happened again and again during the writing of Poindre. It is as if my influences cannot be known in advance, but only become legible through the writing itself. In the small local decisions and struggle (of narrative, of theme, and of internal coherence) in a single work, some marks hit the paper heavier than others. In them, the face of my influences can begin to be discerned, staring straight back at me. I came to know my influences by writing, and through writing, became aware of their work on me.

How is this possible? In the case of Brief Interviews, I had not even read the work that influenced Poindre! One could employ cheap psychoanalytic reasoning and claim that I had repressed the memory of my reading, so that I could then appropriate it. I am, however, such an open assimilator of others’ texts that this seems unlikely. It could instead be that certain styles simply float in an epoch: someone might get to them first, but they are a product of a time, and not of a person – I am simply, in this line of explanation, sitting in the same cesspool as Wallace, and sometimes the same shit adheres to us, making us look alike.

Borges is surely not the first to propose another explanation. In several of his essays, he takes seriously the idea that there is only one writer, of whose voice we all partake. If this were the case, then the face that emerges in my writing, in these cryptic marks left on paper, would be none other than my own, which is to say, the face of us all.