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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Joyce vs. Vitols

I suppose a writer's blog could get boring (assuming it didn't start out that way). What would Sisyphus's blog look like? "Pushed boulder another 4 meters. Hellish." Or just as likely: "Today, zero meters. Dug in my heels and propped the thing against my back. Screw it."

There is a repetitiveness to the writing life, no getting around it. When it comes right down to it, day in, day out, just how interesting is someone sitting at a desk typing things?

Of course there's more to it than that. Indeed, I've generally had little trouble coming up with material for these blog-posts. Familiarity can breed contempt regardless of one's occupation. Even SWAT teams and bounty hunters probably start to feel it's a grind at some point.

Yesterday another book arrived, one I'd forgotten I'd bought (online): The New Bloomsday Book: A Guide Through Ulysses by Harry Blamires. (This book too I got on recommendation of the Grumpy Old Bookman.) I've read Joyce's Ulysses twice through, and have made several more starts on it from time to time. I've always wanted to get a commentary on the book (I did buy one in 2003, an idiosyncratic-looking, apparently self-published, text called Finding Joy in Joyce: A Readers [sic] Guide to Ulysses by John P. Anderson--haven't started that yet), so, with GOB's recommendation in front of me, I decided to go for it.

The book arrived from, I believe, New Jersey in new condition. I followed my usual practice of leaving my current reading off to try out my new book. I read the front matter and chapter 1 of the book, which summarizes the opening "Telemachus" chapter of Ulysses. Recalling chapter 1 of Ulysses as vividly as I do, I really enjoyed reading even a six-page summary of the chapter--and Blamires' view of it, of course, is especially well informed. My awe of Joyce and his achievement deepened further.

The question of excellence in writing is important to me; indeed, I have decided to make it all-important. That is, my aim now is simply to write the best thing that I can, to do my best, regardless of any other consideration, such as wealth, fame, practicality, or anything else. When I embarked on this book, The Mission, I seriously adopted the slogan "Quality is job one" (thank you Ford Motor Co.). I wanted to find out what would happen if I simply did my best--best in my own terms, by my own standards.

I haven't yet found out. Joyce has been a major influence on my writing and on my life. I've written before about how reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man when I was 18 changed my direction in life: it's not too much to say that it turned me into an artist. And when I was that age I thought that I might actually have talent at that level--James Joyce's level. I don't think that anymore, but I have long thought, and sometimes believed, that there must be some unique excellence that I can achieve--I alone, something that not even James Joyce could do, just by virtue of the fact that he's not me. I remember having that specific thought as I sat in my grandfather's apartment in Riga, Latvia, in March 1982 (three months after first reading Ulysses), when I felt such creative desire, and yet did not have an outlet, an idea for it. My life since then has been, in a sense, a quest to find that unique excellence that I can produce.

My hope is that my current work will be that thing. That is how I'm treating it. Hence my worry, the feeling of my life at stake. It won't be Joycean--far from it. Other influences have come in. The ground he farmed he farmed intensively; what could I add there? No: part of my passion is to revive the wonder of storytelling at a literary level. In some sense I feel that there lies the meaning of my journey into filmmaking and screenwriting, and my zeal for myth.

It's about excellence. But that can be hard to accept when I open a document and look at what's actually there. "So this is what's supposed to be excellent, huh."

Pain of mediocrity. Fear of wasted life.

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