I once read an essay by Joseph O’Connor in which the novelist describes how he learned to write by imitation. It begins:
The first short story I wrote was a work of genius. It was austere and lovely, full of elegant sentences and sharp insights. Any reviewer would have called it tremendously impressive. Because the first short story I wrote was by John McGahern.
O’Connor goes on to relate how, as a teenager, he would copy out McGahern’s ‘Sierra Leone’—longhand, word for word—to see how it felt to shape it and to figure out why it worked. Over subsequent drafts, he says, he would change character names, break structures, move things around—until the story had become something else. No longer the original, but not quite original either. This, I think—and O’Connor seems to think so too—is a nice metaphor for what many people learning to write must put themselves through: a phase of diligent study, of learning to see ‘the presences hidden in the crannies of a text, the realities the words are gesturing towards’. Which is probably akin to—I don’t know—the way future computer programmers take apart motherboards or whatever else and put them back together.
Me, I didn’t quite copy out stories, but I read a lot. And more importantly, I re-read a lot, returned to a handful of writers over and over until, eventually, they became imprinted on my mind as a series of shapes and shortcuts. And later, whenever I wrote myself into a corner and needed ways to frame situations or solve problems of narrative or character, I’d remember them, I’d steal from them, and I’d work to cover my tracks. So I was excited by the opportunity to ‘cover’ a story for Tramp Press’s Dubliners 100, an anthology published this month to mark the centenary of Joyce’s classic, featuring fifteen stories by contemporary Irish writers inspired by the originals. I’d read Joyce’s book a number of times, was stumped by its quietude as a kid and awed by its subtleties as a teenager, had written finicky deconstructive essays about it as an undergraduate and was writing about it again at length in a graduate dissertation. And now, with impunity, I could steal from it as much as I wanted.
The story assigned to me was ‘After the Race’, the fifth in the collection, which I’d always liked and been puzzled by and considered a bit of an oddball. It’s brash and colourful where the others are subdued, always in motion while the others are (the word is unavoidable) paralysed. It follows a young man, Jimmy Doyle—recently returned from Cambridge in the company of new, flash, European friends—as he finishes a motor race, visits his parents’ house, goes out to dinner and ends up losing a small fortune to an Englishman at a card table on a boat. Its theme, Wikipedia insists, is as follows:
The protagonist […] seeks to enter […] wider cosmopolitan society and carve an equal place for himself, but this ends in failure […] The story can thus be seen as skeptical about the aspirations of Irish Nationalism to make an independent Ireland the equal of other countries.
Which, as readings go, is fair enough.
The idea of a cover version—as opposed to an homage, for instance—was an interesting one, which presented a number of different musical analogies: the relative facsimiles of early Beatles rockers, say, or the riffery of Coltrane’s ‘My Favourite Things’ or the gut-renovation of Hendrix’s ‘All Along the Watchtower’. I reckoned there were probably two main ways to go about it. One was to try and distill something essential from the original and use it to make a narrative of my own. The other was to keep the structure and the theme, and to fill them in with a version of the story updated to the present day. But I found, as I went along, that the two don’t shake apart like that (form is content: content is form). And plus, simply setting the story in the now would mean that I couldn’t really have Nationalism (of the Joycean stripe, anyway), and I couldn’t really have the Englishman (or have him mean the same thing) and I couldn’t really have a motor race at Inchicore. And if I couldn’t have those things, then could I really tell myself that I was working with the story’s essence (and could I really trust myself to know what that was, anyway)?
The story, of course, has lots of other themes, and probably has as many resonances as it has readers. I told people about the project, and I listened to their thoughts. I would have to include the class element, they said. And the homoerotic element. And couldn’t the story, with its pan-European cast of characters, be made to reflect in interesting ways on the multicultural capital city of today? Did it not also, in its musings on the intoxications of status and conspicuous consumption, portend the hysteria and ensuing moral decrepitude that had gripped and then beset us during the recent etc., etc.?
Probably. From our current vantage point an even century later, Dubliners seems to have foreshadowed lots of things in the political and economic and social spheres – but what preoccupies me still is the number of things it went in to creating in the cultural one. Stealing from the book, that is to say, is nothing new. If social paralysis, naturalistic realism and epiphany are its hallmarks, then McGahern took from it perhaps just as much as the young O’Connor took from him. Sherwood Anderson transposed Dublin onto Winesburg Ohio. And Beckett, cannibalising his unpublished novel Dream of Fair to Middling Women into the uneven (and underrated) More Pricks than Kicks, lifted rhythms and set-pieces from Dubliners wholesale in order to parody the pared down style that increased his chances of publication, but which he had argued in Proust condemned the writer to worshipping ‘the offal of experience.’ For instance, in Joyce’s ‘The Dead’:
snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves.
While in Beckett’s ‘A Wet Night’:
the rain fell in a uniform untroubled manner. It fell upon the bay, the littoral, the mountains and the plains, and notably upon the Central Bog it fell with a rather desolate uniformity.
You could even make the case, if you were so inclined, that Dubliners itself is a product of some fairly strategic poaching, taking its lead from George Moore’s The Untilled Field as Moore himself had taken from Zola and Turgenev. And on and on. The interesting point, I think, is not whether but why you steal. Just to take something from someone else? Or to make something of your own? Does the finished article derive its authority from its source, or does it make its own claim on the reader’s attention?
So, what are the most valuable things on offer in ‘After the Race’? The structure, for one thing: the clean lack of flashback or section break. And the shape of it: the story starts wide open in the afternoon and funnels down at breakneck pace to a cramped and airless dawn. That pace too, and its causal economy, are worth emulating:
Rapid motion through space elates one; so does notoriety; so does the possession of money. These were three good reasons for Jimmy’s excitement.
As is the deftness with which Joyce moves from literal to figurative:
At the crest of the hill at Inchicore sightseers had gathered in clumps to watch the cars careering homeward and through this channel of poverty and inaction the Continent sped its wealth.
Plus the surety of his worldview – though that’s much harder to lift:
That night the city wore the mask of a capital.
It takes an ego the size of a city to presume to capture one in the irony of a sentence. Only genius can justify that. And genius is theft-proof.
I chose to set my version in New York because that’s where I live and where I’m most interested in at the moment. I made the motor race a foot race since that seemed plausible and fun. I let Crony Capitalism supplant Nationalism because it has. I included a property developer and a media strategist and a government minister as I needed them. I cut other characters when there were too many for me to manage. I stuck close to the plot and to the movement of the original to see if I could do it. I top-loaded the thing, as Joyce does, with chunks of characterisation and exposition, and I had my narrative voice reflect, with Edwardian exactitude, on the inner workings of the protagonist’s mind. I kept the simile that compares the harbour to ‘a darkened mirror.’ I stole the final line almost verbatim.
And I hope that, in some small way, my own version stands or falls on its own merits. It will kind of have to now: it’s out of my hands. As O’Connor writes, ‘[p]erhaps every reader is rewriting the story.’ Or learning to.