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Original Essays

The Question of Influences

by Aleksandar Hemon
  1. Nowhere Man
    $10.50 Used Hardcover add to wishlist

    Nowhere Man

    Aleksandar Hemon

  2. The Question of Bruno
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    The Question of Bruno

    Aleksandar Hemon

  3. Lolita
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    Vladimir Nabokov

  4. A Tomb for Boris Davidovich
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  5. The Adventures of Augie March
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When I was writing "The Sorge Spy Ring," a story from my first book, The Question of Bruno, I listened to only two CDs: Mahler's Ninth Symphony and Parliament's Mothership Connection. I could not listen to anything else — it seemed that the story demanded those two and would not admit anything else. To my mind, "The Sorge Spy Ring," a story about Richard Sorge, a World War II spy who was working in Tokyo for the Soviet and was arguably the greatest spy of the past century, and about a boy who believes his father might be a spy, is heavily influenced by Mahler and Parliament, a most unlikely combination. But what the relation is, I cannot possibly explain. To complicate matters further, at the time of writing the story I watched a lot of movies, in fact almost exclusively Akira Kurosawa films. So when I look at "The Sorge Spy Ring" I can see Mahler, George Clinton, Akira Kurosawa, Bootsy Collins, Toshiro Mifune and then many others, including my friends and distant members of my family. And I'm perfectly aware that you'd have to be out of your mind to really see them there. Since "The Sorge Spy Ring," I've written stories under the influence of Bach, Miles Davis, a Chicago DJ who calls herself Psycho Bitch, The Beatles. Then there are movie directors: I've written with Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog, Robert Bresson, Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, Howard Hawks, Claire Denis, Paul Thomas Anderson and the Farrelly brothers.

At almost every reading I'm asked about the writers who influenced me. And I give my answer: Danilo Kis, Bruno Schulz, Isaac Babel, Franz Kafka, Vladimir Nabokov, Anton Chekhov, Michael Ondaatje, one William Shakespeare. I'm not lying: I love these writers, and try to get involved, somehow, in a dialogue with them. And when someone finds the connection between my stuff and the impressive works they produced, I have a pleasant feeling of having communicated something important, of having continued an important conversation. But my relation to these writers (and many books by other writers: say, The Adventures of Augie March) is based on love and respect and imagined, immodest proximity — it is the case, as it were, of a member of a choir being inspired and entranced by the most seductive preachers. If I could call them on the phone (Holden Caulfield distinguished between the writers you want to call and the writers you don't want to call on the phone), I'd call them daily, testing with them the validity of my decisions, until they'd stop answering my calls ("Mr. Nabokov, do you think I should waste my time with contemporary fiction?" or "Anton, do you think I need to read more poetry?"). One could call such influence wishful influence: I want to be like them, in one way or another; I want to write the books akin to theirs — an impossibility, obviously, which still brings about a sort of anxiety. I want the reader to enjoy my book in exactly the same way I enjoy Lolita or A Tomb for Boris Davidovich. At the same time, I dread the possibility of merely emulating, of writing pastiches that are not even close to the work I love and need so much. ("Mr. Kafka, I wrote something I thought you might like." — "Stop calling me, young man, or I'll take you to court.")

Then there is negative influence. Billy Wilder was (more than) once asked about his biggest influence and he cited Cecil B. DeMille, because, he said, it was while watching DeMille's films that he learned exactly what not to do. In that sense a lot of contemporary American fiction-indeed, so much of it that it would be unfair to cite any particular names — constitutes my Cecil B. DeMille.

But there is a whole different way of being influenced: it is the way a sieve is influenced by the river whose water is going through it, leaving random dregs. The world goes through me, and some particles of it, for random reasons, unrelated to my will or my mind, stay with me. Raymond Carver once told a story about the time he was sitting at his desk, writing a story. The phone rang, and when he picked it up, someone asked for Norman. "Wrong number," said Carver, but after he hung up, a menacing character named Norman appeared in his story. I guess you can say he was influenced by the anonymous caller. I have been influenced by murdered mosquitoes on my ceiling; by the scent of my cat's fur; by a neighbor who ripped out the plants we planted in their empty pots; by my father's childhood stories; by a sunset in Zaporizhye, Ukraine, which owed its breathtaking beauty to the density of iron particles in the air; by a particularly strong double espresso.

It is impossible to write without being nearly pathologically opened to influences, if you understand "influence" as a way to be related to the world around, as a mode of perpetual, endless conversation. All I do is filter the influences through language. It's an exhilarating process. So the question of influences is in many ways a false one: there are so many of them — there need to be so many just to be able to write anything at all — that I need to write books in order to come to terms with all of the influences. You can say that the world is my biggest influence, and the only important one. spacer

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