Artistic influence is an inexhaustibly delicious
topic. Mainly because we seldom learn--unless an
artist admits it--which works of art influenced
another. But even then, there are mysteries.
Novelists, directors, painters and songwriters are
all famously dodgy about these things. I've never
heard Bruce Springsteen say that Who's
Next was a massive influence on Born
to Run, but I'll always believe that it
Influence of Bleak
Then there's the subconscious to consider. Sometimes
you don't know something was an influence until you
realize it in retrospect. There are countless parts
which--as I was drafting and redrafting them--I
didn't realize were influenced by one novel or
another. (Color me "dodgy," I don't feel like being
specific about this right now.) But then, as you
live your life and reread your favorite books, you
realize: "Oh, wait a minute. This must have been in
my head as I was composing."
Well, with that windy preface out of the way, let me
get to the point: I'm rereading Charles Dickens' Bleak
House right now, having a great time. And
so far, I've found four sections that I believe were
influences on significant books (Orwell, James,
Melville, Lawrence) that came later. I don't presume
these to be original discoveries on my part. Surely
there are devoted dissertations which have already
argued for or against what I'm about to say here.
But as you can tell by my parenthetical remark in
the previous paragraph, I'm feeling kind of mentally
lazy. It's Sunday morning, a gorgeous day in
mid-June. I want to record these thoughts but I also
want to get outside and stop typing! So, without
further ado, here are the four major works and the
Farm by George Orwell. "There
may be some motions of fancy among the lower animals
at Chesney Wold. The horses in the stables--the long
stables in a barren, red-brick courtyard, where
there is a great bell in a turret, and a clock with
a large face, which the pigeons who live near it,
and who love to perch upon its shoulders, seem to be
always consulting--they may contemplate some mental
pictures of fine weather, on occasions, and may be
better artists at them than the grooms. The old
roan, so famous for cross-country work, turning his
large eyeball to the grated window near his rack,
may remember the fresh leaves that glisten there at
other times, and the scents that steam in, and may
have a fine run with the hounds, while the human
helper, clearing out the next stall, never stirs
beyond his pitchfork and birch-broom. The grey,
whose place is opposite the door, and who, with an
impatient rattle of his halter, pricks his ears and
turns his head so wistfully when it is opened, and
to whom the opener says, 'Woa grey, then, steady!
Noabody wants you to-day!' may know it quite as well
as the man. The whole seemingly monotonous and
uncompanionable half-dozen, stabled together, may
pass the long wet hours, when the door is shut, in
livelier communication than is held in the servants'
hall, or at the Dedlock Arms;--or may even beguile
the time by improving (perhaps corrupting) the pony
in the loose-box in the corner" (96).
Turn of the Screw by Henry James.
Three things here. First, Chapter 34 of Bleak
House is fucking called "A Turn of the
Screw." Second, Chapter 7 of Bleak
House, which is called "The Ghost's Walk,"
tells a frightening ghost story. Third, one of the
main narrators of Bleak
House is Esther Summerson, which is to say,
there's a female storyteller--just like governess
in The Turn
of the Screw. While it's more accurate to
compare the governess's voice to Jane Eyre's than to
Esther Summerson's, I'm just putting the
female-storyteller thing out there, as a third
commonality between Bleak
House and Screw.
the Scrivener by Herman Melville.
Of the four influences, this one is perhaps least
likely, because it's arguable Melville was already
working on Bartleby
(1853) when Bleak
House came out. (By contrast, the other
three titles on this list are at least 40 years
removed from Bleak
House's initial serialized release in
1852.) In which case, there's still a fascinating
coincidence going on here, in which both Dickens and
Melville decided to build major stories around the
act of copying legal documents. Whereas a scrivener
is Melville's title character, the copyists in Bleak
House (Snagsby, Nemo) play a major
role. You could certainly argue, too, that Bartleby
is a Nemo.
and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence. I
have an especial affinity for this novel, which
everyone seems to believe (with some justification)
is Lawrence's biography, completely ignoring his
massive efforts at revision and character-polishing.
Anyway, the character of Walter Morel--influenced as
he may have been by Lawrence's own father--has a
strong literary antecedent in the form of another
type of Nemo: the nameless "Brickmaker" who is the
star of Chapter 8, "Covering a Multitude of Sins."
There are innumerable nuances to both Morel and the
Brickmaker, but if you've read Sons
and Lovers, you'll quickly spot the
similarity after reading this passage, which takes
place when the Brickmaker receives a house call (at
his rather squalid quarters) from a persistent
"'I wants a end of these liberties too with my
place. I wants a end of being drawed like a badger.
Now you're a going to poll-pry and question
according to custom--I know what you're a going to
be up to. Well! You haven't got no occasion to be up
to it. I'll save you the trouble. Is my daughter a
washin? Yes, she is a washin. Look at the water.
Smell it! That's wot we drinks. How do you like it,
and what do you think of gin, instead? An't my place
dirty? Yes, it is dirty--it's nat'rally dirty, and
it's nat'rally onwholesome; and we've had five dirty
and onwholesome children, as is all dead infants,
and so much the better for them, and for us besides.
Have I read the little book wot you left? No, I an't
read the little book wot you left. There an't nobody
here as knows how to read it; and if there wos, it
wouldn't be suitable to me. It's a book fit for a
babby, and I'm not a babby. If you was to leave me a
doll, I shouldn't nuss it. How have I been
conducting of myself? Why, I've been drunk for three
days; and I'd a been drunk four, if I'd a had the
money. Don't I never mean for to go to church? No, I
don't never mean for to go to church. I shouldn't be
expected there, if I did; the beadle's too gen-teel
for me. And how did my wife get that black eye? Why,
I giv' it her; and if she says I didn't, she's a
"He had pulled his pipe out of his mouth to say all
this, and he now turned over on his other side, and
smoked again" (121-122).
Happy Father's Day. Time for me to get outside.
Ilan Mochari is the author of the
Pushcart-nominated debut novel Zinsky
the Obscure (Fomite Press, 2013).
The novel earned rave reviews from Publishers
Weekly, Booklist, and Kirkus. It was also
featured in the Boston
Globe and on Boston's NPR station. His
short stories and poetry have appeared or are
forthcoming in Keyhole,
and elsewhere. Another
story received an honorable mention in a Glimmer
Train competition. He
has a B.A. in English from Yale University.