Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Scooped / War and Headpiece

One of most exhilarating and depressing things that can happen to you as a writer is to discover that an idea you came up with totally out of the blue has already been done (and needless to say done better) by some greater writer ages ago.

Take this sentence from James Wood's new book How Fiction Works (on which more later):

"Tolstoy, again, in an electrifying moment at the end of his novella Hadji Murad, imagines what it might be like to have one's head cut off, and for consciousness to persist for a second or two in the brain even as the head has left the body."


Which reminds me, of course, of this. Needless to say I haven't read Hadji Murad (has anyone? Except Wood?) and had no idea till I read this that it had a similar conceit.

Now one part of me [1] is thinking: "WooHoo! Tolstoy! Him and me, we're like two peas in a pod, see? Okay, so he has a wee bit more published work than I do, but what's a deathless 1000 page classic or two between friends?"

And the other part of me is thinking: "Some writer you are. Tolstoy only beat you to it, by, like a HUNDRED YEARS! Tchah!"

Next thing you know I'll find out that my idea for a novel about a girl who meets this really arrogant guy but then figures out that he's actually quite nice has been done before as well.


[1] These are both parts of Night Falstaff, naturally. Day Falstaff is busy explaining to anyone who will listen how it isn't really that surprising if you think about it; how it's all just random chance and doesn't prove anything. Day Falstaff is perilously close to having a Hadji Murad experience himself.

8 comments:

Chevalier said...

hey, is this serendipitious or did you get the inspiration for the original post (as you said in the postscript there) from Nabokov who may have got it directly from Tolstoy?

Or was the Nabakov novel nothing like the post it inspired, in which case this theory holds no water....

km said...

If I had a dollar for every time I heard a newbie screenplay writer complain about a concept being done (and done better)...

BTW, you really should read "Hadji Murad".

A couple of years ago, I discovered this fantastic publishing company called "Hesperus Press" that specializes in re-printing neglected/forgotten books and translations by well-known writers (and they published "Hadji Murad", among other titles). Most of their titles are around 200-250 pages, just perfect for that long flight or a short weekend.

Alok said...

Ha! I have read it :) It is available in nice edition by "Hesperus classics" which for some reason was ubiquitous in the bookshops of Bangalore...

I haven't read the story An Occurrence at the Owl creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce but the twilight zone episode based on it uses a very similar conceit.

btw, I loved your review of Invitation to the Beheading. I read it only a few months ago and found it really brilliant. It was nice to see all that I liked in the book so eloquently described.

I am also right now struggling with his The Gift. Have you read it? It is too dense and complicated for me right now but I am finding my way through it slowly. There is amazing description of poems about childhood in the first chapter of the book...Not a parody like in pale fire but real analysis about how words correspond to real events and their representations in memory.

Alok said...

wow, some synchronicity about the hesperus press there...!

Annamari said...

Actualy Dostoevsky imagined that too in the Idiot, if I am not mistaken - the Guillotine Execution scene.
It starts looking like a Russian literature fad?!!

blatherina said...

i know the feeling. or, i pretend i do. when i see a brilliant piece of writing, i fumble down the basement of half-remembered story ideas, and then make it seem familiar.

km said...

Ugh, more creepy coincidence (which I realized after reading Annamari's comment).

Alexandre Dumas wrote a wonderful little book, long out of print but thankfully Hesperus Press published it, called "One Thousand And One Ghosts".

One of the best stories in that book is about how, post-guillotine, a man still retains some consciousness...

Damn you, Falstaff, is decapitation the best thing you can think of in the middle of the week?

??! said...

Wait, wasn't the Poe story 'Never bet the devil your head' also touching on the same aspect? Is this some global conspiracy about talking heads?