Voice Creep

I’m reading Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita.  The translation I have is a good one, and the text retains Bulgakov’s distinctive voice.  I don’t have a copy of the Russian text to compare, but the Burgin and O’Connor translation actually makes me feel like I’m reading Russian prose.

“But no, no! The seductive mystics lie, the Caribbeans of this world are gone – desperate marauders do not sail across them, chased by covettes, the cannon smoke does not hang low over the waves. There is nothing, and there never was anything! The stunted linden tree over there is all there is, and the iron fence, and the boulevard behind it… And the ice melting in the little bowl, and someone’s bloodshot bull-like eyes at a neighboring table, and it’s awful, awful… Oh gods, oh my gods, give me poison, poison!”

I’m enamored with the novel’s omniscient, third person narrator.  It’s refreshing to encounter a disembodied narrator who grabs readers by the lapels and violently rattles them into understanding.  This has, of course, made me want to write a story with a maniacally present third person omniscient narrator.  I might do so.  But!

A month or so ago one of my close friends was reading Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84.  She texted me, “This seems like what you would write if you were a middle-aged Japanese man.”

That’s not surprising.  Reading Murakami as a teenager, and then again in writing workshops as an undergraduate, is partially what convinced me that I could write the kind of fiction I wanted to write.  (See also: Katherine Dunn, Mary Gaitskill, ect, ect.)  My teenage brain imprinted on Murakami, and some of his patterns are bound to creep into my own writing.

This happens.  Maud Newton, for example, has talked about the virulent infectiousness of David Foster Wallace’s prose style.  During the summer I read Infinite Jest, I often caught myself sliding into footnotes and parentheticals.

This doesn’t happen to me when I read someone like Gary Lutz, at least.  I’d have to reread Stories in the Worst Way many, many times before I could start writing in Lutzian grammar.

Of course, nothing is new and everything is borrowed or stolen.  It’s perfectly all right to have influences, even if we can’t shake our anxiety about them.  But if I slip into someone else’s voice like it’s a borrowed coat, am I still developing my own?  Is this an effective form of experimentation, or a crutch, or an echo chamber?  Is voice creep just an unavoidable part of reading and writing?

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