Tuesday, July 06, 2010

The Vancean Influence

David Isaak over on Tomorrowville, in the comments thread to his stimulating post on ephemerality, made the mistake of asking me to trace Jack Vance's influence on my fiction.  (This a bit like asking me to tweet about biscuits...).  The two aspects of Vance's art David doesn't notice in mine are (deliberately) overripe prose and extensive use of magic.  I'd agree in both cases: any overripeness in my prose is unintentional, and my fascination with the Middle Ages leads me to play down the role of magic in my own stories.

So what have I tried to keep from Vance?  I've always--flying against the critical consensus--enjoyed Vance's female characters, and especially the way in which they nimbly outwit the more pedestrian male ones.  (Vance himself, I suspect, picked this up from PG Wodehouse).  In The Zael Inheritance, Laura Glyde persistently befuddles Lamarck with a mixture of superior intelligence and restrained sex-appeal; while in Dragonchaser poor Mirko has to contend with both Larien and Lady Catzendralle.  The relationships are perhaps more nuanced in The Dog of the North, but Arren rarely comes off better in sparring with either Eilla or Siedra, while Beauceron's kidnap of Lady Isola hardly goes according to plan.  In an otherwise damning review of The Dog of the North, Deathray magazine described the women as "haunting", so I must have got something right.

Vance also enjoys identity games, where one character is someone other than reader thinks.  This features strongly in the Demon Princes series, where Attel Malagate, Kokor Hekkus and Viole Falushe all masquerade as other characters, but we see it too with Sir Pellinore in Madouc and, in a curious fashion, Kul the Killer in The Green Pearl.  My own fascination with identity games runs even deeper: the true identities of Laura Glyde, 'N', Beauceron and Malvazan are central to the novels in which they feature.

I've long admired the cool detachment of the mature Vance's prose (while I take David's point about the overripeness, it's mainly seen in the Dying Earth novels.  His extraordinary evocativeness is usually the result of surprising economy of method).  It's particularly noteworthy when he's describing atrocities.

The single remaining warrior rode pellmell down into the swale, where the Kaber warriors cut off first his legs, then his arms, then rolled him into the ditch to ponder the sad estate to which his life had come.

---Suldrun's Garden

The use of this tone of crisp precision, regardless of circumstance, is one of the distinguishing features of Vance's work, and which alienates many readers.  But those who appreciate it find it part of his continuing appeal.  I'm conscious that, in Dragonchaser, the early hanging scene owes much to Vance:

The crowd set up a hooting as the poisoner was led towards the platform, where the gibbets were erected at a good elevation to facilitate viewing. The prisoner cowered low as the noose was set around his neck.

“Larkas Laman,” said the Sergeant of the Constables sonorously, “you have been adjudged guilty of the heinous crime of extinguishing your wife – ”

“As we all would if we could!” called one wag from the crowd, to general hilarity.

“ – using toadstools garnered for that purpose. Your guilt is unquestioned. Do you have a final message of repentance or edification, that others might not share your fate?”

Larkas Laman seemed unwilling to draw general conclusions from his circumstances. “I am innocent!” he called. “There were no toadstools! Her mother laid an information against me, but poor Melsifar was always of a sickly disposition.”

The Sergeant was attuned through long practice to the tenor of condemned folks’ final speeches. Protestations of innocence were common, if futile, and provided neither entertainment nor enlightenment. He nodded at the hangman, who pulled on a theatrically large lever. A trap-door opened, Larkas Laman dropped three feet with his conclusions unfinished, to kick and jerk on the end of the rope. The crowd cheered this satisfactory outcome.

Next was brought forward the schismatic Clovildas Cloon. Unlike Larkas Laman, he spoke long and fervently, ignoring questions of guilt and innocence, instead justifying his acts. Mirko was no clearer as to the nature of his offence at the end of the peroration, but he recognised a fanatic. Clovildas Cloon appeared to welcome martyrdom, and at the end of the speech commanded the hangman to pull the lever “that I might the sooner begin my eternal blessings.”

The crowd had enjoyed this spirited defiance of mortality – even if, to Mirko’s eyes, religious feeling was not in great evidence – and the opening of the trap door was greeted with applause. There appeared to be little difference between the twitching bodies of Larkas Laman and Clovildas Cloon: might the latter’s eternal blessings be deferred, or even apocryphal?

Vance's related ability to extract humour from grim situations, usually through understatement, is a close cousin to this narrative detachment.

Without wishing to devalue readers' experiences with spoilers, I'd also suggest that a fondness for the melancholy, half-resolved ending is something I've taken from Vance.  Some have suggested that his endings are perfunctory, but the best of them--The Book of Dreams, perhaps, or Maske: Thaery--have certainly influenced the endings of both The Zael Inheritance and The Dog of the North.

There are no doubt many other Vancean influences on my writing, but those are the conscious ones for me - a particular take on male-female relationships, an interest in concealed identities, a cool narrative tone and a certain attitude to endings.

Sadly what I don't seem to have absorbed from Vance is his work ethic--4.4 million words over a 50-year career.  There's always something to strive for...


David Isaak said...

Yes, you're right--his prose in the Dying Earth books does have it's own flavor, and its hue is decidedly more purple.

I do admit he can be economical. In one of the Lyonesse books he explains a region by observing that its mud is "sour." Precise and very tight.

I quite enjoyed this post. When you describe it in this fashion, the influence is clear, but I'm not so sure that it would be obvious to readers out of context. Which ought to caution all those (usually critics) who think they are tracing influences in novels.

4.4 million words. Wow. I wonder how many pages he usually pushed out a day. I wonder if he rewrote much.

pecooper said...

Yes he did rewrite. He was compulsive about it. His first drafts were in longhand. Then he would go through them, striking stuff out and tightening it, striving for exactly the right words.

Then he would do a second draft and treat it the same way.

Finally, he would pass the pages on to his wife, Norma, who would type them up.

Then, often as not, he would edit the typed pages in longhand.

You can check out a page of the first draft of Maske: Thaery at http://www.vancemuseum.com/manuscripts/maske/maske_thaery_first_draft.htm.

-Paul Cooper

David Isaak said...

Thanks for the link!

So 4.4 million words is the "winnowed-down" version.

That's a lot of pencils. Or pens.

David Isaak said...

Pens, I see from the ms. Green ink in some cases.

Tim Stretton said...

Paul is right that Vance did revise extensively. I remember one letter to his publisher complaining about an over-intrusive copy editor in which he said he tuned his prose like a mechanic tuned a Lamborghini.

Once he was happy with the text, he was resistant to editors' requests for further changes, normally complying in the most minimal fashion possible.

For a fuller discussion, see Alun Hughes' remarkable essay for the Vance Integral Edition:


David Isaak said...

Hmm. Hard to choose between "Dark Wort" and "Dankwort."

Although any beer with "dank" in its name seems to me to have limited commerical appeal. So if y'all ever start up the Integral Brewing Company, I'd advise you go with "Dark Wort."

Tim Stretton said...

"Dank" is a great word--but not, I agree, a great inducement for a beer.

The beer Vance refers to in The Face doesn't sound a whole lot better...

"The serving boy brought two great tankards of a vile mouse-flavored beer. Lens Larque quaffed his portion in three gulps and by the exigencies of the situation I was forced to do likewise, all the while giving fervent if silent thanks to the iron belly and matchless capacity developed by my many long years as a purchasing agent."