Saturday, August 3, 2019

Pastiche Can Cripple

Ballantine Books, 1961. Cover by Richard Powers.

"Sardonicus," by Ray Russell.

Russell was a literate, gifted writer whose work showed the benefits of careful research and the strengths of careful craftsmanship, but also the limitations of pastiche.

Pastiche can cripple: it can block writers from exploring their own fears and from asserting their own personalities. This danger becomes worse if the writer is good at pastiche, if he is able to bury his own voice in tones and textures of the past so thoroughly, so convincingly, that he disappears like a ventriloquist who gives all of his wit and charm to a dummy made of dead wood.

During the 1960s, Russell created stories that might have come from the 1860s:

In the late summer of the year 18--, a gratifying series of professional successes had brought me to a state of such fatigue that I had begun seriously to contemplate a long rest on the Continent. I had not enjoyed a proper holiday in nearly three years, for in addition to my regular practise, I had been deeply involved in a program of research, and so rewarding had been my progress in this special work (it concerned the ligaments and muscles, and could, it was my hope, be beneficially applied to certain varieties of paralysis) that I was loath to leave the city for more than a week at a time. Being unmarried, I lacked a solicitous wife who might have expressed concern over my health; thus it was that I had overworked myself to a point that a holiday had become absolutely essential to my well-being; hence, the letter which was put in my hand one morning near the end of that summer was most welcome.

He had the voice, the tones, the knowledge to pull off these pastiches well, but the results were not like anything written by Le Fanu or Collins: the stories lacked any personal touch, any sense of a human being alive behind the words with obsessions and nightmares of his own.

When viewed from a certain perspective, "Sardonicus" looks like a fine story, told with clarity, pace, energy, and surprise. As a work of professional writing, it has everything it needs except for one fundamental component: any hint of what Ray Russell might fear.

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