We’re attempting to unravel the tangled web of literary influence by talking with the great writers of today about the writers of yesterday who influenced them. This month we spoke with two writers whose latest novels pay ample homage to their literary forebearers. Paul Theroux (Burma Sahib, The Mosquito Coast) talks about the multifarious life and work of George Orwell. Ferdia Lennon (Glorious Exploits) discusses the peerless literary ambition of James Joyce.

Paul Theroux on George Orwell

Orwell is one of those rare masters of both fiction and nonfiction. Do you think that’s what he set out to become?

He saw himself as a novelist. His earliest writing was poetry, so he wrote poems. They’re not very good, but they're very telling. One is about a prostitute. One ends, "I wasn't born for an age like this—was Smith, was Jones, were you?" But he read fiction—Jack London, Somerset Maugham, H.G. Wells, D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller—and his ambition was to write a novel. And so Orwell’s reading as a policeman in Burma led him to start a book, which was the earliest flickerings of Burmese Days, but it didn't catch fire.

After five years in Burma—with a uniform, with power, with a pretty good salary, with a lot of authority, and with a solid job in the British Raj—what did he do? He became a dishwasher in Paris and a tramp in London. His first book was going to be called Confessions of a Dishwasher and it turned out to be Down and Out in Paris and London. He wasn't a particularly good novelist until the end with 1984, which was brilliant but derivative from a Russian novel called We by Yevgeny Zamyatin. He made his living as a journalist, as an essayist—not a good living.

Do any of his books stand out to you as his most essential?

It's hard to say what is most representative, because they were all so different. Of course, 1984 is a masterpiece. Maybe that's representative because he always said everything he did was political, that everything he wrote had a political intention.

But I think the novel that moves me is Coming Up for Air, which is about a man who goes back to where he grew up and sees how much it changed. It's a book about a nostalgia for lost England, a very heartfelt book, because the man goes back to the Thames Valley where Orwell grew up. In a way it's a nostalgia for Orwell's own childhood—where he went fishing, the local street, the little local shops, and so forth. But they've all been either Americanized or changed, and where he used to go fishing, the lovely fishing hole is a now place where people throw junk, old tires—a polluted little pond. That's a great book, representative of a mood he has.

But Down and Out, which is a book about a tramp, the dropout book—that’s very representative of the mood he had after Burma. And then after that he wrote some novels and didn't make any money, but was still committed politically and fought in the Spanish Civil War. So he writes Homage to Catalonia. He was not a soldier. He was pretty tough, but he had bad lungs. But he was committed to the cause so he fought and was wounded—shot in the neck. And when you think about Animal Farm, which is an animal fable; Burmese, which is a book about colonialism; 1984, a book about the future. The books are all different. Here’s the thing: how long was Orwell's writing career? He published his first book in 1933 and he died in 1950. He’s got about 16 years. When you think of what a short writing life he had, it's amazing.

What strikes you most about his style?

He said that writing should be like a window pane, so he never used a word for effect. He never tried to make it sound poetic or florid, lapidary. He tried to write as clearly as possible. He never wanted to be accused of being tendentious—of loading his argument—so he’d make it as clear as possible. In an essay called Politics in the English Language, he talks about cliches. He was the enemy of cliches. You only laugh at them. So when you're reading him, one of the things that you notice first of all is that there's no cliches in his writing. He never uses a phrase just for the beauty of the phrase. He kind of is the enemy of that—of making it sound pretty. He doesn't want it ugly, but he wants it perfectly plain. The window pane. The transparency of prose.

He definitely seemed to believe that a writer should learn by varied, firsthand experience.

His life is kind of a model—amazing, when you think of it. His father was a civil servant in India in charge of opium inspections, so his father was crating up opium and sending it to China so the Chinese could be addicted to it. So that's kind of shameful. But his father is in the Raj and he sends his son to a terrible school—they beat the children and the food is terrible. After that, he goes to Eton, one of the most expensive exclusive schools in England. They wear tuxedos and top hats. All his fellow students have money, are members of the aristocracy, have titles. And he's there, and he's a great student. He becomes a policeman, a colonist.

After that, he becomes a dishwasher. Then the Spanish Civil War, and then the First World War and then Second World War, where he's a fire warden. Then he sees all the contradictions in totalitarianism, and reads We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, and suddenly he's inspired. And then writing 1984, smoking his head off, he gets the news that he's terminally ill. And he thinks if I get married, maybe I'll live longer. Married a woman called Sonia. Suddenly, at the very end of his life he becomes incredibly wealthy. In his last months, after years of poverty, he suddenly gets all this money, and then he dies at the age of 46. What a life!

Ferdia Lennon on James Joyce

Which do you think is the quintessential Joyce read? I could see an argument for any of them.

That’s a really good point. And I think that kind of gets to the heart of one of the things that's really special about Joyce. You could go Dubliners, which is almost like the epitome of realist, psychological fiction, and of that type of short story that maybe began with Maupassant, and with Dubliners you have it at its highest level in "The Dead." And yet on the other hand, you go over to Ulysses, and you have this modernist masterpiece, which is the complete opposite. Everything is on the table, every chapter is an experimentation different from what had gone before.

And at the same time, while Finnegans Wake isn’t necessarily as enjoyable, one could argue that it’s Joyce at peak literary madness.

Completely. That's exactly it—the pure ambition of it. That's one of the only Joyce books that I can say I haven't absolutely loved. With all the other Joyce works, what I find really interesting is that they're profound, intellectual, lyrical, but they're also very moving. There's this fully realized emotional core to Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Ulysses. In Finnegans, there might be, but it's pretty impenetrable. Still, I love the ambition—that he would try to do it and take it that far. He was basically a legend in Parisian and world literary circles, and how do you go further than Ulysses? How do you top it? And maybe the only way for him to top it was to write something that couldn't be judged because it was completely opaque.

What do you think of his work on a stylistic level?

In the Dubliners mode of psychological realism, I think he’s incredibly perceptive. He goes between quite beautiful, lyrical prose and straight-up, simple English in a way that is very finely balanced. In Ulysses, what I really enjoy is that I don't think I've ever read another novel that replicates the experience of being alive, that blend of thought, physical, sensory experience in a way that's as immersive as certain sections in Ulysses—the fragmented, stream of consciousness style. He's a lot more playful with the language. Certain sections of Ulysses are hilarious. He's got a great sense of humor, but it also can be heartbreaking. We can go from real intense bawdiness into the depths of someone's trauma, and he can flip that very rapidly.

I don’t know if any writer ever has been so great at switching between that bawdiness and seriousness.

That is something that I find really inspiring about him, because before Joyce, there was an idea amongst serious literary fiction novelists that that was just… people didn't talk about that. They didn't masturbate. They didn't go to the toilet, or if they did, it absolutely wasn't a subject for serious fiction. One of my favorite scenes in Ulysses is where Bloom is on the toilet and then going and cooking a kidney.

What’s interesting is that he both does those very sensory, vivid, embodied scenes as good as anyone has ever done them, and yet he was also one of the first people to do that. Very often the first endeavor into an area or a subject matter you might go, Oh, well, that's great because it's innovative, but technically we got much better, whereas I actually don't think we've technically gotten much better at describing those kinds of things. I think he did it as well as anyone and he was the innovator.

What do you think writers should learn from him?

I think there's a there's a bunch of things that you can learn from Joyce. Study his short stories, you will learn balanced, lyrical prose style, great characterization, a great sense of unity and structure. If you study Ulysses, you will get a sense of the sheer breadth of experimentation and playfulness that's possible in fiction. You can write in one mode, but there are so many different modes that he adopts the shifts and discards almost chapter by chapter.

What I would also say is that even though Ulysses is this epic novel which is incredibly experimental and seems to spool out in every different direction, it has this really robust structure that he's taken from the Odyssey. It gives the narrative a solid spine, and even if we haven't read the Odyssey, certain stories like the Trojan War—they've entered into a kind of public consciousness, so we kind of know them. So as we read Ulysses, each episode unfolds and there is a certain level of expectation amidst this really playful madness. There's this solid structure that runs through it. So I think one of the things that Joyce can show a writer is that the more ambitious, the more experimental, the more wild the narrative, the more robust the structure needs to be.

Also the work ethic. He’s one of the greatest writers ever and yet he failed a lot. Most of the copies of Dubliners in the first printing were actually bought by him. His first attempt at writing Portrait of an Artist, his first novel, was going to be this epic version of what became Portrait of an Artist. It was like 500-plus pages but in the end, he had to set it aside and go back to it and create this really slim, great novel, which is the bridge between Dubliners and Ulysses. He also spent as long on certain chapters of Ulysses as many people would spend on a novel. He was this genius, but he also worked incredibly hard, and he had many, many setbacks, and yet he still kept going, and he didn't temper or reduce his ambition. He had his flaws, he had his doubts, he had his failures. He's both mythic and very human as well.

In many ways he was a bit of a mess. He was always overspending. There were a lot of things he wasn’t good at. But he was this incredible writer and he absolutely had this fundamental belief in the importance of literature and in trying new things and pushing it. What did he say? "If Ulysses isn't worth reading, then a life isn't worth living." He was a man who definitely believed in his endeavor.

These interviews have been lightly edited for clarity.

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