I love art from other art. Ballets inspired by narratives. Garments influenced by architecture. Paintings that translate sound into color. Recognizable connections light up our synapses. We like things that remind us of other things, particularly if the connections are clever. (How else do you explain the popularity of “Weird Al” Yankovic?) Inspired work honors its source, but often it also begins a conversation. Many of the best literary examples don’t just use an original plot for a model, but reanimate the language of the older work to create something new. When an author uses work this way, the tension between two texts adds gravity to them both.
We see this most notably in Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. Cunningham uses Mrs. Dalloway as archetype, but he forms his own language out of Woolf’s sentences. As Cunningham inhabits Woolf’s disjointed, digressive voice, he allows us to float between each protagonist in her respective time.
The eponymous passage in The Hours is a reinvention of a line from the opening of Woolf’s work. Woolf’s Clarissa wonders:
[H]ow many years is it? over twenty,–one feels even in the midst of traffic, or waking at night, Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense (but that might be her heart, affected, they said, by influenza) before Big Ben strikes. There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolved into the air. . . For Heaven only knows why one loves it so.
Cunningham’s Clarissa Vaughan muses,
There’s just this for consolation: an hour here or there when our lives seem, against odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we’ve ever imagined, though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) knows these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult. Sill, we cherish the city, the morning; we hope, more than anything, for more. Heaven only knows why we love it so.
Cunningham manages to reflect—without repeating or trivializing—sentiments from Woolf’s work. He repurposes these for use in a contemporary world.
But authors have many ways to take language cues from an older work. In the short story, “Samsa in Love,” Murakami (translated in The New Yorker by Goosen) not only echoes Kafka’s Metamorphosis, but inverts it. By using Kafkaesque descriptions of the self as other, Murakami scrutinizes the body. Samsa discovers:
Smooth white skin (covered by only a perfunctory amount of hair) with fragile blue blood vessels visible through it; a soft, unprotected belly; ludicrous, impossibly shaped genitals; gangly arms and legs (just two of each!); a scrawny, breakable neck.
The passage recalls Kafka’s Samsa first stretching his insect legs. But in the tradition of Swift, Murakami’s Samsa is a human grotesque, allowing the author to examine the absurdity of man in his tragic, soft form.
Other works such as Sara Levine’s Treasure Island!!! and Kelly Luce’s short story, “Amorometer,” allude to classics while quoting the source text. Luce’s story of a woman taking the train to meet her lover in Tokyo recalls Anna Karenina. Aya, Luce’s protagonist, ponders the possibility of an extra-marital relationship. Also on a train, Anna has given up hope for a future with her lover. Anna sits in judgment of the families around her.
Luce quotes Karenina, showing us two women at different points on the same path.
Safely onboard the bullet train, [Aya] shifted in her carpeted seat and let Anna Karenina fall open to random pages. . . .
‘Anna hardly knew at times what it was she feared and what she hoped for. Whether she feared or desired what had happened, or what was going to happen, and exactly what she longed for, she could not have said.’
She looked out the window. She took off her wedding ring, put it back on.
By tying her work to Tolstoy’s, Luce creates a sense of doom. Aya is headed toward something that feels wrong.
Art from other art intrigues us, particularly if an author closely matches his work to a classic. A work built from the bricks of an author’s words or sentences will always offer commentary on the original. Whether an author goes “full Woolf,” as Cunningham, or uses her forbearer’s words to heighten conflict, the reader and the work end up benefitting from the inter-textual dialog.
Image: Arthur Pita’s dance-theater adaptation, “The Metamorphosis”