Rereading some short stories by O Henry, I was struck, as I often am, by the desire to have written some of them myself. If I could excise him from history, hide the tales from the world for long enough for them to be forgotten, then produce them as my own, I think I would do it. Or possibly not. His style is not mine, his life was not mine, his characters can never be mine, but many of the ideas behind the stories are universal, at least, they are once they’ve been thought of.
Last night I read ‘The Last Leaf’. I am certain I remember the story from another setting, involving a couple of Frenchmen. I don’t know which is the original, or perhaps it comes from some folk tale, or a source older than writing itself, and O Henry and others have taken it and given it a new world and new flesh to live in. His story may be overdramatised, and I would have given it a different title, but the composition is perfectly balanced, and the whole thing is gathered together by its own coherence.
It made me think about other unusual idea which have been repeated (or copied) in writing and in song. I have a little list (now that line rings a bell, too, for some reason) of particularly striking cases:
I’ve always thought that Thomas Hardy pinched the entire plot of The Mayor of Casterbridge from Les Miserables. The story of a man reacting against his own weakness and stupidity, trying to make up for them, rising to achieve great things, and finally losing the daughter who was his main inspiration is common enough, but there are too many similar details for it to be purely chance. I would have to read them both again to explain it more fully, but I am sure there is some influence.
Lope de Vega once wrote a sonnet which is a description of the process of writing itself. (It’s called Soneto de Repente, if anyone wants to look it up). And Leonard Cohen wrote a song called Hallelujah, a rather splendid song if you like that sort of thing, the first verse of which describes its own musical theme (It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall and the major lift) very cleverly.
Another O Henry story is ‘The Tainted Tenner’, narrated by a ten-dollar bill. The Guy Clarke song, ‘Indian-Head Penny’, is not narrated by the coin, but it tells a similar story of its birth and adventures, and all the places it ends up and the jobs it has to do.
Country music has many niche narratives. Although every second country song ever written is about some guy getting drunk over some girl, among the songs which find other aspects of life there are some unusual themes. Girl who turns to prostitution out of despair is common enough (Townes van Zandt’s ‘Tecumseh Valley’ is one of the best). But there are a couple of songs which refine it further, as ‘mama was a whore because she had to be but she was always good to me.’ ‘Hickory Hollow Tramp’ and ‘Lily of the Alley’ aren’t great songs, but they take a very specific and unusual theme and do something with it.
There is even room for a, very small, ‘Jesus Christ on the highway’ genre. I forget the name of the song in which a truck driver meets Jesus out jogging on the road. He explains that Heaven isn’t a good place for running so He comes down to Earth to do His jogging. And there is the brilliant, and very funny, Terry Allen song ‘Gimme a Ride to Heaven,’ which is worth 5 minutes of anyone’s time.
This has been a series of random thoughts. Indulge me. In a couple of days I must return to the city, where I shall have to think, get up in the morning, organize my mind and my life, and pretend that what I do has a serious purpose. The riffing on odd things seen in the mountains will have to end. But today I can still think random thoughts.
*The photos are of the salt works I wrote about last week. I couldn't upload them then.