Part of the pleasure of listening to the late jazz musician Dave McKenna playing piano was hearing the musical quotes he wove into his improvisations. The practice, deplored by some critics, was not unique to McKenna, of course. To cite only jazz musicians I have seen in person, Sonny Rollins and the late Marian McPartland excelled at it. It flatters the listener whose musical memory is robust, boosts his pleasure and suggests a witty generosity on the part of the musician. And if the listener fails to hear the allusion, no harm is done.
I enjoy the same practice among writers when the allusion-making is performed deftly, not in the spirit of showing off, and if it contributes to the resonance of the passage. After half a century I still remember my pleasure in hearing an echo of Oliver Goldsmith’s “The Deserted Village” in Billy Budd. My timing was good. Only months earlier had I read Goldsmith’s poem. Joyce, of course, made allusion-planting essential to his practice as a writer of fiction, as did Guy Davenport. So did Laurence Sterne, occasionally to the point of plagiarism.
In the Winter 1995 issue of The Threepenny Review, in the journal’s “Table Talk” feature, I found a brief essay by a writer previously unknown to me, Kimball Fenn. Most of it is devoted to Emily Dickinson’s poems and prose, but Fenn’s preliminary remarks on hearing “echoes” are interesting:
“[H]earing echoes of anything in anything is a teaser--half of reading pleasure is enacting allusions by either catching or creating them. There’s enormous gratification in discovering that such connections are not only a testament to one’s own readerly memory and imagination, but actually ‘real,’ that is, intended by the author. Or, if not intended, at least so surprising that the author should have intended them--a situation somewhat like knowing friends better than they know themselves.”
Unintentional echoes are intriguing. Writers who are serious readers will inevitably fold into their own words the words and spirit of other writers. So long as the reader doesn’t push the “influence” angle too hard, and doesn’t go overboard with deducing the writer’s intentions, hearing such unconscious allusions increases one’s pleasure. As I wrote a long time ago: “Every book is linked inevitably to every other book in a vast Borgesian weave of overt and occult connections.” Fenn continues:
“Nabokov’s ideal reader is like a golden retriever, full of frolicsome, boundless, adoring energy, ready to follow anywhere--but knowing all the while ‘when and where to curb his imagination . . . by trying to get clear the specific world the author places at his disposal.’ This Good Guy will be faithful and alert, hearing each whistle and catching every bone, and won’t pull any fast ones with the rules; he knows who’s boss.”