As the first volume of The Acts of Simon Magus takes final shape, I have just finished rereading what is apparently a major influence on The Acts. I first read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn when I was 8 years old, just arrived in Canada from England, and I think it may have spoiled me for pretty well anything written since. The experiences of Twain’s young hero as he escapes his monstrous father and takes off down the river with a runaway slave, and the various rogues and saints he meets on the way, have coloured Simon, his life and world in ways I often had no idea of. Some situations and turns of phrase from that 50-years-ago reading I find reproduced almost word-for-word in my own work (and there they will stay; if you’re going to steal, steal from a master!). I am even encouraged to restore some outtakes, which I liked but seemed too unlikely even for Simon. Twain wasn’t discouraged by outrageous coincidences or over-the-top characters; he had a story to tell (though Tom’s elaborate escape plan at the end did drag on a bit).
One thing I have consciously borrowed from Huck’s story is the attempt to portray the mentality of an age that is now gone for good. It was (I dare say!) easier for Twain, as Huck’s world was the world of his own childhood (also, now I think of it, 50 years in his own past), not 2000 years gone. But the central reality of that world had undergone a radical shift with the abolition of slavery, and the dissonance between Twain’s readers and what was considered good or moral half a century before, the casual acceptance of barbaric practices and ludicrous superstitions by intelligent, good—normal—people: these are themes both Twain and I are keen to explore. Twain is known as an exposer of hypocrisy, but most of his characters are quite sincere in their beliefs and consistent in their actions; it’s just that many of their beliefs and actions are utterly alien to the reader (Huck agonizes over whether he will go to Hell for not re-enslaving his only real friend), and this sets up both the comedy and the tragedy in the story.
Obviously Huckleberry Finn is a high standard to try to live up to, and Simon is not Huck, nor is his story the same. He also comes from a small town, and like Huck feels ill-at-ease there, but he yearns for big city life while Huck just wants to lay back on the riverbank with a pipe and a fishin’ pole. Simon is on intimate terms with the Gods of his community; Huck fears his God, but never feels a real connection with him. Actually of the characters in Huckleberry Finn, Simon has more in common with the con-men “king” and “duke” (maybe I was too young when I read it, but until I saw a film version many years later I actually thought they really were fallen royalty). He is certainly less conventionally moral than Huck, but I hope he’s not bad. He doesn’t think so anyway.