The Character of “Character”
January 4, 2018
Uncle Eddie
January 18, 2018

What’s in a Name?

A number of readers have asked me how I was able to write Eye of the Moon. It is one of those questions that can be answered easily with the Stephen King quip, one word at a time. That is true enough, but there is a deeper answer that I was not able to come up with until now. I thought I would share it.

My father called me the other day. It was the fourth, or perhaps the fifth call I have ever received from him. He told me flat out and at once that he objected to my use of his name, Ivan Obolensky, as the author of Eye of the Moon. He said I had violated his copyright. He had written a book in the 1950s using that name and wanted me to change it. I fielded the call as best I could, which is to say not well. I said I would fix it, or some such, and that was that.

It was a sad moment for me on so many levels.

My immediate reaction to his call was how do I fix this? But another perhaps more important question followed somewhat later: should I fix this?

My father and I have the same name, you see, and that is the problem.

When I originally wrote Eye of the Moon, the author’s name was I. Obolensky. Several advanced readers as well as my publisher objected to that. I have been writing nonfiction under my name, Ivan Obolensky, for several years. There should be a tie-in. I agreed, and so it was. Little decisions once made lead to other decisions, and some cannot be unmade. No choice is independent of another.

I looked to history. History has handled such name confusions by adding either the elder or the younger to the surname. The Plinys of Rome come immediately to mind, followed by the two Pitts. I could be Ivan Obolensky, the Younger.

On the other hand, I thought, why should this be an issue in the first place?

It is a simple question, but like many simple questions the answer is more complex.

The truth is my father’s reputation shines brightly when various search engines are put to work, mine not so much, in fact, quite the opposite.

So, firstly, for the public record and for all digital posterity, there are two Ivan Obolenskys. Actually there are more than that, but for the purpose of this posting, there are two, and we, my father and I, are very different.

Ivan Obolensky, the elder, was born in 1925. He has a Wikipedia biography.  His philanthropy is well known, his financial success and his career is/was exemplary.

Ivan Obolensky, the younger, was born in 1952. Note the reversed digits, a case of historical and perhaps genetic dyslexia. That we are polar opposites was obvious from the beginning. I don’t have a Wikipedia biography, and that is not surprising. I knew that we were different from an early age. His name, my name, the same, but not the same, was etched on many of the silver trophies kept in a display case at the Buckley school in New York. I was a notably poor student. I managed to survive prep school and completed a year of college only to involve myself with a cult for some twenty years. I gravitated to the financial industry after my exit and worked as a stockbroker for the next twenty. It was another disaster.

I was not a complete failure, although that could be debated. It was more that I wasn’t a spectacular success. I think I tried too hard to be one, and that was my undoing.

Everything changed for me in my late fifties. What changed exactly, and how I managed to hit rock bottom and bounce is a matter I will not elaborate on, but I can at least mark the moment when I became aware that I had finally arrived as a person. It was during a conversation with a friend one night over a barbecue.

The friend was blunt. “Your entire family is notable and has accomplished so much. They’re wealthy and successful. Even I’m a millionaire, and you certainly aren’t. You’ve done nothing in comparison.”

And he was right of course. I was about to agree with him, when I realized that wasn’t true. Rather than making material headway, I said, I had made significant spiritual progress. I told him that I had finally learned to live with myself, and I had accepted who I was. It seemed a small thing in comparison to the accomplishments of those around me, but when I looked back at the distance I had traveled from where I had begun, it was no small matter, not at all.

I had never liked myself. Of course, we are biased in our own favor, or else life would be unbearable, and we humans would face extinction, but to like oneself in one’s own estimation is not so easy when viewed at arm’s length. I had always forwarded my own agenda. I was constantly afraid and bottled my anger, my sadness, and countless other emotions, but a strange thing had happened. By accepting all of them as part of me, allowing them to exist, and surrendering to who I was, I was able to see into my own soul. At the same time, I was able to see into the souls of others and understand them. They struggled too but in different ways. By accepting myself, I had accepted everyone else into my world, and I could see them clearly.

I learned to write and discovered I could write about what I saw. It was a big breakthrough.

Denis Johnson, the novelist, wrote, “I really enjoy writing novels. It’s like the ocean. You can just build a boat and take off.”

Eye of the Moon was like that. I built a boat and sailed away. That is how the novel was written. I created another world, and because I knew myself, I knew the people in it and their stories.

As to what I should do about my name, we never got to choose, did we? The choice for each of us was made long ago. Should it define who we are? I don’t think so. I am not my name. No one is. Ivan Obolensky is the name I write under. It is mine through no fault of my own and so it is. I will continue to use it.

Some news: I’m writing another novel. I will give you a taste, just a paragraph, but I think it strangely appropriate.

“I will start, if you will listen, how it was for me, but know full well, all stories begin in the middle, and all stories end in the same place. All things have already begun long before they begin. Whether we make a ripple or a wave, the future will reveal, but which it will be, who can say?  Instead, we ask the question this way: who will remember me and will it be for good or evil?”

From Songs of Rebellion” by Ivan Obolensky

16 Comments

  1. Craig says:

    Ivan,

    That response from your father, if not completely unexpected, was completely cruel and unfounded. He gave you that name over a half-century ago. Now, probably, like most men who name their children after themselves, he was just marking territory. Like a dog with a tree. But you are not a tree and his mark has no hold on you. He gave away that name years ago, so now he can just suck it. Hope that’s not too insensitive. I have a bit of a mean streak when it comes to injustice – especially against friends.

    • Craig,
      Thank you for your support and for your thoughts. A reaction was not unexpected; the form it took was. It is likely there will be others. In the meanwhile, life continues. I work. I write.
      It’s good. Friends are good, too. Thank you for being one.

  2. Vanessa says:

    Ivan,

    Thank you for opening up and sharing this incredible experience and the back story. I completely concur with Craig, and I love what you wrote about not being your name.
    The sneak peek into your next novel was also fantastic! I am a huge fan of your work and see you as a huge success. You are loved, you are talented, and you are a fantastic human! Darn it, that counts for something. Thank you for sharing this brave and touching post .

  3. Kathy says:

    Touche’ Ivan.

    I’m glad you are who you are.

  4. Margo Ternstrom says:

    Very touching, Ivan. I’m so glad I know you.

  5. SILVIA says:

    Well, what a surprise, but well handled. You are who you are and that is what counts. You wrote this book – Eye of the Moon – and the effort and result is yours and no one else’s.

    Besides, your photo in the back of the cover would clarify any doubt as to who wrote it.

    Your readers have not a conflict, we do acknowledge you as the source of this novel and thank you for writing it.

  6. Nancy says:

    I believe that Mr. Obolensky should feel very proud of his son. His son that carries his same name, the same name he gave him. A father should feel proud of what his son has accomplished, written, respecting always the choices and the paths travelled. Two different beings, yet somehow alike, sharing the same name and genes…
    Mr. Obolensky, with all my respect, your son is an amazing, beautiful, being. He has grown throughout the years, his wings got big and strong and he is flying high. Is that not what we wish for our children? It’s not a matter of a name, it’s all about the being– not what you have done, but who you are. And Ivan Obolensky is a beautiful, aware, talented, good person. May he continue to enrich our lives with his writing and with who he is.

    • My sister-in-heart, thank you so very much. The older we get, the less we may need to be acknowledged, but one can’t help but feel more centered when it happens and was un-looked for. Besos y abrazos.

  7. Cristina Echavarria says:

    Ivan, I felt sad because of this story about your dad’s reaction to your work and identity. I find it difficult to believe this should happen in a family that has had it all materially and, one would expect, has striven for family unity despite differences in opinion or experience. But it is what it is. I believe you have taken the right approach in vindicating your name as yours.

    I am glad you shared this, it makes me value and love you as a human being and as a writer all the more!
    Hey, your next novel sounds interesting, I look forward to it!

    • Thank you, Cristi, for your thoughts. It is/was a strange situation, but as you point out: it is what it is. I have moved on. Family dynamics are a world unto itself which is probably why they factor so heavily in literature and theater. Family is the essence of drama.

  8. Lyn says:

    No, most certainly, we’re not our names, nor are we massive quantities of wealth nor exquisite estates. Buildings crumble, monetary legacies evaporate and long lists of material accomplishments lose their worshipers as future generations find new gods to venerate and other ways to express their egotism.

    I have to say, it’s sad to read about your father’s arrogance. He has really missed the boat this time around despite his apparent success through impressive material accomplishments. If you measure a person’s value (as I do) by his wisdom, compassion and love for his fellow man, your father still has much to learn.

    I’m so glad you found yourself though, Ivan. Nothing can compare with that. It’s the only accomplishment that endures. It’s everlasting. We’re talking about eternity here.

    I really enjoyed reading Eye of the Moon — and not to spoil anything — but your compassion and wisdom shone brightly in the story’s resolution. If a writer can send a message to lift humankind out of the morass in which we find ourselves, even if only an inch or so, he’s moved mountains.

    Looking forward to your next book and thanks for including the quote. Please keep writing!

    • Thank you, Lyn, for your fine comment. I am thrilled you enjoyed the book, and hopefully, many more readers will come away with a similar message. My next book continues and a sequel to Eye of the Moon will happen soon after.

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