When Deceiving is Believing - Brian Morton

in Volume 7 Issue 2 2011
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'Hoax’ is a strange, unEnglish sort of word. Sound and sense put it somewhere between ‘jokes’ and ‘hex’, which is about right. It doesn’t appear much before 1800, when it splits in meaning from ‘hocus’, which continues to mean magic or sleight of hand, a notionally blasphemous derivation from the hoc est corpus of the Mass. Interestingly, one of the first meanings or associations given for ‘hoax’ links it to the university wits, and it has always been understood that hoaxing, as opposed to pranks, japes and practical jokes, has an intellectual and even literary dimension, dog-Latin and invented provenances rather than whoopee cushions. 

Musical hoaxes are relatively rare and hoaxes in the visual arts tend to be called ‘forgeries’. There is a long and semi-honourable tradition of literary hoaxing, but it sits on a greyscale of ethical and aesthetic ambiguity that ranges at one extreme from mild in-joke, addressed to and appreciated by a small coterie (university wits), to malign deception.

There are varieties of hoax. One of the commonest is to pass off a modern document as if it were ancient. Arguably, modern Scottish literature begins with the ‘discovery’ by James MacPherson of an ancient text by the bard Ossian (a new edition of which has recently been published). For a neat exercise in cultural relativism, consider the guilt and obloquy that has been dumped on MacPher-son down the years for his forgery, or on Thomas Chatterton for his bogus ‘Rowley’ poems, with no real attention to how good both of these forgeries really are. And then consider how the French have always cheerfully accepted Les Chansons de Bilitis, allegedly found in a tomb on Cyprus and purporting to be lesbian love songs by one of Sappho’s contemporaries, as significant literature, despite a back-story that involves an imaginary archaeologist called ‘G. Heim’ or ‘S. Ecret’.

A good many hoaxes have an ideological basis. The infamous Donation of Constan-tine, which allegedly described the emperor Constantine ceding authority to Pope Sylvester I, was used for centuries to justify the temporal power of the papacy, despite having been exposed. A whole genre of Red Indian captivity narratives and of miscegenation on Southern plantations, faked ‘memoirs’ of rape or sexual misbehaviour by priests in convents, served racist or anti-clerical ends. Perhaps the most notorious of all, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, was confected as retrospective proof of an international Jewish conspiracy. Where that leaves the ‘Hitler diaries’ isn’t clear, for in this case a straightforward commercial motive (as with the earlier ‘Howard Hughes biography’) also had the unintended potential to give encouragement to the extreme right. Sometimes the borderline between joke and hex isn’t quite clear.

The ‘found text’ is an honourable literary convention. Perhaps a majority of hoaxes involve some kind of obfuscation about authorship, but of markedly different kinds. Was the ‘Anon’ who wrote Primary Colors a hoaxer, or simply a political wonk who couldn’t afford to reveal his real identity? Were the Australian literary journalists who used a dictionary to confect the surreally wordy poems of ‘Ern Malley’ – ‘like bad Mac-Diarmid’, Anthony Burgess once ventured, having been sprung some lines by ‘Malley’ on a TV books quiz – trying to fool the public, or to cock a snook at literary-critical pretensions? This is a favourite kind of hoax, creating texts that puncture the pomposity of a professional class. Alan Sokol’s 1996 Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity was an in-joke that backfired, since the PhD mills and university presses were turning out properly refereed monographs with far more bonkers premises and arguments every single day.

This takes us a little closer to the heart of the problem. Authorship is always, in some sense, a hoax, an adoption of voices and personalities, sometimes indicated by a pseudonym, sometimes not, but always with a little tremor of ambiguity. When Doris Lessing tried to show how difficult it was for an unknown novelist to get published, she submitted two books as ‘Jane Somers’. That they were accepted, though not by her own publisher, may prove something, but it’s not clear what. Should they be considered authentic ‘Lessings’ or something else? They are now republished as by Doris Lessing writing as Jane Somers.

Pseudonyms represent a special case, poised somewhere on that continuum of self-disguise. What they represent, practically or psychologically, is highly variable and unclear. ‘Sebastien Japrisot’ is an anagram of the real author. The literary bag lady ‘Wanda Tinasky’ may or may not (and it seems not) have been a street name for the ‘reclusive’ Thomas Pynchon. Pynchon in turn was once quite widely believed to be a pseudonym for J. D. Salinger. Really! Literary ‘identity’ is a fascinating subject, potentially taking in every approach from transformative hermeneutics to gestalt psychology. Is Hugh MacDiarmid merely a persona of Christopher Grieve, or a politico-cultural disguise, or something else? Is Iain M. Banks more than an M away from plain Iain Banks? Or just a demographic convenience?

Inconsistent buggers, the French. They cheerfully accept that Pierre Louÿs wrote The Songs of Bilitis in the 1890s and for the buoyant lesbian soft-porn market, but worked themselves into a right royal strop when it was revealed that ‘Émile Ajar’, who won the Prix Goncourt in 1975 with a novel called La vie devant soi (The Life Before Us) was actually the novelist and diplomat Romain Gary, who had previously won the world’s most prestigious single-book prize in 1956 with Les racines du ciel (Roots of Heaven), a conspicuously inferior book. Gary’s reputation never recovered. Five years later, following – but apparently not connected to – the suicide of his second wife, actress Jean Seberg, Gary shot himself with a legally owned revolver. His major crime, in the eyes of the Goncourt people, wasn’t so much that he had used a pseudonym but that he had followed through on the misdirection by using an actor to collect the prize. Gary had, after all, also published as ‘Fosco Sinibaldi’ and ‘Shatan Bogat’, but it went further than that.

Most authors invent their characters. Romain Gary invented himself, and continued to do so throughout his life. His enormous and complex body of work is a tissue of reinvention, almost obsessively repetitious and intertextual. His autobiographical writing, like the memoir Promise at Dawn, which is perversely one of the few of his works still widely read, is patently fictional. Often the novels simply life chunks of real experience, or even spookily anticipate what was to happen to Gary in real life.

In Romain Gary: A Tall Story, biographer David Bellos tries to tease out the real facts from the factoids, self-serving myths and profound psychological rationalisations that make such an inextricable knot of Gary’s life-and-work. What can be verified is that he was born Roman Kacew (Kassef) in Vilna (now Vilnius) in the weeks before the outbreak of the First World War. Over the next seven decades, his birthplace was to pass through as many new identities as Gary himself: Lithuanian, Russian, Soviet, Polish, German. His mother took him to Nice, that strange, cosmopolitan, carnival city that feels like the beginning of ‘the East’. He went from there to study at Aix-en-Provence, to England as a pilot in the Free French ‘Lorraine’ bomber squadron, to literary Paris, and, bizarrely, to Los Angeles as consul-general, effectively the French ambassador to Tinseltown. The name came up along the way, evolving through various forms into ‘Romain Gary’ in 1951. Like ‘Émile Ajar’, the multiple potential meanings and non-meanings would occupy a book in themselves.

Bellos, who also bears an anglicized surname, has worked a small biographical miracle in recovering the – or at least a – real man from the multiple identities Gary went under. Not only is it a thoughtful and provocative story, it is also very moving as Gary, handsome, vain, absurdly priapic, mother-fixated and notionally fatherless, obsessively reworks the text of his life and then attempts to act out the fiction.

Whether it, or any aspect of it, properly qualifies as hoax isn’t entirely certain. Hoax characters often acquire a curious life of their own. Not the least example is William Boyd’s short-lived New York School painter Nat Tate, who began as an esprit for Modern Painters magazine and quickly acquired not just a ‘real’ existence, mentioned in despatches alongside real-real American painters, but actual works of art and now in Nat Tate: An American Artist 1928–1960, a catalogue raisonnée.

A good deal of Boyd’s work has a touch of the intertextual about it. Logan Mount-stuart, the autobiographical narrator of Any Human Heart and an associate of Heming-way, the Duke of Windsor and the Rote Armee Fraktion, had first appeared in a story in Boyd’s 1995 collection The Destiny of Nathalie X. Boyd took a Nabokovian relish in tricking out fantasy with the apparatus of researchable reality and it is possible now to speak to people who think that Nat Tate might after all be the name of a real painter, and who vaguely seem to remember seeing one of his abstracts at a show in New York. Boyd had previous in this kind of mild deception, having invented the francophone Laotian writer Nguyen N for a new illustrated abecedary by David Hockney.

The two stories illustrate different but parallel and sometimes converging aspects of the same process. Invention often reveals more of reality than straightforward documentation. Nat Tate is a truer representative of a particular moment in cultural history, because he exists without the messy encumbrances and unrationalisable detritus of a ‘real’ life. He also reveals that any school, movement or moment in history is an arbitrary fiction in itself. Gary’s life is proof that authorship is itself a kind of playful impersonation and that any human life, and the contents of any human heart, are susceptible to eternal revision. We are only drafts of who we wish or choose to be. The half- and three-quarter truths we put out about ourselves are the best countermagic against a surveilled, obsessively documented world where all you are is an official file and a credit rating.


BLIND OSSIAN’S FINGAL
James Macpherson
LUATH, £15.00 192PP 978-1906817558

NAT TATE: AN AMERICAN ARTIST 1928–1960
William Boyd
BLOOMSBURY, £15.00 72PP ISBN 1408814463

ROMAIN GARY: A TALL STORY
David Bellos
HARVILL SECKER, £30.00 528PP ISBN 9781843431701

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