Yesterday I read a “blog” on the British Telegraph website about a human named Lehrer, who is not the satirical songwriter/singer/pianist Tom Lehrer but another one, Jonah, aged 31. It seems this fellow, who was working for the once-revered New Yorker weekly magazine, had resigned after digging himself a hole the size of the Grand Canyon, just before leaping in.His spadework related to having made claims about quotations from Bob Dylan in a book calledImagine. Lehrer is apparently one of these instant science gurus who tells us astonishing things about the world by linking apparently unrelated “facts”.In this case Lehrer made up the facts about Dylan. The quotes he quotes were made up, and when he was quizzed about them, he lied. Pressed, he lied some more. Eventually he had to admit he lied. His career prospects, which must have seemed quite remarkable up to that moment, now look dim. If you, dear reader, happen to encounter him mopping the floor somewhere later in life, flip him a tip in recognition of the effort he must have spent climbing out of that hole.In recent times – the past twenty years or so – manufactured stuff has appeared in newspapers and magazines with big type over it, only to trash the reputations of the people who created it. There was a case in the Washington Post, another in the New York Times, and finally in the Guardian in Britain. These are all well-known and at least at one time highly-regarded titles, of a liberal bent. It makes one wonder – well, it makes me wonder – what it is in the cultures of these institutions that let these mountebanks in, and once in, to blaze, if briefly, in the firmament.
This is not plagiarism; the writers in all these cases did not copy others’ work – as I have done in the heading of this post, which is a steal from the Monty Python television series so famous no one would ever think I was claiming it as my own. No, they made things up. In Lehrer’s case, he made things up to support a case he could not otherwise have made – “facts” that did not exist to support “facts” that may or may not be true.
We don’t like this. Well, I don’t like it. Yet there is another way of making things up that I do like, that has fascinated me for the whole of my adult life, and that I have even done a little bit myself.
Two of the writers I’ve written about in this blog as influencing my work (and me) are Celine, and B Traven. These very different people lived their literary lives behind a mask, or masks. Traven manufactured a series of them and even now, a lifetime after his death, there are different accounts of who he really was. The obsessive secrecy may originally have had a political motive, but later on…so his “nom de plume”, something many writers adopt, went much further. I admire the man for it.
Celine was more elaborate, and in a way more interesting. He was a doctor, and his real name was Louis-Ferdinand Destouches, Celine being his mother’s first name. The one word was his original nom-de-plume. When he was outed, shortly after the publication of his first book, he dropped the pretense, and many of his later works were published as by “Louis-Ferdinand Celine”. “His” character in his books, which are a bizarre kind of fictionalised autobiography, is usually called Ferdinand.
Celine manufactured a whole lot of stuff about himself that Traven never needed to do. He made up facts about his life, made up opinions he held even, to keep the public at bay. When he discussed writing, he held forth with ideas he almost certainly never took seriously. And when the guard dropped, and a peek at the “real” writer and thinker was somehow revealed, it was unclear whether it was, in truth, the dinkum oil*, or another pose.
Celine’s attitude in this was that the work is what matters, and the public’s craving for insights into the personality of the creator should not be satisfied. It should not matter if he was handsome, tall, short, ugly, if he believed in witchcraft, or whatever. Each work should stand on its own.
There is of course something in this that is true, but Celine so mixed up his own life and opinions with his work, that it often seems like special pleading. The anti-Semitic ravings of his pamphlets are known, from other sources, to reflect his real views, and his mockery of them within his works becomes a kind of defence against the attacks he must have known were bound to come, a peculiar false modesty: “Don’t pay any attention! Only, do…”
Well, as I said earlier, there is something romantic, something attractive to me about these secretive personalities, and I’ve had a slash at this on my own. In 1984, I wrote a non-fiction pamphlet and self-published it in the country where I live, New Zealand. New Zealand law requires three copies of everything published to be sent to a central clearing house as part of building a national “collection”, complete with “bibliographical details” about the author.
As it happened, I did not want too many people to know who wrote this pamphlet. Armed with Traven’s example, I made up a character, gave him another birthdate, and sent the required three copies up to the National Library. They swallowed it, and the book was duly listed under the nom-de-plume.
Imagine my surprise when, several years later, I picked up a book on the same topic in a bookshop and, flicking through it, suddenly hit on the nom-de-plume. There was an index and my goodness, this fellow I had created had morphed into a great number of entries, a sort of weird guru whose knowledge was used as a stick to beat the targets of this new author.
Later on I used the name to keep up the reputation of my creation in shorter pieces for various radical publications, but in 1992, I put him to bed finally and forever (well, I think so anyway). He had an interesting life, and in future may become a tiny footnote in a tiny corner of the intellectual history of my adopted country.
How far does my wee creation, or B Traven’s various disguises, differ from this Lehrer fellow’s? They are not in the same league, I reckon. The ideas I put forward were real ideas; they didn’t rely on the identity of a made-up author to be true or not: they stood or fell on their own. Traven’s books are good novels, or not, whatever his real name and whoever he really was. Lehrer’s “facts” are not facts, just as his “quotes” are not quotes.
Celine’s case is a bit different. He made up a “real” persona no one was meant to take seriously – or that’s how I see it – at the same time he made up a fictional one “not meant to be taken seriously” but actually at least partly meant to be taken seriously.
But he was, after all, writing fiction. We may know that his characters, his “Ferdinand” and others, espouse his views, whatever gloss he puts on them, but we also know that his books are fiction – novels. I think Celine felt that the harassment he got because of the anti-Semitic views he expressed in his novels was unfair precisely because they were novels and hence “not true”, a view as naive as his beliefs about Jews.
For Lehrer, then – no comfort. He too is “completely different”. Nice mop technique, Jonah.
Make as many stars as you like out of moonbeams, and stick them in your imagination. Dear reader, you are fabulous!
*dinkum oil – the real thing. Traditional Australian slang sometimes heard in NZ.
Steve Evans has been a gold prospector, a bartender, mushroom farmer, gardener, labourer, social worker, librarian and journalist. He has written eight novels for Smashwords and other ebook retailers: Attila's Angels, Kaos, Tobi's Game, The Russian Idea, Demented, Evilheart, The Kleiber Monster, and Savonarola's Bones.