Boyd Tonkin: Travesties and titillations
The week in books
Friday 17 June 2011
Literary transvestites come in various shapes and sizes. They predate by centuries Tom MacMaster's long-haul stunt as the internet "Gay Girl in Damascus". Many have been blameless fantasists seeking to compensate via a gender-switched disguise for the repressions of their everyday existence. In the 1940s, the student Philip Larkin penned for his own pleasure two erotically charged schoolgirl stories, Trouble at Willow Gables and Michaelmas Term at St Brides. The jazz buff chose, as his nom de plume, "Brunette Coleman". One detects, in these gymslip escapades, an early solution to the problem later countered more consistently by New Orleans jazz itself: how to escape from the awful burden of being Philip Larkin?
Like most such excursions, the "Brunette Coleman" yarns went unpublished in the poet's lifetime. When such travesty works enter the public realm, questions of intention and deception may arise – although a fair proportion of literature has always been and still is circulated anonymously or pseudonymously. Even in cases without any hint of subterfuge, readers grasp that writers' separate hats may call for separate names. I'm much looking forward to the new psychological thriller by Nicci French, but will expect something rather different from a book signed by either Nicci Gerrard or Sean French.
More disputable are those cases where the author shelters under a pseudonym in order to dodge a real or imagined prohibition on what they wish to say, because of who they are. A classic example came in the mid-1980s when the Anglican parish priest and children's author Toby Forward created "Rahila Khan". "She" wrote well-received broadcast stories about inner-city Asian teenagers. One "exquisitely written" tale, according to the Times Educational Supplement's critic, "almost persuaded me that literature still has some relevance to life. I would like it to be used in all initial-training courses." Impressed, and presumably in no doubt about the truthfulness of voice and vision, Virago chose in 1987 to publish a collection of "Rahila Khan" stories: Down the Road, Worlds Away.
And then unpublished it, when the Rev Forward found himself outed and the book was withdrawn. The whole entertaining saga has (I would hope) the flavour of a period piece, dating as it does from the era when a peculiarly restrictive form of identity politics flourished in British cultural life. These days, it would be pleasant to believe, Forward could on occasions wear Rahila's shalwar kameez while not denying the dog collar. Yet I suspect that – especially in the world of education – the demand that literature should embody some kind of autobiographical veracity would still see the vicar denounced as an impersonating fraud.
So Tom MacMaster's online drag act has a deep hinterland. And the bearded postgrad's invention, or fabrication, of the now-defunct "Amina Abdallah Araf al Omari" and her battles with Syrian homophobia clearly answered a personal need probably stronger than any concern for human rights under dictatorship. Yet MacMaster's folly coincided with a bloody stand-off between despots and democrats in Syria. That deadly serious collision has led to hundreds of actual, not virtual, deaths.
However messy, the MacMaster débâcle does serve a purpose. It underlines in lurid strokes the perils of internet culture. Why are online readers so hopelessly naïve? What happens to our critical faculties on screen? The long and sometimes glorious history of the literary hoax shows that traditional print publication pretty often failed to offer a stamp of authenticity and credibility. Yet, however veiled the author, the work could speak for itself. And later proof of the gap between the personality of the writer and the persona on the page usefully reminded wised-up readers of the way that imagination works. James Macpherson's "Ossian" poems, published 250 years ago, may not have been "translations" of an ancient Celtic bard, as he claimed – but should they rank as great and enduring poetry all the same?
Now, driven by a spurious faith in confession and revelation, texts on the net seem to secure the most primitive and gormless kind of trust. So: bring on the online pranksters. Let's have many more of them, if they can help to teach the habits of sceptical reading to the gullible denizens of cyberspace. But salutary hoaxers should still keep clear of war zones and struggles for liberty. Sometimes, only the truth can set you free.
New masters of the art of truth
As a major honour for non-fiction, the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize has a reputation to maintain. But on a couple of recent occasions, the judges have proved over-fond of topical reportage. Books of glued-together articles have made underwhelming winners. No such danger this time. A gold-plated shortlist selects highlights of history, biography, art, science, literature: Frank Dikötter's Mao's Great Famine, Andrew Graham Dixon's Caravaggio ("The Calling of Saints Peter and Andrew", right), Maya Jasanoff's Liberty's Exiles, Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist, Jonathan Steinberg's Bismarck and John Stubbs's Reprobates. Read the lot, if you can. The result will arrive on 6 July.
Salute the unlikely comrades
I don't suppose that Patrick Leigh Fermor and Jorge Semprú* would have found much to say to each other. Politically, they stood poles apart: the debonair English travel writer and intimate of aristocracy, and the Spanish novelist-screenwriter (of Costa-Gavras's Z, among others) who in Madrid organised the banned Communist Party. Perhaps only a certain, almost pre-war, sense of gentlemanly dash and daring united them. Both died within the past week: Leigh Fermor at 96; Semprún at 87. Yet in death I want to join them: risk-scorning doers and movers who became eloquent witnesses to rich lives, and to the Second World War. Semprú* survived Buchenwald and made of that ordeal a literary masterpiece, The Cattle Track; Leigh Fermor's adventures with the Cretan underground included the kidnapping of the occupied island's commander (and Dirk Bogarde played him in Ill Met By Moonlight). Each, in his own supremely cool way, was a hero of resistance to Nazism. Each year now spares us fewer of those.
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