Booker prize-winner accused of 'direct imitation'

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Graham Swift's 1996 Booker Prize-winning novel Last Orders bears close structural similarities to an earlier work by the late William Faulkner, US winner of the Nobel Prize for literature.

When Mr Swift's book won the Booker it was praised for its originality and stylistic brilliance. Recently issued in paperback and being heavily promoted by its publisher, Picador, it is an account of the carrying of the ashes of a dead man by his friends from London to the seaside in Kent.

Mr Faulkner's novel, As I Lay Dying, also deals with the transporting of a dead person's remains, in that case those of a woman by her family and friends in Mississippi.

While the subject matters are similar, it is the structural closeness of the two works that has led to an accusation of "direct and unacknowledged imitation".

In a letter to The Australian's Review of Books, John Frow, Professor of English at the University of Queensland, says Mr Swift fails to acknowledge "substantial borrowing" from Faulkner. This borrowing includes: the device of having alternating chapters for each person in the party carrying the ashes, in Swift's case, or the body, in Faulkner's; a chapter comprising a single sentence; and a chapter consisting of numbered points.

According to Professor Frow, the structure of the two books is "precisely the same". The professor writes that "plagiarism would be the wrong word for this, but it's something stronger than unoriginality: 'direct and unacknowledged imitation' conveys a sense of the relationship between the two novels."

This comparison, maintains Professor Frow, "raises a number of literary and ethical issues".

Mr Swift said his book was an "echo" of Faulkner's. The US author, said Mr Swift, was "a ghostly presence - as were other writers". In Faulkner's case, said Mr Swift, "there was a rotting corpse and in mine, ashes".