Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Not Being There

I came late to "literature". I had always been a keen and constant reader, but -- unlike the typical literary undergraduate -- I did not pick up an acknowledged "classic" until required to do at school for exam purposes, somewhere around age 16.

Even now, I am the unofficial World Champion of David Lodge's game "Humiliation", in which literary types score points for admitting to the texts they have not read. I don't want to boast, but I have never read a single Jane Austen novel and, so far, only one Dickens (Little Dorrit, studied for A level). I could go on, and raise you a 1984 or a To Kill a Mockingbird, but I think you will concede I hold a winning hand at any serious Humiliation table.

What I used to read -- after I had graduated from Biggles, War Picture Library comics, and Gerald Durrell -- was pulp. Lots of pulp. Dennis Wheatley, H.H. Kirst's "Gunner Asch" stories, the stuff that appeared on the paperback shelves of W.H. Smith with lurid covers aimed at the sensibilities of male adolescents. Not that I wasn't choosy -- James Bond, "Pan horror", and science fiction in general, for example, I rejected.

In the main, what I liked were intense, violent, even brutal tales, usually but not necessarily set during war-time, interspersed with gallows humour and sexy interludes. Of course, Joseph Heller's Catch-22 was pulp, in those days. I read my copy so many times the cover (the classic 1960s black and red cover, "Read it ... and you'll never be quite the same again") disintegrated. So were The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, Last Exit to Brooklyn, Slaughterhouse-Five and any number of other titles now enshrined as canonical works of literary fiction.

But among the books I was most loyal to, the ones I read and reread, were those by the authors Jerzy Kosinski and Sven Hassel. If you don't know The Painted Bird or The Legion of the Damned, their appeal is difficult to describe. They depict the brutality of worlds -- Nazi-occupied Poland, the Russian Front -- where all normal rules of human decency have been suspended. It is as if War Picture Library had given over a special issue to William Burroughs.

I suppose they give you the flattering impression of being a cold-eyed, unillusioned observer of human depravity, of seeing the "skull beneath the skin", rather than a bookish 15-year-old. Kosinski's bleakness and cynicism are existential and total, whereas Hassel does at least offer the cold comforts of temporary loyalty to a contingent array of misfits in a German "penal batallion" (oddly like being at an all-boys school).

Both writers had the ring of authenticity, not least because their fictions were presented as semi-autobiographical. Kosinski, a Polish Jew, had apparently himself lived as a feral child, as described in The Painted Bird, abandoned, adrift and predated upon in Nazi-occupied Europe; Hassel, a Dane, had been recruited into a German Panzer regiment. But, it seems, both of these authors have something deeper in common. They are both frauds. The accusation against both is that their fictions are not based on their own life experiences; at least, not as directly as had been claimed.

The Kosinski family actually spent the war being sheltered by the self-same Polish villagers whom he portrayed as sadistic abusers; it turns out they had lived openly, provided with forged papers, even attending church. Young Jerzy became an altar-boy. Further, it is claimed that The Painted Bird was plagiarised by Kosinsky, and "written" in Polish and rendered into English by various other hands after he had defected to the United States from post-War Poland, using a fictional sponsorship and fake documents.

As for Hassel, the Danish writer Erik Haaest claims that he is actually Børge Villy Redsted Pedersen, a Danish Nazi who never served on the Russian front. Pedersen actually spent the majority of WW2 in occupied Denmark as a member of the Hilfspolizei, an auxiliary Danish police force created by the Gestapo, and his knowledge of combat was acquired second-hand from Danish SS veterans. Haaest also alleges that Hassel's first novel was ghost-written and, when it became a success, that his wife wrote the rest of "his" books (an intriguing thought, given their content).

Ah, well. So it goes, in the refrain of Slaughterhouse-Five (and can it be long before someone demonstrates that Kurt Vonnegut was not actually present at the firebombing of Dresden?). Does any of this matter? After all, I have it on good authority that H.G. Wells did not have a time machine, and that Shakespeare had never personally met Julius Caesar. Shakespeare was also undeniably rather prone to "improving" and compositing other men's tales. In that much-stolen line (one that that Will would doubtless have deployed down at the Mermaid Tavern from time to time): "talent borrows, genius steals".

We're back in "authenticity" territory, again. Where does "making it all up" cross over into "fraud"? Is Seasick Steve (whom I like, if only because we share a fashion sense) a better and more authentic songwriter than Tom Waits, because he has actually lived at street-level? Certainly not. Are Sebastian Faulks or Pat Barker freeloading off the novelized real-life experiences of the protagonists of the First World War? You've got to be kidding.

The difficult cases are those where there is a deliberate hoax, or self-serving deception. These are uncovered surprisingly regularly -- especially, it seems, in France -- and there is clearly a peculiar sort of satisfaction to be derived from pulling off a successful literary scam. Probably only a psychologist could explain why this is. Who knows, for example, what personal payoff a male, American postgraduate student in Edinburgh gets from masquerading as a lesbian blogger in Damascus, as was revealed this week?

Sometimes, the obsessive investigative quest for The Truth behind the scam can seem equally -- if not more -- unbalanced, psychologically. A famous recent example has been the book The Long Walk, by Slavomir Rawicz, published in 1956, and made into the film The Way Back by Peter Weir in 2010. BBC Radio 4 made a brilliant documentary about this case, which you can still hear. Several highly-intelligent people, it seems, have invested significant portions of their lives to "unmasking" a deception so transparent it was suspected almost immediately in the 1950s.

It all puts me in mind of that famous anecdote about Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier on the set of Marathon Man. Olivier asked Hoffman why he looked so dreadful. Hoffman replied that his character was required to look as if he had been kept awake for three nights, and so, being a method actor, that's what he had done. Olivier replied, "Why not try acting, dear boy? It's so much easier."

Or did he? Accounts vary. Hoffman himself claims his remark was actually a jeu d'esprit to explain his appearance after spending all night at Club 54; Olivier's response then seems rather stiff and patrician. Wonderfully, the accuracy of a classic statement of the virtues of "artful pretence" versus "authentic pretence" is itself a matter of dispute, even between those who were there. Funny, how life always gets improved in the retelling. But isn't that exactly what stories are for?

[N.B., in case it's not self-evident, the title of this post refers to Kosinski's most famous book, Being There, in which a simpleton of mysterious origin is mistaken for a sage, by virtue of the self-projections of others. Kosinski committed suicide in 1991.]


Dave Leeke said...

Hmm. . . well, certainly no Austen and only three Dickens in my life time. However, growing up a year or three behind you in the same town I certainly enjoyed all the Fleming Bonds, Pan Horrors, for sure, and absolutely tons of sci fi (I Click As-I-Move's Foundation trilogy was great at the time)from those self-same shelves at Smiths (or SPCK!). All the Wheatley Satanist stuff was there on my teenage bookshelves.

Doug Ross - attempting to teach me both Geography and Maths - realised that even at 14 I was a lost cause, lent me the "Gormenghast" trilogy and my fate was sealed.

Seasick Steve is, I'm afraid, a fake. It's okay we don't have to revere authenticity. But why does everything he does have to sound like "Spirit in the Sky"?

Anyway, I've certainly got better as I've got older at improving the stories I tell about my past. And why not? There's nothing like a good story. And maybe some of our past idiocies can be explained through a bit of self-revisionist history.

Mike C. said...


You mean Seasick Steve is actually a trustafarian from the Hamptons, who studied composition under Pierre Boulez? Ah, well, it only goes to make my point.


Tony_C said...

Although I saw the film Being There when it came out, it was only a couple of years later that Martin Jackson turned me on to JK's writing with one supposedly based on his own escape and defection from behind the Iron Curtain (set though in the USSR and USA). Do you doubt that this tale is true too?

The darkest one of the four or five I've read was Cockpit, if my memory serves me well.

If you want to get back in touch with your inner horror-fan, or if anyone has had their curiosity about Stevenage aroused by the odd passing comment thereupon, why not check out this blog, posted from Brent Court high-rise, which is 17 days old and is getting 1000's of hits every day now?

P.S. Here's a coincidence: Seb Faulks' Birdsong is the key to this weekend's Guardian Prize Crossword! How do you do that, Mike?

Mike C. said...

Ha, my Nan used to live in Brent Court. Not ideal living spaces for the elderly, those tower blocks, much more suited to zombies. I was never quite sure why the architects thought we needed high-rises, given there was no real pressure on space. Probably thought we deserved them.

Don't know about the later Kosinski books -- I haven't read them. I think the general opinion is that he was a fantasist. Not necessarily a bad thing in a writer, I suppose.


Tony_C said...


Simples. You're a bot, right?

Mike C. said...


You're right, but I thought (unlike all the many others that I delete on sight) this one was amusing.

Though I should probably let "sam" speak for him/it/herself. Anybody there?