Thursday, August 26, 2010

More on authors and their protagonists

This post follows on questions raised in my writers' group that I blogged about on August 19th.

There are countless examples of books and stories and plays that explore and/or exploit a relationship between author and protagonist. Here are a few to think about:

In my post Am I my fiction's protagonist?, I already gave a nod to Shakespeare's The Tempest; here I'll call out Act V, in which the bard, in the guise of his spirit-summoning character Prospero, bids farewell to the theatre:

[...] I have bedimm'd
The noontide sun, call'd forth the mutinous winds,
And 'twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring war: to the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire and rifted Jove's stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake and by the spurs pluck'd up
The pine and cedar: graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let 'em forth
By my so potent art. But this rough magic
I here abjure, and, when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I'll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I'll drown my book

The role of Shakespeare's life in Shakespeare's work has fueled entire academic careers. Many, for example, have explored the romantic feelings Shakespeare himself had for the "Fair Youth" and the "Dark Lady" addressed in his sonnets. For example, courtesy of Project Gutenberg, the last lines of one of my favorites, Sonnet 60:

And Time that gave doth now his gift confound.
Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth
And delves the parallels in beauty's brow,
Feeds on the rarities of nature's truth,
And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow:
And yet to times in hope, my verse shall stand.
Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand.

Perhaps as many academic careers, certainly in the latter half of the 20th century, were built on the work of James Joyce, who famously remarked about his work:
I've put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that's the only way of insuring one's immortality.

Stephen Hero was the title of an early draft of Joyce 's novel that gained a place in the literary canon as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. About this draft, we learn from the catalog of Sylvia Beach, the first publisher of Ulysses:
When the manuscript came back to its author, after the twentieth publisher had rejected it, he threw it in the fire, from which Mrs. Joyce, at the risk of burning her hands, rescued these pages.

As the final title of A Portrait of the Artist... suggests, it is a rendering -- with room reserved for artistic license -- of its author, whose biography follows the contours of his protagonist in key aspects. As Harry Levin put it in an essay included in Joyce's Portrait: Criticisms and Critiques
Except for the thin incognito of its characters the Portrait of the Artist is based on a literal transcript of the first twenty years of Joyce's life. If anything, it is more candid than other autobiographies.

Joyce became more reticent as this work evolved -- from assertion of the epic proportions of his own life in its early title, he moves toward something more oblique. And in Ulysses, Joyce takes a further step into the wings of his own narrative by conferring heroic status not on his ethereal literary doppelganger, Stephen Dedalus; but on the earthier Leopold Bloom.

From the sublime to the ridiculous, then: book hoaxes.

Abe Books -- a "stand-alone" subsidiary of -- has compiled a long list of book hoaxes, in which the author passes off a memoir as authentic experience when it's not, or fiction as a dramatized life story when it's ... fiction. Here the game is reversed from the Shakespeare and Joyce examples just given. For whatever reason, often that an author thinks s/he can gain wider readership by masquerading as someone else, s/he constructs a fiction and passes it off as autobiography. If the constructed autobiography is the story that s/he wants to sell, memoir is the ticket. Alternately, the constructed autobiography can be applied as spice to further a fictional work, as authority to imagine fully. The U.K.'s Guardian published its list of the Top 10 literary hoaxes in November 2001.

The book hoax I most readily recall unfolding in the newspapers involved JT LeRoy (pen name of Laura Albert), when LeRoy was unmasked as a made-up identity. A BBC article of 8 Feb 2006, Cult author's 'identity revealed' leads with this piquant summation:
The US author of hit books based on the writer's life as a male prostitute and drug addict is actually a 40-year-old woman, her ex-partner has said.

The melodrama is amusing, in a sad sort of way: a relationship broken by the strain of maintaining Albert's fictional identity, an embarrassed "celebrity fanbase," a respected director fascinated by young male prostitutes and drug addicts, Gus Van Sant, who "developed a close working relationship with Mr LeRoy, who worked on the script for the director's award-winning film Elephant."

Wikipedia nicely summarizes the case of wished-he-was-a-badder-boy James Frey, another recent case of an author who made up a spicier past than he actually lived. Referring to a post on The Smoking Gun about the lies behind Frey's A Million Little Pieces, the article summarizes:
The website alleged that Frey had never been incarcerated and that he greatly exaggerated the circumstances of a key arrest detailed in the memoir: hitting a police officer with his car, while high on crack, which led to a violent melee with multiple officers and an 87-day jail sentence. In the police report that TSG uncovered, Frey was held at a police station for no more than five hours before posting a bond of a few hundred dollars for some minor offenses. The arresting officer, according to TSG, recalled Frey as having been polite and cooperative.

Even Oprah was hoodwinked. Frey is still publishing.

One more thing ... a meta thing, I suppose. There are -- in life, drama, and fiction -- circumstances in which a person or character projects the existence of another being out of his or her own imagination, believing and acting as if the imaginary being were real.

In Haruki Murakami's novel, Kafka on the Shore, it's often not clear who or what is dream and who or what is real ... which characters are figments of a character's imagination and which 'merely' the figments of the author's? Is "Johnnie Walker" the father of protagonist Kafka Tamura? A real cat killer? An invention of Nakata's strange imagination? And what about Colonel Sanders?

Then there's Mary Chase's Harvey, a play premiered in 1944 for which the author won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The play was adapted for a 1950 film, in which Jimmy Stewart starred and was nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe (he didn't get either, but Josephine Hull won both for Best Supporting Actress). In Chase's play, Elwood P. Dowd has -- or imagines -- a friend named Harvey, a pooka (a Celtic shape-shifting ghost, sort of) who takes the form of a 6'3" rabbit. Elwood and Harvey have a grand old time together, but no one else can see Harvey, so his existence is ... well, people wonder. Elwood's sister tries to have him committed to a sanitarium, but a comedy of errors ensues (the sister is committed in his stead) and in the end Elwood and Harvey have a salubrious influence on all and sundry, including Dr. Sanderson, pictured here as played by this blog's author in a high school production.

Thanks to nikkorsnapper for the photo of Joyce's Ulysses in its natural environment. Thanks to Mr. Penley for the yearbook photo, circa 1976; and to Matthew for improving the lousy quality of my digital snapshot.

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