Imagine that Bernie Madoff had fleeced a famous writer and that this writer decided to give ink to the crime in a few short chapters not for revenge but rather to explain how he had been deceived and deprived of his money; and in revealing the con through delicious prose the writer unmasks the criminal and himself as con artists.
Imagine that instead of suspicious rates of return on investment, someone promised investors untold profits from turning coal into diamonds and that he would be willing to demonstrate it in the nude. Such a con existed at the turn of the twentieth century. The con man was Henri Lemoine and he conducted his experiment of turning coal into diamonds, using gems that he had purchased from De Beers. Lemoine had managed to dupe the French public; among them were executives from the DeBeers Diamond Mine Company and one eccentric asthmatic and future literary rock star, Marcel Proust.
The real Lemoine Affair happened in 1905 before Proust became the literary giant known around the world today. Proust started the work that would become his name, in 1909. Proust was famous for sleeping all day in his cork-lined room and for writing all night. The Lemoine Affair, translated for the first time from French into English by Charlotte Mandell for Melville Press in 2008, is Proust perpetuating his own literary con. The brief piece – neither a short story nor a novella – had appeared in Le Figaro in 1908 before it was revised and reissued by Gallimard as Pastiches et mélanges in 1918.
Humor and brevity are not words one associates with Marcel Proust. He is remembered for his long philosophical and poetic sentences in his seven-volume novel, À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), or if you prefer the quote from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30, Remembrance of Things Past. In his novel, Proust devoted the first thirty pages to a man turning in bed, trying to fall asleep, and ends it making a pastry equal to the Citizen Kane’s Rosebud.
In less than a hundred pages here Proust imitates, exaggerates and presents a patchwork parade of parodies. He gives us a tour de force of pastiches that teeter between outright mimicry and homage. We start with the realist style of Balzac. The reader is implicated for knowing Balzac’s style, characters, and social milieu that only Balzac could create and did create in his Human Comedy. The con is that we know it is Proust impersonating Balzac. Next up is the courtroom in all its Flaubertian naturalism, with a wink when we read about a woman with a stuffed parrot on her head. As the trial description progresses the reader journeys through the minds of numerous people in the courtroom, enjoying sensual pleasures and polar bears. Yes, polar bears.
Proust’s pastiche will go on and imitate the supercilious criticism of Sainte-Beuve; it will, through a parody of Symbolist poet Henri de Régnier, turn snot into a diamond; and the Goncourt Brothers will gossip that Proust had committed suicide, only to find out to their chagrin that he is alive. Before the reader closes the book, Proust provides pages from historian Jules Michelet, theatre critic Emile Faguet, philosopher Ernest Renan, and social gossip, Saint-Simon. Every chapter is a fake diamond from a literary master. Proust laughs at himself as he demonstrates his own mastery of numerous styles and genres.
But what is the point? Pastiche is imitation. Though he lampoons another writer’s style, Proust is never vicious. It is not satire with a social prescription. The con is that the reader is in on joke from the start, provided that the reader is conversant with the vocabulary and characters of the literary canon. A French reader would recognize Balzac’s use of exclamation points, the descriptive social setting, or know Flaubert’s free indirect discourse. For us, it would be like reading Henry James, Truman Capote, Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, William Faulkner, and suddenly experiencing William Gibson and Tom Wolfe.
Is pastiche caricature or a form of plagiarism? Caricature implies reduction, a simplification, while plagiarism suggests theft. Pastiche is nuanced and an acknowledgement, a tip of the hat and a wink.
Plagiarism, however, is sometimes difficult to discern. Two notorious examples come to mind: Yann Martel’s Man Booker Prize winning novel Life of Pi was taken to task for having too many similarities to Moacyr Scliar’s The Centaur in the Garden; and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, a National Book Award winner in 1938, was said to have been lifted from Brazilian writer Carolina Nabuco’s A Sucessora (The Successor). There is inconclusive evidence that du Maurier had read drafts of The Successor submitted to her publisher. The Brazilian author refused to sign a United Artists hush-hush contract that dismissed the similarities between the novels as coincidental. Another writer, Edwina MacDonald, sued (unsuccessfully) Du Maurier for allegedly having stolen her novel, Blind Windows. The saddest example of outright theft was what happened to David Goodis, who would die before he was vindicated. His estate would be paid a nominal sum to settle the matter. Goodis’s novel Dark Passage was the basis for the television series and movie The Fugitive. The studio laughed at Goodis and fought him with their lawyers and money because when the novel had been serialized in The Saturday Evening Post, the periodical had not copyrighted his work.
Is this all a far cry from the imitation that is pastiche?
In an environment where books become movies and books become tie-ins to movies, the imitation as con as crime still raises legitimate questions. Crime is about motivation. Proust wrote to goad, and provoke, but without malice. I doubt that he had profited from it; if he had, I’m sure that Proust would have issued a disclaimer. See his Introduction to the Affair. These days, movies are constantly remade and recycled; and the modern audience might not know that there was an original. An Affair to Remember, for example, was remade more than once, with different titles.
I won’t even address the egregious trend of providing endings that the author had never intended or written. Imagine if Anna Karenina or Les Misérables – soon in theatres again – had different endings. Film adaptations of Pinocchio and The Hunchback of Notre Dame are unrecognizable from the literary texts. Many works are now in public domain, the irony of which is that ‘public domain’ covers all the works up to around the year Proust died, 1922. Think about that when you watch films that, I hope, you know are retellings of Shakespeare or Jane Austen because, unless the author and his or her estate have asserted rights, somebody is getting ripped off.
So one can say that the movies are remade and redone, but can we say that books are constantly rewritten? Has every story been told, every plot devised and twisted? If they have been, then literature is the greatest con of all. The question begs for sensitivity. Reading is a form of recognition; it requires education and discernment. Sensitivity is the operative word. James Joyce once shared a cab ride with Proust. He opened the window and proceeded to smoke a cigar. Did Joyce known that Marcel was a life-long asthmatic? Proust might look at this nuanced affair of pastiche and crime and…laugh. Or cough.