Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Plagiarism, Hemingway and Artistic Inspiration: Reflections on Trying to Write True

It's hard to believe that Ernest Hemingway has been dead--by his own hand--for nearly 50 years, but before July 2, 2011 (the anniversary of the day he shot himself) I'm sure that we will have heard a lot about that enigmatic literary cult figure.

One of the people who decided to enter the commemorative whirl is French journalist Patrick Poivre d'Arvor whose biography of Hemingway is due to be published later this month. Only it turns out that it really isn't his biography but one in which whole chunks have been copied from a French translation of an earlier biography by Peter Griffin, Along with Youth, Hemingway's Early Years. Agence France Presse this morning reports that Poivre d'Arvor when faced with the accusation said he had consulted Griffin's book, but protested the plagiarism charge. After that, AGF reports, neither he nor his publisher (which has 20,000 copies ready for distribution) would comment.

As it happens, the night before last I finished reading "Delicate Edible Birds" by Lauren Groff, included in The Best American Short Stories 2010. The story centers on a young woman journalist during the evacuation of Paris, inspired by Martha Gellhorn, Hemingway's third wife. The character is called Bernice Orson, but her attitude to sex is exactly that of Gellhorn. Here's Gellhorn reminiscing: "If I practised sex, out of moral conviction, that was one thing; but to enjoy it ... seemed a defeat. I accompanied men and was accompanied in action, in the extrovert part of life; I plunged into that ... but not sex; that seemed to be their delight and all I got was a pleasure of being wanted, I suppose, and the tenderness (not nearly enough) that a man gives when he is satisfied. I daresay I was the worst bed partner in five continents"

And here's Bern thinking, as invented by Groff: "She loved this and not because she ever had much pleasure from it; it was a gift, the men wanted it and it was their gratitude that made it good; the way that Bern was the white-hot center of another person's world for those minutes or hours..."

It's not plagiarism any more than is the situation which Groff says openly she borrowed from Guy de Maupassant's short story "Boule de Suif." There are only so many plots--32 by one count--and giving a fictional character the attributes of a real person isn't any crime.

But I wonder as I go back to writing fiction: where does inspiration stop and real invention begin? What new thing can a writer bring to the world? Hemingway, whose style is much parodied, was that rare thing, a writer who--at least early in his career--brought a fresh vision as well as a fresh way of expressing it. As he wrote in The Moveable Feast: ""All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know."

No comments: