"Writers have to avoid taking material from other writers," one of the plaintiffs, Michael Baigent, has declared, unappeased by the fact that Mr. Brown's book makes explicit reference to his. "It's part of the deal, really."
Tell that to the author of "A Tale of Two Cities," who not only boasted of having read Thomas Carlyle's history of the French Revolution hundreds of times but also credited it with having "inspired me with the general fancy of that story."
. . . .
So what's to be learned from a modern novelist whose plot involves conspiracies at the heart of the Roman Catholic church, and who finds himself accused of taking central plot elements from a previous work of nonfiction? I'm thinking, of course, of the French Nobel laureate André Gide and his brilliant 1914 novel, "The Vatican Cellars," first published in English under the title "The Vatican Swindle."
The novel revolved around a historical episode detailed in "The False Pope," by the distinguished Hebraist Jean de Pauly. In the early 1880's, Pauly wrote, a ring of con artists persuaded gullible Catholic traditionalists that Pope Leo VIII was being held captive in the Vatican cellars, while Masonic conspirators (possibly with Jesuit assistance) had replaced him with an impostor. The victims forked over hundreds of thousands of francs that were supposedly needed for a secret crusade to rescue God's vicar on earth.
Gide's detractors found their ammunition. In a nimbly insinuating article, the literary journalist Frédéric Lefèvre framed the matter this way: "When André Gide wrote 'The Vatican Cellars,' did he or did he not know 'The False Pope,' published 20 years before? Mr. Gide has enough talent that he does not need to plagiarize anybody, but there are coincidences, surprising points of convergence." So he felt obliged to address an issue of "capital importance," namely, "a writer's rights and duties in using, organizing, and transposing reality."
Turning the case of the false pope into the case of the false author, these critics were too literal-minded to see that the "reality" in question concerned a fabulation — that what drew Gide to the true story was that it was a lie. Gide wasn't writing a historical novel about a hoax. He thought the novel was a hoax. "Fiction there is — and history," Gide wrote in "The Vatican Swindle": "We are indeed, forced to acknowledge that the novelist's art often compels belief, just as reality sometimes defies it."
Either way you slice it, it seems unlikely that the DaVinci plaintiffs will get their payday in court.