04 April 2006

Friction Over Fiction

When I posted a couple of weeks back about the DaVinci Code litigation, I noted that the plaintiffs' case was weak in part because it flew in the face of the longstanding legal principle that one cannot plagiarize purported facts. In an entertaining op-ed piece in today's New York Times, author Joseph Finder approaches the issue from another angle, pointing out that The DaVinci Code is merely the latest noteworthy novel to "plagiarize" a factual account:
"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.



Anonymous said...

unlikely to unlikely?

Looking at the info on Pierre Plantard, I am reminded of the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion". Anti-Semitic hoaxes spread via planted documents.

-charles ross, ohio, usa

Colin Samuels said...

Thanks for the typo correction ("unlikely to unlikely"), which has been made in the post. The "Protocols of Zion" analogy is a good one, although my impression of the French documents is that these were produced with a somewhat more benign underlying agenda than were the "Protocols".

A Spykerman said...

In a case like this, the verdict seems like a 'everybody (including RANDOM and SONY) win situation'. In a LA Times report (http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-davinci8apr08,1,7960075.story?coll=la-headlines-world), Richard Leigh is quoted as "We lost on the letter of the law, I think we won on the spirit of the law, and to that extent we feel vindicated." It was reported that sales of both the books have increased and SONY is happy as their movie will be released soon. Effective marketting!