Essay

Being in Fiction: Recognition and the Ownership of Life

by Sylvia Molloy

I find myself here in the rather awkward position of speaking from two different perspectives, one, that of the novelist, the other, that of the critic. For a long time I have argued against this notion of two perspectives, at least in my own work, considering them simply different modulations, or entonaciones, as Borges would call them, of my writing. Yet when approaching the thorny topic of this Colloquy, The Nature of Literary Being, I find myself caught in my own trap. The following remarks, which I will center on different instancesscenes of reading, if you wish, where the fictional appears in a perverse relation to “the real” and where being takes on multiple (and at times contradictory) layers of meaningwill try to make some sense of my quandary.

I begin with the personal because it leads right into the crux of the matter. Some time ago I received a strange request from a critic. She was writing a biography of Alejandra Pizarnik, the Argentine poet turned tragic cult figure whom I had known quite well. My caller had also read my first novel, Certificate of Absence, and declared that she had been struck by the resemblance between my protagonist and the poet she was writing on. She had a hunch, she said, that I had modeled my protagonist on Pizarnik: she could feel Pizarnik “being” in the novel, she claimed, and needed my confirmation. “Isn’t that so?” she asked, and then added, as if parrying any objection on my part, “I don’t believe in coincidences.”

I reacted as if I had been stung. How could this person believe the character was Pizarnik and notin the degree that it “was” anyoneme? My gut reaction was to set the record straight. Full of myself, so to speak, I answered that no, the character was absolutely not Pizarnik, it was … but then what was it? Well aware, critically speaking, of the fictional tricks and stratagems involved in self-writing, accustomed to my usual “more than autobiographical texts there are autobiographical readings,” I could not just go on to say that it was me nor that it was a transposition of “my life.” Nor for that matter could I say it was my autobiography since Certificate of Absence was clearly a novel, written in the third person. Somewhat peeved, I responded in a roundabout way, saying rather lamely that my novel was “based on autobiographical material,” as was most of my fiction, and added, as in a TV or film disclaimer, that any resemblance to Pizarnik was, indeed, a coincidence.

I mention wanting to set the record straight but at the same time I could not bring myself to say “my life” (or for that matter “me”) and opted for the lackluster “autobiographical material.” Trite as it may be, this phrase was not, I believe, fortuitousI myself do not believe too much in coincidence. Later on, though, I was struck by my choice of terms. In my response, “me” and “my life”that is, my beinghad become material, that is, had taken on materiality and become a goods belonging to me and, presumably to me only. In sum, my life was a possession over which I felt I exerted a right, one that was being questioned by an intruder wanting to attribute that life to a new owner, to someone my novel apparently led her to recognize. (I shall return to this recognition later.) This gesture of wanting to keep one’s life for oneself, turning it, as it were, into tangible property, is of course as naïve as it is ineffective. “I don’t want to give you my life,” says a subject, like a child not wishing to share his toy, oblivious of the fact that, by the mere act of setting it down on paper in whatever formas a straightforward autobiography or reconstructed as fictionhe or she has already ceded it to literature. All this I know, that is to say I know it reasonably, but what lies beyond reason refuses to accept it, feels cheated. By ignoring my being-in-the-novel and attributing it to another, my caller had deprived me of my being, however tenuous, and thus successfully “de-realized” me.

Let me add another personal example to complicate things a little further. A call from a colleague at Berkeley, years ago, again filled me with dismay. “You wouldn’t believe how Certificate of Absence is being read by students,” she said. Again the wise one in me, if she exists, should have answered something like “readers are entitled to their reading” and let it go but curiosity got the better of me. “It’s being read autobiographically,” she said. That I had resigned myself to live with; but she added: “Some of them even read it as a sort of case study of you, a lesbian who was molested as a child by her father.” This, of course, sent me through the roof. I was doubly mortified. My first objection was, if you wish, technical: my novel was being read from the wrong perspective, from psychology and not from literature, as a medical document and not an aesthetic artifact. (Again, what could I do about it? But nonetheless I seethed.) But my second objection, which I knew to be both pathetic and mean-spirited even as I voiced it, stemmed from a purely personal sense of outrage: how dare they read incest into an innocent gesture from “a father” who, it’s true, was loosely based on my father but was, ultimately, a fictional character?  I confess both readings, that of the critic and that of the Berkeley student return to haunt me, and there’s nothing I can do about itexcept perhaps talk about them, the way I’m doing now.

*****

Why the discomfort, I still ask myself, thinking not only of my experience but of a well-publicized case in which the appropriation of a literary being, and his translation into an actual person and not merely a series of words, led to legal action and harsh judgment in the court of public opinion. Such is the case of David Leavitt, who took an episode from Stephen Spender’s autobiography, World Within World (1951), as the starting point for a novella he wrote forty-two years later, While England Sleeps (1993). Leavitt’s novel does not have much in common with Spender’s text. While he does keep the basic elements of the episode, he makes a few changes (different names, different outcome) and adds some explicitly homoerotic scenes to a story whose author clearly chose to avoid. Spender threatened legal action and the publisher caved in, withdrawing the book and agreeing, in an out-of-court settlement, to publish a second version cleansed of the offending passages. Before reaching that settlement, however, both writers wrote self-justifying pieces in the New York Times. To clarify his position, Leavitt wrote a piece titled "Did I Plagiarize His Life?"[1] Spender in turn wrote a piece objecting to Leavitt’s defense, “My Life Is Mine: It Is Not David Leavitt’s,” claiming that “[t]he answer to his question is that plagiarism of a life is not at issue. It is plagiarism of the work, since plagiarism is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘the wrongful appropriation or purloining, and publication as one's own, of the ideas, or the expression of the ideas (literary, artistic, musical, mechanical etc.) of another’.”[2] But Spender’s apparently sensible argument distinguishing between real life and written lifeor between being and being in fictiondoes not hold up in his article; indeed, the reasoning is flawed from the title itself. Spender writes “my life is mine,” not my book or my autobiography. Once again property rights are brought to bear on the life of a being that has gained materiality through fiction, and not on the words themselves. 

In addition to plagiarism, Spender’s lawsuit invoked a legal concept to which I wish to call attention, the doctrine of droit moral, namely, the moral right the author has to his work. Formulated at the Berne convention of 1886, the first to set down rules governing international copyright relations, the concept is more frequently invoked in Europe than in the United States where copyright law prevails. Moral right differs from the latter in that it affects the author more than it does the work: “Independently of the author's economic rights, and even after the transfer of the said rights, the author shall have the right to claim authorship of the work and to object to any distortion, mutilation or other modification of, or other derogatory action in relation to, the said work, which would be prejudicial to his honor or reputation.[3]  Moral right is then a right affecting personality, that is, a constructed persona more than a literary product. It reflects, as a scholar pointedly remarks, to a 19th-century conception of authorship valid even today: “the Romantic notion of the creator of the work as the ‘author’ whose personality is exemplified in the work. The work is considered an extension of the author’s being. In some sense the work is the author. The copyright approach, on the other hand, views artistic works as literary and artistic property.”[4]

In other words, in suing Leavitt, Spender is objecting not merely to a text written by Leavitt inspired by a text he himself wrote but to a text in which he, Spender, is in a manner that displeases him. Given the fact that Spender’s original text is an autobiography where, it might be argued, text and personality coincide since autobiography, besides telling a story, is the construction of a personality, the reasoning is particularly complex and not devoid of contradictions. It would go somewhat like this: I wield authority over my life. These are my experiences, my feelings, my existence. I own, so to speak, my being in the text. But is my authority exclusive of the rights of others? Do I and I alone hold the imprimatur to that narrative, to the point that there are some narratives of my life (told by others or even by me) that I authorize because I recognize myself in them (as in the expression authorized biography) and other narratives that I denounce or attempt to suppress because they do not match “my” account of my life, they speak ill of me, they are pure médisance? Is it possible that there be only the life of an individual and not a life, as Borges uses the article in his book Evaristo Carriego, meaning one among many other lives possible? Interestingly, Spender himself rejects the notion of a single autobiographical narrative, accepting in principle the inevitability of a plural story: “An autobiographer is really writing a story of two lives; his life as it appears to himself, from his own position, when he looks out at the world from behind his eye-sockets; and his life as it appears from outside in the minds of others; a view which tends to become in part his own view of himself also, since he is influenced by the opinion of those others.”[5] This is all very well in principle; in reality, however, the views of others only become the autobiographer’s own when they match those he holds of himself. A diverging viewor simply an unexpected one, such as Leavitt’sis vehemently rejected. When all is said and done, “my” story carries the day: the story I know is mine, the story I myself know better than no one how to tell, the story in which I am.

As it delves further into the issue of Leavitt’s illegitimate text, Spender’s piece not only confuses concepts but adds grievances not covered by the lawsuit. Thus the defense of moral right and copyright and the safeguarding of his persona give way to complaints that are less legal than they are aesthetic. Commenting on one episode, he observes witheringly:

He does make some changes; in his version Edward-Jimmy is smuggled onto a ship, where he dies in the manner of the hero’s bathetic death in Frederic William Farrar’s Victorian novel Eric: Or, Little by Little, which in the early part of this century was in all small boys’ libraries.[6]

Here the change is considered aberrant not because it is a change in itself (this would be the argument based on moral right, a subdivision of which is respect for the integrity of the work) but because it is considered aesthetically unsatisfactory. Once again the notion of speaking ill comes up, applied not to the representation of the subject but to rhetoric itself. In Spender’s view, Leavitt takes the mentioned episode from one modeunderstatementto another: melodrama. The replacement of decorum with what he considers bad taste seems to be the problem here. Something similar occurs in Spender’s view with the explicitly homosexual episodes, disclaimed, says he, not because of their inaccuracy but because they are subjected to a “pornographic” treatment that, once again, counters Spender’s aesthetic preferences: “Mr. Leavitt’s fantasy accretions to my autobiography, which I find pornographic, certainly do not correspond to my experience or to my idea of literature” (380). The statement is not without ambiguity: is it “my experience” as a synonym of “my life” or is it “my experience of literature”? This is where the notion of “personality” becomes blurry, moving from a legal conceptan authorial personalityto an aesthetic notion and, above all, to a representational one. Spender is offended by Leavitt’s novel not only because it borrows from his autobiography but because it does violence to his personality, putting forth a version of his being that he deems unfortunate because it has him cut a poor figure, both literarily (the excessive, melodramatic effect he, Spender, would never resort to) and sexually (the detailed, excessive encounters with men). In sum it is a representation in which Spender is not being himself.

But how does the reader know this “being in the text” is indeed Stephen Spender? For better or for worse Leavitt does not name him in the novel’s acknowledgements, claiming later that while it had been his intention to do so, legal counsel at Viking Penguin advised him not to. One can only conjecture as to the sincerity of Leavitt’s tardily revealed intention or the possible legal reasons behind the advice he received. What is important here is that Spender himself (or the friends who alerted him to the resemblance between Leavitt’s character and his own autobiographical figuration) knows; he and his friends recognize an image (“that’s Spender”), one that Spender then takes pains to disavow: “that’s not me”, or perhaps, “that’s someone I don’t want to be.” So that it is Spender himself (and the paradox is only apparent) who, by calling attention to Leavitt’s alleged theft and distortion and making it a matter of public and legal record, confirms the identity of Leavitt’s protagonist. He recognizes and identifies with the character of While England Sleeps with the specific purpose of denying such identification.

The process of identification and disidentification does not stop there. Seeking to benefit from the controversy, St. Martin’s Press decided a few months later to reissue Spender’s World within World, long out of print. Reviews of this publication in Publishers’ Weekly and Library Journal refer specifically to the dispute, the first mentioning the lawsuit for plagiarism, the second considerably more explicit: “The book was also the center of controversy when Spender's homosexual affair was fictionalized in a pornographic novel. Spender sued, and the novel was pulled. This edition contains a new introduction by the author.” [7] In 2001, the Modern Library published World within World in its collection of classics, including Spender’s response to Leavitt in an afterword. This time the book jacket itself called attention to the controversy identifying Leavitt as the author of the problematic novel: “Out of print for several years, this Modern Library edition includes a new Introduction by the critic John Bayley and an Afteword Spender wrote in 1994 describing his reaction to the charges that David Leavitt plagiarized this autobiography into a novel”. From that moment on it is not just Leavitt’s novel that incorporates Spender’s autobiography but the autobiography itself that, in its most recent avatar, acknowledges Leavitt’s novel as its pre-text. Legitimate or not, Leavitt’s novel has become part of Spender’s autobiography, so much so that Spender himself, perhaps not fully aware of the tacit acceptance implied by his words, writes:

I am now 85, old enough to see new controversies surrounding my book, controversies that have involved the issue of plagiarism, the nature of biography and the treatment of homosexuality in literature. I have been forced to consider whether I would have wanted to rewrite portions of my book to take advantage of changed political, social and literary attitudes. However, except for a new introduction, I have decided to keep the text of “World within World” exactly as it was in 1950” ( [8])

To which one can answer that World within World, after Leavitt’s novel, will never again be “exactly as it was in 1950.”

*****

I am aware that in the examples I have given I have used the term “life” and “being” rather loosely. In my own particular case, I resort to the weak-spirited “autobiographical material,” or the “fictional matter,” as the basis of my novel. Spender is more straightforward in calling it “life,” as in “My life is mine not David Leavitt’s.” Is this conferral of being a paranoid reaction when threatened with misappropriationmisappropriation of character not of a textis it an exaggerated way of reclaiming ownership, or is it something more? 

I have been talking about texts and about characters that, in one way or anothera critic’s reading, a writer’s borrowing, a student interpretinggo from written text to existential being or to something recognized as such. I stress the notion of recognition because it appears at every turn. On reading my novel the critic I spoke to “recognized” the real life Pizarnik; at Berkeley, the students assumed without a doubt that this was Molloy-as-case study. Stephen Spender’s friends and then Stephen Spender himself recognized Spender in David Leavitt’s novel. Of course, someone will say, Pizarnik, Molloy and Spender, as historical beings, preexist the writing of these texts, so that recognizing them as real, that is, conferring a reality upon them in the process of reading that goes beyond literary being-ness, might be expected: after all, one of those texts (mine) toys with the autobiographical and the other, Leavitt’s, takes his character from an autobiography. I will argue, for my purpose here, that an autobiography is as much a fictional construct as any other narrative text. Recognition and the conferring of being-ness does not necessarily depend on historical pre-existence but on a willingnesseven more, a desireon the part of the reader (and why not the author) to project being-ness into fictional characters, a desire to recognize and identify or, conversely, to recognize and reject. Not only does the reader inevitably complete the fictional process started by the reader: he or she takes it over, calling the shots. I would even go so far as to argue that without that recognitionwhich goes well beyond the recognition of Barthes’ effet de reelthere is no fiction.

To sum up: A novel, my novel, which I find hard to call autobiographical while at the same time bristling at the thought that it may be taken for someone else’s life so that I will be robbed, in a way, of my (fictitious) being; another novel, Leavitt’s, in which a reader, Spender, insists on recognizing his own being while at the same time declaring it false. An artifact par excellence, an “être factice préféré”[9] as Gide called it, literary being is beyond our control: maybe in this, and only in this, does it coincide with our so-called life.


[1]   David Leavitt, “Did I Plagiarize His Life?” The New York Times Magazine, April 3 1994, pp. 36-37.

[2] . Stephen Spender, “My Life Is Mine: It Is Not David Leavitt’s”, The New York Times, September 4 1994, late edition, p. 43.  

[3] “Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works”, in www.wipo.int/treaties/en/ip/berne/. Italics are mine.

[4]  Sheri Lyn Falco, Esq. “The Moral Rights of Droit Moral: France’s Example of Art as the Physical Manifestation of the Artist”, Archive vol. 2, 206, en www.ibslaw.com/melon/archive/206_moral.

[5] Stephen Spender, “Author’s Introduction,” World within World, New York: Modern Library, 2001, p. xxvi.

[6] Stephen Spender, “My Life Is Mine: It Is Not David Leavitt’s,” The New York Times, September 4 1994, late edition, p. 43.  

[7] Library Journal, Copyright 1995, Reed Business Information, Inc.

[8] Stephen Spender, “My Life Is Mine: It Is Not David Leavitt’s,” The New York Times, September 4 1994, late edition, p. 43.  

[9] André Gide, Journal 1889-1939, Paris: Gallimard, “Bibliothèque de la Pléiade,” 1955: 30

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