Monday, March 03, 2008

Lying with Wolves

Here's news of yet another bogus memoir, this one entirely made up as Rachel Field discovers in the Independent.

Belgian author Misha Defonseca's 1997 Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years describes how the author (pictured left) at six years old :
... trudged across three countries to try to find her Jewish parents who had been carted off to Auschwitz by the Nazis. She collapsed in a forest but was rescued by pack of wolves who adopted her as their cub.
Now that does seem to me to be rather a large stretch of the imagination (whether you factor in the wolves or not) and I'm surprised at the surprise that has met the announcement just a few weeks after the premier of the film version that Defonseca invented the story!

The Belgian newspaper Le Soir blew the whistle and discovered along the way that Defonseca is not Jewish but Roman-Catholic and (get this!) has a parent who was probably a Nazi collaborator.

The 71 year old author has issued an apology:
This story is mine. It is not actually reality, but my reality, my way of surviving. ... I ask forgiveness to all who felt betrayed.
She said that the story was her way of coping with a deeply unhappy childhood with an adoptive family who called her the daughter of a traitor and that she:
... found it difficult to differentiate between what was real and what was part of my imagination.
Her lawyer in a letter to the newspaper said :
It matters little whether the account is real or partly allegorical, it is the product of absolute good faith, a cry of suffering and an act of courage. In that it deserves only respect.
Now me, I've no problem at all with that. (I'm finding it hard to summon up any of my usual outrage at all.)

But just call it fiction, okay?

(You can read extracts from the book here. And watch the film trailer below.)

Postscript :

This isn't the only scandal that has dogged (wolved?) the book.


gnute said...

Can't believe I hadn't heard of her story before, too. It's so outrageous.

Anonymous said...

The excerpts reminded me of 'Clan of the Cave Bear'.
And there were people who actually believed this was true?

However, I'd read in other news outlets that her parents were Belgian resistance fighters who were murdered by the Nazis, not collaborators.


bibliobibuli said...

jen - it reminded me of "clan of the cave bear" too - great minds, huh?

i'm quoting the independent about the parent who might have been a nazi collaborator and i suppose they took that from the belgian newspaper

she had lied about her religion, so can we believe what she said about her parents anyway?

kam raslan said...

Interesting story. It reminds me of that Polish guy who wrote about his escape from a Soviet gulag and his trek across thousands of miles from Siberia, through Tibet and into India. The book came out in the 1950s (I think) and it sold millions. It's still in print and I saw it in Kino. Only thing is, it turned out to be completely made-up. Can't remember his name I'm afraid.

Kam Raslan

(Will somebody tell me which button to press, Open ID, Url, etc?)

Anonymous said...

Kam -- you bring up an interesting point, actually. Although there's been a whole spate of these faked memoirs recently, the phenomenon has been around for a while. One of the most memorable books my husband and I both read as children -- he in New York, me in Ipoh! -- was the memoir of one Lobsang Rampa, a Tibetan monk who described astral travel in some detail. Well, it later turned out that Lobsang Rampa was some British bloke who thought the Tibetan name would give him the authenticity he needed to write about, you know, "Eastern spirituality" (another of my pet peeves).

There's another faked memoir outed on the front page of the NYT today -- this time one Margaret Seltzer is in the hot seat. I even read the extensive interview with her in the NYT just last week, and this week they find out every word is a lie. Her book has been pulled off the shelves and her book tour cancelled, and I'm thinking, why aren't any of these people learning from the *last* public shaming?

I really think the reason we're seeing so many of these now is the whole confessional culture -- people *want* to read "true stories," and everywhere I turn I hear vapid comments like "I felt I could relate to this more because it was a true story." Certainly as a young writer in the US one is repeatedly told that nonfiction sells these days, write a memoir, write a memoir, it's what people want to read. Of course if you have any integrity you will resist the temptation to write a memoir unless you really have something to say about your own life, but then if more people had integrity the world would be a very different place indeed, and not just in terms of what sells in the bookshops :-) . Perhaps the more interesting question is, why is it that people these days feel they can only "relate" to true stories?!? Whatever happened to being able to relate to fictional characters?

-- Preeta

Anonymous said...

I don't want to take over this thread but I just looked up Lobsang Rampa and I HAVE to share this because it's even better than I remembered:

Lobsang Rampa's story

All these bluffers could learn a thing or two from him -- No, no, I really WAS in a drug-running gang, but then my soul *migrated* into the body of a bourgeois woman educated in an exclusive Episcopalian school!

-- Preeta

bibliobibuli said...

kam - whatever buttons you are pressing, you're doing fine! will have to track down that story ...

preeta - you can take over my thread all you want. lobsang rampa was idolised by my bozo of an ex-boyfriend looking for spiritual enlightenment back more decades than i care to remember. i wish i'd know back then his name was cyril and he was british. that's hilarious!!

kam raslan said...

I think it's related but I heard a story when I went to Berlin, as one does. I entered the conversation half-way through and I'm not sure if the narrator was describing a book or a real person. Either way it's interesting.

It's about a woman who wrote all the speeches and PR for hugely successful businessman. She wrote everything from his CV to his memoirs, and she wrote it all in his voice. She was his ghost writer in his every public utterance. With his approval she made up his life, embellished and created any scenario she wanted. After a while she began to exist purely in the psyche of this imaginary character and she began to think she was him. And the fictional version of the real tycoon started to do strange things.

The story was told to me by an author so please don't anybody steal it because she might have been talking about a book she's writing. I just thought it was interesting.

Chet said...

Sounds like Remington Steele.