-Bernardo Atxaga, trans. Margaret Jull Costa
By way of an introduction, a few biographical details from the lives of two authors I read for the first time this week:
Nella Larsen‘s debut novel was described by W.E.B. DuBois as the ‘best piece of fiction that Negro America had produced since the days of Chestnutt.’ She was regarded as the one of the most promising writers to emerge from the Harlem Renaissance and, in 1930, she became the first black female writer to be awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. The money from that Fellowship was intended to go towards her third novel, but that novel was never published. Her career imploded after she was accused of plagiarism, although the editor who printed her final story decided that the resemblance between Larsen’s work and an earlier story by Sheila Kaye-Smith was nothing more than ‘an extraordinary coincidence.’ Nevertheless, Larsen never published again.
Bernardo Atxaga, meanwhile, has one of his characters defend plagiarism on the grounds that ‘You can finish twenty works of plagiarism in the time it takes to produce one creative work’ and happily admits to ‘borrowing’ significant chunks of his most widely-read novel, Obabakoak, from other authors. Atxaga’s deliberate plagiarism helped make Obabakoak an international success; Larsen’s inadvertent plagiarism finished her career.
In Obabakoak, the narrator’s literary uncle relates a dream in which he is visited by Axular, one of the greatest Basque writers, and informed that ‘plagiarism has many advantages over the labour of creation.’ Plagiarism is not only less time-consuming than ‘the labour of creation’, it is also more likely to lead to ‘very fine results, which is not always the case with creative texts.’ The best plagiarist is a confident plagiarist: ‘He should not direct his feet to far-flung neighbourhoods or dark alleyways… rather he must stroll in the broad light of day through the open spaces of the very centre of the metropolis.’
Appropriately enough, Atxaga’s bold defence of plagiarism is hardly original. In his essay on Philip Massinger, T.S. Eliot wrote that ‘Immature poets imitate; great poets steal’, and The Waste Land must surely stand as proof that ‘stolen’ work can be given new life by a great writer.
Atxaga, too, practices what he preaches. In Obabakoak, ‘How to Plagiarise’ is followed by ‘The Crevasse’, which we are told is a plagiarised version of ‘a story with a clear plot from a book that had gone through dozens of editions.’ Which book? The only firm clue given in the text is the narrator’s assumption that his uncle is a ‘nineteenth-century man… Experience and originality and, if possible, two or three adulterous affairs per novel… I bet even the story you plagiarised was from the nineteenth century.’
Beyond that paragraph, the reader is left alone to locate the original ‘Crevasse’. You’re never entirely alone with Google though (surely that line needs a disclaimer of some sort?) and it took me a few seconds to locate ‘The Torture by Hope‘, a short story by Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, which in places prefigures ‘The Crevasse’ word-for-word. The action has shifted from ‘below the vaults of the official of Zaragoza’ to base camp on Everest, but the story is recognisably the same. Atxaga (or Atxaga’s character, steering carefully clear of the biographical fallacy) has plagiarised, but plagiarised with confidence.
Why include ‘The Crevasse’ alongside the many original stories in Obabakoak? The imaginary writer in ‘How to Plagiarise’ justifies himself by arguing that ‘The world today is a vast Alexandria and we who live in it merely write commentaries on what has already been created, nothing more. The Romantic dream burst long ago.’ Borges would surely approve of the image of ‘the world today’ as a library in which everything is already, in some way, written, but there must be more to the defence of plagiarism than that.
The imaginary writer goes on to argue ‘…people forget. And we, the new writers, merely serve to remind them of the stories. That’s all.’
And yet that’s not all: in the act of plagiarism, there’s also an act of creation. Eliot copied passages of Wagner, lines from Baudelaire, lines from Dante, from the Bible, Julian of Norwich (…) word-for-word, just as Atxaga took paragraphs from Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, and yet both writers created something new. They may be just seven basic plots, but no plot can be recounted in exactly the same way twice (hello, Heraclitus); paradoxically, by reworking the old stories modern writers are able to fulfill Ezra Pound‘s demand to ‘make it new’. Atxaga’s ‘Crevasse’, ‘The Torture by Hope’ made new, is as eloquent a defence of plagiarism as any reader could hope to encounter. If only Nella Larsen could have had as much confidence in the power of her own work.