February 9, 2006

SHE HAD MORE TO LIE ABOUT (via Robert Schwartz):

Fashions in Falsehood (Anne Applebaum, February 2, 2006, Washington Post)

I'm talking about Lillian Hellman's "memoir," "Pentimento," published in 1973 and denounced on "The Dick Cavett Show" by the writer Mary McCarthy in language significantly more withering than what we have become accustomed to hearing on daytime television: "Every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the' " is how McCarthy put it on the air -- a line far more memorable than Winfrey's "I feel duped."

But what's interesting about a comparison of the two works is not what they tell us about the evolution of talk shows from Dick Cavett to Oprah -- I'll leave that analysis to the professors of media studies -- but what they tell us about the evolution of literary fabrications. Hellman's most famous invention was a character named Julia, a female friend who supposedly persuaded Hellman to smuggle money into Germany to help the anti-Nazi resistance. In "Pentimento," Hellman's descriptions of that mythical 1937 train ride into Germany are powerful. There is a girl in the train compartment who asks too many questions, an emotional meeting with Julia in a station and various other emotionally convincing scenes that never took place. Julia's character was actually derived from the life story of a woman named Muriel Gardiner, whom Hellman knew of but had never met.

What is most striking about a rereading of "Pentimento" (which I don't necessarily recommend) is the quaint, outdated heroism of it. Hellman reinvents herself and her nonexistent friend as brave and principled, willing to fight for the right cause even in the face of great danger. In that sense, Hellman's work belongs to a long line of fantasists, stretching back to Baron von Munchausen and beyond -- liars who reinvented themselves as better, braver or more blue-blooded than they really were.

Frey, by contrast, belongs to a tradition that emerged more recently and that has been best described by the British writer and psychologist Anthony Daniels as the "literary assumption of victimhood." These fabricators reinvent themselves not as heroes but as victims, a status they sometimes attain by changing their ethnicity.

The deeply despicable Ms Hellman went to her grave a Stalinist having helped cover for other Stalinists--she had to lie to make herself look good.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 9, 2006 8:16 AM

Yeah, it's weird that Applebaum, an expert on Stalinism, didn't pick up on that. It's no coincidence that Hellman lied about her heroic anti-Nazism. In real life, when the party told her and her ilk to support the Nazis, they did so without hesitation.

Posted by: David Cohen at February 9, 2006 8:24 AM

It's odd to see a quote from C-3PO here.

Posted by: RC at February 9, 2006 10:02 AM

Which brings to mind the note appended to Hellman's name when somebody recommended her to P.J. O'Rourke's Enemies List: "Dead but in need of further condemnation."

Posted by: Matt Murphy at February 9, 2006 9:24 PM