Overweening Generalist

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Lee Israel's Forgeries and a Shem the Penman Writer's Consciousness

"One cannot even begin to post figure out a statuesquo ante as to how slow in reality the excommunicated Drumcondriac, nate Hamis, really was. Who can say how many pseudostylic shamiana, how few or how many of the most venerated public impostures, how very many piously forged palimpsests slipped in the first place by this morbid process from his pelagiarist pen?" - Finnegans Wake, pp.181-182

Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Memoirs of a Literary Forger, by Lee Israel (2008)
I'm a sucker for tales of forged diaries by mass murderers, hoaxes played on pretentious postmodernists, massive advances paid for hoaxed inside stories of reclusive billionaires, even how vile proto-colic hate screeds forged metastasize memetically over a century and more. As a writer, I admit a fascination with another writer putting one over. The stories never play out quite the same way as any other time. But then there's the at-times grotesque places writers find themselves, almost forced to ply their art in the service of fraud, and almost always for money. But not always. Lee Israel's story was about money, and money will serve as impetus well enough every time.

I just finished Israel's tale, a slender book at 127 pages, and breezy, funny, dark, and oddly inspiring. Israel had written two critically-acclaimed and successful biographies, one of Tallulah Bankhead, and the other of Dorothy Kilgallen. She probably loved the lavish publisher-paid lunches in Manhattan restaurants a tad too much. ("I was imprudent with money and Dionysian to the quick. Having worked so long and hard on the last book, I took many months off to play." - p.15) Her Estee Lauder bio, a rush job for reasons she gets into in the memoir, fell flat, and soon her money ran out. Her desperation eventually led to an audacious career as a forger of personal letters from the likes of Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, Noel Coward, Louise Brooks, Edna Ferber, even Aldous Huxley and Humphrey Bogart. She sold these to dealers of memorabilia across the country, and was eventually popped by the FBI, got a very good lawyer, and was lucky enough to not do a day in stir.

Israel, a lesbian, utilizes a hilarious intellectual-rogue's style, which reminded me in voice of Fran Lebowitz, with tonalities that at times made me reminisce over S.J. Perelman. What gave me the garish thrill as she so candidly described her lurid, desperate, and intrepid tales of life as a forger was her uncanny artistic attention to detail. Two of her forged letters turned up in a book edited by an "expert" in the writer's life and style, later removed when the ruse was exposed. She describes buying period typewriters, paying absurdly close attention to the writer's actual letters, paper/stationery, typing styles, typical errors, letterheads, odd spacings, dates and travel locations, and other minutiae. Through sheer desperation she invents an ingenious way to forge these famous peoples' signatures, using old unusable televisions.

Have you ever tried to copy your favorite writer's style? Have you ever written something that you, in some odd situation, might attempt to pass off a piece as if it "really were" written by a famous writer? Perhaps after an intense immersion in their collected works, you find their rhythms, their word choices, references they seem likely to make, that odd thing called "tone"...rubbed off into your own writing, if only for a few days? I've tried it.  I can fake it for awhile, but it's hard! Hence my delight in her tale.

Israel showed she had a pitch-perfect ear for her writers. And she studied them, too. Often, she took delight in piecing together bits from three or four actual letters, adding a flourish of something plausible gleaned from a biography about the writer(s), and was able to palm them off and keep herself afloat. I admit to a frisson when reading true stories like this. (Note to Total Information Awareness folk: I'm NOT going to commit a crime, okay? Think of me as the Walter Mitty Type. - the bogus OG)

But there's always the neurosis of my kind of writer. It's always there, along with the "I can write anything! I'm one of the best in the business..." thing. Call it a paralyzing doubt. Your mileage may vary. James Joyce probably knew he was the greatest writer in English since Shakespeare, but he was occultly candid about the other side of the writer's life, which I'll get to shortly.

Israel writes, "I've spent my life in a state of high anxiety, waiting for the Cossacks. I am always worried.  When cause of worry exits my skull it is immediately replaced by another. They meet shoulder to shoulder, one entering, the other exiting the cave leading to my tympanic membrane." She's worried the Feds may be onto her, and she can, with hindsight, drop into a hardboiled vernacular out of Hammett if she wants. The book replicates some of her forgeries, describes her late night dash to dispose of as much evidence as she can when she realizes the jig is about up, taking an industrial elevator down with her old fashioned typewriter collection and dumping them: "[...] woke up my gang of typewriters. I deposited them, one by one, along a mile stretch of Amsterdam Avenue, watching the traffic to see if I was being surveilled." When Lee Israel had bought the olde-timey typewriters she had been asked what they were for, and she replied she was going to donate them to the homeless. And that lie turned out to be true!
                                  Sunny Jim, nailer of the archetypal Shem the Penman,
                                  passoffably due to makes one to Nolan?

Shem the Penman and Archetypal Deep Structure For (Some?) Writers
Jim the Penman was a very successful play from 1886 by Sir Charles Young, a baronet and lawyer, who ironically exaggerated the life of James Townsend Saward (b.1799, criminally active in Victoria's England, 1830s-1850), a "real-life Moriarty," who was also a barrister, and the great Victorian forger who fenced the gold from the Great Train Robbery. Young has Saward forging letters in order to marry into high society, which didn't actually happen in Saward's life. Saward started off forging checks, and went from there, running a ring of fraudsters. His character probably influenced Dickens's character Arthur Compeyson from Great Expectations. A great, great, great, great granddaughter of Saward's, Jennifer Carnel, PhD, came out with a book last year titled James Townsend Saward Criminal Barrister: The True Story of Jim the Penman. I have not read it. No doubt Joyce read Young's play, and many other books and tales of forgers, fakes, and other literary frauds.

In Joyce's writing, we see him fictionalize himself as the young intellectual Stephen Dedalus, who must escape-fly from his labyrinth (Dublin) to another world in order to realize himself as an artist. Another version of James Joyce shows up in the dream world of Finnegans Wake, as Shem the Penman, who makes ink from his own excrement, and writes on his own body. The not-so noble aspect of Joyce's life as artist/writer shows up in visions influenced by ideas extrapolated from Vico, Freud, and Jung, and no doubt many others, including Giordano Bruno, who the Catholic Church burned at the stake in 1600. (Joyce once described himself to Carl Jung as "A man of small virtue, inclined to extravagance and alcoholism.") Shem's brother is Shaun. Shem is the artist archetype: dreamy, bohemian, dissolute, drunken, imaginative, and a failure. Joyce goes to comic lengths to show Shem as the "lowest of the low." His brother Shaun (like Joyce's actual brother Stanislaus) is materialistic, pragmatic, a bit intolerant, and successful. Shems are notorious for knicking their Shauns for a loan until paydays which never quite arrive on time, if ever. In Bruno's - and Joyce's - cosmology, these opposites must unite in one person to make them whole. In the "Shem the Penman" chapter of FW (169-195), we get a rollicking, wildly exaggerated view of Joyce's writer-self at its impossibly worst, who yet uses his imagination to overcome the obstacles, to fly over the walls.

Afterall, Joyce was bourgeois. There had to be some sort of reunion of opposites.

But the fun is in the dreamy-tale of Shem, which hyperbolically hypostatizes the world Lee Israel found herself in and seems built-in to the writer's - or artist's - life, or at least some of it.

Shaun later in the book calls Shem a "pixillated doodler" (421) Robert Anton Wilson was much taken by the Shem character - for obvious reasons - and used him in his own novels. See Schrodinger's Cat Trilogy, p.449, where he's "Mr. Shemus de la Plume, Naval Intelligence's ace handwriting forger." In FW, we see a book (or books?) titled "Wine, Women and Waterclocks or How A Guy Finks and Fawkes  When He Is Going Batty, by Maistre Sheames de la Plume, some most dreadful stuff in a murderous mirrorhand..."(171)

One Shem-based snapshot life of the writer full of blarney, a marvelous bullshit artist with the gift of gab, talking and talking and trying to impress a galley of interlocutors, really hits home, and I'll end a yet another fartoolong post withall:

(We join Shem amongst other revelers midstream):

"[...] giving unsolicited testimony on behalf of the absent, as glib as eaveswater to those present (who meanwhile, with increasing lack of interest in his semantics, allowed various subconscious smickers to drivel slowly across their fichers), unconsciously explaining, for inkstands, with a meticulosity bordering on the insane, the various meanings of all the different foreign parts of speech he misused and cuttlefishing every lie unshrinkable about all the other people in the story, leaving out, of course, foreconsciously, the simple worf and plague and poison they had cornered him about until there was not a snoozer among them but was utterly undeceived in the heel of the reel by the recital of the rigmarole." (173-174)

Mutt: Whose he on about?
Jute: Finn Macool?
Mutt: No. Try again.
Jute: Shun the Punman!

An hour or more of Robert Anton Wilson talking about Finnegans Wake from a 1988 interview; RAW also reads two sections in Part 2.


Royal Academy of Reality 1132 said...

Another fine post. It made me think of the chapter of Ulysses where Joyce parodies a variety of styles of writing, giving a history of English prose.

I find it interesting that Tindall doesn't like the Shem chapter.

michael said...

Thanks, Prof. Eric.

I think it's the interview Faustin Bray did with RAW on JJ/FW/Jos Campbell where RAW reads from a section of Shem.

RAW liked Tindall on Joyce, but probably parted regarding Shem.

That Oxen of the Sun chapter seems to me a bravura performance of such virtuosity I'm not sure I've seen anything that can compete on that level. It reminds me of when Paganini hit the scene: "You thought the state of the art of violin was this? Well, then listen to this!"

Joyce in FW deflates his own Ulysses from 17 years earlier: "...making believe to read his usylessly unreadable Blue Book of Eccles..."(179) Irony? I think probably: aye.

Royal Academy of Reality 1132 said...

My second post disappeared. I like the word "paganinism" from page 50 of Finnegans Wake.

Charles Rosen has written about Liszt's skill at mimicing the language of composers whom he transcribed for the piano.

That sound like an interesting interview with Bob. I haven't heard it.

PQ said...

Nice post. Though I really enjoy most of Tindall's commentary on both the Wake and Ulysses, the Shem chapter is one of the greatest highlights of the Wake for me.

Royal Academy of Reality 1132 said...

That Bray interview with Bob sounds interesting. I couldn't find it online.

michael said...

@Prof. Eric et.al:

Via our mutual pals at Only Maybe:

RAW reads two sections, starting around 19:10 of pt.2; the first section is from pp.182-183, and I confess I was a tad relieved to hear that RAW makes as many mistakes as I do reading it aloud. Still: good readings!

RAW refers to "Edwin" Harris Walker, when IIRC 'tis Evan; wasn't Edwin Walker the military dude Oswald took a shot at?

Not much on Campbell here, even though he gets equal billing.

A strong clue to how RAW conceived of what's most valuable in the field of Anthropology: early on in part 1 he says Joyce was "the greatest anthropologist who ever lived, and it's a scandal he's not taught..." RAW sez Campbell's anthro derived from Joyce, but a lot of it was also Frobenius and Zimmer and a few others.


Royal Academy of Reality 1132 said...

Thanks, Dr. Johnson. Perhaps I should change my Google account to Boswell. In 2000 my family visited the London pub near Covent Garden where Boswell and Dr. Johnson first met. I took a seminar on the Age of Johnson back in 1985, I think, and I started Boswell, but I never finished it.

I enjoyed Skeleton Key by Cambell and Robinson. I've never finished any of Campbell's other books. I first heard of Campbell in an interview with Phil Farmer in Science Fiction Review, the same zine where I first heard of RAW.

Thanks for the link.

PQ said...

As you and Prof Eric probably know, Marshall McLuhan often used to say the same thing about Joyce being the greatest anthropologist ever. MM also claimed Joyce was one of the greatest engineers as well (echoing what Joyce himself once said in describing his work on FW to Harriet Shaw Weaver). Unless I've got my names confused, I could've sworn I read in a recent McLuhan book (by Douglas Coupland perhaps) that RAW and McLuhan were friends.

I must also mention that my own passionate devotion to Joyce's work (as well as folks like Jung, Nietzsche, Goethe, etc) is entirely due to the influence of Joseph Campbell. For over a year, I devoured every Campbell book I could get my hands on.

My first extended intro to Joyce came from a book called "Mythic Worlds, Modern Words" a collection of Campbell's transcribed lectures and articles on Portrait, Ulysses, and the Wake. Highly recommended.

The same Maybe Logic blog linked to above also has some audio clips from Campbell's lectures on Joyce INCLUDING Campbell reading from Finnegans Wake and pronouncing the first thunderword!

michael said...

@PQ: Thanks for the head's up on the Campbell recordings. I read Coupland's book on MM as soon as it came out - I liked it a lot - but don't recall anything on RAW in it. In either Gordon's or Marchand's bio of MM there's a passage in which, near the end of his life, MM is studying linguistics and one name mentioned was "R.A. Wilson." MM hung with Leary briefly and gave him ideas on how to use advertising lingo to sell LSD to the public, but I'm not sure about the extent of RAW's personal connection to MM. They had very similar influences, but seem like very different personalities to me. MM's early professional career in middle America, then Toronto....not much chance of spending time together.

Both RAW and MM went out of their way to champion Joyce, almost to the point of evangelism, which, if so, is one type of evangelism I can take.

There's a story of Campbell, early budding scholar, going into the woods for a year with tons of books and just reading, an image I find striking.

The "monomyth" idea that RAW links to Campbell via Joyce (via Vico?) is one I've always found to be profoundly proto-structuralist. Obviously Vico is pre-structuralism, but I don't think Joyce, Campbell or RAW were all that taken by Russian and French big-name structuralists; rather, they conceived of structuralist ideas in their own way, less...algebraically. EX: take RAW's information theory and Korzybskian ideas of "structure." It seems at once far more mathematically-based and "mystical" than anything in, say, Levi-Strauss or Bakhtin.

Thanks for your erudite comments, PQ.