Being Beta

Exercises in the higher banter with One of 26. Elsewhere called 'poet of adland'. By a whipple-squeezer. Find out why being beta is the new alpha: betarish at googlemail dot com

Friday, November 23, 2012

On borrowing and changing in fiction

I recently finished reading Chris Greenhalgh's novel Seducing Ingrid Bergman. It's an excellently realised account of Bergman's affair with the photographer Robert Capa.

One thing about it troubled me. On page 28 of the novel is the following, the note that Capa and Irwin Shaw first sent Bergman when she had checked in to the Ritz in Paris:

SUBJECT:    Dinner.
DATE:          6 June 1945.
PLACE:        Paris, France.
TO:               Miss Ingrid Bergman. 
1. This is a joint effort. At your service, Robert Capa and Irwin Shaw.
2. We planned to send flowers with this note, inviting you to dinner. Consultation with our financiers, however, reveals it is possible to pay for either flowers or dinner but unfortunately not both. Dinner won by a close margin.
3. Our taste is for champagne but our budget is for beer. Our supply of charm is unlimited.
4. We do not perspire and we sleep standing up. 
We will call you at 18:15.
Signed: two veterans of love and war.

Cute, right?

Except that it's not actually the note that Capa and Shaw sent Bergman.

You can find the note that the two did actually send here, in Richard Whelan's biography of Capa. The text of this note reads:

Subject:    Dinner. 6.6.45. Paris. France.
To:           Miss Ingrid Bergman
Part 1.     This is a community effort. The community consists of Bob Capa and Irwin Shaw.
       2.      We were planning on sending you flowers with this note inviting you to dinner this    evening - but after consultation we discovered it was possible to pay for the flowers or the dinner, or the dinner or the flowers, not both. We took a vote and dinner won by a close margin.
       3.      It was suggested that if you did not care for dinner, flowers might be sent. No decision has been reached on this so far.
       4.      Besides flowers we have lots of doubtful qualities.
       5.      If we write much more we will have no conversation left, as our supply of charm is limited.
       6.      We will call you at 6.15.
       7.      We do not sleep.

Now, let me state upfront that I have no particular problem with a writer making stuff up in a historical novel. It's what is meant to happen. But what rankles here is the particular artlessness of what has gone on.

Because the obvious question is: why re-write the note to make it worse? It is obvious from even a cursory inspection that Greenhalgh's changes have not improved the literary merit of the note. In fact it has denuded the very charm that clearly seduced Bergman.

Count the ways the latter is better than the former: 'community effort' is warmer (and funnier) than 'joint'; the repetitious pattern of 'dinner and flowers' is teeters exactly on the right side of trying too hard; 'we do not sleep' is quicker, sharper - what has standing up got to do with anything?

And that's before we come to the really egregious changes. A supply of charm clearly can be limited or not, but the seeming self-deprecation that's inherent in the former is crucial, not just to the note, but equally to Greenhalgh's characterisation of Capa himself - it's the vulnerable but wounded, insouciant arrogance of the man that in part draws Bergman too him. The excising of 'doubtful qualities' is worse still, seeing as it would have provided more of this insight into his motivation and character.

If it's a case that copyright clearance could not be achieved for the note, ok, but then I would say a) what about fair use and b) someone really should have pushed harder. Because the horrible compromise that's been left on the page just isn't right. Of course, people with no knowledge of Capa, or Bergman, who just come to the novel as an old-time Hollywood romance won't know this, and I suppose it's OK for them. But for everyone else, everyone who knows, has an interest in Capa or Bergman, has read a biography, has used the note as a model for how charm can be conveyed in writing, how seduction can take place with wit and charm, the misappropriation of this note is terribly, terribly disappointing.

This isn't enough to stop me recommending the book, but still, it's a sadness, and points to the limits of any historical fiction. That if you're going to make stuff up, you'd better have a very good reason to do so. And what you do make up had better be better than the truth that's already out there.


Thursday, November 22, 2012

Poetry: More found delights

Over at Verbatim Poetry. It came from a review that featured Aaron Copland, which gives me an excuse to share this:


Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Poetry: Post in which

I tell you I have a poem published over at Amy Key's new project Poem in Which. Hurrah!


Monday, November 12, 2012

Listorama: Facebook status updates vol 27

BetaRish (is)...

needs a new notebook

is practically unachievable

is the Royal Rascal

is losing at three-dimensional chess

My glib mind is having a field day

is parsing

is a television imperialist

is braiding the wisps of corn into plaits

The right side is on the left side

The, um, thing, um, thingy wotsit, doodah, oh you know

Who are you people on my right-hand side?

Is everyone over at MySpace today

Feather it a touch

is all the challenge you need

If that, then this

demands a better month

has an attractive limp

Gathering, gathering, gathering

Mine eyes are deceiving me

is exploding invisibility


I had a plan. But it did not have me

is parsing James Salter for life tips

supposes there’s a point

is saving his legs!

is the most under-rated [blank] of his generation

‘s sunny disposition is as elusive as the Loch Ness Monster, according to James Bartram

Crouch, pause, touch, engage!

has an interrupted conversational style

has that look about him

would like a Vote of Thanks

The magic is that there is magic at all

is failing to find the right word

isn’t sure where he is on the curve of elation

Who will be the face of this republic?

wasn’t expecting a hurricane

is ascending and descending

Let’s push things backwards

So then, what what

is listening to what appears to be Desert Island Power Ballads

has not been evicted yet from a reality TV show

Vote early, vote often etc

hails the clear winner of yesterday’s election: Nate Silver

is aware of the need to write something here

Lunch is a poem

has finished chucking away ten years of his life


Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Poetry: And Other Poems

One by me. Over at said blog. Go go go!


Thursday, November 01, 2012

Commercial: Uberpup speakers

No messing. And just in time for Christmas too. The talent in the family has moved into consumer electronics.  You can find out more about the project here, and get your mittens on one for yourself too.