Being Beta

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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.



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