Saturday, April 13, 2013

"Only Two?"

You know the way we get about the unsourced anecdotes that preachers use in sermons?  Eric Naiman gets that way, too, but he is a thousand times more dogged in his pursuit of the truth.

Some years ago, a biography of Dickens included a fascinating anecdote.  The great English writer was visited by no less than Dostoevsky, to whom he opened his creative soul.  Dickens confessed that, in his many novels, all the heroes and heroines were the people he wished that he had been, and all the villains were the person he felt he truly was.  There were two people inside him, from whom all his characters had grown.  To which Dostoevsky responded, in a murmur, "Only two people?"  The implication is that a truly great writer contains multitudes.

Great story, right?  It never happened.

Oh, you'll find it in books, published by scholars and properly footnoted.  But it never happened.

Naiman describes the effort of other suspicious scholars, who track this story to its apparent source, a short and comparatively recent essay by an otherwise unknown writer named Stephanie Harvey.  But Harvey cannot be contacted; an editor trying to ask her some questions gets a note from her sister, explaining that she has been in a terrible car accident and suffered brain damage.

Naiman tries to check Harvey;s putative source for the anecdote, which proves to be a Soviet-era journal published in Kazakhstan.  One of which no Slavic scholar has ever heard, and of which Kazakh librarians can find not trace.  And this is only the beginng

Exploring the mystery of Stephanie Harvey, Naiman enters a bizarre funhouse, filled with mirrors which reflect each other.  One unknown writer after another appears, all copying from each other and reviewing each other's books -- sometimes to praise them, sometimes to damn them.  One can only imagine that, back of it all, John Barth is laughing in his beer.

And there's lots of sex in the story, too, including a great deal about nipples and aureloae.

The whole bizarre story of a hoax -- if the story is not itself a hoax! -- appears in TLS.  It's long, but absolutely delightful.

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