Submitted by W.J. Elvin III and André Gattolin:
The greatest literary hoax ever?
by John Crace
10 February 2010
A French philosopher has been caught out by a literary prank. But it’s nothing on the tale of the forgotten artist Nat Tate
La Rive Gauche rigole. Bernard-Henri Levy, France’s loudest voice of the 1970s school of nouveaux philosophes, who rarely appears on TV with his shirt buttoned beyond the waist, has been had. In his latest book, On War In Philosophy, BHL, as he is generally known, had a pop at Immanuel Kant, calling him “raving mad'” , saying that the little-known French philosopher, Jean-Baptiste Botul, had proved that once and for ” . . . in his series of lectures to the neo-Kantians of Paraguay, that their hero was an abstract fake, a pure spirit of pure appearance”.
Only it was Botul who was the fake, the invention of a French journalist Frederic Pages. There were clues. Botul’s supposed great work was The Sex Life of Immanuel Kant and his school of thought, Botulism. Not to mention a Wikipedia entry describing Botul as a fictional French philosopher. But BHL managed to miss all this and now he has been caught out, he has pulled the philosophical two-step of claiming, “Hats off for this invented-but-more-real-than-real Kant, whose portrait, whether signed Botul, Pages or John Smith, seems to be in harmony with my idea of a Kant who was tormented by demons that were less theoretical than it seemed”. But no one’s falling for this one.
Literature is fertile ground for hoaxers and people wanting to try it on. The temptation for writers to merge fact and fiction is seemingly irresistible. And there are any number of possible motivations. Levy, it seems, was an unintended – if serendipitous – victim; Pages’ aim had been merely to make mischief in academia. The same is true of Francois Bluche, a French academic who thought it would be fun to imagine how Louis XIV’s journals might have looked had they been left undiscovered in a Loire farmhouse; it was even more fun when Veronica Buckley based a new biography of his mistress, Madame de Maintenon, on them.
Alan Sokal, a US physics professor, had a definite target in mind in 1996: the emptiness of trendy cultural theorists. And he scored a definite hit by getting a bogus article published in Social Text, an academic journal of cultural studies. Titled Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermaneutics of Quantum Gravity, it was little more than a string of meaningless postmodern jargon. For the forgers of the Hitler diaries, the goal was purely financial: the diaries were supposed to have been recovered from an air crash near Dresden in 1945 and handed over to a reporter from the German magazine, Stern, by a Dr Fischer who had smuggled them across the borders from East Germany. Stern paid 10m deutschmarks for the diaries, which were then serialised in the Sunday Times after being authenticated by Hugh Trevor-Roper.
Yet William Boyd eclipsed them all in 1998 with the invention of American artist, Nat Tate, his enfant terrible of the postwar years. Tate was a creation of such imagination, such charisma and such depth that he almost couldn’t not be real; not so much a hoax, more a literary game made flesh. “I’d been toying with the idea of how things moved from fact to fiction,” says Boyd, “and I wanted to prove something fictive could prove factual. The plan had been to slowly reveal the fiction over a long period of time, but it didn’t really work like that.”
It took Boyd a couple of years to construct Tate’s persona. It wasn’t so much the framework – the reclusive genius who, conveniently, destroyed almost all of his own work and who killed himself at the age of 32 in 1960 – as the details that took the time. “Much of the illusion was created in the details, the footnotes and in getting the book published in Germany to make it look like an authentic art monograph,” he says.
“I went to a lot of trouble to get things right. I created the ‘surviving’ artworks that were featured in the illustrations and spent ages hunting through antique and junk shops for photos of unknown people, whom I could caption as being close friends and relatives.”
Boyd also managed to get old friends, such as David Bowie, Gore Vidal and Picasso’s biographer, John Richardson, in on the act. “None of them needed much persuasion,” Boyd laughs, “and they all went further that I would have dared ask them. Bowie gave a quote for the front jacket that Tate was one of his favourite artists and that he owned one of his few surviving works.
“Vidal allowed himself to be quoted in the book saying, ‘Tate was essentially dignified, though always drunk and with nothing to say,’ while Richardson told of how Tate had been having lunch with Picasso when he came to visit. It was these details that made it. People stopped wondering why they hadn’t heard of Tate when Vidal, Picasso and Richardson started appearing.”
The best was saved till last. At the launch party for the book at Jeff Koons’ studio in Manhattan, David Lister, the then arts editor of the Independent who was also in on the hoax, spent the evening asking guests what they remembered about Tate. A surprising number seemed to have attended one of his rare retrospectives in the late 60s and everyone lamented how sad they were he had died so young.
The hoax was so good, in fact, that Lister couldn’t stop himself from letting everyone know. “I was pissed off,” says Boyd, “because we had the London launch planned for the following week at a trendy restaurant called Mash, and we were going to repeat the experiment. I’d already done a large number of interviews with British radio, TV and print journalists – who shall remain nameless – and they’d all been taken in. But by the time their copy appeared they all swore blind they knew it was a hoax.
But Boyd’s point was made. And weirdly Tate continues to have a meta-life more real than the rest of us. Tate has now been the subject of three documentaries and has made a walk-on appearance in another fictional memoir, Boyd’s Any Human Heart. His art also lives on. “It’s strange,” says Boyd, “because whenever a friend gets married I always seem to find another Tate in the attic. I’m almost tempted to take one along to Christie’s and see what it sells for.” And most of us would love to buy one. Because some things are too good not to be true.