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et si les œuvres changeaient d'auteur?

13 march 2019

What if works changed authors? wonders Pierre Bayard in his 2010 book. He starts with a few well-established thought experiments along these lines. What if a woman, not "Homer," wrote the Odyssey? Samuel Butler thought that must have been the case. What if the Earl of Oxford wrote Hamlet? The unfortunately-named John Thomas Looney thought so, and no less an authority than Sigmund Freud backed him up. What if Corneille, not Molière, wrote Dom Juan? That theory too has had its literary-sleuthy adherents.

Authors, too, have subscribed to the idea that they could get a better reaction from readers if they ascribed their works to somebody else. Romain Gary created an alter ego named Émile Ajar, and won a second Prix Goncourt under his second name. Boris Vian went further and created an American hard-boiled writer named Vernon Sullivan, only to have his plot foiled when (as Sullivan's supposed translator) he had trouble producing the English originals of the novels. Note that these cases are not just adoptions of pen names, though pen names are a related phenomenon: they are cases where an author produces an elaborated alternative identity, with all the paraphernalia that contribute to the authorial image so important to us when we read a book and try to place it in terms of context and quality.

And if reattribution is a good idea for critics and authors – if, even when erroneous, it produces fresh insights into texts – why not just start doing it wholesale? What if some 20th-century surrealist actually wrote Alice in Wonderland? Then, of course, you open the door for a number of fascinating books: The Stranger by Kafka, Gone with the Wind by Tolstoy, Seven Pillars of Wisdom by D.H. Lawrence, and his near-namesake T.E. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover. And once we're down that road, why not Hitchcock's film The Battleship Potemkin, or Robert Schumann's venture into painting with The Scream?

Bayard has a certain point, as always, but I think too many of these thought experiments reduce simply to showing banal and thus non-Bayardian cases of influence, as that of Lewis Carroll on surrealism, or Eisenstein on Hitchcock. The specific readings of these texts as reattributed too often run out of points after some initial archly hilarious paragraphs. I guess you could say that it's not the book I would have written. But perhaps I did …

Bayard, Pierre. Et si les œuvres changeaient d'auteur? Paris: Minuit, 2010.