The cult of celebrity, says Melissa Katsoulis in Telling Tales: A History of Literary Hoaxes (Constable £8.99), is nothing new, but the desire to see the worst and/or smallest parts of a star is a post-war invention. And because the unearthing of sordid details about well-known figures is such a big-money game, it is no surprise that literary hoaxers with dollar signs in their eyes have sprung up in all corners of the media.
Katsoulis has assembled tales of 50 or so such hoaxes, each begging the question: how genuine are these hoaxes? The question of who is hoaxing whom hangs in the air throughout the book’s 300-odd pages.
Some are funny, even sweet. Abraham Lincoln, Ms Katsoulis, tells us, is famous for many things but being a great lover is not one of them. A certain Wilma Minor begged to differ, publishing a “newly unearthed” collection of love-letters between the 16th president and one Ann Rutledge, betraying in Abe a libido only marginally less surprising than his apparent lack of literacy.
Others are more obvious. The Hitler Diaries? Who’d have thought it. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion? Hardly a new story, well related though it is by Katsoulis.
Perhaps the most damning is that of Misha Levy Defonseca. As the author says, making up stories about Nazi horrors and pretending they happened to you — pointing at the scar on your arm and whispering: “Mengele’s child”, as Defonseca apparently did — is surely the work of a damaged mind. Damaged, but commercially astute, Defonseca sued her publisher four years ago for $33 million for siphoning royalties into various offshore accounts before being exposed by a couple of historians, Deborah Dwork and Lawrence Langer, as an opportunistic liar and fantasist.
Defonseca turns out to be Monique De Wael. In apologising to her readers she said: “There are times when I find it difficult to differentiate between reality and my inner world. The story in the book is mine. It was not the actual reality — it was my reality, my way of surviving.” I’d say all those dollar signs might be a more useful survival device.
Another of the book’s Holocaust hoaxers, Herman Rosenblat, asks: “Why did I write that story? Because I wanted to bring happiness to people, to remind them to love and tolerate all people…” Of course.