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Monday, February 27, 2012

Feeding on dead people

Posted By on 02.27.12 at 10:00 AM

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When I wrote this column, in 2009, about T.C. Boyle's appropriation of the life of Frank Lloyd Wright for his novel The Women, it seemed like nobody much cared about the ghoulish liberties Boyle was taking with the hearts and minds of dead people.

That's not surprising; it's complicated. While there's something really ugly about fiction like Boyle's, which comes dressed in the trappings of biography (with real names, facts, and photos) and then plays fast and loose with the truth—who's going to quibble about Shakespeare?

And the injured parties aren't in any position to object.

I'd pretty much let it go, but last week—eureka!—there, in the New York Times's spring style magazine, was Holly Brubach's irate essay on the appropriation of the life and person of Balanchine ballerina (and, natch, wife), Tanny Le Clercq, in a soon-to-be-released novel, The Master’s Muse, by Varley O'Connor.

Le Clercq's life was glamorous and dramatic: enormously talented, she was crippled by polio at the height of her career. It's easy to see what made her an attractive subject. "But," notes Brubach, who knew Le Clercq well, "O’Connor claims that it was her goal 'to stay as close to the true story as possible.' In which case, why a novelization and not a biography?"

Particularly offended by O'Connor's use of first person narrative—putting thoughts in her friend's head—Brubach gives voice to the question that was eating at me when I wrote about Boyle:

"Where will the body snatchers strike next?"

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