Stealing a life

I’m swamped in final exams and finishing up the semester, so no real writing is taking place. I have been squeezing in a little editing of the Peer Gynt manuscript in between other tasks, and really enjoying getting re-acquainted with that project.

But what I really want to post about this morning is the panel discussion I attended last night, “Å stjele et liv – om faktiske personer som romanpersoner” (Stealing a life – on factual people as novel characters). Here’s a link describing the event. The main speaker was Thomas Skade-Rasmussen Strøbech, who has become infamous in Denmark after suing the author of a novel called Suverænen (The Sovereign; 2008) for defamation of character. Here is a selection of articles in Danish about the case. TSRS lost the lawsuit, and in the aftermath the author (sometimes known as Claus Beck-Nielsen, sometimes as DasBeckwerk, and sometimes various other monikers) has threatened to keep writing about TSRS, leaving him totally paranoid, as you can imagine.

As TSRS tells it, the two artists collaborated for a long time, then didn’t have  any contact for a few years, then suddenly he discovered that his photograph was on the cover of a novel, and that the novel in question was, in addition to many other things, an intimate and not particularly flattering portrait of him.

That TSRS lost the case (here’s the press report on the decision, again in Danish) is really rather shocking, and has incredibly far-reaching implications for precisely the “sovereignty” of individual identity. The court found that the single word “roman” (novel) on the title page effectively gives the author the absolute right to write whatever he wants about the ostensibly fictive character (fictive merely by virtue of appearing in a text labeled as a “novel”) , who bears TSRS’s exact name, and who is depicted on the cover of the book using a photograph that is irrefutably a photographic image of TSRS. Under Danish (and, as I discovered last night, Norwegian) law, the individual, though protected against the use of personal information or images in commercial enterprises and in journalistic writing (libel), has no protection whatsoever if that same information is used in a work of art. And this despite the fact that the publication of a novel is, though many don’t like to admit it, a fundamentally commercial enterprise.

Frankly, I’m reeling over the complicated ethics of this case. I had read about the lawsuit earlier this year, but to be honest I had just assumed that it was a mutually agreed upon piece of performance art by two quite sophisticated artists with a long history of collaboration.

The panel discussion was arranged because of the explosion of “novels” that make use of factual people, naming them by their real names (unlike the older practice of the roman à clef, where identities were disguised), that has taken over the Norwegian literary scene. I’ve written about Nikolaj Frobenius’ Teori og praksis (one of the most interesting examples) of course many times here, and Karl Ove Knausgård’s six-volume Min kamp is the primary Norwegian example. Just this fall Erlend Loe published a novel that features Jens Stoltenberg (Norway’s prime minister) as a main character. Also this fall, Mette Karlsvik published a novel that depicts a span of the Icelandic musician Björk’s life. This phenomenon is huge in Scandinavian literature right now, and it is a monster of an ethical labyrinth.

As I’ve been discovering over the past couple of months while working on  Byatt’s The Biographer’s Tale, the ethical dilemmas appear to be impossible to work out. The invocation of the single word “novel” has astounding power. And one of the most interesting points made in the panel discussion last night (by my very astute UiO colleague Tore Rem) is that “novel” does not necessarily signify “fiction” any more. I’ve been so naive!


3 responses to “Stealing a life

  1. Cases like this illustrate how much language use is actually embedded in messy, material relations between real people. We have to remember that the novel as a genre is a relatively recent invention, and that the much older tradition of storytelling (from which it emerges, to be sure) has traditionally made little to no distinction between the “fictional” and the “real.” Our stories are always situated in very real contexts, and words are never without very real, material consequences. In some ways I think the novel tradition embodies a certain naïveté about the actual connectedness of our stories with our lives, and in that sense I suppose recent Nordic challenges to the ficiton/reality binary ought to be welcomed. That said, I am finding it hard to get too excited about Knausgård and his fellows.

  2. Yes, and this is precisely why the findings of the Danish court are so disturbing on some levels. Rather than protecting the rights of the individual (Thomas Skade-Rasmussen Strøbech), or perhaps I should say the integrity of the individual’s identity construction, the court sided with the author, who essentially functions as a corporation (with an undeniable economic stake in the case).

    It is telling that, according to TSRS, the most damning witness in defense of the novel was the novel’s publisher, Gyldendahl’s Johannes Riis (a man who, according to Politikken has an almost total monopoly on Danish literature at the moment: Riis of course used the argument that the case was all about the integrity of the work of art and about freedom of speech. I find it strange to (for once in my life) be on the anti-art side of the debate, but I really think that ethics trump aesthetics here. It’s just that ethics are virtually impossible to delineate…

  3. I’m with you on the reaction to the Danish court ruling. But I’m wondering if the ethics/aesthetics opposition isn’t a false one: if the aesthetic isn’t, in fact, quintessentially ethical. My thinking is that the aesthetic is social, and the social is the realm of ethics. And, beyond or because of that (to paraphrase Løgstrup), we experience the aesthetic ethically.

    I’m still sort of thinking “out loud” here, but if our stories, images, songs, etc. are all material, and part, therefore, of our material relations, they then also naturally affect those material relations, meaning that they always already operate in the realm of the ethical. So claiming that a novel has no obligations to real people, because it’s a work of art, is to mystify the artistic, pretending that it somehow escapes the material and the social. (Sounds very Platonic, actually.)

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