July 12, 2013

Dickens, Dostoevsky and deception: is this man the greatest literary fake?

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A meeting between Dickens and Dostoevsky: too good to be true

In 2011, when the New York Times reviewed Claire Tomalin’s biography of Charles Dickens, the review included a description, quoted by Tomalin in the book, of an encounter between Dickens and Dostoevsky, which the Russian writer related in a letter sixteen years later. The encounter sounded so extraordinary that several American professors began asking questions: in which language did the two writers converse? Why had they never seen evidence of this letter? Would Dickens have even known who Dostoevsky was, and even if he had, would he really have bared his soul during their first meeting: “There were two people in him…’one who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the opposite’”?

It was through his research into the first writer to have presented this little-known meeting between the two novelists, a Stephanie Harvey, that Professor Eric Naiman, an academic at the University of California, smelled a rat.

In April, the TLS published an epic essay written by Naiman, which competed with the very best thrillers in its suspense and final dramatic reveal. In the essay Naiman narrated how he began pulling at a string which started with Stephanie Harvey and her fictionalized Dickens and Dostoevsky account, and unraveled into an entire community of academics, writers and authors published over 30 years in dozens of journals and magazines, who repeatedly commented on and plagiarised one another’s work in academic writings, literary criticism, fiction, erotica, hobbyist essays, and letters to the LRB, TLS and the Times Educational Supplement. In a fascinating and deeply strange story of authorial multiplicity, Naiman proved that Stephanie Harvey, Graham Headley, Trevor McGovern, John Schellenberger, Leo Bellingham, Michael Lindsay and Ludovico Parra did not actually exist. Or rather, they are all one man: AD Harvey.

How can all this be explained? Naiman began charitably:

 Even for holders of tenured university positions, scholarship can make for a lonely life…How comforting to construct a community of scholars who can analyse, supplement and occasionally even ruthlessly criticize each other’s work.

But he also pointed to the destructive nature of AD Harvey’s convoluted and sneaky game:

“The worst thing here, if they are fictitious, is a violation of the trust that remains a constitutive element of the humanities.”

Yesterday, the Guardian answered your next question: it published an interview—and photograph—with the man himself. Harvey is a bearded 65 year old independent academic living in a flat in North London, and this is his very first interview. What Stephen Moss reveals in his patient interview with Harvey is an ‘insistent, combative, digressive’ man and an academic who has suffered ‘a lifetime of being turned down for academic jobs and forced to live the impoverished life of the independent historian.’ Harvey is not apologetic. Instead he argues that his thirty years of deception are ‘a conspiracy by history academics to turn him into a non-person’:

“I think I was perfectly entitled to do this … If I was having work rejected because it had my name on it, I was entitled to send in a perfectly decent piece of work with another name.”

The man who emerges in the interview, is not nearly as exciting as the web of identities he created for himself, nor as gripping as Naiman’s slow and careful discovery, revealed after he picked away at a small historical curiosity . In his own words, Harvey’s actions become that of a lonely scholar who felt rejected by academic institutions and, with no academic community to which to belong, felt he had to create his own. It seems only right that a story which begins with a Dickensian cast of characters brought together by a set of almost unbelievable Dickensian consequences, becomes a Dostoevskian study of an individual’s troubled psychology.

 

 

Zeljka Marosevic is the former managing director of Melville House UK.

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