During the holidays we took in Valkyrie, motivated more by residual affection for the Singer/McQuarrie pairing than anything else. The movie was thunderously ordinary but it did bring to mind the related Coetzee/West contretemps of a few years back.
For those who missed it the first time, Coetzee used Paul West's novel, The Very Rich Hours of Count Von Stauffenberg, (he of the failed July 20 plot to assassinate Hitler upon which the film is based) as a leaping off point for Elizabeth Costello's meditation as to whether the depiction of certain kinds of evil lies beyond the boundaries of art. Here's David Lodge addressing the issue in his NYRB review of Elizabeth Costello:
As most readers of this journal (but not necessarily most of Coetzee's readers) will know, Paul West is a real author, who published The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg in 1980. His CV is not unlike Coetzee's, though less brilliant: born in England but an American citizen, he has held a number of prestigious posts as a professor of literature, and writes literary novels which have won several awards. For a writer to introduce another, living writer as a character into his fiction, especially in such a prejudicial light, is a very unusual, perhaps unprecedented, thing to do. One might speculate that Coetzee read The Very Rich Hours...with much the same reaction as Elizabeth's, wanted to write about that experience, and felt that inventing a fictitious novel would not serve his purpose—indeed, would involve him in the same kind of "obscene" imagining of which Elizabeth accuses West, though it must be said that there are some very nasty imagined tortures in Waiting for the Barbarians.
Lodge addresses this episode at considerable length and is worth reading. A few months later, Paul West took to the pages of Harpers to weigh in on the controversy. This essay is, sadly, available to Harpers subscribers only but is worth springing for. (And if you drop us a line asking nicely, we might even share our copy.) But here's a bit of what he had to say back to Ms. Costello:
To the gravamen, then, with which Costello belabors West-Stauff at the Amsterdam conference. To write so vividly (Paul West giving Stauff the German a helping hand with his English) is to poison both author and reader. Or so she claims. Some things simply must not be said. Now, which dictator hasn't said that? From memory, I recall Rottger, my book's hangman, as reeking of mothballs and celery (try it, you might like it), taunting the condemned with foul sexual and effluvial sneers. Is this worse than the actual Von Moltke's aristocratically telling them to strengthen their minds, as it takes twenty minutes to die on the rope? Given the chaste concinnity of that, or the feral gloat of Rottger, who cares? Moltke's warning includes the seed of its own remedy, and, anyway, some of the real-life condemned proved heroic to the end. This is what my novel is about. I doubt if there is a gentle way of saying how the hangman or hangmen treated screaming women, but they did it, and I am not sure the discreet version is any less shocking than the hideous one. Those clutching at straws for decorum may take heart from the German soldiery's refusal to watch the film of the hangings with Hitler. Only Hermann Fegelein and junior SS kept him company, and when the film was tried out on cadet audiences in Berlin, the effect on morale was so awful that almost all copies were destroyed.
Confronted with the stuff of history (say the brutal facts reported by such a magazine as Human Events, in which you browse at your peril), the novelist had better sample truth, if he can get at it, or quit. But to remove such events from history is to view a rosy world that, nonetheless, may just not exist.
Not, perhaps, what Tom Cruise was hoping to have running through our heads during his movie but, arguably, more satisfying than anything he had in mind. It's a question we continue to mull over, wondering about the limits of art. We're curious to know your thoughts, if you are so moved to leave them in the comments box below.