Tuesday, 28 November 2006

Atonement bookcover; VintageIan McEwan has been accused of plagiarism, reports Ben Hoyle in The Australian today (p. 13). And it's not the first time it's happened.

The newspaper has exerpted passages from McEwan's 2001 novel, Atonement, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize of that year, as well as others from a book written by Lucilla Andrews and published in 1977, No Time For Romance. After reading the excerpts, it looks like there is some merit in the accusation. But Atonement is a long novel, reaching 372 pages in my edition, and a few snipped quotes from here and there should not overly trouble readers. It is unlikely that this accusation will carry further than this article, which was published in The Times yesterday.

McEwan is dismissive of the claims of plagiarism:

"When you write a historical novel you do depend on other writers. I have spoken about Lucilla Andrews countless times ... It has always been a very open matter."

But the excerpts provide some compelling proof. This is from Atonement:

"... she had already dabbed gentian violet on ringworm, aquaflavine emulsion on a cut, and painted lead lotion on a bruise ..."

And this is from No Time For Romance:

"Our 'nursing' seldom involved more than dabbing gentian violet on ringworm, aquaflavine emulsion on cuts and scratches, lead lotion on bruises and sprains."

In the 10 lines of acknowledgements found at the end of Atonement, McEwan in fact names No Time For Romance as a source for his novel ("I am also indebted to the following authors and books..."). So it's a bit of a storm in a teacup. I'm almost embarrassed for having detailed this much.

But Natasha Alden, a student at Oxford University, who wrote a thesis on war fiction, and had read Andrews' book, obviously thought it worth informing Andrews, who died a month ago. Andrews' agent, Vanessa Holt, "said she had found McEwan's behaviour discourteous and disappointing":

"She wasn't approached for permission to use her autobiography. I think she would have been very happy to have been consulted."

I remember being impressed with Atonement when I read it, but today, confronted with this piece in my daily broadsheet, I couldn't for the life of me recall the plot. I did remember something about a girl whose lies cause pain to people around her. I also recall that she eventually felt shame at the memory. There are scenes in a hospital, that I do remember, and others in the fields of war. There's also a man who is a bit of a bore who does well in chocolate, if I remember correctly. There are many things that I forget.

1 comment:

laura said...

It's a book I too find hard to remember much about in detail. I read the Australian article you linked to and I think this is a nonsense accusation - as he says, historical fiction has to come from somewhere, and he acknowledged the 1977 book in the back of his own. It's still worth discussing it though as there's widespread confusion about what originality actually means w/r/t literature.