When the fabricated lives of French authors are as captivating as the books they write

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French writer Stéphane Bourgoin trained at the FBI profiling school in Virginia and interviewed 77 murderers, including Charles Manson and Ted Bundy. He had advised the FBI and Scotland Yard on difficult cases and his own wife had been murdered by a serial killer. He even had a short stint as a professional footballer for Parisian side Red Star. His life seemed as interesting as one of his 40 books. Except none of that was true.

Following an investigation by the anonymous collective 4ème Oeil (Fourth Eye) Corporation in February on YouTube, Bourgoin was forced to admit that he had fabricated much of his life story and CV. .

This isn’t the first time a French author has crafted a wild and interesting life. Some did it to make a book more appealing to readers and awards committees. Others did it to distance themselves from humble roots and a luscious catalog of fiction.

embroider the truth

Bourgoin has since admitted that the fictional wife was based on a woman he met “five or six times” and “loved”. He briefly met Charles Manson, but only walked past him and never got to speak to him. And, instead of 77 murderers, he had spoken of only about thirty.

In a series of interviews with French newspapers, Bourgoin now says he should have let his real knowledge justify itself – that his books were good enough to sell without such a fantastic story.

Writers have long used fake stories and fabricated public personas for their own ends, especially if that’s what it takes to secure a publishing deal or public recognition.

One of the most notable implications is the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize, which recognizes “the best and most imaginative prose work of the year”. The previous winners are Marcel Proust and Simone de Beauvoir.

It can only be won once. But the prolific writer Romain Gary succeeded in winning twice thanks to a tour de force, first in 1956 for The roots of heaven (The Roots of Heaven), then as the supposedly Algerian writer Émile Ajar in 1975 for Big hug.

His deception was only posthumously confirmed by the publication of a confession Life and Death of Emile Ajar (The Life and Death of Emile Ajar). Throughout his life, Gary wrote under several names, including Fosco Sinibali, Shatan Bogat, and Roman Kacew (his birth name).

Even one of France’s most revered writers, Honoré de Balzac, was not immune to a certain propensity to exaggerate the truth when shaping his public and private image.

Balzac is perhaps best known as one of the founders of literary realism. However, he began his career producing pots under pseudonyms (including Lord R’Hoone, an anagram of Honoré, and Horace de Saint-Aubin).

Honoré de Balzac.
Wikimedia

Later, to dissociate himself from these first publications, he had his assistant write a preface to his novel. The Last Fairy (The Last Fairy, 1823) in which Horace de Saint-Aubin meets the new successful Balzac and, upon reading a few pages of the latter’s writing, is so depressed that he sets his own novels on fire.

To complete the transformation, he added an aristocratic-sounding particle to become “de” de Balzac. The surname itself was a creation, changed by his father from the more common Balssa in an attempt to displace the family from its peasant roots, and hinting at an illusory connection with the illustrious Balzac d’Entragues family.

It also happens to be a French writer, Serge Doubrovsky, who in the 1970s coined the term “autofiction” (self-fiction) to describe his 1977 novel. Son (Son). The protagonist of Son shares the author’s name and some key characteristics, but exists in an essentially fictional space. Doubrovsky described autofiction as “fiction, consisting of strictly real events and facts”.

The term creates a problem from the not so simple relationship between autobiography and truth. According to scholar Alex Hughes, autofiction allows the author to convey biographical facts “in a narrative format whose fictional tenor allows him not to take responsibility” for the veracity of his words. If he claimed to write in this genre, Bourgoin might have a leg to stand on. As it stands, his books are on the wrong shelf.

Moral outrage

What is perhaps most interesting in the history of Bourgoin is the acuity with which his fabrications have been captured. His exaggerations boosted his credibility and opened doors for him. It’s as if Bourgoin felt that by exaggerating certain specific details, and thus producing a particular kind of narrative, he was giving the audience what they knew they really wanted to hear all along.

As the critic Pierre Bourdieu pointed out in 1986, a problem with autobiography is that we have all been so exposed to the narrative conventions of fiction that we will almost inevitably reproduce them in the life story we write – even if that is likely to lead to a misrepresentation of historical reality.

By writing about himself in his books as a bereaved hero, Bourgoin tapped into powerful storytelling models that his readers were already accustomed to. In The Science of Storytelling, writer Will Storr suggests that the brain is primed to react with interest to stories of “moral outrage”, which Storr calls “the ancient cornerstone of storytelling”. When we see heroes take on villains, our tribal instinct for justice kicks in and we root for Bourgoin’s fictional alter-ego.

With Bourgoin’s confession, his story now unfolds again. “Once you’ve broken down a character, you can begin to build their story,” Storr writes. We want to see the bad guys punished, or at least feel some remorse. Bourgoin, and the organization that exposed his fabricated claims, unwittingly provided exactly that to our story-hungry brains. We readers have been fooled. And, to borrow Storr’s phrase, “we’re fucking outraged.”

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