Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Julian Gloag, Ian McEwan and the "Our Mother's House" brouhaha

I’ve just finished Lost and Found, a novel by the British author Julian Gloag, which was published in1981. It is a small, beautifully written masterpiece. The only other Gloag novel I’ve read is Our Mother’s House, published in 1963. That was also a masterpiece. I’m beginning to discern a theme here!

I wasn’t going to mention the book – I’ve given it back to the friend who leant it to me, and therefore can’t quote from it, and I can never remember the name of characters in novels, which makes it hard to describe. But there’s been a lively exchange between commenters on my recent post about David Cameron (albeit unwillingly) waving two fingers at Merkel and Sarkozy, about the merits – or otherwise – of Marshal Pétain (whom I had mentioned in passing).

I compared Sarkozy to Marshal Pétain, given the former’s readiness to  collaborate with his more powerful neighbour rather than forming an alliance with the country which saved France’s arse in World War II (a simplistic interpretation, I realise, but the French do need regular reminding of what they owe to the Anglo-Saxon Transatlantic alliance, and of the extent to which they collaborated with the Bosch).

Pétain was already in my thoughts because of "Lost and Found". It starts off in France in WWII. The grandfather of the main character is a confirmed Pétainist, who loathes de Gaulle, and the British, and is at loggerheads with his doomed, Resistance Hero son. It's a portrait of a Pétainist who isn't your standard-issue collaborator: he isn’t a cynic or a coward. He just thinks Pétain is doing the right thing for his country.
When Lost and Found opens, the grandson – who is too young to fight –  spends a lot of time writing in the attic of  his grandfather’s house. He eventually produces a novel. After the war he takes the manuscript, and his young peasant wife, to Paris. While there, he visits his cousin, a distinguished publisher. When he opens the suitcase containing the manuscript, he discovers that he has the wrong case: someone else now has his manuscript.

A search for the original suitcase proves fruitless, and he returns to his grandfather’s country cottage. His wife proves to be feckless and heartless and faithless and eventually deserts him and their two infant daughters. The young writer, who has succeeded his Pétainist grandfather as the village schoolmaster, settles down to a rather grim, friendless existence. He keeps on writing, but finds it impossible to produce another novel.

His publisher cousin occasionally sends him the firm’s latest bestsellers. Our hero never bothers to look at them, but, for some reason, eventually decides to read one by a novelist from a nearby village, which has been critically acclaimed as a masterpiece.

It turns out to be the novel he lost some thirty years ago.

I won’t spoil the plot by telling you what happens next.

In Our Mother's House,  the mother of a young family dies and her children pretend she's still alive so they don't get split up and sent to an orphanage. It was made into a decent film starring Dirk Bogarde.  In Ian McEwan's first novel, The Cement Garden, published to critical acclaim in 1978, the ailing mother of four children die and they pretend she’s alive so they don't… etc. etc.

The similarities were soon spotted, but McEwan denied ever having read  Our Mother’s House. I believed him at the time - and still do. All it would have taken would have been for him to have read a review of the film or book at some stage: it’s such an original and interesting concept, it might have lodged  somewhere deep in his subconscious, only to re-emerge years later feeling like an entirely original idea. It happens!

Julian Gloag never lodged a formal complaint against McEwan: unlike the talentless plagiarist in Lost and Found, McEwen’s sparkling early short story collections had already proved him to be a major talent (personally, and despite his enormous subsequent success, I don’t think he ever recaptured that early form.) And it seems unlikely that anyone who had deliberately pinched an idea for a novel would have produced quite such a good one based on it.

What’s truly remarkable is that both books are outstanding.

It would be odd if Gloag hadn’t felt some resentment: after all, McEwan is commercially an incomparably more successful writer – although I doubt he’s more talented or technically gifted. ((Poor Gloag, now 81 and living in France, doesn't even rate a separate Wikipedia entry!) Certainly, Lost and Found suggests that Gloag harboured at least some vengeful thoughts.

I wonder what effect the plagiarism charges had on McEwan. Certainly, he appeared terribly flustered and, well, shifty when interviewed on television at the time. His next novel, The Comfort of Strangers, took three years to appear. It was set in Venice and the plot concerned an irritatingly liberal, “modern” couple floating around Venice, being appallingly pretentious and lifeless – it was an utter stinker: I couldn’t help feeling  that McEwan had been unnerved into mediocrity by the affair.

I doubt if I’ll ever bother to read another McEwan novel (I tried Atonement and couldn’t stand it), but, havind rediscovered him,  I’ll certainly be tracking down Julian Gloag’s other novels. Brilliant writer.


  1. What is really odd is that McEwan's publisher or editor didn't spot the similarity. What do these people actually do to earn their money? You would expect them to have read enough contemporary literature to identify plot similarities when reviewing manuscripts for publications. I have always found it difficult to imagine that no one ever pointed out to George Harrison that My Sweet Lord owed a lot to the tune of He's So Fine by the Shirelles or that he'd never heard it himself.

  2. Sorry to be a train-spotter, but it was the Chiffons who did "He's So Fine". The weird thing about "My Sweet Lord" is that it wasn't immediately obvious to all of us the first time we heard it. I think I only "heard" the similarity after the court case was announced. As for all the music experts surrounding George Harrison at the time, I expect most of them were off their gourd on Class A substances, most of the rest just didn't hear it, and the rest didn't want to get fired for having the temerity to raise the subject.

    "Our Mother's House" is odder, because, even if they hadn't read Gloag's book, the odds of no one involved in publishing "The Cement Garden" having seen the movie version seem pretty remote, as it had been shown on TV several times.

    I had one really good editor during my writing career, whose light-touch excisions improved one book hugely - the rest mainly inserted mistakes where there had been none.

  3. You're right about the Chiffons. Damn! However, I do remember being in a room with a couple of friends when My Sweet Lord was first released and by the end of it we were all helpfully contributing "Do Lang Do Lang" backing vocals. I suspect your theory is right. No wanted to be the first to tell George that he'd err....unconsciously borrowed the tune. His publishers may also have had in mind the fact that John Lennon was being sued for the simple theft of one line of Chuck Berry's for the Beatles Come Together.

    Still in case any one feels too sorry for them, remember that the publishers of the Beatles songs successfully sued and nearly bankrupted Neil Innes for plagiarism over his LP of pastiches for the Rutles. To some extent, the music industry have brought on themselves the present mess, in which a generation has got used to file-sharing music for free and the artists don't get royalties.

  4. For me, MSL just had that the familiar aura of an instant classic about it - it was only later I found out why.

    I didn't know that about The Rutles - I mean, what a bunch of absolute shags! About eight years ago, when I got a properly powerful computer (for the time) and an iPod I was so outraged by some record companies'refusal to do a deal with iTunes in the UK I discovered the joys of file-sharing. I hadn't really listened to all those smart young pointy-heads at work predicitng the collapse of the music industry - but it was obvious from that first session that it was stuffed. If they hadn't been such a bunch of greedy, lazy, self-regarding, coke-sniffing tossers, one might have felt sorry for them.

    As I've remarked before, I have absolutely no idea how anyone is supposed to make money out of recorded music any longer - and I wonder if any of this could have been avoided if record execs had had any brains, or whether it was always inevitable.

  5. This 'borrowing' of story lines hasn't always been despicable: Shakespeare [or whoever it was wrote those plays] was not averse to rip off some of his contemporaries' work, and not just storylines but entire paragraphs. As did his peers.
    Not having read either of these novels, I can't comment on similarities, but surely words and phrases re-occurring in both might give a clue?

    Thank you for this post, which I found very helpful. I spent a sleepless night reading through 'Only Yesterday', never having heard the author's name and became curious about his life.

  6. I have recently read Lost and Found, which was re-published this year in French. I never heard of the author before but I enjoyed the book very much and would be curious to discover some of his other novels (I take note of Our Mother's House). I read this article with much interest, as I didn't know about this McEwan plagiarism story. Thank you for the info, it surely gives another twist to the end of the book.