Monday, September 5, 2011

REVIEW: Nom de Plume, by Carmela Ciuraru

Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms, by Carmela Ciuraru. Published 2011 by HarperCollins. Nonfiction.

A collection of literary biographies about fiction writers from the 19th century to the 1970s who have used pseudonyms, Nom de Plume is a treat for lovers of literature.

Non-pseudonymous author Carmela Ciuraru starts the book with Charlotte Brontë aka Currer Bell, who used her (now no longer secret) pseudonym to get her work published at a time when the literary world didn't respect womens' writing. Other 19th century women who used pseudonyms, like George Sand and George Eliot, did so for other reasons as well, and learning about them and about these womens' lives was fascinating. Ciuraru has selected a diverse group of writers for her book, including well-known figures like Lewis Carroll and Mark Twain and extending to more obscure writers like Fernando Pessoa, Henry Green and Romain Gary. Although she does focus exclusively on writers of fiction, she branches out to include poet Sylvia Plath, who used a pseudonym to publish a work of fiction, Alice Sheldon, who wrote science fiction as James Tiptree, Jr., and Dominique Aury, who wrote a transgressive work of erotica, The Story of O, as Pauline Réage.

I was most fascinated to learn about Fernando Pessoa, a reclusive writer unknown in his own time who produced rafts and reams of work, much of which is still untranslated. He wrote using "heteronyms," or different personas, not just under different names but as different people. Pessoa's story struck a chord with the part of me struggling to write and I had to ask myself the question, what would I write if I weren't myself? How would putting oneself in that mindset of the heteronym change the product one wrote? The most entertaining profile was that of Georges Simenon, a highly prolific French writer who produced more than 500 novels under dozens of pseudonyms, whose life seemed to have been a manic, non-stop frenzy of activity. Tragic was the profile of Alice Sheldon, an alcoholic, closeted lesbian and likely manic depressive who killed herself and her husband. And tantalizing was the profile of crazy Patricia Highsmith, a truly horrible woman who nonetheless produced some of the 20th century's best fiction.

Nom de Plume has something to offer almost any reader. Ciuraru's style is engaging and light but her research is exhaustive and thorough. I learned a lot about every writer she profiled, including the ones whose stories I thought I knew well. Of course the best part is discovering new writers and I'll be on the lookout for Pessoa, Simenon and Highsmith the next time I'm at the bookstore. You should take a look for Ciuraru's book the next time you're there!

I had the honor of appearing with Ciuraru at her promotional event at Porter Square Books, one of Cambridge's best independent bookstores, last week. That's me on the left and Carmela speaking. We conducted an interview-style conversation and took questions. It was a lot of fun to meet her and get to talk to her about her terrific book.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I received this book from HarperCollins for review and for use preparing for Ciuraru's engagement.