Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms

Image of Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms
Release Date: 
June 13, 2011
Reviewed by: 

“in Ms. Ciuraru’s talented hands, these assembled brief tales of authors’ lives . . . make for what can only truthfully be called ravishing reading. . . . [B]eautifully researched and is deftly written—pure pleasure from cover to cover.”

Carmela Ciraru has latched on to a nifty idea: Take the concept of a nom de plume, a pen name, a pseudonym, an alias that an author might decide to use, and then deconstruct the concept by giving us the who what when where and why of it.

And better than the nifty idea alone is the fact that Ms. Ciuraru has fleshed out her concept, given it not only voice, but face and costume with a nude, frail body contained within to all the authors whose lives she studied in digging deep into the realm of the nom de plume.

Best of all, she jumps in feet first, giving her readers a fresh take on the tired notion that poor bedraggled women were forced to create male alter egos in order to get into print. That may have, on a simple, cultural level, been partially true. But the real truth of it—that which drove Aurore Dupin to become cigar-smoking, crossing-dressing Georges Sand, well, the story behind the story of cultural necessity is so much richer, so much more intriguing. And in Ms. Ciuraru’s talented hands, these assembled brief tales of authors’ lives—that which fills the narrative of her book, as each reaches for a new name and, perhaps, a new identity to match—make for what can only truthfully be called ravishing reading.

The literate among us will take immediately to their purple chairs and jump in feet first right along with their author, and not come up for air again at least until poor Sylvia Plath (aka Victoria Lucas, however briefly) has her feet sticking out of the gas oven. But they will hurry back soon after for French novelist Romain Gary and, perhaps the best mystery writer and worst human being of her era, Patricia Highsmith are both flayed, butterflied, and set on the counter for our inspection.

“At its most basic level, a pseudonym is a prank. Yet the motives that lead writers to assume an alias are infinitely complex, sometimes mysterious even to them. Names are loaded, full of pitfalls, and possibilities, and can prove obstacles to writing.”

That use of the word “prank” in the first sentence of the book, the acknowledgement of obstacles faced and obstacles overcome all promise a world of excitement ahead and, in fulfilling her promises, Ms. Ciruaru never fails.

She continues on the topic of the nom de plume: “A pseudonym may give a writer the necessary distance to speak honestly, but it can just as easily provide a license to lie. Anything is possible. It allows a writer to produce a work of ‘serious’ literature, or one that is simply a guilty pleasure. It can inspire unprecedented bursts of creativity and prove an antidote to boredom. . . . [But] if you’re writing the equivalent of high-fructose corn syrup, perhaps it’s unwise to serve up organic spelt, even under a different brand name.”

And then, her point made, she moves on, preparing a Babette’s Feast of little literary lives, tales of the timid, the completely mad, the rosy-cheeked angry, the downtrodden and the chagrined. And, best of all, each chapter begins with a shorthand assessment of what is to come:

“She found sexual satisfaction in picking her nose.”
(Sylvia Plath or Patricia Highsmith? Read and learn.)

“He was obsessive-compulsive and collected books about fairies.”
(George Orwell or Lewis Carroll? You decide.)

“She had a big nose and the face of a withered cabbage.”
(George Eliot or Isak Dinesen?)

“He could fool some of the people all of the time.”
(Romain Gary or James Tiptee, Jr?)

Or, perhaps best of all: “She kept snails as pets.”

So who was it who so loved her pet snails that, when she moved from one country to another, she took trip after trip back and forth across the border, smuggling snails under her breasts? And who, when she died, was so small that her coffin measured a meager 17” across? And who, in picking her pen name, went with one that, literally translated, means “laughter”?

So much great information. And yet the best of the book is not these tidbits, these things that may be used to torment friends and foes alike at future dinner parties. The best parts are when Carmela Ciuraru digs deeper to reveal the motivation behind the pseudonym, and, better still, the outcome of its use. Like lottery winners, some authors with pen names come away the recipients of great wealth and fame and happiness. Others rue the day that they put pen to paper using anything other than their own names.

While experiencing the full bliss that only the combination of good and plenty applied to literature can bring, the reader cannot help but notice a single chapter—wisely tucked toward the back where it can act as a climax of sorts to the slim volume—that stands head and shoulders above the best.

“She was one of the most wretched people you could ever meet, with mood shifts that swung wildly as the stock market.”

So begins the tale of Patricia Highsmith, whose book, Strangers on a Train, would be adapted into Hitchcock’s classic film and whose The Talented Mr. Ripley would establish her among the top tier of not just authors of mystery or thriller novels, but of all writers and all literature, and bring her a legion of fans, numbered among whom were Graham Greene, Truman Capote (who adored her and she him), and Gore Vidal, who considered her to be one of the world’s finest modernist writers.

And yet, writes Ms. Ciuraru:

“She was a racist who believed that if black men didn’t have sex many times a month, they became ill. She was a compulsive liar. She had a febrile imagination and boasted that she had ideas ‘as often as rats have orgasms.’ One of her editors described her as being like a ‘child of 10 or 11.’ On her left wrist, she had a tattoo of her initials in Greek letters. She enjoyed watching violent scenes in movies, but shielded her eyes during sex scenes, which repelled her. She always wanted to play the harpsichord. She did play the recorder.”

Of her particular need for a pen name, Ms. Ciuraru informs her readers that, unlike most of the other authors gathered here (The Bronte Sisters, George Eliot), Highsmith did not need a pen name to disguise herself or to get herself into print. All of her major novels were published under her own name—or something she thought of as being her own name.

As Ms. Ciuraru writes: “‘Highsmith’ was the name of Patricia’s stepfather, who the girl believed was her biological father until she was ten years old. (Her initial surname, Plangman, belonged to her father, but she never used it.)” Therefore, with Highsmith, we get levels of aliases, some of which were bestowed upon her, others of which she selected.

But the one time she elected to publish a book under a nom de plume (Claire Morgan), it was for the novel The Price of Salt, which was written after she had achieved success. It was the subject matter of the novel—the exploration of an open and loving lesbian relationship, in a book that ended with none of the fictional elements common to homosexual pulp novels in the mid-20th century—that created the need for secrecy. Unlike other books about homosexuality, there was no painful death, no shamed suicide, or sudden Christian conversion with resulting change in sexuality—any or all of which would have been the expected price to pay for same sex love. Instead, the relationship was both adult and mutually satisfying. Surprisingly, the book was a great success, both commercially and critically.

But Highsmith, in writing the novel, had struck too close to home in terms of topic, and therefore turned to her pen name. Because Highsmith only rarely felt anything attraction for other human beings and then, when she met such a person who “seemed to give off light” it invariably was a woman.

Highsmith had sexual relationships with numerous women, she never was able to create a successful long-term relationship, nor was she ever willing to own her authorship of The Price of Salt.

Unlike Highsmith, who used a pen name to shield what she believed was the darkest secret of her life, Romain Gary created his false name (with a persona to match) in order to attain the life in the spotlight that his mother dreamed of for him.

Karen Blixen, on the other hand, anointed herself Isak Dinesen as a way of being able to express herself freely through the joy of anonymity.

George Orwell created his alias as sort of a glorified version of himself and ultimately assumes the role in his daily life as well, dissolving his old, poorly named self into his new, successful creation.

And Sylvia Plath adopted the pen name Victoria Lucas solely to protect her mother’s feelings when The Bell Jar was published.

Ironically, in that she died soon after and the masquerade collapsed with her death, Aurelia Plath was spared nothing—not her daughter’s death by her own hand, not the cruel words written about the character of the mother in her autobiographical novel.

Nom de Plume is filled with tremendous insight into the minds of these writers and their ability to create not only works of fiction within the covers of their books, but fictional lives for themselves as well. It has been beautifully researched and is deftly written—pure pleasure from cover to cover.