First, British historian Hugh Brogan wrote a thick and thorough biography of Alexis de Tocqueville, the French nobleman whose 1835 masterpiece, Democracy in America, saw so clearly into the future of modern politics.
Then, Australian novelist Peter Carey wrote a novel, Parrot and Olivier in America, that appropriated the famous thinker's life, down to the most intimate details, while ignoring well-known facts about him and inventing wild new ones to suit his fancy. Among his novel's acknowledgments, Carey singled out "Hugh Brogan's delightful Alexis de Tocqueville" for its guidance on the subject.
Then, Brogan wrote a withering review of Parrot and Olivier in which he described the novel's vision of Tocqueville's France as "stereotyped," its plot "too contrived to be believable" and its Tocquevillian hero "a poor creature" who could never have accomplished the real man's great work. "What a shame," Brogan concluded, guiding readers to the just-released paperback edition of his own book.
Now, the Australian is doing his best to laugh, forcing guffaws through the phone line from his home in New York. The historian "demonstrated he had no idea how to read a novel," according to Carey. "Bad reviews can hurt even if one thinks the person is stupid," he added. "But Hugh Brogan's review was really funny. It made me laugh."
We don't go to Shakespeare to find out what really happens with Richard III. We accept that someone has taken historical figures for his own particular purposes. Peter Carey
Looking at these two antagonists in a police lineup, only the keenest of witnesses would be able to tell one scholarly, grey-haired white man from the other. But their dispute has made them opposing champions in a growing controversy over the current fashion for historical fiction, with reimagined accounts of documented events and figures dominating bestseller lists, bagging big prizes and trampling what some authorities presume to describe as the truth.
Star historian Anthony Beevor was the first to register an objection to the new wave of what he called "faction," using a review of Kate Pullinger's The Mistress of Nothing to complain that the Canadian author, who went on to win the 2009 Governor-General's Award for the novel, had vilified his great-great grandmother, Lucie Duff Gordon, presenting the Victorian author as "a vindictive monster" despite a wealth of biographical evidence indicating otherwise.
"The blurring of fact and fiction has great commercial potential, which is bound to be corrupting in historical terms," Beevor wrote in The Guardian. While admiring Pullinger's novel as "beautifully told and moving," he used the occasion to warn against the social and intellectual dangers of "faction creep" - the entertainment equivalent of Bush-era truthiness.
Who better than Peter Carey to reply? Celebrated as one of the new century's most spirited storytellers in the grand tradition, the one contemporary novelist most often compared to Charles Dickens, and two-time winner of the Booker Prize, Carey is the seminal figure of modern faction. "I am a terrible liar," confesses Herbert Badgery, the narrator of Illywhacker, Carey's sprawling account of Australian history, first published in 1985. "Relax and enjoy the show."
The same advice applies to Parrot and Olivier, in which Carey's hero discovers America not in the genial company of fellow French nobleman Gustave de Beaumont, his real-life companion, but in constant opposition with Parrot, his uppity English servant (a figure not unlike the servant Pullinger devised in order to train fresh eyes on Gordon).
"It's hard for historians," Carey says, acknowledging the unease such inventions inspire. "On the other hand, no one gets too irate with Shakespeare. We don't go to Shakespeare to find out what really happens with Richard III. We accept that someone has taken historical figures for his own particular purposes, in his own particular time, and what we are pleased to have are the works of art."
The Shakespeare argument is familiar but no good, according to Beevor. The Elizabethan theatre "clearly demonstrated a dramatic ritual," he wrote. "Then, right at the end, all the slain victims reappear onstage for their bow, which is like a hypnotist snapping his fingers to end the trance of suspended disbelief." The problem, in his view, is that people are encouraged to rely on factually inventive novels - or, worse, films - to find out what really happened to Richard III and many other historical figures.
Carey addressed the issue squarely by changing his hero's name and killing off Beaumont early in his story. "For someone who is worried about the history aspect of it - what I've been true to, what I've been false to - at that moment, you know you're entering into the world of fiction," he says.
He played subtler games with the mise en scène, heavily researching the real Tocqueville chateau in Normandy before deciding to build an entirely different one in his imagination. "And I would like to think I was doing the same thing with the character," he says.
The historians wouldn't dispute that. Rather than the luminously humane, serious-minded hero of Brogan's book, Carey presents his lightly disguised Tocqueville as a snob and more than a bit of a prig, an often-witless opponent to the uneducated but wiser Parrot. Yet here Carey unearths a truth that would surprise many who know Tocqueville only from a smattering of familiar quotations: his deep, aristocratic skepticism of democracy, which he saw more as inevitable than desirable.
Parrot and Olivier take opposing sides in the seminal disputes of democratic politics, with Parrot getting most of the good lines. "But finally," Carey says, "I wanted to give an unexpectedly good argument to the person one didn't trust."
Carey's hard-to-like hero also suffers from trauma previously unknown to the historical record: the effect of the Reign of Terror, which Tocqueville's parents barely survived, and which cut down so many of their kind. "None of the histories I read made anything of that psychologically," he said. "I read him as a character completely formed by that."
Could there be a better reason, he asked, to explain the hero's deep unease with majority rule? It was that insight, the author added, that first made him realize that a novel about such an outwardly uncolourful historical character was possible.
"I want someone to tell me it's not true," he says. "But certainly I didn't find anybody saying that, and it seems to me a major, major point."
And if the result of unearthing such fresh truth is to turn the stalwart hero of burnished history into a bit of a stiff? "So be it."