like you were there:
linda grant and the problem of historical fiction

When I Lived in Modern Times
Linda Grant
(Granta, 261 pages)
when i lived in modern times cover
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Accusations of plagiarism didnít prevent British journalist Linda Grant from winning the £30,000 Orange prize, in an upset win that saw her second novel, When I Lived in Modern Times, win over Zadie Smithís much-touted White Teeth. The extent to which Grant actually plagiarized dialogue from another book, American academic A.J. Shermanís Mandate Days: British Lives in Palestine 1918-1948, is a matter of opinion, but those opinions are vociferous, and say a lot about the creation of historical fiction.

Set in Israel - then British-controlled Palestine - just after the Second World War, the novel follows a young Englishwoman, Evelyn Sert, as she leaves London for the tumultuously-emerging new country and a series of new identies. Her mother had escaped the heritage of her Latvian Jewish parents in the noise and sleaze of Londonís Soho, and Evelyn leaves the drabness of postwar London for the bright new city of Tel Aviv, assuming new identities and names along the way, getting involved with a freedom fighter/Irgun terrorist named Johnny, or Efraim, or Levi, and who assumes new accents and identities to fool the British.

Shifting  identity is, of course, an old literary conceit, and one Grant uses with competence, but itís the least interesting thing about the novel. Much more compelling is her attempt to capture the violence and excitement of the time, and in particular the character of Tel Aviv. The city - begun on bare desert barely a century ago, and filled with Bauhaus construction by educated Jews fleeing Germany in the thirties - was the inspiration for the novel, and Grant does her best writing describing the gleaming ďwhite cityĒ by the sea and its inhabitants, all of whom seem united in at least one thing - forgetting the tragic past and building an utterly modern future.

The love affair with Johnny ultimately reads like sex between two ciphers, while her encounters with other residents of Tel Aviv - Jewish and British - has a vividness the love story lacks. Itís the dialogue with British officials and their wives that contains the near-verbatim quotes from Shermanís book, but it has to be noted that itís not Shermanís own words that Grant copies, but actual quotes from Shermanís research in the form of interviews and letters from the time. Similarly, Grant plagiarizes her own journalism for some of the characters - Johnny is based, ironically, on an actual person she interviewed in the city - and builds the story up from the kind of well-observed detail every journalist is desperate to accumulate. 

Grant was likely working from every writerís grudging suspicion that imagined dialogue never rings as true as actual words, and used her journalistic instincts to construct a story that plausibly dramatized the ideas and prejudices that were so vital and inflamed in the middle of the last century. In doing so, she caught herself on the horns of intellectual property battles that seem so inflamed now, at the beginning of another century.

©2000, 2002 Rick McGinnis