Scott Laming’s AbeBooks page Jokes, Hoaxes & Other Literary Frauds has a brief description of a few famous literary hoaxes (Thomas Chatterton, Howard Hughes’s “autobiography,” Adolf Hitler’s “diaries”) and a useful collection of examples with pictures (and ABE links); the one that most intrigued me was Feodor Vladimir Larrovitch: An Appreciation of His Life and Works, “A book written about an author who did not exist designed to teach a know-it-all a lesson”; a little googling got me to the relevant passage (starting on page 23) in Books in Black Or Red, by Edmund Lester Pearson (Ayer, 1923):

The authors and scholars who joined in celebrating the Larrovitch Centenary were so numerous that the resulting volume is probably unique. One or two originated the hoax, but a large group carried it on and perfected it. Designed at the beginning, I think I have heard, to rebuke the painful omniscience of one enthusiast in Russian literature, this little tribute is called “Feodor Vladimir Larrovitch; an Appreciation of his Life and Works.” The editors are William George Jordan and Richardson Wright; it was published by the Authors Club of New York in 1918. To this volume Clinton Scollard contributed a sonnet, and there are scholarly essays and personalia about the great Russian by Professor Franklin Giddings and Dr. Titus Munson Coan. The bibliographies add to the charm of the book, but perhaps the most touching thing of all is the picture of “a pressed flower” from the grave of Larrovitch at Yalta, which is preserved and framed on the walls of the Authors Club. As with “Spectra,” the hoax was inspired by a pose, a form of literary affectation; it cleverly satirizes the tendency in England and America to accept any Russian writer at whatever estimate some chortling enthusiast likes to put upon him. Max Beerbohm’s “Kolniyatsch,” in his book “And Even Now,” is an earlier essay upon the theme. Kolniyatsch, the last of a long line of rag-pickers, acquired a passionate alcoholism at the age of nine, murdered his grandmother when he was eighteen, and spent the rest of his life in an asylum, writing poems and plays. His friends and relatives, as well as the officials, adopting the world’s timid philosophy, called him insane, but Max Beerbohm, who was able to read his works in the original Gibrisch, would make no such clumsy classification.

I love the phrase “acquired a passionate alcoholism.” Thanks, Paul!


  1. I don’t think he’s related to the Canadian prime minister Lester Pearson, it’s just a coincidence. So why use the Lester name; why not just go by “Edmund Pearson”?
    Has anyone read William Boyd’s Nat Tate? Is it any good? I’m not sure why he’s writing these books where the main character meets famous people from the twentieth century who then proceed to do characteristic things; what’s the point?

  2. One of my favorites–and I once owned a copy–was Spectra–a book of poetic experiments written by Witter Bynner and Arthur Davison Ficke–as a spoof against Amy Lowell, the cigar-smoking poet from the Lowell family of New England fops–the inventor of Imagism–
    I also once owned a copy of Cradle of the Deep (mentioned in the book you’re quoting from) by the silent film actress about her voyage at sea with a crew of grimy sea dogs–I remember being amused by her talking about how the old salty dogs used to spit into the wind–
    Isn’t most fiction a hoax? Like Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage–a highly praised book about a Civil War soldier written by a NY journalist who was never in a war.
    ur fiend
    thegrowlingwolf (proprietor of a fraudulent blog)

  3. marie-lucie says

    In Canada there is Sarah Binks, the sweet songstress of Saskatchewan (look her up!).

  4. Trond Engen says

    It wasn’t clear to me from the start, but I suppose Feodor Vladimir Larrovitch (like Kolniyatsch) fall into the “jokes” category. Or did it origin as a hoax that was soon adapted for satirical purposes? There’s a blurry line between hoax and satire somewhere here.

  5. dearieme says

    I wish to register a complaint: Adolf Hitler’s “diaries” weren’t a hoax, they were a fraud.

  6. marie-lucie says

    Isn’t Larrovitch a strange name for a Russian?

  7. Sarah Binks is an inspired creation.
    On a different level is the noted Australian poet Ern O’Malley.

  8. Isn’t Larrovitch a strange name for a Russian?
    Yes, and “Vladimir” should be Vladimirovich. It’s just part of the long tradition of creating impossible Russian names; I’ve rarely read a novel by an English-speaker that had completely plausible Russian names invented by the author. I don’t quite understand it; I know Russian names are a bit complicated if you’re not used to them, but is it really that hard to figure out the basic rules? I mean, you’d think people would notice that the “middle name” always ends in -ovich or -ovna.

  9. Wladimir Iljitsch Uljanow.

  10. Great story! I’d bet a few rubles that in the whole sea of Russian and even Slavonic surnames Larrovitch isn’t there to be found. Considering the date, it may be that the name of Pyotr Lavróvich Lavróv, a prominent populist writer and thinker, the author of the Russian Marseillaise, had inspired Larrovitch? Lavrovich does occur as a Belorussian and West Russian surname. And Lavrov is a common surname.
    And the story reminded me of one of Russia’s favourite literary hoaxes, Kozma Petrovich Prutkov, created in 1850-60 by a group of satirical writers and poets including Alexey Tolstoy. Prutkov’s aphorisms are still widely quoted.

  11. Iljitsch
    Ah yes, the “and February has twenty-eight, or twenty-nine in leap years” of Russian onomastics. Corrected version: “you’d think people would notice that the ‘middle name’ always ends in -ovich or -ovna… except in patronymics for certain names, of which Ilya is the most common, which end in -ich or -inichna.”
    Considering the date, it may be that the name of Pyotr Lavróvich Lavróv, a prominent populist writer and thinker, the author of the Russian Marseillaise, had inspired Larrovitch?
    A very plausible suggestion.

  12. Bill Walderman says

    Don’t forget -evich, -evna.

  13. marie-lucie says

    I too thought of Lavrovitch. I wonder if that had been the original name but was misidentified on the manuscript, since a carelessly handwritten vr could easily be confused by the typesetter with rr. Since the name was not that of an actual person, it would not be imperative to go to the trouble of correcting it.
    On the other hand, using rr could have been a way of deflecting attention from the actual writer Peter Lavrovich Lavrov, who might not appreciate the satirical use of his name. Larr- calls to mind English Larry, the diminutive form of Lawrence, which is related to the Lavr- names in Russian. So perhaps Larrovitch was a bilingual pun, a reminder of the actual Lavrov but only decipherable for people in the know.

  14. narrowmargin says

    I’ve never understood why people make such a big deal about Stephen Crane’s writing a Civil War novel even though he’d never been in that war. Is participation (or personal involvement of some kind, on some level) a requirement for a writer when it comes to ANY historical event?

  15. The Laurel’s Egg
    I know not what shall it betoken
    that I so sorrowful seem.
    A marklet from out of old, spoken,
    that comes me not out of the bean.
    The loft is cool and it darkles,
    and ruefully floweth the Clean.
    The top of the mountain top sparkles
    with evening sunshine sheen.
    The fairest young woman sitteth
    there wonderful up on top.
    Her golden-like outfit glitteth,
    she combeth her golden mop.
    She combs it with golden comb-ful
    and sings a song thereto,
    that has one wonderful, wonderful,
    and powerful toodle-didoo.
    The shipper in very small shiplet
    begrabs it with very wild cry.
    He looks not the rock and the riplet,
    he looks but up top on the high.
    I believe that the whales will devour
    the end of the shipper and ship.
    And that in her singing bower
    the Laurel’s egg done it.
         —translated by Sarah Binks
    I particularly like “the Clean”.
    As for Crane, I think he is basically the innocent victim of many readers’ assumptions that the narrator was a stalking horse for the author, who was in fact not yet born when the Civil War ended.

  16. Yes, “the Clean” is excellent. Thanks for posting that!

  17. While I’m at it, here’s a Latin version by “Nomen Nescio”:
    Ignoro, quid id sibi velit,
    tristissimus cur sim,
    antiqui aevi fabellam
    cur saepe volverim.
    Vesperascit et frigescit,
    et Rhenus leniter it,
    cacumen montis lucescit,
    dum Phoebus occidit.
    Sedet in summo montis
    virgo pulcherrima,
    auro nitet gemma frontis,
    se pectit auricoma.
    Aureolo pectine pectit,
    carmen canens procul,
    mirandum id habet modum
    nec non virilem simul.
    In cymba navitam mille
    angores feri tenent,
    non videt scopulos ille,
    ocli non si sursum vident.
    Opinor undas devorare
    nautam cum navicula,
    effecit solo canendo
    Lurleia id dea.
    And one by Doktoro Esperanto:
    Ne scias mi, kial subita
    malgaj’ en la koro naskiĝis;
    el tempo jam enterigita
    legendo al mi reviviĝis.
    Jam malvarmetiĝas l’ aero,
    la Rejno mallaŭte babilas,
    per oro de l’sun’ en vespero
    la supro de l’ monto rebrilas.
    Plej belan knabinon mi vidas:
    en ora ornamo brilante,
    sur supro de l’ monto ŝi sidas,
    la harojn mistere kombante.
    La oran kombilon ŝi movas
    kaj kantas tra l’ pura aero,
    kaj forto mirinda sin trovas
    en tiu ĉi kant’ de l’vespero.
    Ŝipet’ iras sur la rivero,
    ŝipisto ektremis de l’ kanto,
    kaj blinda por ĉiu danĝero
    rigardas li al la kantanto.
    Ha, baldaŭ ŝipisto la bela
    perdiĝis sub l’ akvoturnado;
    ĝin Lorelej’ faris kruela,
    per sia mirinda kantado.
    Both can be sung to the usual melody, though the Esperanto version fits better, to my mind.

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