Monday, 19 May 2014

Reading Habits #10: Controversial books

I’m currently reading a historical fiction about WWII by a writer who has been accused of never having written it. Do I continue to read it? I know I will because the book is so fascinating in a shocking and terrifying way that I can’t stop now.

The book is The Legion of the Damned, 1957, the first of several WWII novels written by Sven Hassel, a controversial Danish-born writer. His novels have been compared to pulp fiction.

The accuser is Erik Haaest, an equally controversial Danish journalist who apparently hated Sven Hassel and denounced all his books on several grounds.

Both Hassel and Haaest died in 2012.


The Legion of the Damned (‘Fordømtes Legion’ in Danish) is the first-person account of a deserter in the German Army narrated over years. It begins with his arrest by the dreaded SS and incarceration in a concentration camp and later transfer to a penal concentration camp where he is trained like an animal to fight on the Russian front. Anyone who is held captive in a penal camp is better off dead. Not half-dead, but dead. The deserter is a courageous German soldier who is put through weeks of brutal and inhuman training with little water, food or sleep. After the training, which is described in graphic detail, our “hero” is posted to a penal battalion that must fight a terrifying war through Europe and the Russian front. The deserter wears a uniform adorned with ordinary unit badges. He is not entitled to other ribbons even if he has earned them.

I’m still on page 59 of the 186-page novel. In just those pages I have asked myself a dozen times: how can any man treat another like this? Yet they did, in this war and in every other war, or genocide, before and after.

Sven Hassel tells us that the narrator of The Legion of the Damned is none other than Sven himself who came back from the war and recounted his experiences through fourteen translated books which sold very well in the sixties and seventies. He has been forgotten since then.

Hassel’s literary success was, however, marred by the controversy: Erik Haaest, whose father was involved with the Danish Resistance, believed that Hassel never went to war, that he stayed put in occupied Denmark, spoke to those who actually fought the war on the Russian front, had the first book ghostwritten, and got his wife to write the rest. Not only that, Haaest was also convinced that Sven was actually Børge Pedersen, a member of the auxiliary Danish police force created by the Gestapo. Apparently, Hassel did not deny he was Pedersen.
 

Although the internet gives some credence to Haaest’s version, there is no evidence that Hassel, described as an anti-war writer, did not author the books and tell the world his frightening wartime stories.

For the reader there is a way out of the dilemma: if you even remotely believe Erik Haaest’s account, then read the book as war fiction. All of Sven Hassel's novels, translated into some twenty-five languages and sold in the millions, were immensely popular and at least some of them need to be read. I'm basing my opinion on 59 pages and just this one book.

But would you read a book whose authorship is questioned? I would in this case.



For previous Reading Habits, see under Labels.

20 comments:

  1. I probably would read it. How much credence I gave it would depend on my thinking about the author.

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    1. Charles, I'm inclined to go with the author as I think he actually wrote all the books.

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  2. Prashant: "O, what a tangled web we weave when we practice to deceive" - Sir Walter Scott.

    Once deception begins the truth is elusive.

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    1. Bill, it is difficult to say who is telling the truth and who is not. This first book by Sven Hassel is well-written and it has dark humour.

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  3. When I was a teeneager, my English lit professor very wisely repeated the old maxim to trust the text and not the author and I still believe that implicit (my professor, sadly no longer with us, was a real inspiration) - you know Prashant, these books were everywhere when I was growing up, but I never picked one up - I am very curious now, thanks very much.

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    1. Sergio, you're welcome. In this case I think I'd trust the text, as your professor rightly said, for there is something authentic about the book which may be attributed to the excellent translation. I'm curious about his other books in the series.

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  4. I bought a book earlier this year because of this very fact. Assassin of Secrets by Q.R. Markham - apparently it was a lot of pieces stitched together from other books plus some of his own work I would guess. It initially got some good reviews before he was outed and the book was withdrawn from sale for a period. Not yet read it.

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    1. Col, I know I have heard of Q.R. Markham though I can't tell you where. Is his book back into circulation?

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    2. You can still get it secondhand. Here's a link to the Amazon UK listing. You can also read some irate reviews! http://www.amazon.co.uk/Assassin-Secrets-Q-R-Markham/dp/1444727583/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1400731046&sr=8-1&keywords=markham+assassin+of+secrets

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    3. Prashant: If you want to read more on Markham / Rowan I wrote a post at http://mysteriesandmore.blogspot.ca/2011/11/quentin-rowan-literary-thief.html.

      The post has links to other sources.

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    4. Bill, thank you for reverting with the link to your post. I read it and I was surprised to read that H.G.Wells had resorted to plagiarism. I'd, of course, heard about the legal issues concerning THE DA VINCI CODE. It'd be near impossible for editors and publishers to check every manuscript for "literary theft" before publication.

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  5. Researching a bit more into Haaest makes me question him. Yeah, I would read this particular book.

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    1. David, I'm now halfway through the book and I quite like it, both for the style, which is a credit to the translator, and the plot. It is encouraging me to try his other books.

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  6. You already have the book in your possession. You've started reading it. The question is, are you invested enough to keep reading?

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    1. Rebecca, you have a point. As I said in the opening paragraph, the book has grabbed my attention and I intend to see it through. I've reached the halfway mark and it's still looking good.

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  7. I guess I go with Rebecca. If you are at the halfway mark and still intrigued, what can you lose? Somebody wrote it, and it tells a story. Now if it were boring...

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    1. Tracy, it's definitely not boring. Besides, my interest in war fiction is keeping me glued to it. The only issue I have is that the book is rather slow and kind of verbose.

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  8. Interesting question. Brings up the issue of bestseller memoirs over here (even with celebrity endorsements, like Oprah) that have turned out to be bogus.

    A weekly ethics column in the NY Times this weekend raised the issue of using purposely misleading pen names to sell books. You tread in this post on a complicated subject. I would probably not stick with a book if I thought it was being misrepresented, although the story you tell of this Danish writer would make an interesting novel.

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    1. Ron, thank you. I've heard about celebrity memoirs and biographies being ghostwritten, but I have never read any myself. In this particular case I'm inclined to go with Sven Hassel as the real author of the book although I suspect he may have also collected a lot of material from others who went to war on the Russian front and elsewhere. He provides a fairly believable and graphic account of his training as a penal battalion soldier as well as after his capture by the Russian army. Either way he appears to have done his research well. I agree, his own story as a writer would be interesting.

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