The most striking thing about Melissa Katsoulis’s Telling Tales: A History of Literary Hoaxes is its cover, a faded-looking pastiche of an old 1950s Penguin, coffee-stained in places and with a strip of sellotape covering a tear. It suits her subject matter perfectly, since her book is a sketchy but entertaining survey of literary hoaxes, from James Macpherson (‘Ossian’) and Thomas Chatterton in the eighteenth century to the bogus misery memoirs of more recent times; other ingredients include the pernicious Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Clifford Irving’s imaginary memoirs of Howard Hughes, and the activities of Archibald Belaney, the boy from Hastings who reinvented himself as Grey Owl, a Red Indian chief, and retired on the proceeds. Hoaxers’ motives range from the mercenary to the malicious, from a desire to irritate the powers-that-be to a pathetic wish to make up for an unhappy childhood or a lifelong sense of failure or insignificance – most obviously manifested in the case of ‘Binjamin Wilkomirski’, the most notorious practitioner of the bogus Holocaust memoir.
All too often those who should have known better have been bamboozled. Hugh Trevor-Roper’s enemies in academia must have rubbed their hands with glee when the Hitler diaries – which the great historian had declared to be genuine – were revealed to be the work of a ‘low-rent