CHWP A.9 Tirvengadum, "Linguistic Fingerprints and Literary Fraud"

1. Introduction

In the mid-nineteen-seventies, France witnessed one of the most elaborate hoaxes ever to be played on the literary scene when Romain Gary, a well known French author, published a few novels under the name of Émile Ajar. The main reason for this subterfuge was that Gary, already a well-known figure in France (a war hero, a "chevalier de la légion d'honneur", and a recipient of the Prix Goncourt -- France's highest literary award), wanted to escape from the context in which critics and readers alike had pegged him, and have his novels judged on their own merits and not on his established reputation.

His first Ajar novel, Gros-Câlin, immediately attracted the attention of critics and readers alike and became a best-seller, while new novels published under the Gary name were not as successful. When a few astute critics noticed similarities between Gary and Ajar, Gary vehemently denied having any connection with Ajar. He then persuaded his nephew, Paul Pavlowich, to impersonate Ajar. To quash any further rumour that he was Ajar, Gary even accused Ajar of plagiarising him.

In 1975, with increasing paranoia, Gary wrote a second Ajar novel, La Vie devant soi, which became an immediate success; very soon afterwards, Gary/Ajar was awarded the Prix Goncourt. He thus became the first author (and presumably the last one) to receive this award twice -- something that is strictly forbidden by the Goncourt academy.

It was after Romain Gary's suicide in 1980 that two books -- L'Homme que l'on croyait, published in 1981 by Paul Pavlowich, and the posthumous confession by Gary, Vie et mort d'Émile Ajar, also published in 1981 -- enabled readers to demystify the double disguise: Ajar was the pseudonym of Gary and not of Paul Pavlowich. Critics, then, began to notice similarities between the Gary and the Ajar novels in terms of ideas, characters, images, recurring motifs and phrasings. But so far, no one has undertaken a comparative analysis of the Gary and Ajar literary style using statistical methods.

2. Hypothesis

Nearly all experts of literary style, from Buffon to Roland Barthes, postulate that style is dictated by the subconscious and forms the "genetic" fingerprint of a writer's work. This implies, in the first place, that it is impossible to disguise one's style and, in the second place, that works written under a pseudonym should contain the genetic fingerprint of the writer. If Buffon's assertion that "le style c'est l'homme même" (style makes the writer) is true, the Émile Ajar corpus should prove to be statistically similar to the Romain Gary corpus.

The work of Romain Gary provides thus an excellent example for the study of authorship attribution -- which is, itself, the analysis of stylistic traits of an author as an index of authenticity. In this paper we will deal mainly with vocabulary distribution as an element of style. Firstly, we will look at high frequency words and, secondly, we will look at synonyms as style discriminants. These two methodologies are based on the well-known works by John F. Burrows Computation into Criticism: A Study of Jane Austen's Novels and an Experiment in Method (Burrows 1987) and a study of style of The Federalist Papers undertaken by Mosteller and Wallace (Mosteller and Wallace 1964). Burrows' assertion rests on the premise that the essential element of an author's style is not confined in the rare lexical words likely to evoke love, hate or war, but in the forty or fifty unambiguous and most common word types in the entire corpus. In their analysis of The Federalist Papers, Mosteller and Wallace focus their research mainly on the use of synonyms such as while and whilst, on and upon, as style discriminants to make their conclusions.

3. Methodology

In order to test if the Gary corpus is statistically similar to the Ajar corpus, I scanned four Gary novels, two of which were published by Gallimard under the Gary name: Au-delà de cette limite votre ticket n'est plus valable (Gary 1975a) and Clair de femme (Gary 1977), and two of which were published by Le Mercure de France under the Ajar name: Gros-Câlin (Gary 1974) and La Vie devant soi (Gary 1975b). As Romain Gary's literary career spanned nearly thirty years, these four books, all written within a four year period, were chosen to avoid problems associated with change in style over time.

After the scanning process, alphabetical concordances and word counts (using the Oxford Condordance Program [OCP 1989] and WordCruncher [WordCruncher 1988]) were established. From these, another program sorted out the words in descending order, yielding a list of highest frequency words in the Ajar and Gary novels. As well, because testing Ajar against Gary would not in itself have been conclusive, other twentieth-century French novels were included in the tests: Camus' L'Étranger (Camus 1942), Gide's L'Immoraliste (Gide 1902) and La Porte étroite (Gide 1904), and Mauriac's Le Noeud de vipères (Mauriac 1932); for these novels, I consulted a series of texts held in the ARTFL database (ARTFL 1997).

While it is true that the time-span for these eight novels ranges from 1902 to 1975, it is safe to assume that French language, syntax, grammar and usage will not have changed drastically (if at all) within that time frame. Moreover, these additional four novels were chosen because they are of similar lengths to the Gary and Ajar books, they belong to the same genre and, in all of them (as in the Gary and Ajar novels), the narrator is intradiegetic. A list of high frequency words compiled by Gunnell Engwall (Engwall 1974) made up of the most common words in French novels for the period 1962 to 1968 was also included in this study. Most of the work was done on keywords and not lemmas.

The first part of the research focuses on the sixty most frequent words in each novel and the Engwall corpus. Table 1 gives the percentage of these words in each novel and the Engwall corpus.

The top sixty types constitute between 45.95% and 53.66 % of the entire corpus. (For the identity of these words and their occurrences per thousand, see the first nine columns of Table 2.) Except for the novel La Vie devant soi, where de occurs at the relatively low frequency of 23.32 per thousand, de is the most frequent type in all the other novels and the Engwall corpus. The most frequent type in La Vie devant soi is et, which ranks about fourth in the other novels and the Engwall corpus. There are many other similar examples in Table 2. To establish if the difference observed in the frequency at which these words occur is statistically significant, three statistical tests -- Student's t-test, the Pearson correlation Coefficient, and the Chi-squared test -- will be employed.

4. Student's t-test

The t-test (which is a variation of the Standard Normal Curve but is used on small sample sizes) is a method that will allow us to estimate the mean value of a population, when we have no information on the standard deviation of that population (in other words, all French novels having a first person narrator and published in the twentieth Century) to which all the novels in this study belong.

Table 2 shows the mean value for each type in the 8 novels and the Engwall corpus under the symbol mu. (For example the mean value for de is 33.74). The t-test will also help us determine if the values obtained might merely be expected to occur by chance alone. For this test, we must choose an alpha level (or a Confidence Interval), which in this case is the 0.01 (or the 99% Confidence Interval). This means that all values that fall within two boundaries established by the 99% Confidence Interval would do so ninety-nine percent of the time. Any value that falls outside these boundaries would have a 1% likelihood of occurring by chance alone. As we are only dealing with 60 words for each category, this means that very few observations (or only 0.6 observations) should fall outside these boundaries. Table 2 shows these values.

The last two columns in Table 2 show the boundaries within which all values established by the 99% Confidence Interval would fall. All the novels and the Engwall corpus have observations falling outside these boundaries. They are as seen in Table 3.

At the 99% Confidence Interval, most of the novels have between 6.67% and 30% of their observations falling outside the boundaries, whereas La Vie devant soi has more than 50% of the observations falling outside the boundaries. This establishes nothing conclusive, except to show that La Vie devant soi is quite different from the other novels in this study and has to be investigated further. A statistical test that is quite useful in this case is the Pearson Correlation Coefficient.

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