Reading is weird. Give me a book 300+ pages and I can finish it in a matter of days. Give me a book that’s less than 200 pages and it takes me well over a week. That was the case with Lee Israel’s memoir. I don’t know why it took me so long to get through it. I guess it’s just my general mood at the moment. Of course, a consequence of it taking so long is that I can’t really remember it all. Considering our book club meeting isn’t until next week, I might be in a bit of trouble.
I enjoyed the film adaptation of Lee Israel’s memoir, so I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about the book. I assumed that the film would have taken a few liberties with the truth. Although, the basic story was sure to be pretty similar. The story of a one-time critically acclaimed biographer, Lee Israel, and how a change in circumstance set her on a path to crime. That crime was forging more than 400 letters of dead authors and actors. Alongside the story of her crime and eventual apprehension, Israel presents some of the letters that she forged. The letters that managed to fool so many dealers and collectors.
There’s always going to be something kind of tricky about a true crime memoir that the perpetrator will want to appear sympathetically whilst also showing some acceptance of their wrongdoing. In terms of tone, Lee Israel doesn’t immediately come across as sympathetic. She’s a rough and often hostile figure. She is clearly witty but has an edge to her descriptions. I enjoy the fact that she presents herself honestly and there is plenty to find funny in her brusque narration. And it’s not to say that you can’t sympathise with her. She is a woman who finds herself in an impossible situation that she tries and fails to get herself out of by going the traditional route.
It also kind of helps that she is targeting people who deal in memorabilia and collectables. There’s a scene near the end of the book when Israel finds out that one of the forgeries she sold for less than $100 is being sold for $2500. Not only does this help to suggest that her crime is sort of victimless but it also provides an interesting insight into this section of society. The greed at the heart of the memorabilia industry. It’s not just about owning a piece of history or getting your hands on something written by your literary heroes. The goal is to make the most money out of people. There was definitely potential to have run with this idea but I get that it’s not really the point of the memoirs.
Instead, we get to see the methods of a white-collar criminal. The most fascinating moments in the book are when she discusses her process. The tension of being under the watchful eye of the librarians, trying to copy the signatures and then researching the figures. She is caught out at one point because she references Noel Coward’s sexuality, which is something he’d never have done. The problem arose because Israel used his diaries as inspiration for her letters. It takes quite the mind to be able to handle this kind of task. She copied the style of multiple writers with such accuracy that her letters were cited in literary works about their supposed authors.
As a figure, Lee Israel is fascinating. She’s also a talented enough writer to make this short memoir enjoyable enough. You won’t get much insight into the wider world or the consequences of her action. Instead of delving too deep, the writer favours a pithy or scathing comment. I also think there is a lot more interest in the first stage of her criminal life than in the second. Her time as a forger is slightly more romantic than her time as a thief. A phase in which she simply steals letters and has an ex-con acquaintance sell them on for her. So, I guess my attention started to drift a little in this section but I was never bored. If this had been longer, I’m not sure it would have held up but, at less than 150 pages, it’s worth a look.