In 1966 Thomas Pynchon published The Crying of Lot 49 to moderate acclaim. Groovy and jazzy, the novel, which centers on Oedipa Maas’ wiggy uncovering of the machinations, if such they be, of the malign Thurn und Taxis postal network, has proven over the years to be one of Pynchon’s most accessible and popular works. (It’s the one to start with, if you haven’t read any Pynchon.)
A year earlier, a Lithuanian-French writer named Romain Gary, known to me exclusively as the author of the source material upon which Sam Fuller’s late masterpiece White Dog was based, published a book called The Ski Bum. Gary noticed a discomfiting synchronicity: one of the characters in The Crying of Lot 49 had the same name as one of the characters in The Ski Bum.
This annoyed Gary, so he wrote to The New York Times to complain about it.
To the Editor:
With reference to Thomas Pynchon’s book “The Crying of Lot 49” I feel obliged to point out that the name “Genghis Cohn” has been borrowed by this author from my novel “The Ski Bum,” published one year ago. The name appears also in the title of my forthcoming novel “The Dance of Genghis Cohn.”
On July 17, 1966, Pynchon’s reply appeared as follows:
To the Editor:
In a recent letter to the editor, Romain Gary asserts that I took the name “Genghis Cohn” from a novel of his to use in a novel of mine, “The Crying of Lot 49.” Mr. Gary is totally in error. I have never read, skimmed, or otherwise seen any of his novels. I took the name Genghis Cohen from the name of Genghis Khan (1162-1227), the well-known Mongol warrior and statesman. If Mr. Gary really believes himself to be the only writer at present able to arrive at a play on words this trivial, that is another problem entirely, perhaps more psychiatric than literary, and I certainly hope he works it out.
New York City.
The 1966 exchange in The New York Times
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
V: A musical tribute to Thomas Pynchon by Richard and Mimi Fariña