A short screed: When is a not-a-roman-à-clef a roman-à-clef after all?

I’d been meaning to post this up for a few days now but a brief Twitter conversation riffing on a Tweet from @nikeshshukla (Writers LOVE it when people ask how much of their work is based on their real life.”) has given me the impetus to quickly get it up there.

As part of an extended, second-half-of-the-year Javier Marías jag I recently read his early novel All Souls and immediately followed it with The Dark Back of Time, the memoir he wrote in response to the sort of scandal that arose following the novel’s publication, which many people read as being based on his two years spent teaching at Cambridge. The memoir/essay is fine reading (not as exquisite as the novels) and is sensitive and sensible on the subject of exactly what links it is possible, in the end, to draw between fiction and ‘real life’.

But when I came to this passage, I just had to laugh. In it, Marías is back in Cambridge, talking to some of his old friends about the novel, which is already the subject of gossip. This is the novelist himself speaking:

“Well, I still don’t know exactly what kind of novel it will be, I don’t know much about my books until I’m done with them, and even then. But of course it won’t be a roman à clef about all of you. I don’t think my colleagues should worry about that. Though a few may insist on seeing it that way, nevertheless, or believe they recognize descriptions of themselves.

You know how it is, the fact that I lived here will be enough to create suspicion, people always think we’re less imaginative, less capricious than we are. And the truth is that I wouldn’t like it if anyone were upset, I’m thinking espe­cially of Alec, Fred and Pring-Mill, not so much of John or of you three, you’re more frivolous and I say that as a compli­ment. Philip certainly wouldn’t have worried me, either.”

Alec Dewar, that was the name I gave, in All Souls, to a character some people identified as the real person I will now, as with Rylands, call by his alleged fictional name and nicknames —the Ripper, the Inquisitor, the Butcher, the Hammer. Alec Dewar was a solemn man who strove to give the impression that he was severe and unyielding. In fact he seemed to me not to know what to do with himself after the close of the work day…

So, let me get this straight, Javier. The novel’s characters are not based on real people, though of course some people will insist on seeing themselves in those characters – and here you’re thinking of one person, whose anonymity you will protect by calling him by the name of the character he thinks is himself… under which moniker you then proceed to give a far longer and more detailed character sketch than anything actually in the novel. And yet, when another one of your colleagues, later in the book, does the same thing (using your character names to refer to the people you claim they don’t disguise – but whom everyone else assumes they do) you are horrified!

Whatever else this book is and does, it certainly can’t be accused of clearing things up.

That is what I think my grandmother, had she been in the habit of saying such things, would have called front.

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