Ah, yes, the roman à clef – that most juicy of literary genres that blends fiction and biography, and often paints a thinly veiled portrait of real people, gossip and events that are meant to fool nobody.
Writers like James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, D. H. Lawrence and Truman Capote deliberately unleashed elements of the roman à clef (literally, ‘novel with a key’) on their public, with sensational - and sometimes damaging - results.
And now Martin Amis is entering the game with an autobiographical novel inspired by his friend Christopher Hitchens, who died of cancer in 2011. Inside Story will chronicle the writer’s romantic affairs, the death of his polemical friend and the 9/11 attacks, as well as the many other ‘vibrant characters who have helped define’ him.
But while we wait for that to come out in September 2020, here is a selection of other works of semi-autobiography that got the literary world talking.
Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday (2018)
In the opening scene of Asymmetry, Alice, a young editorial assistant at a publishing house, is reading on a New York bench when a famous novelist plonks down beside her with a Mister Softee ice cream cone. They meet again a few weeks later. This time, he – Ezra Blazer – brings an ice cream for her. ‘Multiple-Pulitzer Prize winners don’t go around poisoning people,’ she thinks. ‘Are you game?’ he says. And there begins the affair.
To those in the business, Ezra bears an undeniable resemblance to the writer Philip Roth. A tall, American Pulitzer-prize winning novelist. Served in the army. Won loads of awards except, famously, the Nobel Prize. Oh, by the way, when she was in her 20s, Lisa Halliday had an affair with the author ...Philip Roth.
It’s not quite a tell-all expose of the mind behind Portnoy's Complaint and American Pastoral. But rather an affectionate, ‘fictionalised’ semi-autobiographical portrait of a young writer’s coming of age in the company of a much older genius. It is also a deeply clever exploration of reputation, representation and gender. In a recent interview, Halliday said she and Roth remained friends until his death in 2018. He read the book before he died, and told her he thought it a ‘considerable achievement’. He was right.
Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes (1998)
When Silvia Plath died by suicide in 1963, her husband Ted Hughes became reviled in certain circles as the callous spouse who left his wife for another, contributed to her mental health struggles and mismanaged her estate and legacy. Birthday Letters was his riposte.
Published 35 years after her death – and largely addressed to her – the collection of poems paints a harrowingly intimate portrait of their relationship, from the first time they met in 1956 (her eyes were ‘a crush of diamonds, incredibly bright, bright as a crush of tears.’), to their marriage, to her death (‘You were the jailer of your murderer-/ Which imprisoned you.’)
It's not strictly a roman à clef because it's explicitly about Plath. But rarely has any collection of poetry merited front-page articles on national newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic – it was the literary sensation of the 1990s. It’s his side of the story, and a very powerful one at that. What a shame, one must admit, that we’ll never really know hers.
Heartburn by Nora Ephron (1983)
‘Everything is copy’, quipped Nora Ephron, the brilliantly scabrous writer and novelist. Names are changed in Heartburn, her 1983 autobiographical novel (extracts of which can be read in The Most of Nora Ephron, left), but it wasn’t difficult for those familiar with East Coast power couples of the Seventies to spot who was who.
Ephron’s second husband, journalist Carl Bernstein, cheated on her with politician and broadcaster Margaret Jay. The resulting impact plays out under the guise of Rachel Samstat (Ephron), Mark Feldman (her husband) and the unfortunately named Thelma Rice.
With thinly veiled dinner parties attended by characters drawn from Ephron’s real politico friends, such as Richard and Barbara Cohen and Watergate newspaperman Ben Bradlee, there’s plenty to pick apart here.