Floating in the froth with ‘roman a clefs’

Sean swims through the waters of life and literature.

Image By: By Dylan Moriarty

“A River Runs Through It.” “On the Road.” “All Quiet on the Western Front.” “The Bell Jar.” “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” What do these books have in common, you might ask? Well, for one, they’re all rooted in autobiography, and their official title is roman a clefs (“novels with keys” in French).

What distinguishes a roman a clef? Curiously, it requires a great deal of fidelity to its subjects. It is not merely based on autobiography. It is autobiography, in a sense, since the experiences of the author are so integral to the story. Sure, names are changed and the banner of fiction is draped over its mantle, but there’s no denying the source material.

It can be a roman a clef even when the experiences aren’t quite so real. Take “Tender is the Night” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The main characters, Dick and Nicole Diver, are based off a couple Fitzgerald  knew, Sara and Gerald Murphy. But he used a lot of material from his own life—especially Zelda Fitzgerald’s increasingly apparent schizophrenia—and mapped it onto the Murphys, or rather he took the Murphys and used them as masks to pantomime his own domestic struggles and conception of inadequacy and squandered talent.

Don’t get me wrong, “Tender is the Night” is a fantastic book, but the effect it creates is disquieting if you know the context. And with a roman a clef, you do know the context. The context is key. You question the whole experience.

Ernest Hemingway, who wrote several roman a clefs himself, including “The Sun Also Rises,” questioned the practice and told Fitzgerald so in a pretty striking letter:

“Goddamn it you took liberties with peoples’ pasts and futures that produced not people but damned marvelously faked case histories. You, who can write better than anybody can, who are so lousy with talent that you have to—the hell with it. Scott for gods [sic] sake write and write truly no matter who or what it hurts but do not make these silly compromises.”

Silly compromise or not, “Tender is the Night” raises questions of authenticity in literature, that perennial bogeyman of the arts. Because it is a great book, but it’s not necessarily true, is it the elements of truth or the fabrications that make it great?

Roman a clefs hinge on the experiences of the writer in order to be made. Without those experiences, it is no longer a roman a clef. It may just be a novel now. But is it “just” a novel?

Part of the romanticisation of roman a clefs—or, in a more cynical light, the fetishization—is the fact they happened, more or less, especially in American literature. We like it when things happen. Happening, happening, all day long. We like it when writers write about their lives, because it lives up to the image of the writer being an interesting person. We like it especially when their lives are grim and dark and full of misfortune, because we can empathize—really,  we can—and get all our accounts of ulcers and cirrhosis and mutilation without leaving our homes. To paraphrase a line in Chapter 16 of “Ulysses,” those writers are sailing the sea and they have taken the onus of doing so because it’s too hard for normal folks.

But this sets up a troubling paradigm. If the best and truest books are written out of experience, then if you’re not experiencing something worth writing about, you’re squandering your talent or your life. In addition, it propagates a myth that implies if you’re experiencing such interesting and relevant things, you can automatically write about them. It also sets up the trap wherein if what you’re writing isn’t true within the scope of experience, it is somehow less valuable than writing that correlates approximately to life.

Great writing can be born out of experience, but it can also be born out of living; living that takes you outside yourself and into the world, through it, through people and buildings and weather and ages. To paraphrase a line from Chapter 9 of “Ulysses” (the great life-tome), you walk through these things and more, but you’re always coming back to yourself. You can bring back experience, in whatever quantity, but to make use of it is a different question entirely. Life, on the other hand, is the current you immerse yourself in, and it can take you to gulfs and horizons you were hitherto unaware.

So get swimming.

Lose the clef to your roman? Shoot Sean an email at sreichard@wisc.edu and ask if he’s seen it.

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