It's all about who it's not about; The roman a clef is more insulting than flattering
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 22 May 2007)

Brash, ambitious but chronically foolish Christopher Moltisanti, Mafia goombah and would-be moviemaker, modelled the crime boss in his debut slasher film, Cleaver, on Tony Soprano, his beloved uncle, mentor and protector, the Mafia boss Christopher once hoped to succeed.

A few episodes ago, Christopher held a special screening of the completed film for his fellow sociopaths and their wives. Everyone noticed the resemblance between the boss in the film and the Tony Soprano they all knew. Christopher, falling into line with an ancient literary tradition, had made Cleaver the film equivalent of a roman a clef, a novel with a key.

Ideally, a book or film in that category stands on its own merits and impresses people who never learn which real human stands behind which fictional character. That's true of the most famous roman a clef in movies, which happens also to be the most praised of all films, Citizen Kane. People enjoy it who have never heard of William Randolph Hearst, on whom John Foster Kane was based.

Still, those possessing the key understand the writer's or filmmaker's meanings on a secondary level; they can see it as a work of revenge, for instance, or a tribute to the person behind the story, or both. The tradition took hold in 17th-century France, when the courtiers of Louis XIV wrote parodies of various aristocrats under fictional but not impenetrable pseudonyms. This literary contrivance has an appeal all its own, combining the pleasures of narrative art with the challenge of a crossword puzzle and the titillation of a gossip column.

It can also be dangerous. Christopher revealed bitter feelings about Tony, depicting him as a boss who tells underlings, "What's mine is mine; what's yours is mine." Moreover, he included a sexual adventure of Tony's, known to some at the screening but not to the longsuffering Mrs. Soprano.

At first flattered, Tony decided he was insulted after he heard the views of his friends -- a common though not universal reaction among roman a clef subjects. Eventually, his resentment had fatal results that some might consider tragic.

I happened to see the Sopranos episode about that film-within-a- film the same week I was reading Leo Kolber: A Life (2003), the memoirs of the closest associate of the Bronfman family. Aside from its other virtues, this book contains an unusual response from a roman a clef victim. Most who suffer this literary assault prefer to suffer in silence, lest they publicize their unflattering portrait. But Kolber devotes a couple of pages to his experience with the late Mordecai Richler's 1989 novel, Solomon Gursky Was Here.

That book was based, in amazingly close detail, on the Bronfman family and its whisky interests. Kolber had known Richler socially and occasionally confided in him. Now he found himself depicted as Harvey Schwartz -- in Kolber's words "a relentless asskisser, not to mention a paranoid hypochondriac who wore argyle socks." Argyle socks: That may have been the ultimate insult.

Nor did Kolber's wife, Sandra, escape. She had written a book called Bitter Sweet Lemons and Love. Harvey Schwartz's wife, Becky, wrote Hugs, Pain, and Chocolate Chip Cookies. They were shown as "a couple of Jewish social climbers."

Richler wouldn't admit for a second that his book was about the Bronfmans. As he said, "I will not have seven years of my life reduced to gossip." Richler was following a long tradition, denial being expected of all roman a clef authors.

Certainly that was the position of Somerset Maugham after the appearance of his terrific comic novel, Cakes and Ale, in 1930. The sycophantic young literary man in the book, he said, was definitely not based on the annoying Hugh Walpole, nor was the dotty old poet a portrait of Thomas Hardy.

Maugham may have founded the tradition of the Not-About Book. Just as Richler's novel was not about the Bronfmans, so Lauren Weisberger's The Devil Wears Prada, and its subsequent film version, were not (Weisberger said) about Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue. Dominick Dunne writes society novels that are not about all sorts of nearly famous people. In many cases, the central question to be asked about a novel is, "Precisely whom is it not about?"

No one, however, argued that Simone de Beauvoir's The Mandarins was not about her companion, Jean-Paul Sartre, her lover, Nelson Agren, and two of her political enemies, Arthur Koestler and Albert Camus. Later, in an autobiography, she wrote much the same story, using real names. Nor did anyone suggest that Joe Klein's Primary Colors (1996) was not about Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign. And, of course, there's no disputing that Saul Bellow's final book, Ravelstein, was about his close friend, Allan Bloom. Still, Bellow provided room for speculation by including brief portraits of eminent scholars Bloom didn't like, notably Mircea Eliade, the historian of religion.

Among roman a clef books of recent decades, one of my favourites is John Banville's The Untouchable, based on Anthony Blunt, the renowned art critic who turned out to be a Soviet spy. Banville brings his version of Blunt (renamed Victor Maskell) to life as a combination of aesthete and low-life schemer who despises British society but enjoys his rise to knighthood and appointment as keeper of the queen's pictures. Banville persuasively depicts Blunt's several worlds and (for those who imagine they understand exactly what he's doing) throws in a cynical Roman Catholic alcoholic obviously based on Graham Greene, though there's no reason to think Blunt and Greene had any significant contact. (Perhaps he's there just so that Banville can say, "He was genuinely curious about people -- the sure mark of the second-rate novelist.")

Banville explains the motives of a spy as well as I've ever seen it done: Spying offers the unique power to be and not to be, "to be oneself and at the same time be another."

Few are delighted to find themselves hiding behind a character in a book of fiction, but occasionally a victim with a secure sense of self will decide (sometimes it takes a while) that this is hardly a dishonourable fate. Leo Kolber turns out to be a good sport. Solomon Gursky Was Here, he's decided, is a fine book, "So in a certain sense, I was flattered to be in it." Tony Soprano, famously insecure, could hardly be expected to exhibit such equanimity.

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