D J Taylor on the Roman-à-Clef

In this week’s TLS, D J Taylor has contributed an essay in the Freelance column entitled “Write who you know: Ending up in a roman-à-clef.” This begins with a discussion of the four post-war novels written by William Cooper, starting with Scenes from Provincial Life. The models depicted as characters in the novel (including one based on Cooper’s friend, the novelist C P Snow) were easily recognized, but this was not a problem until the second installment (Scenes from  Metropolitan Life) when one of those portrayed took umbrage, and the book’s publication was delayed by 30 years. Taylor continues:

All this raises questions about what might be called the psychology of the roman-à-clef, and above all the reactions of people who fear that they may have ended up in one. Naturally, there are fictional models whose first thought […] is to threaten a libel writ. But there is also a decent-sized number of people who are prepared to tolerate their exposure or, in exceptional cases, are even flattered by it. Evelyn Waugh, asked how he had got away with projecting Peter Rodd into the scapegrace Basil Seal who dines off his mistress at a cannibal banquet in Black Mischief (1932), used to say that you could write what you liked about anyone in a novel as long as you were prepared to concede that they were attractive to women. Rodd, at least, was merely a victim of authorial design. But what about the people who actively want to be put into books?

The discussion continues, moving on to Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time and Barbara Skelton’s dual role as both a model and a writer (one of whose novels had to be withdrawn after two models objected to their fictional descriptions). The essay concludes with a discussion of how authors such as Charles Dickens and Simon Raven had to alter characters appearing in novels published in serial format (David Copperfield and Alms for Oblivion, respectively) to change their concept in later installments after the character models objected to their original depictions. It concludes with Taylor’s description of his own appearance in a roman-à-clef (a poem, actually) by D J Enright. It would be unfair to reveal the ending, but it is worth searching it out on the internet.

In a recent article in Evelyn Waugh Studies ( “’Huxley’s Ape:’ Waugh in Scandinavia (August-September 1947)”, No 50.1, Spring 2019) this topic came up in a press conference convened in Copenhagen when Waugh made a stop there. The Danish newspaper Politiken printed a quote translated into Danish of one of Waugh’s statements which, translated back into English, says:

I’ve never been able to write a roman à clef. All of my figures are free fantasy, even though I have been as inspired by real life as any other novelist.

In Danish the name of the genre is Nøgleroman, literally translated as “key novel”. Here they have combined the French word for novel (also commonly used for that term in Danish) and the Danish word for key “Nøgle“. Google translate cannot manage this: “key Roman” is the best it can do, and it took me a while to work out what Waugh was talking about.

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