Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Key

There are a number of keys to be found in my desk, most of which have a purpose I readily remember, but among my trove there is a key that unlocks no recognition or memory whatsoever.

There are two basic approaches to cleaning house, the guilt-driven approach, which is perfunctory in nature, usually involving a quick vacuum and shifting piles of newspapers and magazines from one room to another; and the writing approach, which is more intense and thorough as the writer considers the implications of the current writing problem and accordingly processes or denies it.

I was in the latter, methodically cleaning my desk, when I came upon the key. Still no clue, and so I moved it to another room, which is a step taken toward discarding it entirely, avoiding future embarrassments of recognition.

The image of the key has remained however to trigger by association its literary association the roman a clef, which is the second of two French words having literary significance. The other, of course, is denouement or unknotting, a term we learn early on in our attempts to claim the more formal tools of writing fiction for our own toolkit.

Roman a clef is a novel with a key, meaning that the characters and incidents are slightly changed but not so much that knowledgeable readers will mistake the intent that they relate to real persons in real situations. In recent years the roman a clef has been given the wax job of cynicism whereby its contents must be truer than the biography because the identity and circumstances needed to be altered.

One of the more famous of romans a clef is Summerset Maugham's The Moon and Six Pence in which the Maugham character Charles Strickland bears more than passing similarity to the post-impressionist painter Paul Gauguin. It is a compelling enough story although far from the polished technique of other Maugham novels and, particularly, the gem-like hardness and clarity of his short fiction. Nor does it compare well to another Maugham roman a clef, Cakes and Ale, which takes its title from a memorable line in Twelfth Night. Cakes and Ale, which Maugham stoutly denied was based on real people and real events, is argued to be an accounting of the final years of the poet and novelist Thomas Hardy, his widow, and her subsequent romantic liaison with another novelist, Horace Walpole, best described as the Tom Clancy of his day. The Walpole-like character was mercilessly skewered, rendered as a feckless bumbler, and by indirection the widow of the late great novelist was added to the shiskebab skewer, her taste in taking up with such a man placing her somewhere between the onions and tomatoes. The matter actually came before an English court, which found Maugham's protestations interesting, given that there was another character in the novel, a medical doctor named William Ashenden, who spoke with a stutter, walked with a limp. Maugham, you see, had a medical degree, spoke with a slight stutter, and walked with a slight limp. Maugham also went on to write a novel called Ashenden, or The Secret Agent. Maugham was known to have had a deep reverence for Thomas Hardy. Thus the delicious gossip and speculation attendant on the roman a clef.

Another of my favorite romans a clef is Aldous Huxley's Chrome Yellow, in which one of the important characters, Mark Rampion, rings true to Huxley's friend, D. H. Lawrence, while another character bears comparison to John Middleton Murry. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night is widely recognized as a prism refracting the lives of two of Fitzgerald's expatriate friends, Gerald and Sara Murphy, and I still recall one of my undergraduate professors at UCLA inducing me to read the novels of Thomas Love Peacock because they contained so much, as he put it, delicious and accurate scandal. In my dear friend Barnaby Conrad's novel, Matador, the protagonist, Pacote, bears an eerie resemblance to the famed Spanish torero, Manolete. Indeed, Conrad and Manolete were friends. Yet another UCLA prof, knowing of my interest in Hawthorne, urged me to read The Blythedale Romance in order to get a sense of the individuals with whom Hawthorne lived and worked while in residence at the Utopian society called Brook Farm.

True enough, the roman a clef is a kind of historical core sampling. I first picked up and read Robert Penn Warren's All the Kings Men knowing it was based on the legendary Louisiana populist, Huey Long, thinking to get flavor rather than actual fact, because at that time I was more interested in flavor than actual fact.

The point I raise here begins in the form of a rhetorical question: Don't we all write romans a clef at some point in our career? We pull characters in from the sidewalks of our memory, subjecting them to casting calls as we prepare the dramatis personae of our novels and short stories, luxuriating in the convenience of being able to borrow a trait from one character, add it to the physique of another, and the ethnicity or lack thereof in yet another. We reset frustrating events in our life so that there is no longer the frustration of missed opportunity but rather instead the challenge foaming forth from met expectations. We return to fond memories, sometimes those involving persons no longer alive, rewriting them with the same tantivy we used in signaling a bartender for another round at some magical gathering. Years after the fact, I set down convivial events in a variety of places, but so many of them really began in The Old Spaghetti Factory and Excelsior Coffee House on Green near Grant in San Francisco, or in the Brass Rail on C Street in Virginia City, Nevada. Having got their essence to my liking, I lift them out of time and place and context and place them where they will do me the most good, in my current work, with a quick nod to the real individuals and events and places of the past.

Roman a clef. Novel with a key. The key opens the door to the inner landscape where all truth had its big bang at the moment of the individual writer's birth, spinning, expanding ever outward toward a common human destiny.

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