Friday, March 30, 2012


Everyone has a tale to tell and once told is fair game for an artist to sculpt, choreograph or fold into a wider narrative….or is it? Suppose you had a moment in your life when you took a brave and principled stand in the face of career-threatening risk and proudly related that episode to a friend.

It was in the early fifties when Cold War hysteria caused churches and state universities to require loyalty oaths be signed. He was a professor at UCLA and he refused, citing academic freedom even though his subject had no political association. He not only declined to sign the statement but rallied others to follow his lead. He retained his position and his efforts eventually won the day.

A colleague and aspiring writer-friend appropriated his travail but turned it around so that the professor not only signed the loyalty statement but also named others as suspected subversives. My friend, the professor, related this to me many years later, still feeling betrayed by the writer. Was this a violation of trust or a rather the product of an impoverished imagination?

Can real-life people become characters in a book with a simple name change and have their lives distorted and defamed? Apparently it is all grist for an author’s mill. Maybe every figure in a novel is a composite even if the writer thinks he or she sprung fully-fleshed from the imagination.

Truman Capote insinuated himself as a celebrity-clown in New York’s dinner party scene. Was Holly Golightly based on Carol Grace, Walter Matthau’s wife, as speculated? He gathered notes from around the table and fabricated the rest. Shocking, Claude Rains (Captain Renault) may be heard saying.

In a recently-read novel about a violinist in London, a minor character named Nicholas Spare is introduced. He is a music critic, described in faintly negative terms. The real-life person, Nicolas Spice, stepped out of his several pages, took umbrage and wrote a rather savage review of the book for the London Times Literary Supplement.

The line between the real and fabricated is ever blurry. Poetic license seems to have been conferred on anyone with a pencil, tape recorder or I-Pad, as if published writers are those who listen harder in crowded elevators or overhear more from the next booth
at the deli. It is better to pick up the gist of a story with antennae in a crowd than subverting a friend’s brave act.

Even Proust’s masterpiece was a novel nearly indistinguishable from memoir. I’m sure those depicted knew who they were or a least the names generated lively speculation. Shakespeare, no doubt, also had to disguise his subjects and dodge the authorities. Time renders the allusions to character less relevant. What makes the work endure, as with the Bard, is the unsurpassed language, profound insight into the human psyche and astonishing reach of his imagination.

1 comment:

  1. So, Norm, do you lift moments from your life and those of your friends? I believe most if not all writers steal bits and pieces from their own lives and the lives of the people they meet.