Do authors betray their loved ones with fictionalized accounts of their lives — and does the answer matter for the reader? Tim Parks explores the morally murky territory between fiction and memoir:
The question is: Can a novel that will affect the author’s closest relationships be written without any concern for the consequences? Will the story perhaps be “edited” to avoid the worst? Or is awareness of the possible reaction part of the energy feeding the book? Italo Svevo’s Coscienza di Zeno begins with a hilarious account of Zeno’s attempts to stop smoking, always stymied by his decision to treat himself to l’ultima sigaretta, the last cigarette, usually one of the highest quality. Friends were aware this was largely autobiographical. The novel continues with Zeno’s courting of three sisters; eventually rejected by the two prettiest, he marries the plain one. Again his wife would have been aware of elements from his own life. And now we have the story of a love affair, its various stages recounted in the most meticulous and again hilarious, all-too-convincing psychological detail. Finally, we proceed to chapters on Zeno’s business life, which much resembles Svevo’s own running of a paint company. Nevertheless the author’s wife always stated with great serenity that she was sure her husband had never betrayed her, nor was she shaken in this belief by the fact that his last words, when pulled out of a car accident were, reputedly, “Give me l’ultima sigaretta.”
So, was the introduction of the affair into the novel a kind of trial for her? She had to believe it was just made up. Or was there an agreement between them, explicit or otherwise, that whatever they knew would be kept to themselves, any truth in the matter forever denied? Did Svevo have to introduce the mistress because the shape of the novel required it? If so, wouldn’t there be a certain anxiety that his wife wouldn’t see it that way, and wouldn’t that affect the way he wrote these chapters? What I am suggesting is that in the genesis of a novel, or any work of literature, there will often be private tensions that the general reader will not be aware of playing a part in the creative decisions made. If, then, a reader becomes aware of these tensions, that awareness will inevitably alter the way the book is read.