Adam’s Rib

What writer of fiction has not been affronted, when faced with journalists asking on which living personage this or that character is based? What writer has not read, in a review of her or his book, that so-and-so is a portrait of such and such, and what writer has not been subjected to the curiosity of friends, acquaintances, and even total strangers who would like to have their prurient guessing-game confirmed, a bull’s eye scored on the writer as target?

What is it these impertinent interrogators want from us, the writers? An admission that your Albertine was actually gay Albert? That Malone was Beckett’s neglected grandfather? That Nabokov alias Humbert Humbert didn’t only chase butterflies?

The writer has to recognize that the guessing-game, the prying and prurience and often absurdity, is merely a vulgar expression of a mystery that the relation of fiction to the appearance of reality is, to those who are not writers. And because that relation is part mystery to writers themselves, and what we do know we fully expect to be disbelieved or misconstrued—you have to be a performer of the mystery to understand it, as has been said of love-making—we are offended by the crass approach of curiosity and turn aside the presumptive question with a flat denial.

No—so-and-so is not you-think-you-know-who; then where has he come from? Is he, so life-like, supposed to be some sort of ectoplasm foaming from the writer?

Which is what we writers imply when we snap back that he is imaginary.

It is beyond dispute that no character in fiction, even if conceived as an ape, a beetle, a fantasm, is without connection with real persons experienced by the writer within contact of sight, sound, and touch, or secondhand through experience recorded by others in one medium or another, and whether or not the writer is always aware of this.

As a typology is created through the superimposition of transparencies of many individuals so that the features that recur predominantly become the Identikit, so for the individual fictional character—the very antithesis of a typological collective—the writer selects and mixes differences in what the roving imagination seizes upon to its purpose.

That is the half-truth that makes the denial a half-lie.

For this creature formed from the material and immaterial—what has breathed upon the writer intimately, brushed by him in the street, and the ideas that shape behavior in his personal consciousness of his time and place, directing the flesh in action—this fictional creature is brought into the synthesis of being by the writer’s imagination alone, is not cloned from some nameable Adam’s rib or Eve’s womb. Imagined: yes. Taken from life: yes.

What do we writers have to work on as looters in that fragmentation of the possibilities of observation, of interaction, of grasp, in the seen and unseen, constant flux and reflux, the conscious and unconscious defined as “life”?

Even if one wanted to replicate, there is no seeing, knowing, the depth and whole of anyone, and therefore…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.