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 no possibility of so-and-so being you-know-who, even if someone’s prepared to sue to assert this. Damages may be gained because of ugly motives or actions attributed by the author to a fictional character that the complainant avers is him- or herself; the odd fact is that the acceptable characteristics by which the complainant chooses to identify himself with the personage are no less fictional than the ones that are rejected as untrue and offensive. Of course, no libel law recognizes this…

The writer in relation to real personages is more like Primo Levi’s metamir,1 “a metaphysical mirror,” which “does not obey the law of optics but reproduces your image as it is seen by the person who stands before you” (my italics).

This comes to me as one of the closest definitions of the process of the imagination upon actuality. The writer is that person who stands before you. What he or she finds in the individual is not a working model to be dragged off and wired up to a book but a series of intimations the individual does not present to the ordinary mirror of the world.

Of these flashes—an always incomplete series of what the individual is (for the metamir image receives what she is not saying as she speaks, the anger in his eyes that belies his smile, the echo in her silences, the gagged messages signalled by gestures; what the writer remembers of him from a previous encounter, has heard recounted of her by others, et cetera)—of these flashes the writer retains one or two, perhaps, for future use in the personality of a quite different personage. For one of the few sure things the writer knows is that inconsistency is the consistency of human character. There simply is not enough there, of what can be grasped in a single individual to make a fictional character.


To be “life-like” a character always must be larger than life, more intense, compounded, and condensed in essence of personality than could exist materially. The abstract medium of the printed page must be overcome. The fragments of ultraperceptive knowledge are stowed away in the facility for which “filing system” as a convenient description will not do, because what the writer has within is a system that is both storing and working on, at the same time, material that is being added to, often over years.

This is more than memory; memory is random, does not categorize. This facility or faculty means that the images of the metamir are collected, here, there, at intervals or in a sudden rush, and some day transformed by the writer into one of his characters, called up in imagination in answer to a theme or giving rise to one.

If writers need to justify this subconscious process morally—although we assert the right to have no tendentious purpose, no message, the right to declare with Ibsen that “a book is not about, it is“—we lack no means to do so.

Graham Greene has a snooty Olympian answer on his existential journey: “When I came to write I was handing out alternative destinies to real people whom I had encountered.”

For Joseph Conrad what the writer does is “rescue work carried out in darkness…this snatching of vanished phases of turbulence.”2 “What is a novel,” he asks, “if not a conviction of our fellow-men’s existence strong enough to take upon itself a form of imagined life clearer than reality.”3

In my own life as a writer I have had the strange experience of preempting the moves of the prying game.

In the 1970s I wrote a novel in which one of the central characters was a revolutionary hero. It was unique in my fiction in that it did have an element of the tendentious—it was, for me, something of a coded homage paid to a such man, an anti-apartheid activist, who had died serving a life sentence, his ashes withheld from his daughters by the prison authorities of the day.

As a clue to this homage, as well as for the purposes of using the authentic rhetoric of the time for the public statements of my character, I did something I had never done before and have not done since: I reproduced an existing document, part of the speech made in court by an actual personage, a South African communist, when he was sentenced to life imprisonment.

There was an additional complication, by the way: the publication of the words of a convicted prisoner, whether communist or not, alive or dead, was then a treasonable offence under the law of my country.

I had known the man and his family, and had been awedly fascinated by the extraordinary condition of danger and self-discipline in what was openly evidenced as their close-knit life. I was not a casual acquaintance but had been by no means an intimate in their house; neither was I, although I was committed to the Left, a member of the revolutionary group which was more than their home.

I was the metamir standing before them.

The novel itself found its opening paragraphs from a single moment like that; I was waiting outside a prison to visit a friend detained for political interrogation, and there was the school-girl daughter of the man, presented to me, as it were, in the group of prison visitors, that strange assembly in whom social association is reduced to connection with the outcast: the offenders against the edicts of the social order, criminal or political, indiscriminately put behind bars.

What was she thinking? What was her sense of a family obligation that chose for her to stand there among the relatives of thieves and murderers?

She was in the gym frock and blazer of a conventional private school for young ladies; how did her genteel bourgeois teachers and classmates receive a girl whose father was in prison for treason against the state that protected their white privilege?

Of course, the writer in me quickly eclipsed the renderer of homage.

From that mystery, the facility that works upon while it stores fragments of perception, the snatched phases of turbulence that is existence both lived and observed by the writer, came the alternative lives of the man and the schoolgirl, created in the imagination but touching, here and there, perforce, the actual, since these imaginary lives, by the nature of my story, were contained in time by aleatory real events of politics and history.

An act of homage, just as well as any other, can be construed by curiosity as proof that so-and-so surely is you-know-who. Although my novel—to adapt Piaget’s definition of the history of intelligence—was not an “inventory of elements” that homage per se is limited to be, but the “bundle of transformations” he cites in opposition,4 I knew that the guessing-game would buzz over the published book.


The fact that I as surely knew it would be banned because of the points at which it was anchored to real events of outlawed political movements, from liberal to left, bothered me less. Bans, along with the governments that impose them, do not last forever. (And indeed, the novel was both banned and eventually released.)

But the effect that the guessing-game might have on the schoolgirl, now adult, subject to it, who would remember my presence in hers outside the prison that day, concerned me.

Her father’s name certainly would be attached to my fictional character; the persona I had created in place of her father would be attributed to him. The complex family relations I had created would be attributed to her and her family. The ontological conflicts within unquestioned political faith imposed by parents upon children with the rigour of a religious one would be seen as their own conflicts.

Worst of all, for the novelist: Would the girl’s finding be that I had understood nothing; that the metamir had failed to discover what the silver-backed mirror of the apparent cannot reveal?

So in place of waiting for the question to be thrust at her as well as at me, I sent my answer. I sent her the manuscript of the novel before publication, before anyone else had read it. With it I enclosed a letter. I have kept that letter for fifteen years. It has been my secret, and I open it here because I suppose it belongs, at least, in this discourse as one writer’s answer, in respect of fiction, to the mystery behind the ignorant superficiality of the guessing-game.

I began with the proposition that this was the strangest letter I should ever write and might be the strangest she would ever receive. I told her that for the present the novel was hers and mine; only she and I, as she read it, knew of its contents.

But I was a writer and it was meant to be, would be, read by whoever wished to do so; soon it would be open to anyone. Even if it were to be banned in our own country it would be read elsewhere.

Then people would come to her and say, This is your father, this is you, as they would come to me and say, This is so-and-so, this is his daughter. She had to be the first to read the fiction because she would be the one to know, as they never could know, that although the man lived for the same political convictions and human ideals and suffered for them the same imprisonment and death as her father, he was not her father, could not be.

I could not “know,” have known, her father in the private and personal moments that became the dimensions of my character, I could not have “known” the hidden motives behind the public interactions I observed performed, and the interactions I was privy to occasionally a bit player in, his relations with his family, political comrades, and friends.

I could not have known the clandestine connections that must have existed between hidden cause and observable effect in many of the events staged in her family’s life that were apparently inexplicable.

I could not have “known” what sort of arcane curriculum of parental love (for it had been clear to me in my contact with the family that the father was a loving and loved one) allowed the grim determinism of a way of life that inevitably would land a tender schoolgirl outside prison gates as if she merely had been sent down to the local shops.

I had a critical as well as a hagiographical conviction of her father’s and her existence strong enough to take on a form of imagined life. I was aware of the risk that the conditioning of my own subconscious—that conditioning to which I had been subjected by the conjunction of apartheid and capitalism in the formation of ideas about personal communist mores—might distort that conviction.

I had made my snatch of the phases of turbulence of that existence I shared with them in a particular country in a particular era. In the vision of the metamir I had invented alternative being.

I explained to her that this was why, during the four years I was writing the novel, I had avoided contact with her and other surviving members of the family. I deliberately had allowed friendship to lapse. Perhaps it seems naive, perhaps it was my quaint notion of authorial morality, perhaps it was my eccentric methodology—I had the idea that there must be no evidence, in the test of creation, that I was “studying” her in order to inform my fictions, measuring the progression of her life in the to-and-fro of past and present that delineates personality.

Before I left her to the novel itself, I concluded my letter by reminding her that although the I-spy game would be played and might disturb her, the players could be presenting only yet another alternative—to mine, yes—an alternative life for her and her father, her family; they could not touch what she knew to have been their own.

There was silence from her for several weeks.

Strangely, although I had been fearfully apprehensive about giving her the manuscript to read, I was tranquil. It was as if the three of us, the schoolgirl waiting to visit her father in prison, my fictional character, and I, together had a dimension of immaterial existence to be privately occupied for a while.

This is easier to write than to say. I have always thought bunkum the coy romantic claim of some writers that their characters take over, write themselves et cetera. It was nothing like that. The temporal and the eternal, Lukács’s duality of inwardness and the outside world, 5 between which a writer is always precariously spread-eagled, attained an equilibrium. Life and fiction became whole.

One afternoon she walked through my gate carrying the manuscript.

So that was what it was, after all, a package of paper; we sat and exchanged the usual generalities and then, in a gap, there it was between us, the novel.

She said, “This was our life.”

And nothing more.

I knew this was the best response I should ever have to that novel. Perhaps the best I should ever have in respect of any of my fictions. Something I should never receive again.

No critic’s laudation could match it; no critic’s damning could destroy it.

For she was not speaking of verisimilitude, she was not matching mug shots, she knew that facts, events, sequences were not so; she was conceding that while no one can have total access to the lives of others—not even through means of the analyst’s casebook, the biographer’s research, the subjectively composed revelations of diaries and letters—by contrast, on her or his vision the novelist may receive, from the ethos those lives give off, a vapour of the truth condensed, in which, a finger tracing upon a windowpane, the story may be written.

Milan Kundera once told an interviewer, “There is a limit beyond which the novelist can theorize no further on his own novels and whence he must know how to keep his silence.”6

I have reached that limit.

Copyright © 1995 by Harvard University Press.

This Issue

October 5, 1995