Though a great many literary novels have novelists as protagonists — e.g. Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman, or Chabon’s Grady Tripp, and that’s just for starters — much fewer explicitly take their inspiration from real-life writers. Or at least, they didn’t until recently, partly because of a certain stigma that has always attached to biography and biographers, the idea that they are people who sort through other people’s garbage in search of a crucial piece of mail. This is gossip, a lot of novelists complain, not literature.
The public has generally disagreed on this point. A couple of years ago, Random House published a little novel by Paula McClain called The Paris Wife. For those of you who were living under a rock at the time, The Paris Wife is about Hadley Richardson, Hemingway’s first wife. Hadley was the wife Hemingway spoke of very fondly in A Moveable Feast. He dumped her for another woman after she had a son by him. The Paris Wife, with its tie-in to a hugely famous writer’s peccadilloes, was a giant bestseller. The book’s success proved that the public will respond to a novel about a famous person even if he is a writer. This summer, with The Great Gatsby premiering, publishers issued not one but two novels based on the life of Zelda Fitzgerald. (Read our Jason Diamond’s take on Zelda’s life here.) Sadly, the reviews of these books were middling. “This Zelda is brisk and rather incurious,” said the Times; of Z. Of The Paris Wife, it sniffed, “cliché-ridden.”
Whether or not you think that’s just literary snobbery, of late even certain “serious” novelists have taken up the task of describing the lives of real writers. And anyone interested in the travails of a writing life — which is to say every aspiring writer, which is to say everyone — ought to read these books.
Abba Abba, by Anthony Burgess, tells the story of the last months of John Keats’ life, which he spent dying of consumption in Rome. Burgess was a bit obsessed with Keats, which shows in this short little book.
A Man of Parts, by David Lodge, is about H.G. Wells. Today we know Wells best as a writer of science fiction epics. In his day he was more of a libertine, and wrote endless semi-autobiographical novels about the many affairs he conducted with the sanction of his long-suffering wife, including one with a very young Rebecca West that produced a love child.
The Master, by Colm Toíbín, is about the life of Henry James, and finds James at a moment of personal and professional challenge at the end of the 19th century. The novel was shortlisted for the 2004 Booker and won the lucrative International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
The Last Station: A Novel of Tolstoy’s Last Year, by Jay Parini, was made into a movie starring Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer a few years back. It is about exactly what the subtitle suggests!
Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath, by Kate Moses, is one of the few works of fiction by a woman about a woman writer that has ever gotten a critic’s respect. It is about Plath’s final descent into suicide.
Flaubert’s Parrot, by Julian Barnes is technically a book about a Flaubert obsessive in search of a parrot that Flaubert also liked. But it contains so many beautiful, wise passages inspired by Flaubert that I include it anyway.
Regeneration, by Pat Barker, is the story of certain poets of the First World War — Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen — who are, as the Brits put it, “in hospital.” Another Booker winner.