The Scandalous Lives of Famous Authors, In Fiction

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The food writer and memoirist M.F.K. Fisher seduces her husband’s Al best friend after a sumptuous dinner that she claims to have invited her husband to, but never really did — leading to a painful, years-long “arrangement” between the three.

True crime novelist Truman Capote exposes the scandals lurking behind in the picture-perfect marriages of his rich and famous confidantes in the pages of a thinly-veiled short story — a betrayal that leads to his expulsion from high society New York and breaks the heart of Babe Paley, his best friend in this fast and monied crowd, who has been particularly exposed by his fiction.

Painter Vanessa Bell grows resentful of her own husband’s emotional infatuation with her sister, the unstable but brilliant novelist Virginia Woolf. So she starts an affair with art critic Roger Fry, a self-affirming act of independence that creates a frisson between the sisters and the spouses both.

This winter, I’ve been reading a series of novels about the dishy and delicious lives of famous writers: Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar about the Bells and Woolfs and the Bloomsbury Group, The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin, describing Capote and his swanky “swans,” and now The Arrangement by Ashley Warlick, about M.F.K. Fisher’s loves and life. Not all writers’ existences are worthy of being novelized without embellishment; the most fascinating thing you can glean from an biography of Jane Austen, for instance, is how imaginative she must have been to take the petty quarrels of everyday English country existence and turn them into brilliant character studies that have lasted for centuries.

But some writers really lived fiction-worthy lives. Any aspiring writer whose critique partners have said “you need more conflict” must envy their peers who decided upon these three subjects, all ripe for plucking. There’s no need to add extra details when the infidelity, recriminations, betrayals, partner-swaps and passionate infatuations are already there and only wait to be fully dramatized. I found myself mid-read, rushing to Wikipedia to find out if a character from The Swans of Fifth Avenue really was an old lover of Hemingway’s or if a repressed E.M. Forster really did drop by Vanessa Bell’s parties.

Thus, a fun novel about a famous author (of which there are many circulating) can combine the best delights of reading a good, detailed biography with the narrative pleasures of a beach read. Of course, the events related may well have already leeched into the work of the writers in question — but not explicitly. Turning writers’ romances and rivalries into fictional stories themselves eliminates allows the contemporary novelist to merely run free imagining how exactly it must have felt when person A ran off with Person B’s wife.

A cynical explanation for these books’ proliferation would be that with these kinds of novels readers are able to feel “literary,” sophisticated and historical while reading something contemporary and easy in feel and tone; having your cake and reading it, too. This is particularly true with a novel like the Swans of Fifth Avenue, which tonally veers from breathless chick-lit dialogue to serious literary attempt to Page Six account of an awkward lunch a fancy restaurant (it was an incredibly engrossing read, needless to say). Vanessa and her Sister is the most effortlessly erudite of the bunch, largely told through letters and diary entries and full of wonderful allusions to modern movements in literature and art. I felt that of the three I read recently, The Arrangement tried to be the most literary and staid, and probably could have benefited from just going with the gossipy flow.

The reality that unfolds when we read these kinds of novels is that our favorite writers weren’t necessarily very nice people. They become characters in another writers’ imagination, but their transgressions are real. M.F.K. Fisher’s initial antics render her less sympathetic but as we understand her family and marital situation throughout The Arrangement, we come to feel for her complex situation as an ambitious woman in the first half of the century more.

Throughout The Swans of Fifth Avenue, Capote behaves as a person who is painfully damaged; he’s desperate for adulation to the extent that it damages his work habits and prohibits him from producing anything serious in the final era of his life. His ethical shortcomings while writing In Cold Blood are merely touched upon by the novel; on the other hand, his emotional mooching off of various beautiful women is dwelt on extensively, and author Benjamin does a good job of painting his character, his neediness, as extending wherever he goes from the bedrooms of the Hamptons to the prison cells of the midwest; he’s both tortured and a torturer, as ideal a main character as any that he himself could come up with.

Virginia Woolf comes across as equally clingy and damaged in Parmar’s capable hands; she goes after the affections of Clive Bell, her brother-in-law, as a bid to win love from her own sister. Her failure in this regard makes her an object of pity, but not necessarily sympathy. Vanessa’s choice to strike out and make a life for herself makes perfect sense, and reads as a triumph as the novel comes to its conclusion. In the meantime, of course, all these characters write and paint and buckle down to work; but watching that particular process unfurl is far less interesting than watching the authors live outsize, swirling lives that leave as much destruction as inspiration in their wake.