What a character: writers in fiction
With the Dublin Writers Festival kicking off this week, here are 10 great books with writers as their subject
The End of the Affair: With plenty of reflection on the novel-writing process and insights into the obsessive mind of the writer, Maurice Bendrix (played in Neil Jordan’s film adapatation by Ralph Fiennes) is an intriguing antihero, loosely based on Graham Greene himself
Atonement: The truths and untruths of storytelling lie at the heart of Ian McEwan’s clever novel. The involvement of writer Briony (played here by Saoirse Ronan) in the lives of her older sister Cecelia and lover Robbie has disastrous consequences. Photograph: Alex Bailey.
Misery: The writing process has been a recurring subject in Stephen King’s work, but his 1985 novel is arguably his best recreation of the life of a writer, Paul Sheldon (played here by James Caan) the process of writing fiction, and the very literal dangers of disappointing a loyal readership.
The End of the Affair, Graham Greene (1951)
Set in London, Greene’s novel follows writer Maurice Bendrix in the closing months of the second World War as his tempestuous affair with Sarah Miles comes to an end. A sour and egocentric narrator, Bendrix is used to having control over his characters and allows his jealousy of Sarah’s husband to destroy the love affair. With plenty of reflection on the novel-writing process and insights into the obsessive mind of the writer, Bendrix is an intriguing antihero, loosely based on Greene himself. The character of Sarah is drawn from Greene’s real-life mistress at the time, Catherine Walston, to whom the book is dedicated.
The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing (1962)
Framed by a third-person narrative looking at the life of the writer Anna Wulf, Lessing’s novel weaves together four fictional notebooks in order to create a final definitive version that becomes The Golden Notebook of the title. Each of the four colour-coded notebooks explores different aspects of Anna’s life. Black covers the writer’s time in Southern Rhodesia, red for her experiences as a member of the Communist Party, yellow for her ongoing love affair, and blue for the notes in her personal journal. An example of what has been termed Lessing’s “inner space fiction”, the novel is concerned with the mental breakdown of individuals and the fragmentation of society as a whole.
Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov (1962)
Considered “the surest demonstration of his own genius” by the critic Harold Bloom, Nabokov’s Pale Fire is presented as a 999-line epic poem written by the venerated fictional poet John Shade. Accompanying this poem are a foreword and lengthy commentary by a neighbour and academic colleague of the poet, Charles Kinbote. These two metanarratives form the basis of the book, with both authors as central characters. As unreliable narrators go, Kinbote spins yarns with the best of them and as the reader unpacks Nabokov’s famously difficult text, his devotion to Shade and Shade’s work becomes suspect. Concerning itself with the process of creation, Pale Fire is a poioumenon(a type of metafiction in which the story is about the process of creation) with an unusual structure that allows itself to be read both linearly or multicursally, jumping between the poem and comments.
Herzog, Saul Bellow (1964)
Concerning the midlife crisis of a Jewish man in 1960s America, Bellow’s novel is composed of a series of letters from its twice-divorced writer protagonist Moses Herzog. With his career floundering and his second marriage to the serpentine Madeleine finishing in humiliating circumstances, Moses tries to bring order to the chaos in his life by constantly scribbling or mentally composing letters that he never sends. The would-be recipients include friends, family members, famous people and the dead. Disappointment is a key theme, with Moses keen to discuss his own failings and the failings of others. His love of ideas and pursuit of knowledge is often at the expense of living his life in the moment, a sentiment echoed by Bellow: “People don’t realise how much they are in the grip of ideas. We live among ideas much more than we live in nature.”