The Guardian, Friday 14 October 2011
Such romans-a-clef have a chequered history – Lady Caroline Lamb’s Glenarvon only succeeded in boosting Byron’s reputation
When the courts fail to deliver justice, an angry man or woman can always turn to fiction – but is it wise? On Thursday, the writer Tristane Banon heard that the man she had accused of attempted rape, the Socialist politician Dominique Strauss-Khan, would not have to answer charges in a French court. On the same day, Banon’s fictionalised account of the episode, entitled The Hypocrites’ Ball, went on sale across France.
The short novel suggests that Banon’s fear and loathing of the man she calls “the pig” have not diminished in the eight years since he allegedly attacked her in a Paris flat; catching sight of him on TV, the protagonist feels that the screen cannot protect her and she throws up her lunch. The “novelised” version of their encounter is clearly a roman-a-clef, belonging to a tradition in which writers of widely varying ability have tried to influence the historical record.
What’s odd about Banon’s decision to publish is that she’s already achieved a victory over Strauss-Kahn after French prosecutors took the view that there was evidence he committed a sexual assault in 2003, and decided not to proceed with the case only because it fell outside the three-year statutory limit. Her intervention has also put paid to Strauss-Kahn’s ambition to be his party’s presidential candidate, which he briefly hoped to revive after American prosecutors dropped charges of alleged rape in a New York hotel room. Banon and the other alleged victim, Nafissatou Diallo, are both pursuing civil cases which promise to tie up Strauss-Kahn in court proceedings for months if not years.
So why get involved in a venture that carries a high risk of back-firing on its author? This isn’t always the case, as the success of Carrie Fisher’s semi-autobiographical novel Postcards from the Edge attests; the book is informed by Fisher’s experience of growing up in Hollywood, recovering from substance abuse, and her relationship with her mother Debbie Reynolds. But anyone contemplating such a course should take a look at Lady Caroline Lamb’s Gothic novel Glenarvon, which she published in 1816 after the end of her stormy affair with Lord Byron. The book contained an unflattering portrait of Byron but is credited with adding to his growing reputation as a romantic hero.
Romans-a-clef have a chequered history. Joe Klein’s Primary Colors, a fictionalised account of the 1992 Democratic presidential primary, was originally published anonymously and did its author no harm at all when his identity was revealed. Klein is a political journalist, he did a good job of fictionalising his material and he didn’t write as though he had a huge emotional investment in the book. Banon has a track record as a journalist and novelist and she’s used personal material in a previous book, a semi-autobiographical novel about a young girl who suffers neglect and abuse. She describes herself as psychologically fragile and excerpts from her new novel feel raw, even if they are revealing about Strauss-Kahn’s assumptions about his power over women.
It isn’t just the roman-a-clef that raises the problem of undigested emotion. Margaux Fragoso’s memoir Tiger, Tiger is an account of an abused child’s relationship with a 51-year-old paedophile, and it prompted queasy reactions when it appeared earlier this year. By Fragoso’s own account, the book has an element of writing-as-therapy as she tries to break “the old, deeply-rooted patterns of suffering and abuse that have dogged my family through the generations”. Whether the book succeeds or suggests its author is suffering from delayed shock is a question that’s divided critics, with one reader describing the book as “a truly horrible read”.
It may be unfair, but there’s an impression that romans-a-clef are something women produce because they feel powerless in the world. Banon would probably say she wrote her book because she has not been served well by the criminal justice system, but her publishers have made a very revealing statement about the “six weeks that changed her life”. Obviously they’re thinking about the furore that followed her attempted-rape accusation, which placed Banon in the spotlight as never before. But the most likely effect of the book will be to ensure that this brave yet fragile woman remains forever associated with her alleged attacker in the public mind.