Christopher Isherwood in 1973, photo by Allan Warren.
Pretty much every fiction writer has had their readers guess (and ask) what real events inspired them. Some writers complicate that guessing game by inserting their actual names into their work. Roberto Bolaño and Paul Auster have made cameo appearances in their books the way Hitchcock walked through his movies.
J. M. Coetzee spends his most recent novel Summertime getting eviscerated by fictional representations of women he knew in the early '80s. Philip Roth casts two "Philip Roths" in Operation Shylock. While "David Wallace, age forty, SS. No. 975-04-2012," announces sixty-odd pages into The Pale King that "this book is really true." What is "real" about these characters? Pondering that question is part of the fun.
In these stories, Isherwood refers to himself by his own name, recalling his experiences as a young man working as a private tutor in Weimar-era Berlin. Further afield from what we might guess to be Isherwood's own experiences is the John Druten play I Am A Camera, which focuses on Isherwood's friendship with a singer named Jean Ross (who Isherwood had renamed Sally Bowles). Druten still calls him Isherwood, but Fred Ebb renames him Cliff in Cabaret, the Broadway musical. He also makes Isherwood, who was British and gay, into a character who is American and straight. Each iteration seems to take our hero further and further away from the real Isherwood until the Bob Fosse movie version of Cabaret circles him back again—at least a little—with Chris/Cliff becoming Brian, English again (played by Michael York), and, well, bisexual.
Isherwood continued to write autobiographical fiction and sometimes (as in Prater Violet) used his own name. But in A Single Man, recently a Colin Firth vehicle, he called himself George. While Isherwood's real lover just left him temporarily for another man, poor George's lover died in a car accident.
In this excruciating novel, a graduate student writing about John (the J in J. M.) interviews women that John offended, annoyed, and sometimes slept with in the muddled period of his life after he'd been tossed from the US for his anti-Vietnam activism and returned to South Africa.
A married woman with whom John has a brief affair declares him the kind of man "to prefer masturbation to the real thing." A Brazilian woman who he develops an unfortunate crush on says she "shivers with cold when I think of intimacy with a man like that." Even the creepy and unpleasant old C (read "Coetzee") from Diary of a Bad Year isn't skewered as viciously as John is here; Coetzee has saved his most potent venom for his younger self.
I can't imagine Coetzee watching much HBO, but John in Summertime reminds me of the Larry David character in Curb your Enthusiasm, another petulant fool sharing his creator's name. The creepy and bumbling protagonists of Disgrace and Waiting for the Barbarians, two celebrated earlier Coetzee novels, were reasonably self-assured compared to John—Coetzee's recent creative energy seems to derive from lacerating less and less disguised versions of himself.
Misha Vainberg, the protagonist of this novel, fears that his "Bronx girl, Rouenna, may be the quarry of the émigré writer, Jerry Shteynfarb," clearly a play on "Gary Shteyngart." "I don't think they should expose young people to Shteynfarb," worries Vainberg, "especially at a school like Hunter College, where the students are poor and impressionable." The altering of a few letters takes Shteynfarb safely away from Shteyngart, but he is far less vicious than Coetzee is about his alter ego. Shteyngart allows his fictional doppelganger an amiable cameo, walking briefly through his pages and stealing the protagonist's girlfriend.
"Airplane-exhaust poet" Carlos Weider, one of the poignantly deluded fascist writers in Bolaño's Nazi Literature in the Americas, is also the central villain of another 1996 Bolaño novel, Distant Star. "Death is cleansing," ends one of his poems written in the sky, "death is my heart/take my heart/Carlos Weider." A character named Bolaño shows up among the onlookers watching the plane as it makes poetry from exhaust. But we can't expect to learn much about the real Bolaño from this appearance, as the writer himself was a legendary mythmaker. He claimed to have returned to his native Chile during the time of the Pinochet coup and been jailed for eight days, but was never seen by anyone he knew there. Oprah famously berated James Frey for exaggerating his non-fiction, but couldn't really have scolded Bolaño for fictionally placing himself in Chile. It's fun to imagine him, though, chain-smoking and holding forth on her show the way he used to on Spanish TV.
This novel gives us a man named Philip Roth living with a woman named Claire Bloom (Roth's real wife in 1993 when the book was written), and suffering a breakdown caused by a sleeping pill called halcyon. That anxiety-ridden hallucinatory state pervades the book as Roth learns of the existence of someone else calling himself Phillip Roth who is trying to convince Jews to return to their true homeland, Eastern Europe. The real PR ends up confronting the fake PR at a conference in Jerusalem. Like John in Summertime—and Jerry Shteynfarb in Aburdistan for that matter—the real PR sleeps with someone else's significant other, in this case the character's crazy mistress.
Wallace's posthumous novel focuses mostly on a neurotic IRS employee reporting for duty in Peoria, Illinois until "David Wallace" appears in a "foreword" on page sixty-six to announce that the book is "really true." While the Wikipedia Wallace graduated summa cum laude from Amherst College, the Pale King Wallace got kicked out of school for writing papers for frat boys. That Wallace worked for the IRS in order to avoid paying back his student loans, and decided years later to write a memoir about it because they sell so much better than novels.
David Winner's novel, The Cannibal of Guadalajara, won the 2009 Gival Press Novel award. His work has appeared in the Village Voice, Fiction, Confrontation, and several other publications in the US and the UK. He is the fiction editor of The American, a monthly magazine based in Rome.