Fictional characters, novelists are fond of remarking, often go rogue, pulling the narrative in surprising directions. This “trite little whimsy,” Vladimir Nabokov once scoffed, is “as old as the quills.” He had no use for it. “My characters are galley slaves.” Muriel Spark’s attitude was similar. At a literary festival in 2004, when asked if she’d ever had a novel unexpectedly co-opted by a minor character, Spark responded: “I’ve heard of novelists that has happened to. But I’m writing a novel, I’m in charge. So how would it surprise me?”
To Spark, a more alluring thought experiment was the bestowal of agency on fiction itself, or as Oscar Wilde put it: “Literature always anticipates life. It does not copy it, but molds it to its purpose.” The novelist-narrator in Spark’s Loitering with Intent declares: “Sometimes I don’t actually meet a character I have created in a novel until some time after the novel is written and published.” It’s a witty rendering of the human impulse to self-mythologize, to see life through the distorting lens of private fantasy (the defining trait of Spark’s preeminent creation, Miss Jean Brodie), to trust fate to bend to your will.
But on occasion, fiction is literally predictive of its author’s life. “It is one of the ironies of the writer’s predicament,” Rachel Cusk writes in an essay about Françoise Sagan, “that self-expression can become fate.” Sagan’s precocious 1954 debut, Bonjour Tristesse, ends its amatory games under the Côte d’Azur sun with a fatal car crash. Three years later, the twenty-one-year-old author spun her Aston Martin off the road and nearly died in the wreckage, making international headlines. In reporting the story, Paris Match didn’t restrain the sensationalism, captioning a photo of Sagan at her typewriter: “She had just written the word ‘end’ at the bottom of her latest novel, The Dead Eyelids, the manuscript of which was found in the destroyed car.” The pages were, the piece elaborated, “stained with oil and blood.”
Life imitating art, of course, is a truism even triter than the claim for wayward fictional beings. And yet the retrospective mirroring between an author’s life and their fiction, when it occurs, raises unsettling questions about free will. If you described a situation on the page before you experienced it, did you subconsciously manifest your imagined world? Or was the fictional version an unwitting premonition of an ordained destiny? In the first instance, a God-like capacity to shape the future, for good or ill, implies a horrifying responsibility. Whereas displaying “Sibylline propensities,” as Mary Shelley said about her writing, is merely evidence of some higher principle directing human events. I know which I’d prefer.
With The End of the Affair, Graham Greene took a dangerous gamble on the manifesting potential of fiction. Inspired by his adulterous relationship (on both sides) with the American socialite Catherine Walston, the novel is an impeccably crafted conduit for Greene’s obsessive love, and for his frustration at Walston’s refusal to leave her politician husband. Our novelist-narrator, Maurice Bendrix, writing from a future lonely point, engages in a scrupulous reckoning of his relationship with his late lover, Sarah Miles. While the autobiographical elements are obvious, Greene weaves them into his fictional plot with expert control. The story’s real-life repercussions, on the other hand, were not so manageable.
Harry Walston had tacitly condoned his wife’s dalliances, but he wasn’t prepared for The End of the Affair’s mining of their private lives, its tortured eroticism. To make matters worse, what Faulkner judged “one of the best, most true and moving novels of my time” was dedicated “To C.” in the U.K. and “TO CATHERINE, with love” in the U.S. edition. Humiliated, Harry demanded she break it off with Greene. For all three participants in the love triangle, the emotional fallout was intense, with fights and tears, threats and ultimatums, estrangements and reunions. The affair persisted for some years, its heightened clandestinity doubtless a spur to passion. And how beguiling to have provoked a masterpiece, even if your character dies.
Like his creator, Bendrix is preoccupied with the border between fiction and real life. “If I were writing a novel,” he muses three quarters into the book, after describing Sarah’s death, “I would end it here: a novel, I used to think, has to end somewhere, but I’m beginning to believe my realism has been at fault all these years, for nothing in life now ever seems to end.” In confronting the relentlessness of existence, he highlights the artificiality of art and thereby — ingeniously, paradoxically — persuades the reader of his account’s reliability. On the day of Sarah’s funeral, a journalist named Waterbury says to Bendrix: “A funeral in Golders Green. How like one of your own characters.” When Bendrix points out that he didn’t choose the location, Waterbury retorts — what else? — that it’s life imitating art.
Eventually, life and art would dovetail again. After Walston’s death in 1978, Greene and Harry Walston became close friends, much like Bendrix and Sarah’s widower, Henry. “You know the next best thing to talking to her is talking about her,” Henry tells Bendrix, “and there’s only you.” The sentiment seems to have bedded down in Greene’s subconscious, patiently awaiting the chance to prove itself.
In having Bendrix relive the end of his relationship with a dead woman, Greene doubly dramatizes the absent muse as creative catalyst, forcing the reader to face an eternal if unpalatable truth: nothing confers value — romantic or otherwise — like finitude. At the height of his affair with Walston, he refused an offer of divorce from his wife, Vivien, alive as he surely was to the artistic stimulus of star-crossed romance. Do these states of yearning, in stoking the novelist’s desirous and discontented id, grant auspicatory force to stories?
Among writers who have weaponized wistful desire, none can compete with Henri-Alban Fournier, the French novelist who published as Alain-Fournier. At a young age, he identified literature as his means of conquering fate. That, at least, was his conscious decision. Perhaps less intentionally, he found a time-honored spur to artistic achievement: romantic pining. In 1905, at eighteen, he caught sight of a girl in the street in Paris. Awestruck by her willowy blonde beauty, he staked out her building and engineered an encounter. Twenty-year-old Yvonne de Quiévrecourt, who acknowledged and half-accepted her suitor’s intentions, nevertheless saw the situation as hopeless. She was, she said, leaving the city the very next day. “We’re children,” she told Fournier as they parted at the Pont des Invalides. “We’ve behaved foolishly.”
From that day on, Fournier fixated on the fantasy of ideal womanhood Yvonne represented. Her marriage to another man did nothing to impede her role as his muse. An abstracted idol, she inspired a flood of poetry and then a novel, Le Grand Meaulnes. “You left me just one way to rejoin you and communicate with you,” he wrote in a letter, unsent and carried around like a talisman, “and that was to win literary fame.” These strike me as the words of a man who, on some level, knows his genius rests on the object of his desire remaining out of reach.
Eight years after their first and only meeting, Yvonne asked to see Fournier, having learned from mutual friends of his enduring obsession and soon-to-be published novel. They met at the seaside town of Rochefort, where she — disturbed, intrigued, flattered — tried to bring him down to earth, introducing him to her small children and talking about her husband. But seeing Yvonne in the flesh did nothing to break the spell. “I’ve seen once more the face of Beauty, Purity and Grace,” he told her in a long letter, composed on the train after leaving Rochefort. The letter has a peculiar tone of exaltation, even as it professes sorrow over Yvonne offering only friendship. Fournier’s muse is still intact — unobtainable and perfect. He can maintain the doublethink of believing he writes to win her love and cherishing her demurral as vital to his literary ambitions.
Le Grand Meaulnes, a heady and haunting story of thwarted adolescent love, is narrated by a teenage boy, François Seurel, living in a small village in central France. A boarding school friend, Augustin Meaulnes — named “Le Grand” by his admiring peers — gets lost while out one night and chances upon a pre-wedding children’s costume party at a crumbling château. The hallucinatory hue of the scene deepens when he meets and is smitten by the ethereal Yvonne. She dismisses him with the real Yvonne’s words (“We’re two children. We’ve been foolish… Farewell, don’t follow me”) and he returns to school. Then, try as he might, Meaulnes cannot again find the château or Yvonne. His ensuing frantic quest emotionally consumes Seurel and derails several more lives.
A finalist for the Goncourt prize, Le Grand Meaulnes went into several printings in its first year. It has remained one of France’s best-known novels. John Fowles, who wrote The Magus under its thrall, confessed to being one of the many “entranced, almost literally tranced, by the book.” F. Scott Fitzgerald, it seems, was another. The Great Gatsby bears the clear stamp of Fournier’s influence, not least in the title. Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age classic also shares with its French near-namesake a reality-molding capacity, both in its indelible cultural imprint and presaging of the author’s fate: Fitzgerald’s sparsely attended funeral was an uncanny replay of Gatsby’s. “Everybody creates for himself,” Fournier believed, “the reality he deserves… There isn’t a single one of the scenes I carry within my head which couldn’t be made true.”
So Fournier, as he’d promised, won literary fame, but did he win Yvonne? The point is almost moot — she was the means to an end, rather than the end itself. In an advance copy of the novel Fournier sent Yvonne, he dated his inscription June 1, 1905 to October 25, 1913 — the day he first caught sight of her, and his present day — as if to let the curtain fall on his unrequited infatuation. Apparently it had served its purpose, because Fournier began an affair with another married woman, the actress Simone Le Bargy, soon after Le Grand Meaulnes was completed. The fictional Meaulnes, on at last finding his Yvonne, chooses to disappear, “to break away from a happiness that constricted him.” Fournier, who went to fight for France after agreeing to settle down with Simone upon his return, disappeared without a trace barely a month later. Only in 1991 were his remains discovered; he’d been shot dead in a battle skirmish, aged just twenty-seven.
An inconclusive demise and the romanticized genesis of his only novel spun a fairy tale aura around Fournier, who like Fitzgerald became ever more famous posthumously. For Yvonne de Quiévrecourt, who lived until she was seventy-nine, a starring role in a literary legend inevitably shaped her self-identity, though she always avoided publicity. “Far better for me to remain within the aura within which your brother enclosed me,” she wrote to Fournier’s sister in 1939, apologizing for never having visited, “and which was fashioned by him and his dreaming.”
If we’re living in a simulation — the odds, some claim, are overwhelming — then each of us is fashioned by someone’s dreaming, our fates decided by an entity as inscrutable as a celestial deity, as vainglorious as the novelist who requires either rebellion or servitude from their fictional creatures. Coincidences and unfathomables — like, say, made-up characters with minds of their own, or “reality” echoing “stories” — may simply be glitches in the matrix. Either way, I’d rather see the eerie interplay between writers and their fiction as beyond rational understanding, accepting the words of Loitering With Intent’s witchily powerful novelist-narrator, Fleur: “But you must understand that everything happens to an artist; time is always redeemed, nothing is lost and wonders never cease.”