Roman à clef
Roman à clef: French for “novel with a key,” a novel that represents real people in the guise of fictional characters. Usually the author makes the identities of the characters readily apparent, at least to his or her contemporaries. This is particularly true when the novelist has written a roman à clef to satirize an individual or individuals, or some associated event. The genre dates to seventeenth-century France, where it was developed in works such as Madeleine de Scudéry’s Clélie (1654).
FURTHER EXAMPLES: Lady Caroline Lamb’s Glenarvon (1816), about the poet George Gordon, Lord Byron, thinly disguised as the character Clarence de Ruthven, Lord Glenarvon. In Mary Shelley’s apocalyptic novel The Last Man (1826), the characters of Adrian, Earl of Windsor, and Lord Raymond are portraits of Percy Bysshe Shelley (Mary Shelley’s husband) and Byron, respectively. Harlem Renaissance writer Wallace Thurman portrayed a variety of contemporaries in Infants of the Spring (1932), including Alain Locke (Dr. Parkes), a key leader of the movement; the poet Countee Cullen (De Witt Clinton); writer and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston (Sweetie May Carr); the artist Richard Bruce Nugent (Paul Arbian, of whom the author wrote “Since he can’t be white, he will be a most unusual Negro”); and the writer Langston Hughes (Tony Crews, said to have “no depth whatsoever, or else he was too deep for plumbing by ordinary mortals”).
Joe Klein’s novel Primary Colors (1996; adapted to film 1998), initially published anonymously, was based on Bill Clinton’s first campaign for the White House and portrayed Clinton as aspiring candidate Jack Stanton; adviser George Stephanopoulos as political operative Henry Burton; and campaign director James Carville as Richard Jemmons, “a hyperactive redneck from outer space.”