The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)

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IN CONTEXT

FOCUS

Roman à clef

BEFORE

1642–69 Readers would have recognized depictions of important society figures in the roman à clef novels of French writer Madeleine de Scudéry, such as Clelia.

1816 The characters in the scandalous novel Glenarvon, by the English aristocrat Lady Caroline Lamb, are thinly disguised versions of her ex-lover Lord Byron and others in her own privileged London social circle.

AFTER

1957 On the Road, by Jack Kerouac, continues the tradition of the roman à clef, detailing his time travelling in North America.

1963 US writer Sylvia Plath’s semi-autobiographical The Bell Jar depicts a young woman’s descent into mental illness.

The roman à clef, or “novel with a key”, is literature that depicts real people or events thinly disguised as fiction, the “key” being the relationship between the real and the fictitious. Such works often use satire and humour to comment on politics, scandals, and controversial figures.

Deceit and corruption

The Red Room, a novel by Swedish author August Strindberg (1849–1912), who was also a much admired playwright, is a satire of Stockholm society, akin to the work of English writer Charles Dickens in its biting critique. Considered to be the first modern Swedish novel in its style and content, the book introduces Arvid Falk, Strindberg’s alter ego and a naive idealist.

Falk is a young civil servant when we meet him, so frustrated by the bureaucracy and drudgery of his job that he gives it up to become a journalist and author. He encounters characters from theatre, politics, and business, drawn from real personalities in the Stockholm elite – and, disheartened, he soon realizes that Swedish society is riddled with deceit and corruption.

The title of the novel refers to a room in a Stockholm restaurant where bohemians gathered. Here, Falk seeks solace with artists and writers to contemplate the vicissitudes of life. The comic descriptions of the characters he encounters provide a sense of the tensions between bohemian and bourgeois life in Stockholm.

"Train yourself to regard the world from a bird’s-eye view, and you will discover how petty and insignificant everything is."


The Red Room

See also: Bleak House • On the Road • The Bell Jar • Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas