An introduction to Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse and A Certain Smile by Rachel Cusk highlights one of the foremost problems a writer must contend with in life: an inability for his or her reader to separate author from character, which ultimately becomes a challenge for the author to do as well. Especially when he or she has cultivated a certain “shtick,” if you will–à la Philip Roth or Dennis Cooper. As Cusk eloquently puts it, “It is one of the ironies of the writer’s predicament that self-expression can sometimes become fate. The fiction lays a fetter on the life. To the reader, as often as not, it will all seem to be part of the story.”
Cusk’s concise assessment so accurately describes the fatalist nature of being a writer, the way in which one of this “profession” surrenders to the alternate or embellished reality he or she has concocted. From Sylvia Plath to Albert Camus, the fates of writers have constantly and consistently mirrored those of their most legendary protagonists.
As Cusk goes on to state, “Scott Fitzgerald, for instance, virtually described his own funeral in The Great Gatsby. Albert Camus, more eerily foretold precisely the manner of his death in La Chute.” Thus, can one assume there is some unspeakable curse on those with the power of the pen in their hand? Or is it that a self-fulfilling prophecy that germinates in our minds once we put our psychology onto the page can’t be avoided?
And then there is the relationship to the reader to take into account. In many ways, the writer is his or her god, the person they look to as having made the characters in the author’s image. Cusk remarks, “Vaguely, the reader comes to see the writer as nothing more than one of his or her own characters: the suspicion that literature occurs entirely within the bounds of personality is confirmed.” We see this time and time again with the likes of Ernest Hemingway and his stories of drunken boorishness, love triangles and bullfighting, Charles Bukowski and his literary incarnation, Hank Chinaski, and even now, with more contemporary authors like Ned Vizzini, whose It’s Kind of A Funny Story was “85% true.” So how can the author ever really separate him or herself from the character he’s creating when, to truly conceive a person who feels real, you have to put your entire body and soul into them?
Cusk ultimately concludes that “a kind of disappointment afflicts our feelings about writers, as it does not those about other artists. It is as though they, with their moral grasp on the faculty of imagination, have crushed our illusions about human destiny. They have described existence, but they have failed to transcend it. They have failed to provide us with a happy ending.” One supposes no one feels sorrier about that than the writer himself. But alas, our minds and bodies are just vessels designed to serve as cautionary tales, to accent all the ways you can decimate your personal relationships.