The solemn yet unreliable disclaimer that all characters are imaginary, and that any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental, still prefaces American novels, but in Britain and Europe, after a century or so of reassuring publishers and readers, discouraging potential litigants and prompting playful variants ("I am not I . . ."), the formula has lately been binned. It is absent from Ian McEwan's Atonement (2001), for instance, but still there in Don DeLillo's Falling Man (2007).
This may reflect the comparative ferocity of American libel lawyers, or the epistemology of postmodern life, in which fantasy and reality compete to devour one another. Or it may be that novelists can no longer be bothered to pretend that they are not writing about actual persons, living or dead, whether their families, friends and colleagues, or public figures: the Queen, for example, has extensive form as a fictional character, as do Tony Blair and Mick Jagger.
The central character of Alain Elkann's novel bears an entirely uncoincidental resemblance to a famous living artist. Satanically arrogant, this character lives in a dark house in Notting Hill, hidden behind clumps of bamboo, where he seduces his beautiful young models while working incessantly to portray them as "deformed, devastated, suffering, all fat and wrinkles".
He used to beggar himself at gambling, but is now hugely rich. He has seduced and abandoned dozens of "masochistic upper-class women", by whom he has "a vast brood of illegitimate children". A grandson of "the most important scientist of the last century", whose family fled the Nazis to live in London, he was a friend and rival of Francis Bacon, but although he appears unmistakably in propria persona, his name turns out to be Julian Sax, which sounds like a slip of some kind.
Envy's narrator is unnamed, but is evidently a writer, with an Italian wife and children, and is at home among the rich and cultured of London, New York, Venice and Madrid. (Elkann, by the way, is a former son-in-law of the late Italian tycoon Giovanni Agnelli.) The narrator is hopelessly Sax-obsessed, consumed by envy: "I am interested in Sax only because I envy him," he confesses. "I envy the security of a talent confirmed by critics, collectors and market prices all over the world."
With the help of his family and mutual grand friends (Damien Oxfordshire, forsooth), the narrator tracks Sax to his favourite cafe, where he eavesdrops on his conversations. He has a vague plan to interview him, but Sax doesn't give interviews - except one to a posh woman from the Sunday Times, which the narrator happens to overhear.
The narrator's daughter asks him if his ob session with Sax hides a desire to write a book about him.
"No, as long as he's alive that's impossible."
"Because I would have to tell the whole truth."
"But people write novels because they are imaginary stories, you can tell the truth in them."
So the narrator decides to write a novel, which he sketches out while staying on Capri with his friend Cesare. The central character is based on Cesare and given the name of Ted - a murderous art dealer, plotting to kill Sax - and the love interest is based on the narrator's own wife, Rossa, given the name of Lisa, a discarded lover of Sax. So, the narrator would be cuckolded in his own imagination and Ted would avenge him by killing Sax. Would it work? As the narrator ponders this question, his story ends.
So Envy is a novel - or novella (125 airy pages, admirably translated from the Italian by Alastair McEwen and handsomely produced by the Pushkin Press) - about the possibility of a novel that remains unwritten, which is about as postmodern as it gets. It's all a tease - of the painter and his lawyers, of the reader, and of the author himself. "If I ever write about him," the narrator reflects of Sax, "I'd like my book to become as important as one of his paintings; I would like critics all over the world to discuss it. I would like it to arouse the curiosity of readers, who would say to themselves, 'It's a masterpiece!'"
There is little danger of that, but if Envy is deliberately insubstantial, it is also elegant, witty and provocative.