Madame Ovary (1)
During the Nineties – in the big sunny front bedroom of my London flat – I had read 'Madame Bovary' for the first time. I must have been ill and taken myself to bed. I'd lost the habit of reading much fiction but the book bowled me over. At about the same time, listening on my Walkman, I heard a radio dramatisation of 'La Bete Humaine' by Zola. I hadn't realised how good radio drama could be. It was melodrama, murder and trains shrieking. Magic. I wrote to the director expressing my admiration and suggesting that I might work for him, but 'La Bete Humaine' was his swan song: he was retiring. The moment passed - and I continued to struggle with stage plays and novels, biggish state of the nation pieces. I'd spent a lot of time in journalistic and political company while in London. A play about the City, a novel about politics – these were what people perhaps expected of me. They also arose out of my own idea of who I was, what I was about. In one of the novels, my central character, a woman political correspondent goes on holiday in Greece with the British Labour Leader (as I had done in the mid Eighties). The newspaper owner (fraudster) Maxwell had courted Kinnock after his election as Labour Leader. Kinnock kept a wary distance but Maxwell had once brought his yacht to Corfu to entertain (impress?) the Kinnock party. The Kinnocks were unimpressed. I'd arrived in Corfu a few days later and heard the tale. My central character – the novel was called 'Living with Princes' (a title I have recently used elsewhere) - goes out to the yacht with the fictional Labour Leader. We were about a hundred pages in but I'd got stuck after that. There were other events out in Greece: I was 'laying pipe,' fictionally, for the rest of the novel. She was called Lucy and on the run from a failed marriage. It all looked quite promising. My agent liked the opening chapters: 'I'd continue reading this..' But, despite my plans for the story, I got lost. Though writing about a woman, what I was revealing was actually about myself. Martha Gellhorn, journalist and second wife of Ernest Hemingway, wrote in her autobiography: 'I now realise ..why I have 4 or 5 unfinished novels – …even if not in the actual first person singular…the heroine is too close to me, hence useless and unreal.' I was too close up to myself. There is another factor: 'Oh, dear, yes,' said E.M. Forster, 'the novel tells a story.' He, too, had a Lucy novel, unfinished for a time. I read it a couple of years ago – 'Room with a View' - and think it a bit of a masterpiece but it was the least favourite of his works. A few years later, he had difficulties getting the main characters back to Howards End and that novel suffers from the strain. I'd got it all mapped out with Lucy - what happened to her – a thirty page scenario and I grew weary of it. It seemed just plot. I stopped, left her: where I had got to with my central character reflected an impasse in myself. What I was reading at that time – almost exclusively – was biography/autobiography, not novels. I'd picked up a couple of tomes on Flaubert after reading 'Bovary.' It's a novel set within a couple of hours' drive from where I mainly stayed in France and one morning I set out with the owner of the place over there, a G.P., to look at the hospital where Flaubert's surgeon father worked and where Gustave, as a boy, had peered in to watch operations. We visited the remains of Flaubert's house outside Rouen and called in at the touristy village that claims to be the setting for the book. A day out in Northern France: the Bovary tour – or, as my G.P. pal always called her, 'Madame Ovary'. It was perhaps a couple of years after that, I was sorting through a number of fictional ideas at what had become my desk by a back window in France, the birds bobbing about outside among the berries, when I realised it was shortly to be 150 years since 'Bovary' was published. I knew even then – it was a Saturday September afternoon - that this was the way forward for me: not a new fiction but a play – factual/ how it happened - about the writing of one of the greatest European novels. I offered it. Radio 4 were, as it happened, dramatising 'Bovary'. My play would accompany that dramatisation. I had a title ready made – a mocking, reductive remark Flaubert had made about his great work – 'The Adulteries of a Provincial Wife.' I sometimes wonder if the title sold the idea. A play about a novel – I can't, offhand, think of another such. How an ambitious unpublished writer – stuck – writes his way out of impasse. It's natural among writers – you use yourself up and then turn outwards for subject matter. The penny had finally dropped.