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The Random Factor

Gustave Flaubert was inspired to write Madame Bovary by a brief notice he read in a provincial newspaper: the wife of a public health officer by the name of Delamarre poisoned herself. What in the world could have driven a middle-class woman out in the sticks to take her own life? True, she’d been carrying on an adulterous affair and was deeply in debt, but Flaubert found it incongruous for the wife of a public health officer—not even a doctor!—to harbor self-destructive impulses.

Suicide was the privilege of distraught lovers, tormented artists, of fragile souls too pure for this world, according to the Romantics. Alphonse de Lamartine, George Sand, Alfred de Musset, and the Vicomte de Chateaubriand all confessed to having been tempted to kill themselves in their youth. Even Napoleon Bonaparte once tried to do himself in. Following the surrender of Paris, the deposed emperor swallowed the poison he had carried in a pouch around his neck since the Russian campaign. Alas, it had lost its strength in the intervening years. “It was not God’s will that I should die so soon,” he told his biographer. “St. Helena was in my destiny.”

The provincial adulteress was evidently a social striver whose yearning for a poetic end was out of keeping with the mundane circumstances of her life. And yet, the more Flaubert pondered his character’s motivations, the more he identified with her. “Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” he confessed in a letter to his mistress. Madame Bovary is me. He too longed to sacrifice everything for a great passion. He too sought escape in romantic fantasies, imagining that life could be shaped and ordered like a work of art.

Madame Bovary took flight, once Flaubert discovered his stake in the story. Readers recognized themselves in his portrait of the self-deceiving provincial adulteress. Critics came up with a name for the syndrome: Bovarysme. Random inspiration turns out not to be random after all. If you’re willing to be honest, you can always find a personal connection to the material.

I write a historical noir mystery series about blacklisted Hollywood people in 1950s Europe, drawing on old movies for characters, plots, and settings. My heroine is a young actress and in the first book, she lands a role in an Italian neorealist film. I imagined a Felliniesque scene where Cara comes upon a group of Roma on a beach in Puglia, the heel of the Italian boot. There she would meet the love of her life. I didn’t have a fix on the guy, but I wanted him to have the allure of Rudolph Valentino, who hailed from that part of Italy.

I’ve never been to Puglia. One beach was as good as another. I put my finger on the map and landed on Trani, a fishing village that served as a port to the Holy Land during the Crusades. Its beaches are okay, but the town’s chief attraction is the magnificent cathedral of Saint Nicholas the Pilgrim.

Trani was also the site of a DP camp for Polish survivors of the Holocaust. I’d found my way in. “Valentino” was a Polish Jew whose older sister survived Auschwitz only to die of dysentery in the Trani DP camp. Every year he visits the town to honor her memory. Cara meets him on the beach, with the Roma, and is instantly smitten, not only by his brooding good looks, but because she perceives the sadness within the handsome stranger. She has also known tragedy, as have I. Cara lost her mother to drowning. I lost mine to mental illness. As I probed more deeply into the source of Cara’s attraction to Valentino, I gained new insight into my feelings about my mother’s illness.

I held it against her for a long time, you see, her leaving me so suddenly, and so completely. . . Beneath this loomed another, darker question: Was it my fault that she didn’t love me enough to stay in my life?

In my career as a history professor, I got to know several Holocaust survivors. I’d invite them to speak to my students and over time we became close. My loss was insignificant when compared to theirs, but the contradictory feelings of abandonment, anger, and guilt over my motherless childhood created a bridge of understanding between us. And we discovered that we shared a dark sense of humor. Readers drawn to noir stories will find something similar, I hope, in my mystery series.


Meet Lisa at her 5:00pm class at Hollihock 2017! Check out the schedule here.

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