Madame Bovary, c'est nous

Fay Weldon does Flaubert.

Emma Bovary is a very modern heroine: the original desperate housewife with a serious spending habit, she's a sex and shopping cautionary tale, a one-woman boom and bust in these credit crunchy times. One could imagine her working the charm and the plastic today, though perhaps the social climber might now be transmuted to celeb twitcher, stalking the net for Cheryl's on-trend accessories and new fall directions from Peaches.

Many have rushed to identify with her, from M Flaubert himself ("Madame Bovary, c'est moi!") to Fay Weldon, the writer of Breakfast With Emma, now in production with the Rosemary Branch Theatre. She goes as far as to say that we are all "Emma Bovarys to a woman". Leaving aside the vexing canard that there is a biological link between womanhood and shopping for a moment, she is indeed an Everywoman of sorts in the play, the agent for a proto-feminism, who has to deal with her husband's views on women's "tiny thoughts" and "fleeting passions".

And perhaps some of us have faultily imagined that we're made of finer stuff than our companions who fall asleep at the theatre, as Emma's husband does ("I had worn too many clothes and the plot was complicated!"). There may well be couples in our acquaintance where one's emotional thermostat is set higher (at Keatsian) than the other's (more Keynesian). There are bits of Bovary everywhere.

But equally it is a credit to Weldon's balanced conception, and Helen Millar's performance, that this is not an Emma we can necessarily identify with. There are suggestions of bi-polar disorder, and of a hysterical nature warped by a convent school education. She is a fantasist, and rewrites the past (and present) to suit herself. Her daughter, the only offspring of Bovary's ovaries "isn't a very rewarding child", and she is a mother in fits and starts only, when it suits her narrative of devoted parent.

Millar manages all the raging, seducing, rationalising and downright madness with ease, alternatively hard-faced and positively deliquescing with rapture. She even manages to look alluring in a frock so frumpy that surely fashionista Emma would have crossed the street to avoid it. She is well off-set by James Burton as lumpish cuckold Charles, who becomes less articulate and more klutzy as his wife reveals her affairs (both lovers, incidentally, played by Jason Eddy, who does Gallic smouldering outrageously well), and the titular breakfast wears on and wears thin.

Helen Tennison's production skips along nicely, though one sensed on other nights the experience might be way funnier: the burghers of St Albans seemed to be alive to the tragedy rather than the comedy of it all. Maybe this pensive mood explains why, on this night at least, the consciously quirky use of the furniture at times felt groundless and gratuitous; laughter might have done the job of forgiving filler, that seals the cracks and anchors gesture to text. But as it is, we're not sure why Emma conducts one of her scenes from half way up the bookcase, or why her mother-in-law exits into an ottoman.

Sometimes the visual payoff was good - a breakfast table tilting, dizzily awry - but the machinations to get there really cumbersome. And an odd timorousness set in: once having gone to all the trouble of hoicking the table to a kooky angle, with Chas Bovary squatting like an incubus at one end of it, Emma attempts to lay it, briefly, but really there could have been a maelstrom of cutlery, a storm of teacups. The surreality is stop-start, so it's hard to tell, for example, why our girl acquires a doppelganger as the petit-dejeuner unravels, draped around the stage in various supine attitudes and, frankly, variously in the way. She did look rather like a a Victorian engraving, along the lines of "Virtue Vanquished", so perhaps we were to read some sort of moral commentary in this.

However there are some great set pieces, notably the Agricultural Fair, with uncanny farmyard ventriloquism by the cast, and the night at the opera, where Emma and her lover lip-synch along to an aria while hubby snoozes, and loses. Both show and ensemble are immensely buoyant and likeable, proof that small scale can be big on heart and ambition.

And Emma, too, is likeable; her ruin is not so - well, ruinous in Weldon's version. Flaubert punishes her with death, the death of her husband, and penury for her daughter; here Emma flounces off, perhaps to take arsenic. Perhaps not.

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Drama without sensation: A Separation is an unsettling novel of distances

In Katie Kitamura’s novel, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort.

In a 2013 interview with Guernica, the online magazine, the novelist Katie Kitamura discussed how publishing’s “deeply patronising attitude” towards female readers results in overtly feminine book covers, featuring, for instance, women in bathing suits. “That’s not the kind of book cover that makes me want to buy a book,” she said.

The cover of Kitamura’s latest novel, A Separation, does, surprisingly, feature a woman in a bathing suit. But there is something quietly unsettling about this picture: the woman, who has her back to us, is awkwardly cropped out of frame from the elbows up, and she is sitting at the edge of an oddly shaped pool. Most of the cover is solid turquoise – a bright wash of negative space.

Kitamura’s unnamed narrator is a poised literary translator. As the novel opens in London, we learn that she is married to Christopher (a charming, haphazard non-author) but, in secret, they have been living separately for the past six months. When she receives a telephone call from Christopher’s mother, Isabella, informing her that he has seemingly gone missing in Greece, she doesn’t let on about her disintegrating marriage but boards a plane to look for him.

Much of the rest of the novel takes place in Greece: at a “very pleasant” hotel, in “perfect weather”, the pool “heated to a very comfortable temperature”. The area has recently experienced a string of devastating fires, leaving patches of scorched earth. The location has an almost eerie surface stillness that jars with the mystery at its heart. In this way, Kitamura (an art critic as well as novelist) creates a setting somehow reminiscent of David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, Christopher’s sudden disappearance leaving behind no visible ripples.

The narrator, too, has a glassy composure at odds with the tumultuous events. On deciding to end her marriage formally, she shows neither despair nor relief, but anxiety about the etiquette. “I assumed – I had no prior experience to go on – that asking for a divorce was always discomfiting,” she says with typical understatement, “but I could not believe it was always this awkward.” Of her feelings for her new partner, Yvan, she notes that they seem more like “administration rather than passion”, and then offers a moderated gloss of Hamlet, “You cannot say you did it out of love, since at your age romantic passions have grown weak, and the heart obeys reason.

Her emotional separation from the trauma of her circumstances allows the narrator to examine the facts of her husband’s disappearance. She knows Christopher was unfaithful and she immediately identifies the hotel receptionist as the object of his attentions. We never see the narrator professionally translating, but the novel is concerned with her attempts to read the deeper meanings behind the remarks and behaviour of those around her. She finds it easy to imagine unseen contexts to conversations: an argument between Christopher’s parents, an embrace between her taxi driver and the hotel receptionist. As she writes, “Imagination, after all, costs nothing.”

Her propensity for projection is such that some things remain lost in translation. Even the most minute interactions can be misread. When Christopher’s mother comments that the two women’s love for her son connects them, “she was looking over my shoulder, as if watching someone approach . . . she was staring at nothing”. The novel occupies this imaginative negative space: the gap between what people think and how they appear.

Ultimately, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort. How long will she allow others to read her as the concerned, loving wife? Should she admit she wants to find Christopher in order to request that they separate officially? As her search continues she notes, “There was a small but definite wedge pushing between the person I was and the person I was purporting to be.”

There is a suspenseful and menacing tone to Kitamura’s prose that might trick a reader into thinking, at first, they are in the territory of thrillers such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Both these novels, like A Separation, have narrators who defy readers’ attempts to fathom their emotional depths and to deal with questions of how well you know anyone – even your own partner. But this is a work free of sensation, or even resolution. As the narrator notes, in the shock of an event it is natural to look for a more dramatic narrative. “But in the end,” she says, “this is only chasing shadows. The real culpability is not to be found in the dark or with a stranger, but in ourselves.”

A Separation by Katie Kitamura is published by Clerkenwell Press (231pp, £12.99)

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution