Some twenty years ago, on an early summer day like this, I was sitting in a street café in Pavia, waiting for a friend. I’d just bought myself a book at the bookshop next door – and, anticipating a longish wait, I ordered a grapefruit squash, and started to read.
The book was William Somerset Maugham’s Theatre – quite perfect for me, judging from the back-cover blurb – and so there I sat, very much enjoying the picture: street café, book, summer day… And as I read…
Oh, look. The protagonist, leading actress Julia is a half-foreigner.
Just Like Ned, the hero of what I liked to call my first novel, the one I had just finished. And…
Oh, look: Julia’s actor husband Michael comes from the gentry, and always keeps some sort of social reluctance towards theatre… Just like Ned.
And oh, Michael gets himself noticed by playing Puck in his drama school’s performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Just like Ned.
And Julia is artistically far ahead of Michael, and slightly annoyed at his carefully cultivated detachment… Just like Ned’s girlfriend.
And Julia and Michael’s first director is a balding, ruthless manipulator, supremely smart, with deceptively innocent blue eyes… Just like Ned’s director.
And I could go on, but you get the drift. Can you imagine the chill creeping in, as I read on, and found – page after page – that my novel had been written already, by someone else, and far, far better than I ever could? Then my friend arrived, and I stuffed the book in my purse, and smiled, and chatted, and made plans for the day – but believe me when I say that it was a long, long day before I could hole up and cry a river. There – there it was: proof that I possessed neither talent nor originality. I was going to quit writing altogether. There went a phase of my life… And so on, and so on at some length… I was little more than twenty, you see – and leaning towards melodramatics when in private.
Ah well. I clearly survived the trauma, seeing that I’m still here, and writing – but I confess it took me some time to take up the pen again. And I swear, I’d never heard about Theatre before that day – and yet, if I were to read my ‘prentice work now, without knowing, I’d certainly write it down as a woefully green piece of plagiarism. So… I don’t know, really. Perhaps I haven’t the most original mind; or perhaps those traits that Michael, Julia and my Ned share are a little obvious when it comes to actors; or perhaps, like people, books have look-alikes; or perhaps I’d been exposed to Maugham in another life? What I know is that, while adoring Theatre, I still can’t take it up without the tiniest jolt of half-amused sourness.
What can I say? It happens – not often, but sometimes – and, with all the chocolate biscuits it takes to console me when it does, it is very, very bad for my figure. Not to mention my self-esteem.
What about you, o Readers? Did you ever come across your stories – already written by someone else?