TAMPA — "I don't really know what makes me write a book," author Enid Shomer says. "I can give you a rational answer, but it's not a rational process." • Talking over lunch at a restaurant in South Tampa, she says, "I fell in love with my two characters, and I fell in love with Egypt." • The result is her first novel, The Twelve Rooms of the Nile. In it, she bases an evocative fictional story on historical events and two well-known figures: French novelist Gustave Flaubert, the author of Madame Bovary, and Florence Nightingale, the Englishwoman credited with laying the groundwork for the modern nursing profession.
The author of four books of poetry and two short story collections, Shomer, who is in her early 60s, has been published in the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Poetry, Paris Review and many other magazines. Her awards include the Iowa Fiction Prize, the Washington Prize for poetry and the Florida Book Awards Gold Medal for fiction.
She was born and raised in Washington, D.C., although her family lived in Miami for about a year when she was a girl. After living in New York City for a time, she moved to Tampa about seven years ago.
Shomer says that some years ago she came across references to the Frenchman's journals and letters, published as Flaubert in Egypt: A Sensibility on Tour, about his trip down the Nile in 1849-50. When she read them — "such outrageous quotes" — her own imagination was fired: "In 2003, I wrote just a few pages. I thought it might be a novella.
"Then," she says, "I found out that Flo was on the Nile at the same time, and I said, 'Oh, no, she's got to be in it.' It couldn't be just a coincidence."
Although the relationship that develops between the two in the novel is fictional, Shomer says she believes there is evidence they might have met. Records show the boats they were traveling in were towed through the same lock on the same day. "In his journal, he writes about seeing an Englishwoman in a hideous green eyeshade, and I know she had one like it."
Lest you wonder whether Shomer imagines Nightingale being an inspiration for Flaubert's most famous creation, Emma Bovary, the answer is no. But Shomer says she did imagine that Flo and her lady's maid, the inelegantly named Trout, "made him think about writing about a woman, which was pretty radical for the time."
Shomer says she spent about six years working on The Twelve Rooms of the Nile, "reading, researching, going to obscure museums." The book's title comes from the journey undertaken by the dead in the ancient Egyptian religion, a subject that fascinated Nightingale.
Shomer found plenty of first-hand material about 19th century travel by Europeans, by her characters and others. "They were all writing journals. If you were an educated, polite, thoughtful person, you kept journals, and you wrote letters."
She read all of Flaubert's work — "The books are very uneven, but the letters are magnificent" — but only some of Nightingale's. "She actually wrote more than he did," Shomer says, noting that while she was working on her book, Nightingale's collected works were published — in 17 volumes.
Most of the novel alternates between Flaubert's and Nightingale's points of view. "It was a lot of fun to do two different voices."
There are also a few sections in which we hear Trout's voice through her letters, which reveal a secret life. "She's a different class, and I wanted her as sort of a counter to compare (her main characters) to. Flo had never cooked a meal, never dressed herself. I wanted to show who was doing all the work so they could lead these fascinating lives."
In terms of style, she says, "I wanted the book to read a little like a 19th century novel. I wasn't going for Henry James, but I didn't want it to be minimalist."
In many ways, Shomer's fictional versions of Flaubert and Nightingale are a study in contrasts. The most striking, perhaps, is their wildly divergent experiences of and attitudes toward sex. Flaubert was a notorious, exuberant libertine; his Nile journals recount his visits to every brothel between Abu Simbel and Alexandria, and Shomer makes vivid use of those adventures in the skin trade.
Nightingale, on the other hand, is the very picture of a prim Victorian Englishwoman. Not only is she a virgin at 29, she blushes simply at reading the word "penis" in a book (a reaction she no doubt got over later while tending to thousands of wounded soldiers during the Crimean War) and has never seen herself naked.
But they have much in common as well, as Shomer imagines them. Both in their late 20s, they are, she says, "in a state of despair, and Egypt was the cure." Both are years from their future fame. Flaubert believes his first novel, The Temptation of Saint Anthony, is a failure — his best friends tell him to burn it or throw it in the Seine. Nightingale has rejected the marriage proposal of a dear friend because she believes she has been called by God to do good in the world — but she doesn't yet know how.
Both come from well-off families (which gives them the leisure and wherewithal to spend a year or so cruising) but chafe at the expectations of bourgeois life and, in Nightingale's case, gender roles: Her mother forbids her to study mathematics because it's "too masculine."
"They both feel like freaks," Shomer says, "because they're geniuses, but they don't know their place in the world yet."
The novel's descriptions of Egypt's landscapes and monuments and of the ever-changing Nile are so lush the country becomes another character. Shomer says she immersed herself in 19th century travel literature and even managed to find a copy of the same guidebook Nightingale carried on her trip. But, she says, she didn't travel to Egypt herself. "It wouldn't be the way it was (in 1850). Besides, I feel like I did see it as it was then."
She did, however, live in that part of the world for a time as a young woman. Only as The Twelve Rooms of the Nile was being published, she says, did she say to herself, "Wait a minute. I went to the Middle East alone, at 21, trying to figure out my life. It never occurred to me until then" that that experience might be a link between her and her characters.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.