On the eve of publication of a new edition of Richard Skinner’s classic novel on the life of Mata Hari, The Red Dancer – released on the centenary of her death – he explains the writer’s process behind his reimagining of the woman behind the myth.
History is nothing other than a distillation of rumour.
— Thomas Carlyle
Before I wrote The Red Dancer, I had no idea who Mata Hari was. I thought of her in the same way that I thought of Rasputin, or Madame Blavatsky – she was a ‘name’, yes, but why? What did she do to make herself so famous? I started researching the life of Mata Hari in the summer of 1998 by reading all the biographies of her life I could lay my hands on in the old British Library Reading Room with its beautiful blue-domed ceiling. As I read them, I found that they all contradicted each other, and so I thought I couldn’t trust any of them. But, crucially, they all had one thing in common – there seemed to be two keys to understanding her life: personal reinvention and self-delusion. How strongly we identify with historic figures depends on the idea of singleness and consistency – the more singular and consistent they are in the way they live their lives, the more ‘knowable’ they become (think of Einstein, Churchill or Gandhi) – but the life of Mata Hari was neither singular nor consistent; quite the contrary. Rather than let that stop me from writing the book, though, I decided to see if I could structure The Red Dancer around this problem of who exactly Mata Hari was. I eventually arrived at the idea that the narrative could be a series of multiple and inconsistent points of view, made up of eyewitness accounts by people both real and imagined, mixed together with letters, newspaper cuttings, documents, quotations, interviews both real and imagined, as well as fiction.
My idea was that each of these chapters, narrated by people who encountered Mata Hari, would be discrete entities which, taken together, would paint a fuller picture of Mata Hari in a way that no single viewpoint could. But each of these narrators wouldn’t know that their testimony was part of a larger picture. They were not narrating with an agenda; they were just telling their story. The only character who doesn’t have a voice in the book (except in the Prologue) is Mata Hari herself. Living in the public eye as she did, and in such a male-dominated world, Mata Hari’s life wasn’t entirely her own to control or keep. This is the real sadness in the story. In some ways, I think of Mata Hari as a proto-feminist but, at times, she was also her own worst enemy. Ultimately, my aim was not to take up a position for or against Mata Hari; rather, I wanted to present enough material for the reader to judge for them- selves. After all, as Carlyle’s quotation points out, history itself is nothing other than contesting stories, and the different stories surrounding the myth of Mata Hari is what lies at the heart of The Red Dancer.
Every novel has its antecedents in other novels, and mine is no exception. I read Madame Bovary for the first time just before I started writing The Red Dancer – indeed, it was the very fact that I was going to write The Red Dancer that made me read Madame Bovary. The two women have much in common – dissatisfaction, self-delusion – and meet much the same fate. More useful, however, was the amount of detail in Flaubert’s book about the kinds of cloth, furs, dresses, haberdashery, hats and gloves Emma Bovary wore. Fabulous. What a wordsmith he was.
The other book that was a huge influence on The Red Dancer was The Museum of Unconditional Surrender by Dubravka Ugrešić, which I was reviewing for the Financial Times at the time. Ugrešić’s book is incredible – one of the most unusual and original novels I have ever come across – diary entries, footnotes, quotations, descriptions of photographs and bits of autobiography mixed with the cultural history, myth, fables and dreams of her native Croatia – social realism shot through with magic realism.
Even more so than books, however, I would say that behind every novel I’ve ever written there lies a film or films as the main influence. In the case of The Red Dancer, this influence was François Girard’s Thirty Two Short Films about Glenn Gould, which I had seen at the Venice Film Festival in 1993 when I managed to persuade the Sunday Times to issue me a press card. As with Ugrešić’s book, Girard’s film operates around the theory of montage, placing things in harsh juxtaposition rather than in smooth transition and thus we get thirty-two mini-documentaries: five interviews with people who knew him, recreations of scenes from Gould’s life, as well as various odd items such as ‘Gould Meets McLaren’, in which animated spheres reminiscent of those in McLaren’s animations move in time to Gould’s music. Girard said: ‘As Gould was such a complex character, the biggest problem was to find a way to look at his work and deal with his visions. The film is built of fragments, each one trying to capture an aspect of Gould. There is no way of putting Gould in one box. The film gives the viewer thirty-two impressions of him. I didn’t want to reduce him to one dimension.’
All this was intoxicating to me, and Ugrešić and Girard taught me to be bold in how I structured The Red Dancer. I decided that I would fragment Mata Hari’s story by including several non-fiction chapters, which would serve to arrest and open out the story to provide a cultural and social context. These chapters would show how the times in which Mata Hari lived helped shape her life. They were also great fun to research and write and, when I delivered a draft of The Red Dancer to my editor at Faber, Lee Brackstone, there were almost as many non-fiction chapters as fiction. He and I spent several weekends at his flat in Battersea while he went through the text and, much to my alarm, stripped them out one by one. Out went chapters on maths, fashion and truffles. Lee felt that so many non-fiction chapters left Mata Hari out of focus and he kept cutting until the ratio of fiction to non-fiction chapters was about two to one. He was absolutely right, of course.
Since its original publication in 2001, I’ve dipped in and out of The Red Dancer but I haven’t reread it in its entirety. For this reissue, Faber asked me if I would like to make any changes to the text. It didn’t take me long to realise the problem with an invitation like that – where would you stop if you did want to change something? You would go on and on making changes, unravelling the original story until there was nothing left. Each time you write a novel, there’s only so much time it remains malleable in your mind and, once it’s been ‘cast’ and published, you can never revisit it in quite the same way again. That way madness lies and so, for that reason, I quickly decided that I would leave the text as it was, warts and all. Looking back over the book for this reissue, I’m glad Lee and I made those decisions to cut and cut. I like the way the book still operates around the principle of harsh juxtaposition, rather than smooth transition, with the character of Mata Hari herself represented not as a continuous wave but as a storm of interruptions. This is perhaps a more honest way of portraying such a complex character. After all, how many of us can truly say we are the same ‘being’ at any given moment? We are, in fact, all complicated people with many facets to our personalities, and this is what the structure of The Red Dancer tries to portray in the case of Mata Hari.
The Red Dancer is available here.