It’s always a joy to take part in Six Degrees of Separation, a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. Of course, it does help if you know the starting book, but it’s not essential. And this month I don’t know the book: Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. I know quite a few people were reading it in 2019 and it had very positive reviews, but I also heard that it’s about divorce and there’s only so much I can read on that topic.
However, the name Fleishman and the Jewish background of the novel reminded me of Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift. I personally find Bellow a far more interesting writer than those who are usually grouped together with him, such as Philip Roth or Gore Vidal, but his star seems to have faded.
Another author who was hugely popular in his time but is now very little read (less than Saul Bellow) is Horace Walpole. His The Castle of Otranto sparked a flurry of imitations and established the Gothic horror style mocked by Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey, just as much as his neo-Gothic house at Strawberry Hill created a Gothic revival in architecture. So, a real trendsetter.
I turn next to a French trendsetter, one of the creators of the realist current in literature (in contrast to the more romantic prose of Victor Hugo). He was revered by writers who followed in his footsteps, such as Flaubert or Zola and probably Dickens. I am referring of course to Balzac and I’ve chosen the book La Cousine Bette, one of his last great novels. The vengeful Bette is enchanted by the spoilt, selfish Valérie, and together they wreak havoc wherever they go.
There are undertones of lesbian attraction between Bette and Valérie, which brought to mind Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal, where the attraction that the older (and unreliable) narrator Barbara feels for the glamorous art instructor Sheba has a huge impact on the story. A deeply troubling picture of a twisted psychology.
Of course if we are talking about twisted psychologies, we cannot avoid mentioning Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, one of the great depictions in literature of the guilty mind, still trying to find justification for a criminal deed, and being slowly but surely hunted and driven to confession and repentance by the provocative police inspector Porfiry Petrovich.
I haven’t read the last book in this series of links, but it sounds fascinating. English author R.N. Morris has taken the character Porfiry Petrovich and created a crime fiction series with him as the main investigator. The first book in the series is called The Gentle Axe. The description sounds intriguing, so I may have to hunt around to find this one:
Stumbling through Petvosky Park one cold morning in search of firewood, an elderly woman makes a horrifying discovery. A burly peasant twirls in the wind, hanging from a bowed tree by a rope about his neck, a bloody axe tucked into his belt. Nearby, packed neatly into a suitcase, is the body of a dwarf, a deep axe wound splitting his skull in two. It does not take long for the noted police investigator Porfiry Petrovich, still drained from his work on the case involving the deranged student Raskolnikov, to suspect that the truth of the matter is more complex than the crime scene might suggest. Why do so many roads lead to the same house of prostitution and the same ring of pornographers? Why do so many powerful interests seem intent on blocking his efforts?
So this month’s travels have taken me from the United States to Britain in the 18th century, to France, a more modern United Kingdom and 19th century Russia. Where will your six links take you?