#SixDegrees of Separation: January 2022

You know the drill by now: start with the same book and end up wherever you like in just six jumps! One of my favourite bookish links, as hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. This month we start with Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility – and it’s always a problem when I’ve read neither the book nor anything else by that author.

However, I do think his name is rather strange (sounds like ‘Someone who loves towels’, right?), and it appears to be his real name rather than a pseudonym. So I will start with another American author with a strange name, although this one is decidedly a pseudonym. I discovered Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events when I was looking to buy something funny and a bit different for the daughter of a friend about 18-20 years ago. The books were a big hit with her (and she has recently qualified as a doctor, not that I believe this was as a direct consequence of my thoughtful present). I read them later on with my children as well, and we loved them, shame that any TV/film adaptations haven’t quite lived up to them.

The second link is rather obvious: from the Baudelaire orphans to Charles Baudelaire, but not his most famous work The Flowers of Evil. Instead, I opt to go for another cranky later work, Paris Spleen, a collection of prose poems which are little vignettes of daily life in Paris, foreshadowing so much modern writing, including flash fiction, micro-memoirs and more.

This volume was published posthumously, so for my next link I chose another posthumously published novel. I could have gone for the obvious, Kafka, or the most famous, A Confederacy of Dunces, but instead I will go for E. M. Forster’s Maurice, a gay love story that he could not publish during his lifetime because homosexuality was illegal at the time.

A simple jump via the name Maurice, straight into the imaginative world of Maurice B. Sendak: Where the Wild Things Are, which was another firm favourite of my own childhood and that of my children. I even recreated a wild song and dance when reading it out loud. The best children’s books transcend generations, don’t they?

My favourite illustration from the book.

The hero of Sendak’s book is called Max, and for a while that was going to be my younger son’s second name. So once again, somewhat unimaginatively, I choose an author called Max. Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism was one of the first books I read when I embarked upon my anthropology studies and I still agree with many of the points he raised.

I will finish this series with another Max that I had to study, but earlier, in school, namely Max Frisch and his play Biedermann und die Brandstifter (translated into English as either Firebugs or The Fire Raisers). This play was written as a response to those saying that they would never have been taken in by the Nazis or the Communists, but it remains topical to this day, showing how ‘normal’ citizens can be taken in by evil and contribute to their own downfall.

Theatre poster for Biedermann und die Brandstifter.

So my literary travels at the start of this New Year took me from America to Paris, from Cambridge to the Land of the Wild Things, from a founding father of sociology to a Swiss playwright and novelist. I hope to travel even further this year, at least via books. Where will you be travelling?

#AtoZofBooks – Favourites and Forgotten Books

Simon Thomas from Stuck in a Book started a trend on Twitter a few days ago with an A-Z of favourite books: an author for every letter of the alphabet.

Oh HI book twitter!

I’ve decided I’m going to share 26 brilliant books – an author for every letter of the alphabet. It’ll be a gradual thread. It’ll be fun.

Share your own #AToZofBooks!— Simon Thomas (@stuck_inabook) May 22, 2019

This is such a lovely idea, that I wanted to emulate it on my blog – although I will no doubt curse the thought once I reach X or Z.

A: Jane Austen’s Persuasion, of course, one of the most perfect novels ever written.

B: Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal influenced me hugely in my teens and was probably the catalyst that provoked my own outburst of poetry at that age. I can still recite some of the poems by heart.

C: Another poet, Cavafy, whose collected poems I discovered much later, when I fell in love with a Greek man in my 20s. He had been forced to study Ithaka at school, and moaned about it, but I thought it was a fantastic poem and wanted to read more. The Greek man has since disappeared from my life (well, nearly… any day now… he’s a bit like Theresa May) but the love for Cavafy has remained. I have about 5 different translations of his work and can just about read the original Greek as well.

D: Dazai Osamu – I love all of the books by this nice ‘cheery’ Japanese author, but I have a soft spot for the first one I ever read by him: a collection of short stories which have been translated into English as Run, Melos! and Other Stories. The story from Judas’ point of view impressed me so much that I made my first attempt there and then at translating from Japanese.

E: Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go Went Gone impressed me very much when I read it at the height of the refugee crisis in Europe.

F: Benjamin Fondane is Romanian-Jewish poet, translator, literary critic and essayist, who wrote in both French and Romanian and sadly was exterminated in Birkenau in 1944 at the age of just 46. His poetry collection Privelisti (Landscapes) is my choice here.

G: A masterpiece of satire and absurdity, the short story The Nose by Nikolai Gogol.

H: A surfeit of good authors with H, but I think I’ll choose the witty (yet gentle) indictment of UN bureaucrats in Shirley Hazzard’s People in Glass Houses.

I: Who else but Eugene Ionesco, my fellow countryman? And because I love anything to do with language learning and the dangers of miscommunication, I choose The Bald Soprano.

J: Shirley Jackson has long been a favourite of mine, mainly on the basis of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which is one of the most chilling yet perfect novellas ever written.

K: Franz Kafka’s Das Schloss (The Castle) – the author was never in doubt, although it’s hard to choose between this, Metamorphosis and The Trial.

L: C. S. Lewis: The Silver Chair – the Narnia chronicles provided me with many, many hours of joy in my childhood, and this one was perhaps my favourite of the lot, because I could relate to Jill and thought Puddleglum was hilarious.

M: Murakami Haruki’s Kafka on the Shore is probably my favourite novel of his, and not just because it features lots of cats.

N: Gellu Naum was a Romanian surrealist poet, but he is best known for his delightful children’s book about the little penguin Apolodor who is trying to find his relatives in Labrador.

O: On my first (and so far only) visit to Canada, I discovered Heather O’Neill’s Lullabies for Little Criminals and have been smitten with this author ever since.

P: I could go for obvious choice Proust, but I will opt instead for Barbara Pym. Less than Angels may not be her best-known or most accomplished novel, but she pokes fun at anthropologists in it and I just cannot resist that!

Q: A tricky letter, as you might imagine, but not when you have a favourite called Zazie dans le metro by Raymond Queneau.

R: Which one of Jean Rhys‘ haunting novels to choose? In the end, perhaps After Leaving Mr Mackenzie is the most quietly devastating one.

S: Antoine de Sainte-Exupery’s The Little Prince will forever be one of my favourite books, sorry, cannot be objective about it at all, cry like a leaky faucet whenever I read it.

T: A slight cheating going on here, but I want to make sure that Tove Jansson gets a mention, as she is one of my most favourite writers ever. Plus the title of this book of hers starts with a T too: The True Deceiver.

U: Another avant-garde Romanian poet (we seem to be good at writing about absurdity, perhaps our history has taught us to see the surreal comedy and oxymorons in daily life) is Urmuz, considered a forerunner of Dadaism. His works (short prose and poetry) have been translated into English, if you are curious.

V: Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo gets a few things wrong, so the Colombian storyteller who inspired him decides to tell his own version of events. Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s The Secret History of Costaguana is a lively rewriting of literary history and Latin America’s riposte to Europe’s limiting vision of their continent.

W: I’m sure you all expect me to choose Virginia Woolf, but I will confound you by going for Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra, which I read while visiting Granada as a child and had a lasting effect on me (again, very slightly cheating).

X: I love Qiu Xiaolong‘s Chief Inspector Chen series, set in a rapidly changing Shanghai in the 1990s, starting with Death of a Red Heroine.

Y: Very tempted to choose Richard Yates here, but instead I will mention Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, which should be far better known in the English-speaking world.

Z: Émile Zola is currently very much top of my thoughts, but it’s not The Debacle that I will be referring to here, nor Nana or Germinal, his best-known works, but the novel which supposedly brought about the end of his friendship with Cezanne, L’Oeuvre (The Work of Art), in which he somewhat satirizes the Bohemian art world in Paris at the time.