#6Degrees of Separation October 2022

Always a little late to the party, i.e. first Monday rather than first Saturday of the month, but always a pleasure to take part in the Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate of Books are my Favourite and Best. We all start with the same book and then link it, one by one, to six other books to form a chain. There are no limits to our imagination as we use the links!

This month the starting point is Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller. There was quite a buzz about this book when it first came out and it was filmed as well, although I haven’t seen the adaptation. Originally a little sceptical about the book (the blurb did not do it any favours), I was actually impressed after reading it: the unreliable narrator is done so unobtrusively well. It is set in a school and I’ve decided that this month I will stick to books set in schools or universities, because I always enjoy them (having been both a teacher and a university lecturer at various points in my life).

The first book in the chain is very similar in premise: an angry schoolteacher narrator who feels invisible, undervalued, frustrated – and is beguiled by the parents of one her pupils – by their lifestyle, their artistic freedom, their background. The book is The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud and I kept wanting to quote whole chunks from it (there is something about artistic frustration there, which is not so much present in Notes on a Scandal).

Speaking of unfilfilled teachers who nevertheless believe themselves to be always right, god-like and create their own set of favourites, the best example of that is The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark, set in pre-WW2 Edinburgh.

Very similar premise again, this time with a male teacher wanting to ‘open the eyes, ears and hearts’ of his students, this time through poetry, is the play Dead Poets’ Society by Tom Schulman, based on the very successful film starring Robin Williams as the charismatic teacher, for which Schulman had written wrote the original script (which won an Oscar).

Literature nerd though I am, I thought the premise of the film was overblown and elitist, and that is how I feel about The Secret History by Donna Tartt, which so many people love but which I found annoying, pretentious and almost unreadable.

Despite its age (more than 150 years old) and its moralising tone, Tom Brown’s Schooldays by Thomas Hughes is an excellent (and sadly not at all outdated) description of elite public schools in England (in this case, Rugby), with its brutal bullying, opaque rituals and privileged idiots.

A far more appealing private school is the Chalet School (which starts off in the 1920s and relocates from Austria to the Channel Islands to Wales and finally Switzerland over the course of many decades). The series numbered 59 books in total, but my favourite is perhaps the first one I ever read (not the first in the series) The Princess of the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer. Perhaps because I thought Princess Elisaveta of Belsornia could have come from a small country somewhere in the Balkans that I could relate to?

No books in translation this time – which is a bit of a shame. I think the school (especially boarding school) genre is more popular in the UK than elsewhere (a legacy of all those colonialists sending their offspring to be educated back in the good old motherland, perhaps?), but there are some good school stories from other countries too, so perhaps I will dedicate my next post to that.

In the meantime, we have gone from London to Cambridge, Mass., Edinburgh to Vermont (twice!), Rugby and Tyrol. Where will your six degrees of literary links take you this month?

#6Degrees of Separation July 2021

Hurray, it’s time for another monthly Six Degrees of Separation journey! Hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best, you start at the same place as other imaginative readers around the world, add six books that link in various ways with each other, and see where you end up.

This month’s starting point is Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss, a book for grammar and punctuation fiends. As a former English teacher, you can imagine that this is a subject dear to my heart and I can be quite severe about it. But at the same time I don’t want to discourage young people from writing, which is why my first link is Kate Clanchy, who is also a teacher, one of the most inspiring kind. Her book Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me is so compassionate and humane, all about approaching children with love, patience and poetry, and demonstrates that education can indeed change lives.

You’re going to laugh at my next link (and I’ve probably used it before) but I loved school as a child and dreamt of going to a boarding school like the Chalet School. (Since I grew up in Vienna, the setting didn’t seem at all far-fetched to me.) The first book in the series by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer that I came across at the school library was The Princess of the Chalet School, which had a double resonance for me, since Princess Elisaveta was from a small Balkan state (as well as the Austrian school setting), so I completely identified with her. (Never mind the ‘royal’ part!)

I really do not like royalty or monarchies as a form of government in general: an antiquated concept that has no place in the modern world. But I will stick to it for my next link, because it is about the Meiji Emperor of Japan, who was the ruler at the time of the opening of Japan to foreign powers and the extremely rapid modernisation that followed. Donald Keene is an eminent scholar of Japanese history and literature, and his biography Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912 is probably the only exhaustive study on this topic that we have in the English language.

Keene was so devoted to Japan that he moved there after the tsunami in 2011 and became a Japanese citizen. He was also a prolific translator of Japanese literature, both classical and modern pieces. One of my favourites is The Narrow Road to the Deep North/Oku (Oku no Hosomichi), the travel journal of haiku poet Bashō from 1689.

These kind of poetic travel journals are like catnip to me – both for the places they describe and the insights they give you into the mind of a talented and observant creator. Rebecca West‘s travel journal Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is far less interior meditation and far more a description of a particular time and place (Yugoslavia in 1937, shortly before the outbreak of World War Two), but it is very interesting for all that – although MUCH longer than Bashō’s.

The final link is via ovine creatures – from lambs to sheep. Famously, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick was the basis for the film Blade Runner (a loose adaptation which has rather overshadowed the book). There really is an electric sheep in the book, but what the main protagonist aspires to is a living animal as a pet for his wife to help with her depression.

We have once more travelled all around the world this month: from Britain to the Austrian Alps, from Japan to Yugoslavia, and finally to a dystopian San Francisco of the future (not so futuristic nowadays, since the adjusted date was 2021, I believe). Where will your six links take you?