#6Degrees of Separation December 2021

Last Six Degrees chain of the year, so let’s make it a memorable one. This is my favourite bookish meme, as hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best, and this month it starts with Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome. A book I have read, but such a long time ago (when I was about 16), that I would need to reread it to be able to say anything intelligent about it.

So my first link is to another book that I read a very, very long time ago, loved back then but haven’t reread since, namely The Wings of the Dove by Henry James. I found my teenage diary and this is what I had to say about it when I was 15: ‘He so calms me, this man. He is quiet, takes such small steps, little by little he lets us advance into the story. To fully appreciate him, you must read slowly, tasting every word, chewing, swallowing, and then digesting his ideas as well. Although he moves so slowly, as if he had all the time in the world, you are never bored.’ 😂

The book is about a rich but ill heiress, who is treated rather badly by a self-interested couple. My next link is to a rich heir with a disability (rather than a terminal illness) who is loved by someone who is not interested in his huge wealth: the huge bestseller Me Before You by Jojo Moyes.

I haven’t read the book, merely seen the film, and that is my next link: Millenium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson. I am currently watching the Swedish language version of the three films on BBC4 (half a film every week), but I gave up reading the books after finishing the first one The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I thought them violent, overlong and quite frankly dull at times, could have done with some stringent editing. The films are pretty violent too, it has to be said.

Lisbeth Salander is a pretty enigmatic sort of character, so for my next link I have chosen another young woman who is so enigmatic that she gives the book its title: Enigma Otiliei (The Enigma/Riddle of Otilia) by George Calinescu. It is a classic Romanian novel about the young Felix Sima who comes to Bucharest to study medicine and falls in love with his tutor’s daughter, Otilia, who seems to behave in a rather capricious way. In fact, it might be that Felix never actually gets to see the real Otilia, that he develops this ideal image of her, or makes her into what he would like a girl to be. As a not exactly flattering portrait of the early 20th century bourgeois society in Bucharest, and as an attempt for Romanian literature to catch up with the great 19th century Balzac-style novels, it is quite a landmark achievement.

The novel was adapted for film as ‘Felix and Otilia’ in Romania in 1972.

I will next turn to another author whose name was George (or at least her pseudonym was): the first book by George Sand I ever read was A Winter in Majorca, which I bought when visiting Valdemosssa on a summer holiday with my father on the island (I must have been in my very early teens and was quite a Chopin fan at the time). It is a sort of memoir and travel journal, describing their stay on the island in the forlorn hope that Chopin’s health would improve.

My final book is simply called An Island by Karen Jennings, a recent book which was a surprise apparition on the Booker Prize longlist. I am always glad to see a South African writer there (and of course a South African won it this year), and this is the kind of quiet, low-profile novel that might have gone unnoticed. I haven’t read it yet, but I have bought it and stored it safely on my shelves.

So my journey this month has taken us from London to Venice, from small-town Britain to Sweden, from Bucharest in the early 1900s, to Majorca in the late 1830s and, finally, a timeless unnamed place. I wonder where 2022 will take me – hopefully on some real journeys, not just imaginary ones!

#6Degrees May 2021

You know you love it: seeing where this daisy chain of random literary connections will take you every month, as hosted by the lovely Kate on her blog. This month we start with a Beverly Cleary book, in honour of the recently deceased author. I cannot remember if I’ve read Beezus and Ramona, but I know there were some Ramona books in the school library, even though we were officially an English school (in practice, a very international one).

Another book that I found and devoured in the school library was Gone with the Wind, when I was about eleven, and thought the Southern States during the American Civil War were terribly romantic. (Full disclosure: As a child, I was also a Royalist in the English Civil War and a supporter of Bonnie Prince Charlie. Maybe just a fan of lost causes?)

A book about a very different, more recent and long-lasting civil war is one I am reading this month, namely White Masks by Elias Khoury, about Lebanon. Beirut, with its pleasant climate and spectacular Corniche coastal road, was considered a jewel of a city before all the fighting started, often dubbed the Paris of the Orient.

Another city that was supposedly called ‘Little Paris’ during the interwar period was Bucharest. For an incomparable (if rather depressing) look at life in Bucharest during the 1930s and then the Second World War, I would recommend – of course, you were expecting this, weren’t you? – Mihail Sebastian’s Journal (1935-1944), available in English translation by Patrick Camiller.

Another, very different Sebastian is the link to my next book, namely Therapy, the debut novel by German bestselling author Sebastian Fitzek, whose big boast was that this novel managed to topple the seemingly relentless No. 1 ranking of The Da Vinci Code in Germany in 2006.

Another huge bestseller that you may not have heard of is She: A History of Adventure by H. Rider Haggard, published in 1887, which has sold over 83 million copies worldwide. Apparently a Victorian tale of archaelogy and adventure, it follows a professor and his colleague on a journey prompted by a shard of ancient pottery. Sounds very Indiana Jones (and of course reinforces the idea of white Western superiority).

A week or two ago, someone mentioned George Sand’s many novels on Twitter, and I remembered vaguely that Indiana was the name of one of them. The novel is set partly in France and partly in the French colony of Réunion, it is a story of passion, adultery, betrayal and loyal friendship. Very dramatic indeed and this cover seems to indicate a bodice-ripper, which I’m pretty sure it’s not.

So, another whirlwind tour of the world, from the state of Georgia in the US, to Beirut, to Bucharest, to northern Germany, to ‘a lost kingdom in the African interior’, to Paris and La Réunion, you cannot complain you’ve been cooped up in the house this month!