#SixDegrees November 2021

Yay, it’s time once more for 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 you have to link it to six other books to form a chain. They don’t all have to link thematically, but often your subconscious produces a bit of theme for you.

This month’s starting point is What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez, a book I haven’t read, which always proves challenging at the start of a chain. So I decided to keep it very simple and link to another author named Sigrid (the only other author named Sigrid that I have ever heard of), namely Sigrid Undset, who won the Nobel Prize in 1928, mainly for her masterpiece, the Kristin Lavransdottir trilogy. It follows the life of a woman in fourteenth-century Norway, and is surprisingly frank about sexual desires (especially of women) and unwedded bliss.

The author’s straightforward, modern style was not well rendered with the initial translation dating from the 1920s, which favoured an archaic style (as if to make the historical aspect of things more obvious). This might explain why the book never made an impact in the English-speaking world. But Tiina Nunnally provided a fresh and by all accounts superior translation in 2005, and I am very tempted to read it.

Another book that was perhaps not well served by its initial translation into English is Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, which was first translated in its entirety by Eleanor Marx (yes, daughter of Karl). She also favoured a more dated language (although this was slightly updated for the Norton Anthology edition), heavily criticised by Nabokov and Lydia Davis – who translated the novel herself. There are by now approximately twenty English translations of Madame Bovary.

Next book therefore is Madame Bovary of the Suburbs by Sophie Divry – although the title in the original is La condition pavillonnaire, which was initially a medical term to describe the siloed nature of hospitals with separate wings for each type of disease, but has since been adapted to explain the loneliness of low-density housing suburbs in the US. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Sophie Divry speak on the French literary podcast Bookmakers and was surprised by her very combative style, although perhaps less so when I heard about her past political activism.

Another author I heard on Bookmakers and who turned out to be less intimidating than his rather fearsome reputation is HervĂ© Le Tellier, a member of the Oulipo group. His recent novel L’Anomalie won the Goncourt Prize in 2020 (Oulipos have not had much luck with this traditional prize in the past) and will be out soon in the English translation of Adriana Hunter.

The Oulipo group provides my link to another famous group of literary and artistic rebels, the Dadas, and the Dada Manifesto 1918 by Tristan Tzara, a Romanian-born poet and rebel. It is in fact an anti-manifesto for culture, a belief that deeds are more important than words, a desire to escape all systems – the only acceptable system is to have none. I have a lot of sympathy for Tzara’s desire to emancipate himself from competing national cultures and nationalist rhetorics – he saw himself as a true European. However, it should be noted that his Dada associates did refer to him as East European, Oriental or even barbarian – it seems he cold not escape his ‘foreignness’.

This avant-garde literary magazine was named after Urmuz and published 5 issues in 1928.

My final link in the chain is another not very well-known yet hugely influential Romanian writer of the absurdist/avant-garde school of 1910/20s, namely Urmuz. Like Cavafy or Pessoa, he led a bit of a double life, drowning in colourless clerical work, yet notorious from his schooldays on for outrageous absurdist, almost surreal pranks. He died far too soon to produce a huge body of work, but captured the imagination of everyone who knew or read him. His Complete Works in English seem to only be available in a limited edition from Atlas Press, but his work has been translated into French, German and Italian. I have just spotted that a new translation of his prose by Alastair Ian Blyth will be published in 2022 by Dalkey Archive Press. [Leave something for me to translate, Alastair, will you?]

From 14th century Norway to 19th century France, from contemporary France to the avant-garde in 1910s Zurich and Romania, we’ve had a bit of an unusual journey here this month. Where will your literary travels take you?

Friday Fun: Homes of French Writers

Grandiloquent gestures and symbols do not sit well with me. I express my love of my current home, France, in simpler ways – not just today, but always.

Madame de Chatelet's chateau in Cirey-sur-Blaise, where she lived in domestic bliss with Voltaire. From chateaudecirey.com
Madame de Chatelet’s chateau in Cirey-sur-Blaise, where she lived in domestic bliss with Voltaire. From chateaudecirey.com

Madame de Chatelet was a respected author, mathematician and physicist, who translated Newton into French. Voltaire was her lover, friend and intellectual collaborator for 15 years, until her untimely death in childbirth at the age of 42. Voltaire wrote of her:

Seldom has so fine a mind and so much taste been united with so much ardour for learning; but she also loved the world and all the amusements of her age and sex. Nevertheless she left all this to go and bury herself in a dilapidated house on the frontiers of Champagne and Lorraine, where the land was very fertile and very ugly.

Madame de Stael's Swiss chateau at Coppet, from swisscastles.ch
Madame de Stael’s Swiss chateau at Coppet, from swisscastles.ch

 

Madame de Staël was one of the most vocal opponents of Napoleon and had to flee across the border to Switzerland to escape persecution. She felt restless and lonely in rural Coppet, missed the intellectual verve of Paris.

The voice of conscience is so delicate that it is easy to stifle it; but it is also so clear that it is impossible to mistake it. (Madame de Staël)

Francois Mauriac's home Malagar. From malagar.aquitaine.fr
Francois Mauriac’s home Malagar. From malagar.aquitaine.fr

Mauriac was one of the 3 Great ‘M’s to originate in Bordeaux (the others being Montaigne and Montesquieu) – a novelist, dramatist and journalist who won the Nobel Prize in 1952.

I believe that only poetry counts … A great novelist is first of all a great poet. (Mauriac)

Emile Zola's house in Medan, not far from Paris. From wikiwand.com
Emile Zola’s house in Medan, not far from Paris. From wikiwand.com

Thanks to the success of L’Assommoir, Zola bought a small house in Medan and extended it so that he could receive his friends, Guy de Maupassant, CĂ©zanne, Manet, Alphonse Daudet and so on. How I’d have liked to be a fly on the wall there!

Victor Hugo's handsome pile at Villequier in Normandy, from patrimoine-normand.com
Victor Hugo’s handsome pile at Villequier in Normandy, from patrimoine-normand.com

Hugo and his family spent a lot of time in this house and village on the river Seine, but their time here was marked by tragedy too. His favourite daughter Leopoldine and her husband (they had just married, despite some family opposition) drowned in the river there.

By contrast, Flaubert's modest pavillion in Normandy, from maisons-ecrivains.fr
By contrast, Flaubert’s modest pavilion in Normandy, from maisons-ecrivains.fr

This is the only building left of a much larger manor house and property belonging to Flaubert’s father. The writer adored this house and wrote all of his work here.

Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world. (Flaubert)

Marguerite Duras' house at Neauphle-le-Chateau is clearly not a chateau either, from maisons-ecrivains.fr
Marguerite Duras’ house at Neauphle-le-Chateau is clearly not a chateau either, from maisons-ecrivains.fr

The solitude of writing is a solitude without which writing could not be produced, or would crumble, drained bloodless by the search for something else to write. (Duras)

However, Alexandre Dumas' Chateau de Monte-Cristo in Yvelines shows just how much of a bestseller he really was. From lesitedelhistoire.blogspot.com
However, Alexandre Dumas’ Chateau de Monte-Cristo in Yvelines shows just how much of a bestseller he really was. From lesitedelhistoire.blogspot.com

Cautionary note as to the last, however: Dumas designed and built the chateau from scratch and moved in the grandiose custom-built venue in 1847. By 1850 he was bankrupt and had to sell all the furniture, the house itself and find refuge from his creditors in Belgium.