Six Degrees of Separation: From Shopgirl to…

Hosted each month by Kate at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest, the Six Degrees of Separation meme picks a starting book for participants to go wherever it takes them in six more steps. This month’s starting point was suggested by Annabel.

Shopgirl by Steve Martin. I had no idea that comedian Steve Martin wrote novels, but apparently this one is a bit of a satire about life in LA, as well as a love story.

Lonely, depressed Vermont transplant Mirabelle Buttersfield, who sells expensive evening gloves nobody ever buys at Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills and spends her evenings watching television with her two cats. She attempts to forge a relationship with middle-aged, womanizing, Seattle millionaire Ray Porter while being pursued by socially inept and unambitious slacker Jeremy.

So my second pick is purely picked for the title which sounds fairly similar. 1) Sophie Kinsella’s Confessions of a Shopaholic. I haven’t read this one either and I can think of nothing less likely for me to pick up, as I hated that whole Bridget Jones, Ally McBeal and ditzy single shopaholic chick scene which seemed so prevalent when I first started working in London in the late 1990s.


The third book is a bit of a leap, but bear with me… I’ll be taking you to 18th century Geneva and Paris, via the 2) Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It is an extraordinarily honest autobiography of one of the greatest minds – but also one of the greatest narcissists – of the Century of Lights. Here he lays out and examines, without too much artifice, his weaknesses and blind spots, his triumphs and mistakes, his way of life often contradicting his principles (abandoning his children when he wrote so eloquently about children’s better nature and the importance of education).

The next choice is obvious, because Rousseau’s greatest rival at the time was 3) Voltaire. The two men started off by admiring each other’s work, but then disagreed on fundamental philosophical and moral issues and became arch-enemies. The turning point was the horrendous earthquake of Lisbon in 1755, when more than 60,000 people died. Rousseau said it should not make us doubt God’s kindness and that people brought it upon themselves by settling in cities with such dense populations. Voltaire was stunned by such heartlessness and produced in return the remarkable story of Candidea young man whose naive optimism and belief in God is sorely tested by earthquakes, syphilis, the Inquisition, murder and banishment. Mindless optimism, Voltaire contends, is stupid, unsustainable, a crime almost.

The two geniuses also fought about establishing a theatre in Geneva (Voltaire was for it, Rousseau against), so my next link is theatrical, a play which is somewhat linked to Candide, in that it presents scenes of life which test our belief in optimism and love.

4) Arthur Schnitzler’s Reigen (aka Liebelei, aka La Ronde) made a profound impression on me at the age of 13, when I saw it performed on stage. It’s brief scenes of ten couples (one of the couple linking to the next, like a daisy chain) before, during and after love-making and it is incredibly revealing about class and lifestyle in decadent, pre-war Vienna.

Speaking of decadence and pre-war jitters, I’ve recently read 5) Christopher Isherwood’s Prater Violet, which also mentions Vienna, although it features the period before a different world war. This slim yet powerful work is brilliant at dissecting how world events are perceived by different people and cultures, depending on how safe you consider yourself to be. It is also a biting satire of the film industry and features a semi-fictional portrait of Isherwood as a hapless scriptwriter.


Clearly, my final link has to be the film industry and so we move to LA once more together with 6) Joyce Carol Oates’ Blonde, a vivid, poignant, epic reimagining of the story of one of the most idolised yet summarily dismissed and underestimated women of the film world, Marilyn Monroe.

So my journey this month takes me from selling gloves in a department store in LA to becoming an iconic film star in the same city, via London, Geneva, Paris and Vienna. You can follow this meme on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees or create your own blog post. Where will your 6 degrees of separation journey take you?

Friday Fun: Writers’ Residences in Rhône-Alpes

I am fortunate enough to be living (for the time being) in an extremely beautiful part of France. Although the region Rhône-Alpes is a relatively recent administrative invention, the diversity and beauty of its landscapes and its historically autonomous status (parts of it belonged to Savoie rather than France) have been attracting writers for centuries. This Friday I would like to introduce you to some of those and their favourite homes.

Voltaire's chateau in Ferney-Voltaire. From
Voltaire’s chateau in Ferney-Voltaire. From
Rousseau's country retreat at Les Charmettes near Chambery became a pilgrimage site.  From
Rousseau’s country retreat at Les Charmettes near Chambery became a pilgrimage site. From
Antoine de Saint-Exupery's childhood home in Saint Maurice near Lyon. From Terre des Ecrivains website.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s childhood home in Saint Maurice near Lyon. From Terre des Ecrivains website.
Paul Claudel's Chateau de Brangues, in a village that Stendhal wrote about in 'The Red and the Black'.
Paul Claudel’s Chateau de Brangues, in a village that Stendhal wrote about in ‘The Red and the Black’.
Gertrude Stein's refuge from Paris during WW2, Bilignan near Belley. From Tourisme Belley-Bas-Bugey website.
Gertrude Stein’s refuge from Paris during WW2, Bilignin near Belley. From Tourisme Belley-Bas-Bugey website.

Finally, two villas for which I couldn’t find current pictures. The first, the ivy-covered manor house Boringe on the shores of Lake Annecy, completely captivated Hippolyte Taine. For twenty years he spent March to November there and wrote every morning in his study.


The second is on the shores of Lake Geneva, near Evian, where Anna de Noailles spent her childhood summers. It was here that she met Marcel Proust in 1899 and this is the place she returned to time and time again in her writing.

Villa Bassaraba, from Comtesse de Noailles fan blog site.
Villa Bassaraba, from Comtesse de Noailles fan blog site.

The information for this post comes from the beautifully illustrated book ‘Dans le pas des écrivains en Rhône-Alpes’ by Anne Buttin and Nelly Gabriel, published by Glénat. They mention so many other writers who lived, studied or passed through the region (Baudelaire, Camus, Huysmans, Stendhal, Simone Weil and many more).