#6Degrees of Separation: From Judy Blume to…

I was too busy to take part in this favourite bookish thread last month but am delighted to be back now. Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best nudges us into position every month with a ‘starter book for ten’ and we link it one by one to another six books. Everyone’s chain is very different, and I think it’s fascinating to see how our minds work!

This month’s starter is Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume, an author whose books we would surreptitiously pass from one girl to another under the desks in class, while we were supposed to be reading A Tale of Two Cities or something equally respectable. We were a British international school, as opposed to the American International school that was our main rival in town. But we did have quite a few American pupils and they introduced us to Judy Blume.

Another book that I distinctly remember discovering at that school, although this time it was officially part of the curriculum in our German class, was a short story collection by Swiss writer Peter Bichsel. The poignant, surreal story A Table Is a Table impressed me so much that I have never forgotten it. It’s all about loneliness, being misunderstood, not finding a common language to communicate, or dementia, or all sorts of things that children may not really understand at a conscious level, but instinctively grasp with their heart. You can read it here in Lydia Davis’ translation.

I have to admit to my shame that for the longest time I mixed up Lydia Davis with Lindsey Davis, whose novels of crime and mayhem set in Imperial Rome and featuring informer Marcus Didius Falco I discovered and loved so much in my early twenties. I chanced upon them in my library, so The Iron Hand of Mars was the first one I read, although it is the fourth or fifth in the series chronologically.

Mars is the link to the next book, namely Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles. Again, a book I devoured in my youth – with the Cold War at its demented peak, it all seemed more than a little plausible at the time.

Of course, the most obvious author describing the Cold War period is John Le Carré and I’m particularly fond of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, which captures perfectly the constant paranoia, distrust and sheer danger of East Germany and the world of espionage during the period just after the Berlin Wall went up.

A book set in Berlin (but at a very different point in time – party town Berlin in 2008) sits patiently waiting on my shelves to be read: French writer Oscar Coop-Phane’s Tomorrow Berlin, transl. George Miller.

Of course, if I were to make the last link in the chain any one of the hundreds of unread books in my library, that would be far too open a field. So instead I will focus on another book that I have in English rather than in the original language, although I can read the original language. It is Nostalgia by Mircea Cartarescu, transl. Julian Semilian, which will be published by Penguin Classics in 2021 (and who kindly sent me an ARC).

So quite a variety of genres and locations this month: YA set in the US, Swiss short stories, historical crime fiction in Ancient Rome, science fiction on Mars, spy thriller in Berlin and London, youth drug and club culture in Berlin and Paris, and experimental literary fiction set in Romania.

Where will your literary connections take you this month?

#6Degrees from Less than Zero to…

1987 film poster

It is my absolute pleasure to participate once again in the Six Degrees monthly link-up organised by Kate. The starting point this month is a book I haven’t read by that once shining light of the 1980s literary Brat Pack Bret Easton Ellis: Less than Zero. If I didn’t read it at the time, when I was closer in age to the hedonistic youth portrayed in its pages, I don’t think I am likely to read it now (middle-aged sniff of disapproval!).

 

Another book which describes decadent youth is Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh. I have to admit that I wanted to be a flapper of the 1920s when I was growing up, although, like with Mozart’s music, you are always aware in Waugh’s novels of a darker desperation underlying the frenetically cheery and madcap surface.

The other writer associated with the Roaring Twenties is of course F. Scott Fitzgerald and he also captures the sadness underlying the apparent prosperity and carelessness of that period. My favourite of his books was for a long time Tender Is the Night, which also describes a rather madcap party.

Part of the Fitzgerald novel is set on the French Riviera, which is also the setting for Françoise Sagan’s amazing debut novel Bonjour Tristesse, written when she was only 18 and perfectly describing the stubborn, gauche, misguided teenager who tries to act older than her age.

 

There are plenty of books about disaffected youth and the difficulties of being a teenager, especially nowadays, but for my next choice I go back to an old classic The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, who was herself a teenager when she wrote it. This sad tale of gang life and pointless violence reveals how hard it is for teenagers to figure out right from wrong and how powerless they often are to do anything about it.

Speaking of gangs, there is a little-known book by Ernst Haffner called Jugend auf der Landstrasse Berlin (Blood Brothers, transl. by Michael Hoffman) about Weimar-era teenagers trying to scrape together an existence via the welfare office, pickpocketing and other petty crime.

Berlin is also the setting of a more modern novel Tomorrow Berlin by Oscar Coop-Phane, about the post-1989 youth culture there. A generation full of promiscuity, rave culture and drink, drugs and toilet sex which brings us right back to Brett Easton Ellis subject matter, but perhaps described with more French elegance and nonchalance.

So I have stuck pretty much to youth culture in my little foray through literary links, but tried to keep it international. What links will you be making?