#6Degrees of Separation: June 2019

It is always a pleasure to participate in the Six Degrees monthly link-up organised by Kate. The starting point this month is a book I haven’t read but which recently won the Wellcome Book Prize, Murmur by Will Eaves. I am interested in the subject matter but need to work up my courage to read this one, since it is a reimagining of the strain and suffering that Alan Turing must have gone through in the last few years of his life.

The title of the book, however, made me initially think it was about a heart murmur, perhaps a heart transplant. The best book (or perhaps the only book) I’ve read on that topic is Maylis de Kerangal’s Mend the Living (published as The Heart in the US).

This book won the Prix Orange in France back in 2014. Another winner of the same prize (in 2018) is Haitian author Louis-Philippe Dalembert’s Avant que les ombres s’effacent (Before the Shadows Fade). A novel based on the real fact (that I was not at all aware of) that the Haitian state passed a decree in 1939 granting Jewish refugees passports and safe passage to Haiti.

The Haitian state was born out of slave rebellion and its hero was the beautifully named Toussaint Louverture, born a slave but, as he declared himself, ‘nature gave me the soul of a free man’. Much has been written about him, especially in French, but I have an English language biography and reassessment of his legacy written by Charles Forsdick and Christian Hogsbjerg on my bookshelves, which I have yet to read.

Since we are talking about revolutions, and with the Paris Commune on my mind quite a bit this past month, let’s turn to another book, a novel set during a very tricky revolutionary time: The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov, one of my favourite Russian writers. It’s the story of a family in Kiev (somewhat similar to Bulgakov’s own) having to live through the consequences of the Russian Revolution, and all the warring factions of the Ukrainian War of Independence – the Whites, the Reds, the Imperial German Army, and Ukrainian nationalists. Although this book was banned for decades, the stage version of the book was apparently one of Stalin’s favourite ways to relax.

Many plays were banned, of course, in Communist times in Romania. One play that censorship consistently fought over with the theatre directors (and censorship usually won) was Caligula by Albert Camus. I’m not quite sure why it was seen as so inappropriate that even the filming of the performance was stopped (and the film destroyed), except that it perhaps shows the descent of a hitherto kindly despot into absolute mad tyranny.

And so we end with one of the classics of historical novels: I, Claudius, written by Robert Graves in first person, as if it were the memoir of Emperor Claudius, who was despised and marginalised by his family because of his stutter… and therefore managds to survive to become emperor and tell the tale.

From Turing to France to Haiti to the Ukraine, with a short stopover of sorts in Romania, and a slightly lengthier stint in the Roman Empire. It’s been quite a journey in time and space this month. Where will your links take you?

Another Little Book Splurge

Repeat after me: summertime, and the living is easy… And, if it is not, we like to pretend it is. What better way to do so than with some new books? All recommended by online or writing friends.

  1. After rereading Persuasion, Janet Emson decided to give Mansfield Park another go, which made me want to reread all the Austen novels, as I used to do once a year in my so-called less busy 20s (when I was juggling three jobs at at a time). So the perfect excuse to acquire these pretty new Vintage Classics editions of my two least favourite Jane Austen novels, Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park. (I still like them a lot and these editions will make me like them more.)
  2. Rebecca Watts: The Met Office Advises Caution grabbed my attention on Kaggsy’s blog. A debut collection of poetry which combines observations of nature, wit, science and human drama.
  3. Meena Kandasamy: When I Hit You or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife caught my eye in this smart review, A List of People Who Should Read this book. I want to learn more about present-day India and anything about the struggle between marriage and art is bound to attract me…
  4. Rae Armantrout: Entanglements is a tiny volume of poetry, but it’s apparently described as making poetry of physics. I did at one point want to study physics and most of my physicist friends (other than my husband) are also very fond of poetry. There seems to be a hidden connection there (as with maths and music). Furthermore, at our poetry masterclass, Laura Kasischke said that my poetry reminded her of Rae Armantrout’s (whom I have never read).
  5. Charles Forsdick & Christian Hogsbjerg: Toussaint Louverture – A Black Jacobin in the Age of Revolutions. This book was mentioned on the Repeating Islands website, which focuses on Caribbean art, culture, history and literature. The Haitian slave who became a military leader and governor, led the only successful slave revolt in history and founded the first free colonial society which explicitly rejected race as the basis of social ranking is a fascinating character. I had heard of him from my Haitian salsa teacher in France. After a year or two of having mainly girls as a partner, I gave up on salsa but I was impressed by the dancing skills and revolutionary spirit of my teacher (although he was less impressed with Voltaire than me).