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 Hervé 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’.
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?