#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 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’.

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?

#AtoZofBooks – Favourites and Forgotten Books

Simon Thomas from Stuck in a Book started a trend on Twitter a few days ago with an A-Z of favourite books: an author for every letter of the alphabet.

Oh HI book twitter!

I’ve decided I’m going to share 26 brilliant books – an author for every letter of the alphabet. It’ll be a gradual thread. It’ll be fun.

Share your own #AToZofBooks!— Simon Thomas (@stuck_inabook) May 22, 2019

This is such a lovely idea, that I wanted to emulate it on my blog – although I will no doubt curse the thought once I reach X or Z.

A: Jane Austen’s Persuasion, of course, one of the most perfect novels ever written.

B: Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal influenced me hugely in my teens and was probably the catalyst that provoked my own outburst of poetry at that age. I can still recite some of the poems by heart.

C: Another poet, Cavafy, whose collected poems I discovered much later, when I fell in love with a Greek man in my 20s. He had been forced to study Ithaka at school, and moaned about it, but I thought it was a fantastic poem and wanted to read more. The Greek man has since disappeared from my life (well, nearly… any day now… he’s a bit like Theresa May) but the love for Cavafy has remained. I have about 5 different translations of his work and can just about read the original Greek as well.

D: Dazai Osamu – I love all of the books by this nice ‘cheery’ Japanese author, but I have a soft spot for the first one I ever read by him: a collection of short stories which have been translated into English as Run, Melos! and Other Stories. The story from Judas’ point of view impressed me so much that I made my first attempt there and then at translating from Japanese.

E: Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go Went Gone impressed me very much when I read it at the height of the refugee crisis in Europe.

F: Benjamin Fondane is Romanian-Jewish poet, translator, literary critic and essayist, who wrote in both French and Romanian and sadly was exterminated in Birkenau in 1944 at the age of just 46. His poetry collection Privelisti (Landscapes) is my choice here.

G: A masterpiece of satire and absurdity, the short story The Nose by Nikolai Gogol.

H: A surfeit of good authors with H, but I think I’ll choose the witty (yet gentle) indictment of UN bureaucrats in Shirley Hazzard’s People in Glass Houses.

I: Who else but Eugene Ionesco, my fellow countryman? And because I love anything to do with language learning and the dangers of miscommunication, I choose The Bald Soprano.

J: Shirley Jackson has long been a favourite of mine, mainly on the basis of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which is one of the most chilling yet perfect novellas ever written.

K: Franz Kafka’s Das Schloss (The Castle) – the author was never in doubt, although it’s hard to choose between this, Metamorphosis and The Trial.

L: C. S. Lewis: The Silver Chair – the Narnia chronicles provided me with many, many hours of joy in my childhood, and this one was perhaps my favourite of the lot, because I could relate to Jill and thought Puddleglum was hilarious.

M: Murakami Haruki’s Kafka on the Shore is probably my favourite novel of his, and not just because it features lots of cats.

N: Gellu Naum was a Romanian surrealist poet, but he is best known for his delightful children’s book about the little penguin Apolodor who is trying to find his relatives in Labrador.

O: On my first (and so far only) visit to Canada, I discovered Heather O’Neill’s Lullabies for Little Criminals and have been smitten with this author ever since.

P: I could go for obvious choice Proust, but I will opt instead for Barbara Pym. Less than Angels may not be her best-known or most accomplished novel, but she pokes fun at anthropologists in it and I just cannot resist that!

Q: A tricky letter, as you might imagine, but not when you have a favourite called Zazie dans le metro by Raymond Queneau.

R: Which one of Jean Rhys‘ haunting novels to choose? In the end, perhaps After Leaving Mr Mackenzie is the most quietly devastating one.

S: Antoine de Sainte-Exupery’s The Little Prince will forever be one of my favourite books, sorry, cannot be objective about it at all, cry like a leaky faucet whenever I read it.

T: A slight cheating going on here, but I want to make sure that Tove Jansson gets a mention, as she is one of my most favourite writers ever. Plus the title of this book of hers starts with a T too: The True Deceiver.

U: Another avant-garde Romanian poet (we seem to be good at writing about absurdity, perhaps our history has taught us to see the surreal comedy and oxymorons in daily life) is Urmuz, considered a forerunner of Dadaism. His works (short prose and poetry) have been translated into English, if you are curious.

V: Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo gets a few things wrong, so the Colombian storyteller who inspired him decides to tell his own version of events. Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s The Secret History of Costaguana is a lively rewriting of literary history and Latin America’s riposte to Europe’s limiting vision of their continent.

W: I’m sure you all expect me to choose Virginia Woolf, but I will confound you by going for Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra, which I read while visiting Granada as a child and had a lasting effect on me (again, very slightly cheating).

X: I love Qiu Xiaolong‘s Chief Inspector Chen series, set in a rapidly changing Shanghai in the 1990s, starting with Death of a Red Heroine.

Y: Very tempted to choose Richard Yates here, but instead I will mention Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, which should be far better known in the English-speaking world.

Z: Émile Zola is currently very much top of my thoughts, but it’s not The Debacle that I will be referring to here, nor Nana or Germinal, his best-known works, but the novel which supposedly brought about the end of his friendship with Cezanne, L’Oeuvre (The Work of Art), in which he somewhat satirizes the Bohemian art world in Paris at the time.