Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six others to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the titles on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.
I’m absolutely delighted that we’re starting this month with a favourite novel of mine, Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved. Written from the point of view of art historian Leo Hertzberg looking back on his long friendship with artist Bill Weschler, Hustvedt’s novel is the story of their intense relationship, of the women they live with, their work and their sons whose lives take very different turns. Its themes are all-encompassing: art, love, family, friendship, work – life.
I’m taking a sideways leap to Hustvedt’s The Blazing World. Made up of a collection of documents relating to artist and self-confessed trickster, Harriet Burden, collated by her biographer. It’s a very different novel from What I Loved, dazzling in its erudition but not an easy read.
Shortly after starting The Blazing World I was reminded of Nat Tate – William Boyd’s spoof biography of a young artist, long dead, published by David Bowie and launched in New York back in 1998. I remember reading art critics opining on how influential Tate’s work had been before the secret was revealed and chortling to myself. Of course, not long after I thought of the Nat Tate shenanigans, I came across a reference to it in Hustvedt’s novel. It seems there’s very little she doesn’t know.
My favourite Boyd novel is Any Human Heart which tells the story of the twentieth century from the perspective of a bystander who’s rubbed shoulders with those who shaped it. Franz-Olivier Giesbert’s Himmler’s Cook has the same premise following Rose who’s lived through the Armenian genocide, the horrors of the Second World War when Himmler took a fancy to her, and the miseries of Mao’s Great Leap Forward. There’s a lot of knockabout humour amidst the activities of the various despots Rose encounters making this a thoroughly enjoyable romp.
In Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt Binh, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’ Vietnamese cook, is faced with a choice: accompany his employers to America, remain in France where he’s cooked for his ‘Mesdames’ for five years or return to Vietnam from which he fled in disgrace.
Before they left Paris, Stein had already written her novel, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, all about the Parisian art scene in the ‘30s, supposedly, seen through the eyes of her lover. Not everyone was pleased to find their names in it, apparently.
Leading me to Claire Tomalin’s A Life of My Own which really is her autobiography, not written by her novelist husband Michael Frayn, at least I assume so.
This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from my favourite contemporary novel written by the partner of another accomplished novelist, Paul Auster, to the autobiography of an award-winning biographer married to an acclaimed novelist. Part of the fun of this meme is comparing the very different routes other bloggers take from each month’s starting point. If you’re interested, you can follow it on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees, check out the links over at Kate’s blog or perhaps even join in.