Six Degrees of Separation – From What I Loved to A Life of My Own

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.

Cover images

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.

26 thoughts on “Six Degrees of Separation – From What I Loved to A Life of My Own”

  1. I haven’t read any Siri Husvedt yet. Seems I need to rectify that omission. I really enjoyed Claire Tomalin’s book – good fortune seemed to follow her around, successful career, marriage, children. Until suddenly it didn’t. Frayn though? It never occurred to me …mmm. Interesting.

    1. I hope you get around to What I Loved, her best for me. I’ve yet to read the Tomalin but have never forgotten watching the Costas (might have been the Whitbread, then) when both she and Frayn were up for a prize. She won and he didn’t – both handled it beautifully. Well, in public at least.

  2. That was one quirky chain! And “humour amidst the activities of the various despots”? Wow… I’m not sure I could take too well to that. I don’t find there’s much to laugh about when it comes to truly despicable and cruel people.

    1. I often think the best thing you can do is poke satirical fun at the despots while sounding a warning note – Timor Vermes Look Who’s Back did that very well!

    1. I think it’s still in print, Cathy. It was a very clever trick to play on the more pretentious members of the art world although both Boyd and Bowie claimed they meant no malice. I’ll wander over and take a look at your post.

  3. Clearly if I decide to pick up Boyd again, I need to check in with you first. I’ve only read one of his novels and I loathed it (Sweet Caress) – have you read it?

    1. I have and enjoyed it but I suspect it was only because I was relieved he’d finally got off the thriller track he’d been trundling along. Sorry it didn’t work for you.

  4. I’ve read a few of yours this month: the Hustvedts and Tomalin’s autobiography. The Blazing World is my favourite from Hustvedt so far, though I still have two unread on the shelf.

  5. I very nearly linked through Nat Tate and Any Human Heart but took a quite different tack instead. Always such a variety in everyone’s chains!

  6. Sometimes it’s the little factlets that make these chains so fun – I had no idea Claire Tomalin and Michael Frayn were married! Good to see Any Human Heart get a mention – on form, Boyd is one of the best… 😀

Leave a comment ...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.