Six Degrees of Separation – From Hamnet to The Story of a Happy Marriage

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.

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Happy New Year! We’re starting 2021 with Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet which won last year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. I’ve yet to read it but I do know it’s the reimagined life of William Shakespeare’s son who died in childhood.

The first novel with Shakespearean connections that springs to mind is Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, a retelling of King Lear set on a twentieth-century Iowan family farm.

Long, long ago King Lear was one of my A Level set texts as was Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham which reminded me of Anthony Burgess’ Earthly Powers, allegedly based on Maugham’s life, probably because of my recent post on memorable opening lines.

Burgess had a reputation for being prolific, happy to fire off introductions and reviews for whoever commissioned him. Tim Parks has a similarly prodigious output, writing travelogues, novels and journalism. In Teach Us to Sit Still he discusses his many attempts to find a way to stop himself working, finally settling on meditation.

Parks also translates from Italian, a language with which Jhumpa Lahri fell in love to the extent that she moved from the US to Italy to immerse herself in it as she recounts in her memoir, In Other Words, originally written in Italian then translated by Ann Goldstein into the author’s native language.

Another twist in the usual translation process is Danish writer Jens Christian Grøndahl’s Often I Am Happy, originally written in Danish then translated by the author into English. It’s the story of a marriage told after the death of the narrator’s husband, a marriage in which she’s always felt second best.

Which leads me to another account of a marriage: Ann Patchett’s This is the Story of a Happy Marriage which is made up of a set of autobiographical essays about how she sets about her work as well how she came to finally marry.

This month’s Six Degrees has taken me from the reimagined life of a famous playwright’s son to the story of a writer’s marriage and her craft. 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.

27 thoughts on “Six Degrees of Separation – From Hamnet to The Story of a Happy Marriage”

    1. Thank you, Annabel. I remember Earthly Powers as an erudite, clever slighly show-offy piece of fiction, but it’s long time sinceI I read it. The opening line has stayed with me, though.

  1. A fascinating collection, Susan! I love the sound of A Thousand Acres – King Lear might be my favourite Shakespeare play so I will have to add that to the TBR

  2. Mareli Thalwitzer

    Love how you linked your chain! A thousand Acres seems like a good read, I quickly had a look.

    My chain is very boring this month. I just went with the first letter, first title theme.

    Happy New Year!

    Elza Reads

    1. I hope you’ll decide to read tbe Patchett. Very engaging book. I’m fascinated by Jhumpa Lahiri’s love affair with the Italian language. She has a new novel out this year written in Italian then translated (by herself, this time) into English, her native language. That whole process boggles my mind!

  3. Loved the Ann Patchett book about marriage – especially her story about her first marriage and her writing. And I am really intrigued with Lahiri’s move into Italian. I read an essay of hers about that and heard her speak about it too. Maybe easier to do if you already have an established reputation in the English-speaking publishing world.

    1. Thanks, Rebecca. There’s another twist to that translation theme coming later in the year with Jhumpa Lahiri’s new novel, Whereabouts, which she wrote in Italian then translated herself.

  4. A Thousand Acres was the first Shakespeare retelling I read; I had so many feelings about the idea of it being a retelling, so many conflicting expectations as I approached the ending, recognizing that the original was a tragedy but flummoxed by the idea of how/whether a writer approaching a retelling would retain those elements. *shakes head* It’s hard t remember just how earth-shattering that volume seemed at the time. Now when there are entire series devoted to retellings, of Shakespeare’s works and other authors too.

    1. I’ve given those series a wide berth! It’s a long time since I read the Smiley but I remember thinking she retold the story well. I also enjoyed Serena, Ron Rash’s take on Macbeth.

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