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Six Degrees: From What I Loved to The Unequelled Self of Samuel Pepys

I can’t believe a month has already passed since my last attempt at Six Degrees of Separation. It always creeps up on me by surprise.

This month we begin with a novel that (once again) I haven’t read. A quick Internet search tells me that What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt concerns an art historian who discovers an extraordinary painting by an unknown artist in a New York gallery.

Hustvedt played with the theme of the unknown artist in her later novel The Blazing World. It’s about a frustrated artist whose work has been ignored by the art world for years. As an experiment she decides to exhibit under the name of three young male artists. The Blazing World was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2014. I started to read it but ran out of time before the library copy had to be returned.

Another of the longlisted books that year also had an art related theme. I loved How to Be Both by Ali Smith which pairs parallel narratives of a teenage girl and a 15th-century Renaissance artist. One of the narratives features  Francesco del Cossa, a real-life figure who produced a series of frescoes in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, near Bologna, Italy. 

Smith was inspired to write the novel after she saw a magazine picture of a section of Francesco del Cossa’s frieze. Tracy Chevalier was similarly inspired by a painting when she wrote her best-selling novel Girl with a Pearl Earring  In a Ted Talk she described how, when she views a portrait in a gallery, she tries to imagine the story that lies behind the image. Her novel envisaged a relationship between a new maid servant who arrives at the home of the painter Johannes Vermeer.

Let’s stay in the Netherlands for my next book in the chain, though we’ll have to leave Delft and move to Amsterdam, the setting of Rembrandt’s Mirror by Kim Deveraux. This is such a good book I’m surprised it hasn’t had more attention. Deveraux shows the artist in his twilight years, struggling to regain his artistic inspiration after the death of his beloved wife and muse, Saskia. The catalyst for change is another young servant girl who is initially shocked at Rembrandt’s unconventional life but is gradually drawn into his world.

Rembrandt’s house is filled with secrets and desires but there is also tragedy as a result of the plague. Bubonic Plague, also known as the Black Death, gives me my next link.

In 1665 an outbreak of the plague swept across Asia and Europe. In Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks, it reaches the small village of Eyam in England’s Peak District. As the villagers begin to die, they take the extraordinary decision to put Eyam into quarantine to prevent further spread of the infection. Brooks based the novel on historical fact – visitors to Eyam today will find commemorative plaques outside cottages whose inhabitants were among the 80% of villagers estimated to have succumbed to the plague.

In the novel, the infection is believed to have arrived with a travelling tailor from London.

Which brings me very neatly to Samuel Pepys whose diary gives a vivid account of how the plague that year affected the capital city. I happen to be listening to audio recording of his diaries at the moment, based on a recommendation from Travelling Penguin. For my final link in the chain however, I’m choosing a different Pepys-related book.

The Unequelled Self is a magnificent biography of Samuel Pepys written by Claire Tomalin. The diaries, she learned didn’t tell the whole picture of his rise from humble origins to some of the most important positions in the country. She filled in the gaps using contemporary letters and diaries, Admiralty papers, judicial reports, memoirs and biographies. It’s a fascinating story told often in dramatic fashion and highly readable.

So that brings this month’s chain to end on the suitably topical subject of plague and pestilence. I hope next month’s starting book gives us a a chance to talk about more cheery topics. If you’re interested in taking part in Six Degrees yourself, take a look at the information provided by our host Kate of Books are my Favourite and Best

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