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.
I’ve never tried my hand at the Six Degrees of Separation but the latest chain resulted in some creative linking by a number of bloggers. It got me thinking what connections I could find.
The chain starts with Year of Wonders, a novel that was an international best seller for Geraldine Brooks. Year of Wonders is based on a true-life story of the small Peak District village of the village of Eyam that put itself in quarantine to prevent the spread of the dreaded bubonic plague. If you don’t know this book, I hope my review will persuade you to beg/borrow/buy it soon.
The plague also makes its appearance in an audio book I just finished – Rembrandt’s Mirror by Kim Deveraux – which features a young servant who goes to work in the painter’s house in Amsterdam and ends up becoming his muse and model. I won’t reveal exactly how the plague fits in because that would reveal too much of the plot but I can recommend this book if you enjoy historical fiction set in the seventeenth century.
If you’re thinking the servant/painter’s house/Netherlands combination sounds familiar, you wouldn’t be far wrong because this is also the premise of Girl with a Pearl Earring the best-selling novel by Tracy Chevalier set in the Delft studios of the painter Vermeer.Chevalier said she was inspired to write the book having seen the Vermeer painting at the Mauritshuis art museum in The Hague (you can hear her Ted talk on this here).
From the Mauritshuis it’s but a short step to the United Nations’ International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. This is a key location in Edna O’Brien’s most recent novel The Little Red Chairs in which a war criminal known in his country as the Beast of Bosnia is found hiding in a remote Irish village. He is captured and taken to the Hague to stand trial for genocide just as Radovan Karadžić was and sentenced earlier this year to 40 years’ imprisonment for atrocities and war crimes.
Violence and crime committed during war also feature large in the novel I’ve just finished reading – Moskva by Jack Grimwood. It’s a page turner of a thriller that begins with the discovery of a young boy’s body at the foot of the Kremlin and the disappearance of the British Ambassador’s daughter. The year is 1985 and Gorbachev is the man who has just taken the hot seat as leader of the Soviet Union with the intent of rescuing the crumbling economic and political system. The plot takes us back to 1945 and the Russian advance on Berlin. What happened then is something the KGB and the Politburo would prefer remain a secret but they have a determined adversary in the form of Major Tom Fox, a man used to going undercover in some of the world’s hottest spots.
Moscow. Snow. KGB. Bodies. It wouldn’t be a thriller set in Russia without these features and they don’t get much better than Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith, published in 1981. The story follows Arkady Renko, a chief investigator for the Militsiya, (the civil police) who is assigned to a case involving three corpses found in Gorky Park, an amusement park in Moscow, who have had their faces and fingertips cut off by the murderer to prevent identification. So realistic a picture did it depict of everyday life in pre-Glasnost era, that the book was immediately banned in the USSR. It’s still one of the best thrillers I’ve read set in Russia.
So in six smallish journeys we’ve gone from plague to political intrigue and from a small village in England to a Dutch city in its golden years and from painters to men determined to get to the truth.