Six degrees of literary separation: from Atonement to Demon Lover.

This week I’m joining in with a reading meme run by Kate, on the booksaremyfavouriteandbest blog. What is a meme? The dictionary says:

an image, video, piece of text, etc, typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by Internet users, often with slight variations.

I’ll let Kate explain:

The meme was inspired by Hungarian writer and poet Frigyes Karinthy. In his 1929 short story, Chains, Karinthy coined the phrase ‘six degrees of separation’. The phrase was popularised by a 1990 play written by John Guare, which was later made into a film starring Stockard Channing. Since then, the idea that everyone in the world is separated from everyone else by just six links has been explored in many ways… And now it’s a meme for readers.

On the first Saturday of every month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. Readers and bloggers are invited to join in by creating their own ‘chain’ leading from the selected book.

Here are the rules:

6degrees-rulesThis month’s starter-title is, Atonement, by Ian McEwan.  I’m adapting the rules, and creating my chain from short stories.

borden-600x445My first link, is ‘Blind‘, by Mary Borden. I came across it in The Penguin Book of First World War Stories, but it was originally published in 1929.  Blind draws from Borden’s behind-the-lines nursing experiences.  In it, the nurse narrator treats a soldier with a serious head wound.  It reminded me of Atonement so strongly, that I had to skim through the novel again.  Sure enough, Briony Tallis experiences a similar situation, though with contrasting outcome and intention.

Bayswater Omnibus, George William Joy 1895Mary Borden had been a suffragette, so too was Evelyn Sharp.  Link two is her story, ‘In Dull Brown’, written in 1896.  It describes a flirtation between a ‘modern’ working girl, and a professional gentleman.  Imagine yourself into the historical context, and it is a subversive and involving argument about the obstacles faced by respectable women who wished to have a career.

On first glance though, ‘In Dull Brown’ is tame stuff (hence the title), just like, ‘The Daughters of the Late Colonel‘, by Katherine Mansfield.  I remember reading it when I was about fifteen. I’d heard Mansfield was an amazing writer, but I couldn’t understand the story. Why did it end like that?  What was it saying about the death of their father? Years later I tried again, and found an old, and previously undervalued friend, waiting for me to catch up.

Thinking of loss, and friendship, takes me to ‘Friend of My Youth’ by Alice Munro. The anonymous narrator tells the story of her mother’s relationship with Flora, using letters, dreams and memories.  It pushes us to consider how far we can ever know anyone.

As does, the penultimate title in my chain, Elizabeth Taylor’s, ‘The Letter Writers’. Can a man and a woman be friends without becoming lovers?  Read this one too fast and you’re liable to miss the layers.  It’s subtle, and wry.

My final link involves letters and a former lover, or rather fiancé.  Elizabeth Bowen’s, Demon Lover sends a shiver down my spine every time I return to it.  To say more, would give too much away, you need to read it.  Coincidentally, like a large part of Atonement, it’s set in London, during the second World War.

Six degrees from Atonement and I’m close to the place I started from, where, I wonder would you be?

10 thoughts on “Six degrees of literary separation: from Atonement to Demon Lover.

    • I wonder if the linking thing works for every book title…
      This one caught my eye because I’d made the first connection a couple of years ago, and every time I reread Blind, I’m reminded of Atonement. I’m not sure how I’d have managed with a title I haven’t read – which is allowed.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Fascinating read! With all my young adult reading, I’m finding myself inundated by the “trends” in storytelling. Every YA had vampires for a while. Then it was werewolves. Then you had your apocalyptic distyopias. Then you had your fairies. (I know, I know, I can technically put myself here.) Then you had your fairy tale “re-imaginings.” And now it’s mermaids! I know you read my post about the payoffs, and this isn’t quite in tune with your six degrees, but I do think there are these parallels that tie many stories together, like the one fairy tale that really hits it home with several kids that grow up to be writers. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, the parallels really interest me. When I read historically, it’s easier to see the trends, and draw conclusions about ‘why’ readers are drawn to certain themes and topics. For instance, Dickens sitting on top of the ‘social comment’ literature that was massively popular in Britain as we turned into an industrial nation, morphs into other styles of writing as the century progresses. As you say, other writers pick-up something from it and transform it into a new genre. Recognising those shadows is one of the things I love about reading.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Superb chain and I love your very thoughtful links (my links tend to be rather lightweight!). Special mention of Elizabeth Taylor – I think she is soften underestimated as a writer – you’re right, her stories have multiple layers but I think she is often and wrongly dismissed as ‘light women’s stories’.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Kate, how very kind. I did enjoy pushing myself to think about connections.

      Glad to hear you’re a Taylor fan too. Much as I’ve enjoyed her novels, I think her short fiction is stunning, entertaining and delightfully clever. I don’t believe anyone who considers them ‘light’ has read them properly.


  3. Thanks for the invitation to play. So – starting with “Atonement” which led me to that wonderful book written for children “The Dolphin Crossing” by Jill Paton Walsh. The connection is Dunkirk. In Walsh’s novel an evacuee from a London faces all kinds of class prejudice. He and middle class boy John make a daring plan to sail the Channel and help with the evacuation of the BEF. And that leads to “Saplings” by Noel Streatfeild – a novel about children written for adults. It’s the story of what happened to the Wiltshire children, their cousins and two working class boys – Albert and Ernie Parker from South London – who are billeted along with them. The connections are children, class, war and evacuation. These children are the collateral damage of war and their stories stand in for a wider picture of dislocation, disruption, and family disintegration. The privileged Wiltshire children are pampered in many ways. The emotional impact of the war is devastating nonetheless. The Wiltshire family home is bombed and this connects with Graham Greene’s “The End of the Affair” – his novel about an aspiring writer who has a guilt-ridden affair during the Blitz and is nearly killed by a bomb. Which brings me to Sarah Waters’ “The Night Watch” which starts in 1947 and travels back in time to the London of 1941. And all that reverse chronology leads to to the time traveling gymnastics of Kate Atkinson and – take your pick: “Life after Life”, “A God in Ruins”, “Transcription”.

    It’s a fun game. Thanks.


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