6 degrees of separation: from W Somerset Maugham to Rana Dasgupta

This month, the six degrees challenge set by Kate W, at booksaremyfavouriteandbest, is to begin with a title that has concluded a previous chain. Last month I finished with Maugham’s short story, A String of Beads.

This is such a very short story that it might seem slight. Should I simply follow the governess? The snag is, that would almost inevitably lead back to the starting point for the chain it came from, The Turn of The Screw, by Henry James.

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As with so many Maugham stories, all this one needs is a second read. There are several lines I could pick up, all tempting. But then, this is a story about story-telling. I’ve chosen the moment when Laura pauses her story so that she can explain it.

“We all laughed. It was of course absurd. We’ve all heard of wives palming off on their husbands as false a string of pearls that was real and expensive. The story is as old as the hills.”

“Thank you,” I said, thinking of a little narrative of my own.

Could the narrator, perhaps, be remembering Maupassant’s short story, The Necklace? At any rate, I was.

My link is in the introduction to the pretty and charming girl who has had no chance of marrying ‘a man of wealth and distinction‘, and so has ‘let herself be married off to a little clerk in the Ministry of Education.’

She suffered endlessly, feeling herself born for every delicacy and luxury. She suffered from the poorness of her house, from its mean walls, worn chairs, and ugly curtains.  All these things, of which other women of her class would not even have been aware, tormented and insulted her.

When her husband gets tickets for an influential party, she sees the possibility of a triumph. All she needs to complete the new outfit she buys is to borrow a diamond necklace from her rich friend.

This reminds me of an Elizabeth Taylor story, I Live in a World of Make-believe. Mrs Miller is ‘absorbed and entranced‘ by the ‘grandeur‘ of the big house across the road from her. ‘Symbols of all that seemed worth while in life passed and crossed on that gravelled courtyard...’

It is Mrs Miller’s small son who creates the connection, in innocence. After that you’d think she’d be contented, wouldn’t you?

‘I wish we had more books…’

‘Books?’ [Mr Miller] echoed, looking worried at once. ‘What for?’

‘For all those built-in shelves. I’d like to call that room the library.’

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Discontent is beautiful story material. In Jumping into Bed with Luis Fortuna, the fourth story in my chain, Dilys Rose also explores it.

She’d got herself anchored: house, job, man, kids. The backpack was long gone, she was well and truly stuck.

Like the Maupassant story, our protagonist remains a ‘she’ throughout. This ‘she’ has become focused on a novelist called Luis Fortuna.

She didn’t believe in heroes but still, in spare moments down town, she’d nip into bookshops in search of his latest novel.

The story charts her attempt to compose a letter to Luis, in between her family commitments.

Her husband was put off Luis Fortuna by the trashy titles and lurid covers and she was glad. She had him to herself.

Deborah Moggach’s story, A Real Countrywoman, opens with letters and Christmas cards. The one in the brown envelope comes from the County Council.

‘A two-lane dual carriageway!’ said Edwin. ‘Right past our front door. Thundering pantechnicons!’ This exploded from him like an oath.

While Edwin is horrified, his wife, our nameless narrator, doesn’t quite seem to be on the same page.

When you live in the country you spend your whole time in the car. This was our first Christmas in the country, the first of our new pure life, and I was trying to work up a festive spirit unaided by the crass high-street commercialism that Edwin was so relieved to escape. Me too, of course.

One of the solutions Edwin offers is an underpass. Elsewhere, the local council are putting them in to save colonies of great crested newts, that’s just the kind of ammunition an anti-road campaign needs. Or is it?

That road takes me to my sixth story, Rana Dasgupta’s, The Flyover. Marlboro, a young man who lives, with his mother, ‘on Lagos Island near to the hustle and bustle of Balogun Market‘, has grown next to the arches of a flyover. His oldest brother is in university in India, the second oldest has gone into business with a friend.

Marlboro has no job, and no idea about what he might do, and seems to have no interest in that.

‘Why don’t you tell me who my father was? Marlboro would ask late at night as his mother put up her cerise-toenailed feet that perfectly matched her cerise lipstick and flicked between soap operas, turned up to full volume to cover the scream of the flyover outside.

Instead, she leaves, and he is enticed into working for a protection racket. It’s a very long way away from Somerset Maugham’s dinner party… or is it?

Balogun Market, by Yellowcrunchy – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63542539