#6degrees of separation from Henry James to W. Somerset Maugham

As it’s the beginning of the month it’s time for a new ‘Six Degree’ challenge from Kate, at booksaremyfavouriteandbest. I love taking part, but having decided I’ll only join in if I’ve read the set text, I usually find I’m too far behind with my reading. So thank you for going back to the classics, Kate. This month’s starting point is, The Turn of The Screw, by Henry James.

For a long time I avoided reading this one. I hadn’t liked the film or radio versions I’d caught. I assumed it was ‘just’ a pot boiler.

I should have known better. After all, even if this was writing prompted by a desire for the fee, the author was Henry James. Luckily, a couple of years ago I needed to read the novella for a class I was setting up. I soon revised my opinion.

I think of this sort of story as an attractive box that when opened, proves to have another attractive box inside. This one is not just smaller, it is a slightly different shape.

Many stories stop at two layers, but Henry James puts another box inside that. His narrator recounts a story that he heard from a friend, who heard it from the person who experienced it. Where does truth start and end? Can we ever know?

This is a form I love, so I’m going to try and create my links using stories that have other stories embedded in them. And, as we’ve started with a novella, I’m opting to follow a short-form route.

So, my first link is to Joseph Conrad, who was also a master of this kind of misdirection. He used this technique several times. I’m picking his short story, The Tale, for my first link. It begins with two lovers meeting in an unlit room, during war-time. The woman asks the man to tell her a story. He used to have, she tells him, ‘…a sort of art – in the days – the days before the war.’ The story he tells her is a dark exploration of human nature and actions.

Human nature is also at the centre of Charlotte Mew’s story-within-a-story, A White Night. It’s a psychological horror story, written in 1903. Or is this one too all a big lie?

Similar questions arise in Nuns at Luncheon, when Aldous Huxley presents us with a distracting story teller who seems to dominate the tale she tells.

Her long earrings swung and rattled – corpses hanging in chains…

Mr Mulliner, the storyteller P.G. Wodehouse chooses to use in The Reverent Wooing of Archibald, on the other hand, is clearly speaking with authority.

People who enjoyed a merely superficial acquaintance with my nephew Archibald (said Mr Mulliner) were accustomed to set him down as just an ordinary pinheaded young man. It was only when they came to know him better that they discovered their mistake. Then they realized that his pinheadedness, so far from being ordinary, was exceptional.’

Mr Mulliner, the teller who lifts the lid on that second box, disappears while the outside narrator repeats his story. As does Pugh, the story-teller in John Buchan’s 1928 story, The Loathly Opposite. This fifth link in my chain is a beautifully delivered narrative, about the consequences of war and espionage, that didn’t go where I expected. Reading it gave me a new perspective on an author I’d not been used to thinking of as literary.

Laura, the teller of stories in the sixth link of my chain, remains fully on view. Indeed, we share dinner with her and the external narrator of, A String of Beads. It’s a beautifully brief story, delivered almost entirely through dialogue, and once more, we sit in judgement of the participants. Do we share their positions or condemn them?

I can link this 1943 W. Somerset Maugham story back to The Turn of The Screw. Firstly, because both have a woman sharing or confiding a story with a man, and secondly, because a governess is central to both plots. This means I could describe my chain as a short necklace. Or, since it’s one novella and six short stories, maybe a bracelet.

Though perhaps that would spoil the ‘separation’ aspect of the challenge.

Six degrees of separation: Alice inspires a literary treasure-hunt.

It was a particularly soggy Saturday afternoon, and the heat from the wood-burner was beginning to make me drowsy. “November is such a very predictably weather-full month,” I muttered to Rusty, who had taken possession of the hearth-rug, in a somewhat Elinor Glyn style. “I can’t think of anything better to do than leap into a literary rabbit hole, can you?”

At the word ‘rabbit’, Rusty had opened one eye. He watched me for a moment, then sighed and closed it again.

When outside he’s as keen as Mr McGregor on chasing the little carrot-nibblers. Merely naming that rodent sets him in search of a scent.

Rusty’s nose is phenomenal. Certainly as discerning as Jean-Baptist Grenouille’s. Though I don’t remember Patrick Suskind mentioning its dewy nature, I wonder if that was the secret of Jean-Baptist’s dubiously employed skills.

Unlike Rusty, Jean-Baptiste was not an attractive character, even without mention of a wet nose. I can still remember how I was held by his story, though, both fascinated and horrified. Rather like Ripley, now I come to think of it.

I’ve followed his journey more than once, trying to figure out not just what he is, but who, as he sheds friends and adopts new identities. In some ways, Ripley is the reverse of Jason Bourne, who is trying to remember his real identity.

Glancing across at my DVDs, I realised that the same actor played both rolls, and there was an interesting angle that ought to be pursued.

I’ve never been too good with doing what I ought to. I was already thinking about Fanny Logan, who tried pursuing love, but was frequently to be found in the airing cupboard, with her cousins, because the enormous mansion they lived in was incredibly drafty.

I’d worried over this since first reading Nancy Mitford’s novels, as a teenager. Drafty houses I understood, because we didn’t have central heating or double-glazing at that time, either. But Fanny would have needed to curl herself around the water cylinder on a narrow shelf full of folded laundry, to fit our airing cupboard.

Since then, when visiting stately homes or castles, I’ve taken special note of the airing facilities, trying to estimate how many Mitfords could comfortably gather within them. The girls have refused to materialise.

Rusty watched, without interest, as I went to check my airing cupboard. Three well-bred faces glared out from behind the heaps of sheets and pillowcases. There was a horrible silence, then in a “U” accent, one of them asked, “Are you an Hon?”

“We’re moving away from using titles,” I said.

“How too awful,” replied the one I thought might be Linda. She exchanged glances with the other two, then smiled sweetly and added, “I say, would you be a perfect darling and shut the door?”

“Look here,” said another voice, as I was beginning to comply. “You won’t believe what I’ve found at the back. Isn’t it too frightful?” She was waving a dusty pyjama top that I hadn’t seen for years.

There was a burst of sneering laughter.

“Barely a rag,” cried Lynda.

“Counter-Hon, without a doubt.”

“I just knew it.”

I threw the door open. “That’s an old favourite, if you don’t mind,” I said, making a grab for the brushed-cotton.

“Don’t snatch,” admonished Lynda.

Then came a loud, “Halloo,” and a bunched-up hand-towel was launched at my head.

A duster followed.

Someone yelled, “Death to the horrible Counter-Hon.” In moments, the contents of my shelves were raining down on me. If it hadn’t been for Rusty, arriving with his lead, who knows what might have happened then…

I struggled out from under the heap and noted that the world beyond the window looked a little less grey and cold than it had earlier.

“Good idea,” I said to Rusty, “I think we both need some fresh air. As for you three…” The Mitfords hung their heads, and began to look like any other teenage delinquents. “I expect that laundry to be just the way you found it, by the time we get back.”

Thanks to Kate, at booksaremyfavouriteandbest, and I hope she doesn’t mind my taking liberties with her excellent six-degrees-of-separation meme. Alice was a temptation I couldn’t resist.

Six degrees of Separation – The Wild Card – leads me to book four of my 10 books of summer.

Ah, card games. Kate, at booksaremyfavouriteandbest, might have had me in mind when she titled this months six degrees as a Wild Card. I love cards so much I’ve uninstalled the virtual games from my phone and laptop.

As a teenager, my favourite game was cheat. I don’t remember much about the rules. It was fun, and required devious strategies.

The six degrees wild-card starts a chain from the title we finished with last month. Since I chose to follow short stories then, I’m continuing that format, beginning with Slog’s Dad, by David Almond.

Davie, the worldly-wise friend of Slog, describes what happens one spring day, six months after Slog’s dad died.

We were crossing the square to Myers pork shop. Slog stopped dead in his tracks.

“What’s up?” I said.

He nodded across the square.

“Look,” he said.

“Look at what?”

“It’s me dad,” he whispered.

“Your dad?”

“Aye.”

I just looked at him.

“That bloke there,” he said.

“What bloke where?”

“Him on the bench. Him with the cap on. Him with the stick.”

Davie’s not falling for that. The ‘bloke‘ is scruffy, ‘like he was poor, or like he’s been on a very long journey.’

“He looks a bit different,” said Slog. “But that’s just cos he’s been…”

“Transfigured,” said the bloke.

“Aye,” said Slog. “Transfigured.

It’s a 2,550 word story. It doesn’t take long to read, but my goodness it lingers.

Ghosts, is a short story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie that also deals with attitudes and ideas about death, love and beliefs. Adichie’s collection, The Thing Around Your Neck, is the fourth of my 10 books of summer challenge.

Ghosts, is set in Nigeria, where a retired mathematics professor meets a man he believed had been killed in the Biafran war of 1967.

Perhaps I should have bent down, grabbed a handful of sand, and thrown it at him, in the way my people do to make sure a person is not a ghost.

From the first page, I was reminded of, No One Writes to The Colonel, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Not just because both stories feature professional men who have spent years waiting for their pensions, these are both so much more than that. They’re immersive experiences. There are unpredictable revelations, shifts in emotions, life-details, cultural references and examinations of loss and love.

For my fourth link, I’m thinking about letters. I return to Adichie’s collection, The Thing Around Your Neck. The title story is a second-person narration, in which ‘you‘ are unable to write home about your experiences in America, because it falls so far below the expectations of ‘your’ family.

You thought everybody in America had a car and a gun; your uncles and aunts and cousins thought so, too. Right after you won the American visa lottery, they told you: In a month, you will have a big car. Soon, a big house. But don’t buy a gun like those Americans.

I may not be American, but I imagine a similar story written from the perspective of someone coming to live in Britain and feel goosebumps. It’s challenging, even frightening, to see how a stranger views our every-day lives.

An American pushes friendship on ‘you‘, the Nigerian waitress at a small cafe.

He came in the third day and began talking before he ordered, about how he had visited Bombay and now wanted to visit Lagos, to see how real people lived, like in the shantytowns, because he never did any of the silly tourist stuff when he was abroad.

Issues of connection and belonging and exploitation are explored in most of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s stories. In, Jumping Monkey Hill, Ujunwa is at an African Writers Workshop, outside Cape Town.

…the resort had the complacence of the well-fed about it, the kind of place where she imagined affluent foreign tourists would dart around taking pictures of lizards and then return home still mostly unaware that there were more black people than red-capped lizards in South Africa.

The account of her week includes fragments of the story Ujunwa writes, and summaries of some of the stories the other writers produce. The actions and comments of the workshop leader, and his wife, draw attention to ideas not only about what truth is, but who has the right to demand it, or decide what it is.

The next day at breakfast, Isabel…said that surely, with that exquisite bone structure, Ujunwa had come from Nigerian royal stock. The first thing that came to Ujunwa’s mind was to ask if Isabel ever needed royal blood to explain the good looks of friends back in London. She did not ask that but instead said – because she could not resist – that she was indeed a princess…

I loved the way the role of story and story-teller was examined.

My last link is another story about telling stories from the same collection. The Headstrong Historian, highlights the way political and economic decisions impact on the individual.

… Ayaju told a story of two people who took a land case to the white men’s court; the first man was lying but could speak the white men’s language, while the second man, the rightful owner of the land, could not, and so he lost his case, was beaten and locked up and ordered to give up his land.

It’s another story that kept me guessing. Is the Headstrong Historian of the title Nwamgba, who chooses her own husband, then schemes to ensure that her only son will survive and thrive? Maybe it is her granddaughter, Afamefuna.

Nwamgba… was thrilled by the child’s solemn interest in her poetry and her stories…

Alternately, does the title refer to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. After all, she’s led me to question not just what I know of the history of Nigeria and Nigerians, but also of the shape and history of western democracy. That’s something it’s all too easy to view complacently, from the comfortable inside.

The aim of the card game, Cheat, was to shed as many cards as possible, without anyone noticing you were giving more than you claimed. My chain of short stories only uses three authors, but includes the fourth of my 10 books of summer reviews. Maybe that breaks the six-degrees rules. I hope not. I’m thinking of this as multi-tasking…

Card Sharp, by 1636-1638 by Georges de La Tour,