Henry James and Sylvia Plath

Six Degrees of Separation: from Henry James to Sylvia Plath

Six Degrees of Separation is hosted by Kate. Each month, everyone starts with the same book and we see where our links take us.

The starting point for this month’s Six Degrees is The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, a gothic horror published at the turn of the century. This novella features a governess, malevolent ghosts, two children, a creepy countryside estate, and an impending sense of doom as the story unfurls.

Another classic turn-of-the-century novel is The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, published in 1890. Infatuated with Dorian’s beauty, his good friend Basil Hallward paints his portrait – and in doing so, creates a piece of art that will change the course of Dorian’s life forever.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt is another novel where a piece of art propels the plot and shapes the destiny of the characters. It tells the absorbing and sprawling story of young Theodore Decker, and how a bomb explosion at the Met and the stealing of a famous painting changes everything.

The Goldfinch won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2014, and two years later, in 2016, the grand prize went to Viet Thanh Nguyen for The Sympathizer. Nguyen gives authentic voice to the Vietnamese experience of the war and those who had to forge new lives in the United States.

Another compelling account of the Vietnamese-American experience comes in Ocean Vuong’s lyrical On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, where the narrator, Little Dog, struggles to find his place as the son of a war refugee living in the tenements of Hartford, Connecticut. It’s told with intense musicality and deep melancholy, and shares many biographical elements with that of its author.

Vuong is first and foremost a poet, with On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous being his first novel. Another famous poet-turned-novelist, who also writes a loosely-fictionalised account of her life, is Sylvia Plath. Her one and only novel, The Bell Jar, is an exquisite, devastating account of descent into madness.  

So there we have it: the six degrees of separation from Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw to Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, by way of Oscar Wilde, Donna Tartt, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Ocean Vuong.

Six Degrees of Separation is so much fun – I think the key isn’t to put too much thought into it, just go with what comes to mind!

Book Review | The Secret History by Donna Tartt

How many times has pop culture told us that university is the best time of your life; years of re-invention, of finding your kindred spirits, of losing yourself in new pursuits – intellectual or otherwise. For Richard Papen, beginning his Bachelor’s at an elite college in New England means an escape from his stifling upbringings in small-town nowhere in Northern California. For here lies freedom:

“I was happy in those first days as really I’d never been before, roaming like a sleep-walker, stunned and drunk with beauty. A group of red-cheeked girls playing soccer, ponytails flying, their shouts and laughter carrying faintly over the velvety, twilit field. Trees creaking with apples, fallen apples red on the grass beneath, the heavy sweet smell of apples rotting on the ground and the steady thrumming of wasps around them. Commons clock tower; ivied brick, white spire, spellbound in the hazy distance. The shock of first seeing a birch tree at night, rising up in the dark as cool and slim as a ghost. And the nights, bigger than imagining: black and gusty and enormous, disordered and wild with stars.”

He soon finds himself swept up in an enigmatic group of fellow Classics scholars; Henry, Bunny, Charles, Camilla and Francis. Eccentric, wealthy and gifted, Richard becomes obsessed with fitting in; reinventing his own lacklustre childhood for their benefit and hanging onto their every word. At the centre of their academic life is idiosyncratic professor Julian, in whose classes they explore ideas of morality;

“‘Do you remember what we were speaking of earlier, of how bloody, terrible things and sometimes the most beautiful?’ he said. ‘It’s a very Greek idea, and a very profound one. Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it. And what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks or our own, than to lose control completely? To throw off the chains of being for an instant?'”

To this group, intent on freeing themselves from the burden of the mundane, the idea of a total loss of control has inexorable pull. Not content with exploring the notion in the abstract realm of scholarship, they become intent on taking it to the next level; to enact a Dionysiac ritual in which they supposedly are able to leave their human forms and yield themselves to a higher power.

So whilst their contemporaries are enjoying cheap beer, one-night-stands and other traditional student pursuits, this group resolve to inspire such a state of mania and frenzy that they become out of control of their actions, à la the Ancient Greeks. But it is when things turn horribly wrong that they are led down a path to even greater evil, a point from which there can be no returning.

There’s something about Donna Tartt’s writing that is so deliciously mesmerising. I can’t help thinking that she could write used car adverts and make it enticing. The way I feel about The Secret History is similar to the way I felt after finishing The Goldfinch – the plot could have been tighter, especially towards the end – but the prose was so relentlessly erudite that I still come away feeling like it has had a unique impact, a novel that will stay with me for a long time.

One of the strengths of this novel is the way Tartt implicates the reader along with the crime; you become so ensconced in this world that you start to be taken in, the horror of the act is diminished when reasoned away with such precision. A terrifying power in itself, forcing you to step outside the world of the novel, for the sake of your sanity.

The Secret History explores the perils of being swept along in the headiness of youth, the desire to transcend the mundane and the ripple effects of a single act of evil.

Book Review | The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Theodore Decker is thirteen when his life is ripped apart at the seams. While visiting the New York Metropolitan Museum, a bomb detonates, killing his mother. As he slowly regains consciousness in the wreckage of the blast, a dying man beckons him over, handing him a 17th century masterpiece, The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius. It is on this day that these two events will forever shape the course of Theo’s life.

Alone and adrift in the city, with no siblings or family to speak of other than an absent rather on the West coast, Theo is taken in by wealthy Manhattanites the Barbours. All the while he is moving through a fog of grief, whilst well-meaning adults press onto him cans of soda and meaningful looks, urging him to spill out his deepest emotions. Tartt beautifully describes the incomprehensibility of grief to a 13-year old who has just lost everything;

“Sometimes, unexpectedly, grief pounded over me in waves that left me gasping; and when the waves washed back, I found myself looking over a brackish wreck which was illuminated in a light so lucid, so heartsick and empty, that I could hardly remember that the world had ever been anything but dead.”

At the behest of the dying man who laid amongst the ruins of the blast, Theo visits the address of Hobart and Blackwell, an antiques dealership. It is here that he meets Hobie, and gets to know the beautiful and mysterious Pippa, who was also caught up in the explosion. But before too long, Theo’s reprobate father turns up with his girlfriend and whisks him off to the Las Vegas desert.

We are suddenly thrown into a geographical – and social – world that could not be in greater contrast to that of New York. It’s here that, for me, the novel takes on a hyperreal quality – everything thrown into sharp relief, the light, colour, heat – the ‘hot mineral emptiness’. Theo meets Boris, a fellow classmate and unruly, motherless figure, and together they spiral down a rabbit hole of drink and drugs – even more extreme when you consider their age. The chapters with Boris in Las Vegas are exquisitely written – and Tartt seamlessly combines the perversity of high jinx and male friendship set to the backdrop of a dark and twisted world where absent parents sell cocaine and implicate themselves in dubious ‘business’ deals.

But Theo can’t stay in Vegas forever, and a series of events culminate in his achingly long bus trip from coast to coast, finally arriving back in the familiar enclaves of New York. And let us not forget the painting; forever by Theo’s side, the ‘still point where it all hinged: dreams and signs, past and future, luck and fate.’ All his grief for his mother, his loneliness, despair – it is all wrapped up in, inseparable from the Fabritius masterpiece. Hobie, in one of his letters, acknowledges the comfort of objects in a world of constant shift;

“When we are sad—at least I am like this—it can be comforting to cling to familiar objects, to the things that don’t change. Your descriptions of the desert—that oceanic, endless glare—are terrible but also very beautiful. Maybe there’s something to be said for the rawness and emptiness of it all. The light of long ago is different from the light of today and yet here, in this house, I’m reminded of the past at every turn. But when I think of you, it’s as if you’ve gone away to sea on a ship—out in a foreign brightness where there are no paths, only stars and sky.”

This passage perfectly encapsulates what I loved about The Goldfinch. The writing is exquisite. This mesmerising novel pulls you along, sweeps you up in its bildungsroman narrative and doesn’t let you go. Even when the plot lags at points, it keeps you spellbound. A lot of the plot is absurd, stretching credulity to the breaking point – and yet, why should this matter? If Tartt can make you believe – which she does – then objective achieved. That’s the power of art.

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Read if you enjoyed: All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doer, The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne