6 Degrees of Separation: The Bell Jar

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Welcome to the second edition of Six Degrees of Separation. This month my fellow writer and blogger Emma Chapman is celebrating the paperback release of her debut novel How To Be a Good Wife, a clever psychological thriller exploring mental health and the sometimes challenging role of a wife and mother. To celebrate, as the first book in this month’s chain we chose a twentieth century classic which engages with similar themes: Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar

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I first read The Bell Jar in my late teens and was instantly smitten by Plath’s acerbic voice, and wry humour. In search of more of Plath’s work I stumbled across the wonderful collection Letters Home which includes almost every letter she wrote to her mother from the time she left home to do her undergraduate degree at Smith, to her death. It is an amazing insight into the life of a writer, as well as a sort of heartbreaking autobiography, elucidating her troubled marriage to Ted Hughes and her struggles with depression. I’ve read it from cover to cover more than once, and still dip into it from time to time.

In a similar vein is the John Steinbeck collection: A Life In Letters. The collection includes letters to his friends, wives, editors revealing his gradual rise to fame, as well as his interesting family life and travels.

Everyone is related to the world through something. I through words… before I stopped writing, words had become treacherous and untrustworthy to me. And then, without announcement they began assembling quietly and they slipped down my pencil to the paper - not the tricky, clever, lying, infected words - but simpler, stately, beautiful, old with dignity and fresh and young as that bird wakes me with a song as old as the world and announces every day as a new thing in creation. My love and respect and homage for my language is coming back. Here are proud words and sharp words and words as dainty as little girls and stone words needing no adjectives as crutches. And they join hands and dance beauty on the paper.

I haven’t read a lot of Steinbeck’s fiction, but one I read and loved was East of Eden. A brilliant exploration of sibling rivalry, it’s got an old-school solidity and power that isn’t fading though it’s decades old. It’s got some memorably nasty characters and plenty of unscrupulous behaviour, which is why I chose it as one of my top ten book club books.

While we’re in Eden, I can’t go past Ernest Hemingway's posthumously published novel The Garden of Eden. It’s my favourite Hemingway, mostly because it’s light on bull-fighting and fishing, and heavy on relationships. It is the book I’ve re-read more than perhaps any other that I can think of - six or seven times, and still it never ceases to affect me, both in terms of the emotional power of the story, but also in terms of my admiration for his writing skill. Set in Spain before it had been ruined by tourism, it’s one of my top ten travel novels.

The Garden of Eden was a gift from my first boyfriend, so thinking about it takes me back to another writer I was really into at the time: Anais Nin. Perhaps because I was in love for the first time myself, I adored her account of marital contentment: Journal of a Wife. Of course later, she got rather saucy and cheated on her husband with Henry Miller and I enjoyed those diaries too!

Another book which features a diary is John Fowles' novel The Collector. This was one of my set texts for high school English: the brilliantly creepy story of a nasty little man and the beautiful art student he kidnaps and keeps in his cellar. It is an exploration of art, possession and ‘goodness’ in humans - a wonderful read.

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Your turn: So that’s my chain: from The Bell Jar to The Collector in six moves. See how Emma’s chain led to Sebastien Faulks’ Engleby. Where will your chain lead? Anyone can join in - just follow the guidelines below.

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You might also like:

6 Degrees of Separation: Burial Rites

Q&A with Author Carmel McDonald Grahame

Next month: If you want to put your thinking cap on early, our next chain will begin with Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, on Saturday June 7th.

About Annabel Smith: I am the author of Whisky Charlie FoxtrotA New Map of the Universe and the digital interactive novel/app The Ark, to be released August 2014.


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