Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Redhead by the Side of the Road’ to…

Once again, I have not read the book that starts off the Six Degrees of Separation meme on the first Saturday of each month. You can read the ‘rules’ for Six Degrees of Separation on Kate’s Books are my Favourite and Best website. This month the starting book was Anne Tyler’s Redhead by the Side of the Road.

I might not have read this particular Anne Tyler book but I have read several others. Before starting this blog I would have nominated her as one of my favourite authors, but I think that after a few books I had begun to tire of the Americanness and everyday-lifeness of her books (I don’t know if either of those words exist!) and I haven’t read anything of hers in the last ten years. I know that I really enjoyed Ladder of Years, where the middle-aged female main character decides to just walk out on her family, adopt a new identity and start a new, stripped-down life. Perhaps my enjoyment of this book says more about me as a middle-aged female reader, than the book.

Someone working as an undercover agent would be adopting new identities all the time, I should imagine. But what happens to the family they leave behind? Berta Isla by Javier Mariás explores the scenario of a wife whose husband disappears ‘on business’ for increasingly lengthy periods of time.

If you say “spy” to an Australian, probably the first names that will occur to them are those of Vladimir and Evdokia Petrov (in fact, there’s a good chance that the Petrovs will be the only names that most Australians will be familiar with). The image of Evdokia Petrov being manhandled along the tarmac to an aeroplane is one of the iconic images of the 1950s. Andrew Croome has fictionalized the Petrov Affair in his Document Z.

Prime Minister Robert Menzies was able to take advantage of the Petrov Affair during the 1954 election campaign- a timing which many thought was too convenient. I grew up during the 1960s believing that Robert Menzies was the only possible Prime Minister: a bit like the Queen, he just was. Judith Brett wrote an excellent biography of Menzies and the middle class in the post-war years in Robert Menzies’ Forgotten People, which I read prior to staring this blog.

Another historian who captured twentieth century Melbourne middle class life very well is Janet McCalman in Journeyings: The Biography of a Middle Class Generation 1920-1990. She takes as her narrative vehicle (literally) the No. 69 tram travelling from Carlisle St St Kilda to Cotham Road Kew, picking up the students of four private schools: Scotch, Trinity, Genazzano and MLC (Methodist Ladies College) and traces the experience of middle class, Melbourne life in the suburbs through which the No. 69 travels.

The other major denominational rival to MLC was Presbyterian Ladies College, whose most famous alumni is Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson, better known by her nom-de-plume Henry Handel Richardson. She famously wrote about her school days in The Getting of Wisdom, but I much preferred her wonderful three-part work The Fortunes of Richard Mahony which is probably one of my favourite Australian novels.

Hah! Four Australian books this time- and three of them by women!

10 responses to “Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Redhead by the Side of the Road’ to…

  1. Ha! I’ve been reprimanded on mine for being dismissive of Anne Tyler, so (although unrepentant) I’m relieved to see that you have articulated what I found so banal about her books.
    Document Z was a terrific book, I wish he’d write something new. (Perhaps he has, and just hasn’t found a publisher yet?)
    I read The Forgotten People too, I think Scotty from Marketing was trying to resurrect something similar with his Quiet Australians, but from what I read of them at the ABC that backfired because they were clearly so ignorant about the policies they thought he stood for. Still, he won the election, so he may have been onto something after all. (I get very impatient with people who can’t be bothered keeping up with current affairs and inflict their ignorant choices on the rest of us.)
    And yes, yes, yes, I love that HHR trilogy too. Is that a new edition of it?

    • Actually, Andrew did write something after Document Z- it’s called Midnight Empire and it’s sitting right here on the shelf unread. And the HHR trilogy- no, it’s a picture of very old edition that was on E-bay. I couldn’t even find a picture of my old Heinemann omnibus edition of it. I can remember a school friend who went to PLC complaining that Richard Mahony was the worst book ever written- perhaps they made them read it because of the ‘old girl’ connection. Still- it’s not a book for school students – I think that it’s a book that you grow into.

    • Reprimanded is too strong a word Lisa! At least I thought I was just arguing a case!

      I think what I like about Tyler is how she shows that how not “everyday-life” many lives are. How many women would really do what the Ladder of Years wman did, though they might dream of it.

      Anyhow, enjoyed your links RJ, particularly the undercover ones!

  2. Fascinating… I know so little about Australian history. By the way, Ladder of Years sounds wonderful. I have quite a back list of Tyler’s to get through, I see!

  3. Document Z sounds facinating! I’d never heard of Evdokia Petrov before, and had to Google the iconic image you’d mentioned. The only spy I’d ever heard of was Mata Hari.
    Thanks for also spotlighting The Fortunes of Richard Mahony. I haven’t read much of Australia Lit, so this one looks like a good place to start.
    ~#6Degrees Post @Lexlingua

    • Richard Mahony is wonderful but it is VERY long. But for me it might just be the mythical ‘Great Australian Novel’.

  4. I have read The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney but it was so long ago I can’t even remember what it was about.
    Robert Menzies’ Forgotten People is a book I should have and will read.
    I have as very strong connection to the former route 69 tram and Journeyings: The Biography of a Middle Class Generation 1920-1990 sounds very interesting. De La Salle College is very close and the route is used by a large number of students at a number of other nearby private schools.

  5. Document Z sounds fascinating!

  6. I never knew what really disturbed me of some of Anne Tyler’s books but I think you nailed it. I’m glad I’m not the only one.

    I think I would love to read all of the books on your list though I haven’t read even one.

    My Six Degrees of Separation lead me to “Palace Walk” by Naguib Mahfouz.

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