March’s “Coincidence Corner”

Following on from previous pieces (“What a coincidence” , “Porlock” and February’s “Coincidence Corner”) I have continued to look out for the connections (or what other people might call “coincidences”) between the books that I’ve been reading and other things that I’ve read, heard or seen over the last month.

I have also managed to read at least 50 pages a day for many weeks now, something that I had not managed for years. (I have noted elsewhere that I would rather read a book in a day, and nothing for the rest of the week, than read for an hour every day to finish the same book.) I was encouraged by something I read in “The Year of Reading Dangerously (How Fifty Books Saved My Life)” by Andy Miller. He records his difficulties reading “Middlemarch” and his wife’s advice:

“Oh, stop being so melodramatic,” she said. “Just do what I did. Read fifty pages a day and leave it at that.”

In doing this I have read the last three Booker Prize winners (recorded separately, here), Patti Smith’s “Just Kids”, Florian Illies’ “1913” and Paul Burke’s “Father Frank”, and I have been reading “Artemis Fowl” some nights at bedtime to my son (we should finish that before the end of the month).

Inevitably there have been shared references, connections between these books and other things that I have read or seen. These are the ones that leapt out at me during March.

References in “A Brief History of Seven Killings”

Ms magazine, mentioned in this book, and by Gloria Steinem on “Desert Island Discs”. I knew very little about Gloria Steinem before hearing her on “Desert Island Discs” earlier this month. She came across as a most engaging guest and, as often when listening to the show, I did some web searches while listening. (She was married to Christian Bale’s father for the last few years of his life, the marriage partly prompted by his residency issues. She spoke movingly about the experience, marrying and then losing her partner.) I didn’t know anything about Ms magazine, which she founded in New York in the 1970s. I have never read it, and within an hour of hearing her talk about it on the show I encountered it again in “A Brief History of Seven Killings”, Dorcas Palmer, having arrived in New York City, writes: “Soon as she start read some magazine name Ms., she say she name Miz. Colthirst, me love.” [That is an exact transcription from the book – it is mostly written in Jamaican patois.]

The book also mentions “Brain Salad Surgery”, the Emerson Lake and Palmer album (the only album of theirs that I have ever owned) and the title leapt out at me within an hour of reading the album title in Keith Emerson’s obituary.

Creaking stairs: In “A Brief History of Seven Killings” John-John K writes, when climbing through a house to kill one of the inhabitants: “The real trick was the steps, I was hoping they had all that tacky fur shit, which would mask any creaks”. As I read it I was trying to remember where else I had read about someone climbing some stairs trying not to make them creak – it’s in “Artemis Fowl”, in a passage I read out loud a day or two beforehand: the kleptomaniac dwarf Mulch Diggums is trying to find the best way to avoid the stairs creaking when he lands up in Fowl’s house.

References in Florian Illies’s “1913”

This book came out in 2013 and goes through that last year before World War I month by month, covering political and artistic developments throughout the world. It’s 264 pages long and it felt like there were at least 4 new facts per page, well over a thousand new bits of information for me to process, about writers, artists, politicians, performers. Statistically there are bound to be resonances with other things that I read and saw during March. Here are the most obvious ones.

Bertrand Russell is mentioned repeatedly in “1913” and “A Brief History of Seven Killings”; Louis Armstrong also appears in both books (the first few paragraphs of “1913” deal with Louis Armstrong in the first hours of the year).

Albert Schweitzer is mentioned plenty of times in 1913, and in Patti Smith’s “Just Kids” and in Paul Burke’s “Father Frank”.

References to Proust, James Joyce, Freud and Picasso occur on many of the pages and there have been too many occurrences of those names in the last month to mention them all. The most noteworthy came from the first line of Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past”. I have known the name of the book and the author’s name for decades but didn’t know until this month the book’s opening words: “For a long time I used to go to bed early” (“Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure”). I read those words (in “1913”) and thought, “How come I didn’t know that? How come I have never come across those words before?” That very evening (14 March 2016) one of the picture rounds on “University Challenge” featured the opening words of novels in French, and Proust’s words were there, within hours of me reading them for the first time. Unlike every previous day in my life, I was able to answer the question correctly. That did feel like a coincidence. (For the next 14 days the episode is available here, and the Proust quote appears at 9:50.)


Patti Smith’s “Just Kids”

This memoir, keeping her promise to Robert Mapplethorpe to write their story, mentions Joyce and Picasso and “Death in Venice” (all mentioned in “1913”), and shares references with “A Brief History of Seven Killings” (the artists Pollock and De Kooning) and “Father Frank” (“The Song of Bernadette”, “Tosca”). She also uses the word daguerreotype, and “Father Frank” mentions antimacassars.

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