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Week 4 – Action packed, both at home and away! #warandpeacenewbies

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And so we reach week 4 of the “War and Peace” readalong, and my! what an action packed week it’s been! I realise now that it’s going to be hard to discuss each section in detail without giving spoilers, but I’m trying not to give too much away; just be aware of this if you haven’t read the book yet and are planning to.

Look how far I am into volume 1! (thanks for the idea, Liz!)

There seems to be a bit of a lull in the fighting to begin with, and so we see a lot of the military characters in a domestic setting, which is quite fun. Nikolai comes home on leave and is feted by all around him, but what a pompous young man he’s turned into! Of course, he’s much too important for his childhood sweetheart, Sonya, and so he breaks with her. However, he’s not so grown up that he can be sensible and he ends up with a massive gambling debt after a session with the nasty Dolokhov and he returns to the army with his tail between his legs.

Andrei, meanwhile, is initially believed to be dead, and mourned by his wife, sister and father. Lise, his wife, goes into labour and Andrei re-appears from the dead just in time, though all does not end particularly well. Andrei then goes into a period of depression, becoming hard and cynical, and this state only begins to be lifted a little with the arrival of Pierre on a visit later in the book; their deep discussions bring some relief to Andrei though what will happen to him in the long term remains to be seen.

As for Pierre – well, what an irritating fool he can be! His marriage is of course not going well, with his wife Helene very bored and rumoured to be having an affair with the dastardly Dolokhov. Pierre does not deal with this well, and eventually a duel becomes inevitable, which leads to an irreconcilable split. Pierre then heads off to his estates and attempts to put a lot of well-meaning changes into place (spurred on to being enrolled as a Freemason); but he’s such an impractical twit that he’s rooked by his Steward and nothing improves. Pierre is obviously searching for something, but what that something is neither he nor anybody else knows, and he’s so naive and impressionable that he can be suckered into just about anything!

Who is right, who is wrong? No one! But while you are alive—live: tomorrow you die, as I might have died an hour ago. And is it worth worrying oneself when one has only a second left to live, in comparison with eternity?

The fighting takes up again, and Nikolai is delighted to be back in the formal, controlled atmosphere of the army where everything is straightforward and a man knows where he is. However, the war does not go well and the troops are suffering from lack of rations, which leads to Nikolai’s foolish colleague Denisov taking drastic action – with unfortunate results. Denisov does not have a good time of it generally, as his proposal to Nikolai’s young sister Natasha was rejected, and his maverick actions leave him in a dire situation – which is a shame, because he’s one of the most entertaining characters! This section of the book ends with a truce being declared between Napoleon and the Tsar, a truce which is not received well by all – Nikolai in particular is horrified and gets very drunk and aggressive about it, his hero-worship of his monarch edging closer to disillusionment. But I’m sure the truce will not last for ever….

The Tsar – slightly less imposing than Napoleon, methinks…

That’s a very sketchy summary, because Tolstoy packs SO MUCH into “War and Peace” and the story rattles along merrily at a breakneck pace. He really keeps you on the edge of your seat as one event follows another and there were some real shocks that I didn’t see coming. The book is so immensely readable and because Tolstoy doesn’t keep you hanging about there’s no time to get bored. The only part I felt slightly dragged was the section where Pierre became a Freemason which I’m afraid all seemed a bit silly to me; though I think much of the point is to prove that whatever Pierre undertakes never goes anywhere for long, because he’s so mentally all over the place!

I really felt with these chapters that I was starting to become properly invested in the characters and their lives, and some of them in particular are a real joy. The lisping Denisov is very amusing and I hope his fate is not a bad one; Dolokhov is an unpleasant yet interesting piece of work, and seems to revel in causing chaos wherever he goes; Andrei is becoming more nuanced as the narrative goes on; and Pierre’s wife Helene is a real society type, flirting and enjoying trivialities. In fact, Tolstoy’s view of society is wonderfully cynical and critical, which I liked, and he doesn’t pull his punches when portraying the deals, favours and manipulations that go on behind the scenes. He also doesn’t hold back in his portrayal of war – the mud and the blood is real, and the visceral portrait of the realities of the army hospital is stark and memorable.

I notice I’ve mainly been writing about the male characters, and they do seem to have dominated the narrative so far. Of the female characters, Marie Bolonsky stands out; a troubled woman in thrall to her father, she comes into her own a little more in this part of the story, having taken on the care of her nephew and support of her brother. However, her strong religious belief is portrayed a little ambiguously, and I wasn’t sure if Tolstoy was condoning or condemning her patronage of a number of ‘holy fools’. Natasha is starting to blossom, and her vivacity and eagerness for life are obviously contagious; she certainly manages to captivate poor Denisov!

So I’m really loving my read of “War and Peace”, and I’m starting to have a bit of a battle with myself! Part of me wants to just keep going and read the whole thing in one go, while the other part is enjoying pacing myself and reading other books alongside. I wonder which side of me will win the war of “War and Peace”? 🙂

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The Art of Forgetting

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The Day That Went Missing by Richard Beard

A slight change here from the kind of book I normally read, but one that I felt compelled to track down after reading Annabel’s glowing review and her account of attending a talk given by the author. I steer clear of the recent trend of misery memoirs, but this book, although dealing with a family tragedy, is far away from that kind of thing. I think Annabel’s review triggered memories of my reading of Paul Morley’s excellent account of his father’s suicide, “Nothing”, with its subsequent effect on his family; and so I tracked down a copy of Beard’s book from the local library, and read it almost in one sitting.

“The Day” is a painfully honest, searing account of the loss of a sibling and the extraordinary way in which an English family in the 1970s dealt with it. In 1978, the Beard family were holidaying in Cornwall, and during that holiday Richard, 11, and his brother Nicky, 9, went for a last swim one day on the beach. Out of sight of the rest of the family, the boys got caught by an undertow; Richard found the strength to swim back to shore, but was unable to help Nicky, and had to make the decision to leave him to drown. And the emotional fall-out of that decision seems to be with him still.

The family coped in an extraordinary way, as Beard reveals, basically going into denial; they carried on as if nothing had happened, Nicky was never mentioned, the rest of the boys went back to boarding school and Richard wiped the memory out of his mind. Except, obviously he didn’t, because for nearly forty years he’d been circling it, avoiding it, partly building it into his fictions, and was clearly damaged for life, which is understandable.

So this book relates Beard’s way of trying to find his way back into his life of the past, the missing day (and indeed the period immediately after it) to find out what happened, how they carried on and come to some kind of reckoning with that missing past – to hold a kind of inquest for his lost brother, as he says in the book. He does just that, but whether it brings him peace is anybody’s guess.

“The Day…” is of course a gripping read. Astonishingly Richard actually knows very little about his brother – not the date of his birth, nor his death, what he was really like; all of these things have become buried by the denial of the past by the family, and it seems that it was only the death of his father, who refused to ever mention Nicky again, that released Richard to start talking. First to his mother, then to his brothers, then to friends, old teachers, even the lifeboat volunteer who pulled his brother’s body out of the sea. Family filing cabinets are explored, the loft reveals photos unseen since the day and items of his brother’s touchingly kept for all those decades, and Richard uses these to build up a picture of his brother and bring back the memory of the day.

Beard doesn’t spare himself, beating himself up regularly for any resentment he felt for his brother, and for not being able to save him on the day. The book doesn’t have any huge big shocking reveals, but it has moments where your jaw drops a little and you can’t quite believe the family behaviour. It’s something of an indictment of the British way of life at the time; still the stiff upper lip, let’s pull up our socks and carry on, chin up, and all that. The combination of a reticent family life and a boarding school stuck in the 1950s created a situation where counselling was offered and turned away, and religion is no real help at all.

Beard has written a powerful, very moving book (I was certainly in tears at some points), and it’s heartbreaking watching him force himself to seek out the beach where the incident happened, the farmhouse they were staying in. At the end of the book, I wouldn’t say Beard necessarily has managed to find closure, but I felt that he had managed to put together the lost fragments of part of his life and reach some kind of understanding of what happened in the past and how it had affected him. Opening up and being able to talk to his remaining family must, you would hope, have had a cathartic effect and Beard was fortunate that he was able to track down so many documentary records and people who still could talk about the event.

So an unusual read for me, maybe, but quite an unforgettable one – and one that makes me think that although I sometime decry the over-emotional way we react to things nowadays, with massive public outpourings of grief, at least that’s a lot better than bottling up and denying things ever happened…

 

A bitter-sweet coming of age tale #ViragoAuthoroftheMonth

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The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden

Well, I fell off the wagon last month with the Virago Group monthly read, and unfortunately didn’t manage to make it to a Margaret Laurence book; time just ran out and much as I wanted to, it wasn’t possible. However, this month’s author is Rumer Godden and I’ve been a little more successful with her….!

Initially I thought I didn’t have any Godden books in the stacks, so I thought I would give this one a miss too. However, something nagged in the back of my mind, and I had a dig about in a box of book club volumes I knew I had – and indeed, there was a lovely copy of “The Greengage Summer” I’d picked up at some point in the past and stashed away. Since the polyreading with “War and Peace” seems to be working, I decided it squeeze this one in before the end of the month, and I’m very glad I did.

Published in 1958, “The Greengage Summer” apparently draws on events in Godden’s life. Set in the 1920s, it tells the story of a summer in the life of the Grey children and their holiday in France that goes horribly wrong. The family is a dysfunctional one: the father is absent most of the time, a botanist travelling the world and seemingly with little time for his wife and children. Their mother copes as well as she can, with the help of her brother, Uncle William, but it is clear that as the children grow they are often more than she can manage. There are five of them: 16-year-old Joss, 13-year-old Cecil (who narrates), Hester, and then the ‘Littles’, Vicky and Willmouse. The family lives in genteel poverty in Southstone, a rather dull seaside town, helped out by Uncle William when needed. At the end of her tether one day, mother announces she will take them to France for a tour of the battlefields, which will be an education for them, and some legacy money is splashed out on this, despite Uncle William’s misgivings.

However, things go wrong almost straight away. Mother is bitten by a horsefly as the leave, and develops septicemia. By the time they reach the hotel at Les Oeillets, she is seriously ill and one of the hotel owners, Madame Corbet, wants to turn the family away. They are rescued by the arrival of Eliot, a young and glamorous Englishman, in the company of Madame Zizi, the hotel’s other owner. He whisks mother off to hospital and takes the children under his wing. But is this young man entirely what he seems?

So the children muddle through the summer, pretty much left to their own devices and finding their own kind of entertainment and enjoyment. Vicky attaches herself to M. Armand, the cook; Willmouse makes his own space and plans his future as a famous couturier; while Hester and Cecil pair off, spending far too much time with Paul, the general help, smoking and drinking at an alarmingly young age. Paul is an interesting character, damaged and with a problem background, and the girls are being exposed to things they shouldn’t be. Unfortunately, on their arrival, Joss was also taken ill almost immediately, and spends much of the initial holiday in bed so the influence of the eldest child is missing. When she emerges, like a butterfly from its cocoon, she has blossomed into a beautiful young woman, and this beauty disrupts the fragile peace that has reigned over the group.

I wasn’t sure initially if I was going to like “Greengage”, as Godden simply drops you into the narrative and things are often explained a little later on. However, as the story and characters developed I became completely gripped and ended up reading too late into the night to finish the book! It is clear from the very start that Something Dreadful happened over the summer; the way Godden flags this up, with later comments from Uncle William and others scattered throughout the narrative, is clever, although perhaps became a little laboured towards the end.

But where Godden excels is in capturing mood and atmosphere. The uncertainty of adolescence, the confusion of young people who aren’t told what is going on and don’t really understand the implications of things and the shock of provincial English children being exposed to a richer, French life is brilliantly portrayed. The children suddenly experience a more open way of living, away from morals and parental intervention (which is not necessarily a good thing, as becomes clear!) And the long hot days, the sense of time stretching on forever, the feeling of being away from the rest of the world, comes across vividly.

Godden also draws her characters well: Joss and Cecil were particularly vivid; Willmouse wonderfully realised; but Vicky and Hester perhaps a little more shadowy. However, despite it being an engrossing read, I didn’t find “The Greengage Summer” completely without flaws, and that’s perhaps hard to discuss without spoilers. But I did agree very much with a comment made by one of the other members of the Virago group in that the book is an odd mixture of coming-of-age tale and thriller and that doesn’t always quite work for me. The plot of encountering an adult world with the emotional complexities and jealousies would have worked well enough on its own, but the thriller element of the story almost deflected attention from that.

Nevertheless, this *was* a wonderfully evocative read; the writing is lovely and the lost world it evokes is quite beautifully portrayed. And I’m quite curious now to find out about the real events in Godden’s life that inspired the book so I may have to search out her autobiography! 🙂

Week three – a little bit of both! #warandpeacenewbies

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Well, cautious optimism applies…! The weekly reading of a section seems to definitely be a hit so far; I’m reading other books alongside War and Peace, and not feeling cross about having restricted reading. Plus, I’m really enjoying Tolstoy’s masterpiece!

Part three is a mixture of war *and* peace sections, and brings several plot strands up to an exciting climax. At home, the marriage game is still underway; Prince Andrei’s wife Lise is living with her fierce father-in-law and repressed sister-in-law, Marie. Visitors arrive in the form of Prince Kuragin and his dissolute son, Anatole, the latter being a suitor for the hand of Marie. The poor woman is seduced emotionally by the thought of being a married woman and escaping her life of drudgery with her father, but a cruel disillusionment awaits her.

Another romance is blossoming between the newly rich Pierre and Kuragin’s daughter Helene, encouraged by all around them. Pierre himself is a callow and conflicted young man, still finding his way and not comfortable in society. He’s simultaneously attracted and repelled by Helene, but finds himself being inexorably nudged towards a marriage he really isn’t sure if he wants.

Meanwhile, back at the war! Here we head into what Wikipedia tells me was one of the crucial clashes of the Napoleonic War, the Battle of Austerlitz. Andrei is still dreaming of glory in battle, Nikolai is recovering from his injury and feeling guilty about not keeping in touch with his family, and both men are in love with the Emperor. That might sound like a slightly over-the-top description, but the way they react to his appearances is quite dramatic, and even Tolstoy mocks their infatuation with their leader a little.

The battle, however, suffers from the usual confusion, lack of understanding and cohesion amongst the leaders, and the fact that the fog-bound troops often don’t seem to know what they’re doing or where they’re going; and they retreat rather madly when attacked by the superior French force. Can’t wait to get onto the next part.

This particular section of the book was fascinating; the juxtaposition of the war and peace strands showed what different worlds the various characters were moving in, and the peacetime people really had no idea what it was like for the wartime ones. The latter found themselves regretting their comfortable Petersburg life while dealing with the visceral reality of conflict and, reading this, you wonder why anyone would want to go to war.

Another intriguing element was the appearance of a real-life, larger than life character – Napoleon Bonaparte. He made his vivid entrance towards the end of the section and I rather felt that Tolstoy admired the man who was leading the fight against his countrymen. French was, after all, the language of choice for sophisticated Russians of the time so it may be that despite the war, Napoleon was regarded as representing a cultured country.

Napoleon Bonaparte. Portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte 1769-1821 at the battle. Detail of a painting by Joseph Chabord 1786-1848. Museo Napoleonico, Rome Italy

There is some wonderfully atmospheric writing in this section of the book, particularly in the battle scenes where the men were stumbling through the mist which was gradually clearing; and powerful passages conveying the drama and alarm of the fight. He also captures the emotions behind the will to fight and the awareness all of the men have of belonging to a larger whole which transcends their individual destiny – a feeling that no doubt explains the willingness of humans to go to war and certain death.

Not only the generals in full-dress uniform, wearing scarves and all their decorations. with slender waists or thick waists pinched in to the uttermost, and red necks squeezed into stiff collars; not only the flamboyant pomaded officers, but every soldier with face newly washed and shaven and weapons clean and rubbed up to the final glitter, every horse groomed till its coat shone like satin and every hair of its mane had been damped to lie smoothly – all alike felt that something grave, important and solemn was happening. From general to private, every man was conscious of his own insignificance, aware that he was just a grain of sand in that ocean of humanity, and yet at the same time had a sense of power as a part of that vast whole.

Book 1 ends with the battle lost and Andrei heading for an uncertain future. The events have been dramatic, and the immediacy of Tolstoy’s narrative made me feel as if I’d been in the middle of the conflict myself. So another successful and enjoyable read – I wonder where the focus of the next part will lie?

Cataloguing as Art

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An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris by Georges Perec
Translated, with an afterword, by Marc Lowenthal

Well, as I said recently, there are plenty of smaller Perec texts that I’ve still to read, and this is one of them! I picked it up on a whim recently – I’d been intending to buy a copy for ages – and it was ideal to polyread along with “War and Peace”.

“An attempt…” is a short work published in 1975, and it has an interesting history. In October 1974, Perec sat in the Place Saint-Sulpice over three days, and simply observed, writing down what he saw. So buses would pass by regularly, people would come and go, the weather would change, a friend would wave through the cafe window, a flock of pigeons would take flight. All of these small happenings were recorded, in his attempt to pin down and fix the existence of one place at one time.

Well, that sounds like it could be dull, but it really, really isn’t. I’ve commented before about Perec’s use of an almost catalogue-like style of writing, which perhaps drew on his early day job as an archivist. And here, the simple repetition of certain phrases, the seemingly straightforward recording of ordinary, everyday actions builds up a surprisingly compelling picture of the ebb and flow of human life.

But the book is not simply a catalogue, as Perec can’t help but let his personal reactions sneak in: for example, early in the book he notes the regular appearance of a specific of car and later comments:

Weary vision: obsessive fear of apple-green 2CVs

By focusing so closely on the ordinary it becomes extraordinary – what Perec called the infraordinary – and it makes you realise that how we see the world is specific to us. Perec realises that one person cannot see everything and so his recording of the scene is very different from how someone else would respond to a similar exercise. And although things happen again and again, these repetitions are not the same; for example, each 96 bus is a 96 bus, but it’s a different vehicle with different people inside it.

Perec in Place Saint-Sulpice, Café de la Mairie – 18 October 1974 – photo c. Pierre Getzler

As you read on through the book, the text becomes oddly thoughtful and philosophical, often approaching the beauty of haiku or found poetry:

Colors blend: a grayness that is rarely lit

Yellow patches. Reddish glare

The repetition of certain elements, the short, clipped segments and the description of where he is and what he sees, all tends to build up a hypnotic kind of narrative which is absorbing and engrossing.

The afterword by translator Lowenthal is intriguing, discussing the book and drawing parallels with Perec’s fellow OuLiPan Queneau; and also commenting on Perec’s fascination with the ordinary. In fact, Perec wrote a work simply called “L’infraordinaire”, part of which is extracted in “Species of Space”, and he says in it at one point:

What we need to question is bricks, concrete, glass, our table manners, our utensils, our tools, the way we spend our time, our rhythms. To question that which seems to have ceased forever to astonish us. We live, true, we breathe, true; we walk, we go downstairs, we sit at a table in order to eat, we lie down on a bed on order to sleep. How? Where? When? Why?

Describe your street. Describe another. Compare.

Certainly he makes a case for paying more attention to the everyday, perhaps in an endeavour to realise the sheer wonder of the fact that we are alive in the world. “An attempt…” is another fascinating and thought-provoking book from Perec, and I can see that I’m going to have to read everything I can get hold of by him that’s been rendered in English…

Jane Austen week at #ShinyNewBooks

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Tomorrow is the 200th anniversary of the beloved English author, Jane Austen, and Shiny New Books is hosting a week of posts celebrating her life and work.

I spent some happy hours encountering Austen’s juvenilia recently, courtesy of a beautiful review copy from Oxford University Press, and my review is up on Shiny today. Do go and check it out here, and also keep an eye on their posts for the week – there’s bound to be some fascinating reading!

Checking in for week 2 of the #WarandPeaceNewbies readalong!

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After the issues with the translation from last week, things have settled down a bit and I’ve now finished part 2, the first ‘war’ section of the book. I was a little apprehensive about this, to be honest, as battle scenes are not normally my thing. However, I needn’t have been, as Tolstoy, in his wisdom, focuses on more than just fighting and this part of the book was fascinating.

At the end of part one, Prince Andrei set off to war, abandoning his beautiful, young and pregnant wife – which possibly tells you a lot about Tolstoy’s attitude to marriage! Also setting off to battle was young Nikolai Rostov, eager to prove himself. This section of W&P follows both of their experiences, although they are moving in very different spheres: Nikolai is a mere cadet, but Prince Andrei has been attached to the higher ranks and is thriving.

Alan Dobie as Andrei in the BBC’s 1972 adaptation

Inevitably, we see more of Andrei’s adventures: throwing himself into battle, watching the troops move and fight, mixing with the high and mighty; and all through this his emotions fluctuate wildly. He’s obviously happy to be away from the restrictions of home and society, and in many ways has found himself within the manly structure and discipline of the army; but he has noble notions that are often dashed. Andrei has studied battle strategies and imagines these things take place like clockwork, following a plan; and his ideals are somewhat shaken by the reality of the conflict and the chaos around him.

Because chaos it certainly is, and Tolstoy captures this disorder brilliantly in a series of vignettes, conveying how it feels to be caught in the middle of a conflict with one element not knowing what the others are doing and no real cohesive command. He paints a vivid picture of the chain of command, from the generals at the top working on strategies down to the common soldier who’s the one who bears the brunt of the battle, often with his life. No-one in that chain really knowing what the overall picture is, instead dealing simply with their small area of the fighting. And it became obvious that the inability to communicate effectively was a major element in the failure of a battle – often nobody knew where they were and who they were meant to be fighting. The one successful action in this particular battle was because of a small battalion with an inspired captain who ignored orders and just fought.

However, just because this was a ‘war’ section didn’t mean there was no character development, because there was. We met a wonderful mixture of soldiers and civilians of all types, all memorable and well-drawn. I particularly warmed to Captain Tushin, the maverick soldier who kept his battalion fighting away when all around him were withdrawing; and Dolokhov, an officer reduced to the ranks, determined to redeem himself.

Somehow, despite his close-up view of the fighting, Tolstoy manages to convey the wide panorama and the sheer scale of the war. He doesn’t stint on his description of the conflict and portrays a muddy and bloody reality. Both Andrei and Nikolai enter the battle expecting one thing, some kind of nobility, and finding a very different reality. Nikolai, in particular, has his first skirmish and it’s anything but glamorous; and we leave him in a rather precarious situation at the end of the section.

So, a gripping and thrilling read, wonderfully written and capturing the gritty and confusing reality of being in the middle of an old-style battle. I found I really enjoyed it, which I wasn’t expecting – so that bodes well for the rest of the book, in particular the war sections!

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