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Witnesses of violence and iconoclasm

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Petrograd 1917
Compiled, edited and annotated by John Pinfold

There has been such a slew of Russian Revolution anniversary related books released this year that it’s been a bit of a job deciding which ones I wanted to read. However, when I discovered that the Bodleian Library were issuing a kind of anthology of eye-witness accounts of the conflict, that one had to be a must. Actually, calling it an anthology isn’t really doing it justice, and it’s certainly one of the most fascinating, if unsettling, books I’ve read this year.

John Pinfold has accessed a vast range of eye-witness accounts of foreigners (English, Australian, even Hungarian) who were living in Petrograd at the time of the 1917 revolutions. Russia was one of the allies in the war against Germany, but the country was struggling. The combined strain of the war, which no-one seemed to want to fight, together with hunger, lack of discipline and a feeble leadership from a weak Tsar, left the country in a prime condition for revolution. The people had suffered centuries of an autocratic ruling system, with little liberty, and had had enough. It took very little to ignite the powder keg, and the Tsar was forced to abdicate, leaving an uncertain Provisional Government in charge.

This body, held rather shakily together by Kerensky, clung onto power until the second revolution of the year took place in October and the Bolsheviks seized control. And reading this book, skilfully woven together by Pinfold from all the accounts left behind, you can live through events as if you were there – and a very uncomfortable place it is. The correspondents are varied bunch, ranging from nurses and nannies to businessmen and diplomats; and though their bias is usually inevitably against the revolution, Pinfold very fairly includes extracts from those with opposing views. So there are substantial comments by Maxim Litvinov and Trotsky, as well as some left-wingers who travelled from England to witness and be involved in the changes.

Oh this country, it out nightmares anything that was ever dreamt by the maddest of madmen after a hot supper on the cheesiest of cheese. (Arthur Marshall)

There’s a vibrancy and an immediacy that comes from reading these contemporary reactions to the changes, from witnesses who had no knowledge of what was going to happen. Pinfold presents these chronologically, providing excellent supporting material which gives the background to, and context for, the accounts. So the book opens with the start of WW1 and shows the fragile state of the nation and its monarchy, taking in such important elements as the influence of Rasputin, and goes on to take us through the whole range of revolutionary events with diary entries, letters home and newspaper reports written by the witnesses. The chapters are bookended with two pieces giving a workman’s view of Petrograd in 1914 and one in 1918, and the contrast is a stark one. The population has shrunk drastically, the people are on the point of starvation and the city is falling apart – frankly it often seems a miracle that Russia survived the Revolution and the Civil War which followed it.

Petrograd in 1917

Much of the material is by necessity quite dark; revolution is not pretty and although some elements of the revolting parties conducted themselves well, others did not and there was much violence. Much as I deplore violence of any sort, it’s hard not to understand why the Russian people felt the need to take control of their country and their lives, particularly when you bear in mind how much political repression there had been and how even something like the liberation of the serfs (who were basically slaves) had taken so long to achieve. One commentator, Mabel King, states:

Lenin, the sworn enemy of the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, with his promises of bread and land, was fast becoming the demi-god of the proletariat, that inarticulate mass of the peasantry held so long in bondage, but now breaking free from all control, and capable of deeds of inexpressible horror.

Having been imprisoned and impoverished for so long, it’s hardly surprising they were feeling a bit violent… So the buildings are destroyed, statues and Romanov emblems torn down, and the necessary acts of iconoclasm allow the revolutionaries to make their mark on a city where access to much has been denied them.

The final days of the Romanovs are covered in detail, including the behind the scenes shenanigans that mean that the UK’s King George V refused to offer his cousin Tsar Nicholas a safe haven, condemning the whole of the Russian royal family to a hideous fate. Interesting, however, that the British royals were happy to accept Russian royal jewels – the Grand Duchess Vladimir Tiara was smuggled out of the country and sold to them by its then aristocratic owner and has been regularly worn by the current queen…

However, not all is totally grim, and some commentators manage some gallows humour, with Julius West reflecting the chaos of the action by quipping “That is the worse of revolutions – they never do keep to the timetable” and later drily commenting “It’s a rummy business. Revolutions are by no means all that they are cracked up to be.”

Pinfold’s narrative is always lucid and even-handed, plus his choices of extract excellent. One in particular stood out, a lengthy entry by V.K. Vitrine, reporter of “The Clarion”, whose analysis of the problems facing those who would rule Russia was very clear-eyed – at one point, during the short rule of the Provisional Government, he states:

The people have had education denied them. Every effort in the direction of political advancement was immediately quenched in a fortress cell or Siberian exile. These very people, continuously denied every vestige of citizenship, are now called upon to rule themselves. They have neither tradition, nor administrative experience, nor cohesion, nor, for the matter of that, any quality for the purpose.

Hardly surprising, therefore, that the Bolsheviks were able to sweep away all resistance and seize power…

“Petrograd 1917” is a beautifully presented book, lavishly illustrated with contemporary photos and artwork, as well as containing short biographies of the main commentators. Pinfold has done a wonderful job here, as many of the papers are only available in scholarly institutes and so his book brings much material to the general reader which wouldn’t otherwise be available. This volume is a vital additional to studies of the period as well as being a gripping and fascinating read, and definitely is one of the highlights of a year which is seeing much material published about the cataclysmic upheavals in Russia a century ago.

(Review copy kindly provided by the publishers, for which many thanks!)

****

As a sidenote, while I was reading this book, the subject of iconoclasm (the destruction of symbols or beliefs from previous regimes, usually religious or political) kept turning up; in a rediscovering of one of my favourite songs from a politically aware band from the 1980s, and as an element in an excellent set of documentaries on BBC4 on Utopia, presented by Dr. Richard Clay. The documentaries are probably still up on the iPlayer and I can recommend you tracking them down before they disappear. Clay has a particular interest in iconoclasm and his documentary on this aspect of the French Revolution is floating about and well worth watching too. As for The Redskins, well they obviously understood the importance in tearing down the statues of past leaders…

… in which I cannot resist Golden Age Crime…

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The White Cottage Mystery by Margery Allingham

Despite my best efforts not to buy books, there are times when there’s no way I’m going to resist – and when I spotted these two sitting in a local charity shop for £1 each I knew it was one of those times…

Allingham is one of those authors whose books I’m always going to want to read; I love the Campion stories, and “Hide My Eyes is one of those. However, the other little volume is a short novel – novella almost at 139 pages – and it has a very intriguing history. “The White Cottage Mystery” was Allingham’s first detective story, originally published as a newspaper serial in 1928. It was never reissued later in book form as there was a need to edit out some of repetition which had been necessary by virtue of the serial format, so that readers would be reminded of previous events, and Allingham simply didn’t have the time. However, some years after her death, Allingham’s sister Joyce made those edits, and this version is the one presented here.

“White Cottage” features the detecting duo of Jerry Challoner and his father, the famous Scotland Yard man, Detective Chief Inspector W.T. Challoner, and engaging pair they make. The mystery begins with Jerry being deflected on a drive home to London, as he happens to be passing the White Cottage of the title when a murder is discovered. Eric Crowther, resident of the neighbouring house, the “Dene”, has been found in the dining room of the White Cottage with his head rather fatally damaged by a shotgun, which is lying on a nearby table. W.T., as he is known, appears pronto from the Yard and begins to look into the crime with his son in tow.

The problem is that just about every inhabitant of the White Cottage (and a few from the “Dene”) would have liked to see Crowther dead. Roger Christensen, wheelchair-bound following the Great War, is incapable of giving Crowther the thrashing he thinks he deserves; his wife Eva is terrified of the dead man and obviously has some secret to hide, trying to avoid the man who is constantly bothering her; the family nurse, in charge of young June Christensen, loathed the man and makes no bones about declaring this; Eva’s sister Norah has also suffered the man’s attentions, much to the disgust of young Jerry, who’s obviously smitten. And then there is Crowther’s dodgy butler and the strange Italian who was living in his house. The Challoners will have to do plenty of globe-trotting and digging into the pasts of all the characters before coming to a dramatic solution, and an entertaining journey it is!

That is often the real tragedy of a case like this. The whole of our civilization is one network of little intrigues, some harmless, others serious, all going on in the dark just under the surface. A crime calls the attention of the community to one point, and the searchlight of public interest is switched on to this particular section of the network. The trouble is that the light does not fall upon one spot alone, but shows up all the surrounding knots and tangles, making them out of all proportion by their proximity of the murder.

I thoroughly enjoyed “The White Cottage Mystery”, although I must be honest and say it probably isn’t Allingham’s strongest work. Not only was it her first detective story, but also it had to work within the restrictions of a newspaper serial which presumably entailed keeping it simple. Nevertheless, there’s much to love about the book; the plot is clever and watching the Challoners attempt to solve it is very entertaining. They suspect person after person only to have to dismiss them, and there are a number of very satisfying red herrings and sub plots. For a slim book, there’s a lot of twists and turns and as well as murder there’s blackmail and cruelty and burglary and hardened criminals and the French secret service and international gangs! The settings range from Kent to Paris and the south of France, and the pace never lags.

As for the solution – well, there *is* one despite the apparent inability of anyone to have committed the crime, and W.T. does solve the mystery although all is not revealed until some time later. I confess I did at one point consider the killer as a possibility but I dismissed it, so it just goes to show that you should never underestimate a Golden Age crime writer.

So a worthy additional to Allingham’s canon, an entertaining and enjoyable distraction from heavier books, and definitely worth the £1 I spent on it. I seem to be amassing quite a few Campion titles and although I’d prefer, being a bit pedantic about such things, to read them in order of publication I don’t think that’s going to happen. Instead, I think I shall just pick up whichever ones I happen to come across on my travels as they’re certainly an ideal palate cleanser and a wonderful escape from the horrors of the modern world. 🙂

The Price of Love #WITMonth #AllViragoAllAugust

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The Captive by Colette
Translated by Antonia White

I always enjoy taking part in Women in Translation month during August; I read a lot of translated literature anyway, and likewise a lot of women authors, so in some ways it’s a bit of a case of the month being what I already do. However, I haven’t managed to get on to so many titles this year because of “War and Peace”; but having picked up a lovely edition of Colette’s “The Captive” on my recent travels, I decided this would be an ideal re-read, particularly as she’s a Virago author too (and translated by another Virago author!).

I first read Colette in the early 1980s, and this was one of the titles I had, so it’s been over 35 years since I read this particular book (gulp!). I’ve returned to certain of her works over and over again (particularly “Break of Day”) but I’m pretty sure I’ve never re-read “The Captive” so I was very eager to see what I made of it after all this time.

Published in 1913, “The Captive” is narrated by Colette’s alter ego, Renée Néré, who featured in a number of the author’s works, most notably “The Vagabond”. In the latter story she was a music hall artist, travelling the country, living out of a trunk and performing wherever fate took her. In “The Captive”, Néré has retired from music hall after receiving a legacy and is frankly at a loose end. We first encounter her living in a hotel in Nice and basically wasting her time hanging around with Jean and May, a pair of young lovers with a destructive relationship, and the rather entertaining Masseau, an opium addict who serves as light relief! Renée is alternately bored and amused with her companions and often seems to wish she could be on her own, communing with nature and relishing her solitude.

Nice in the 1900s

However, Renée is not as straightforward as she seems, and despite her age still has her attractions. Inevitably, Jean is drawn to the older, more experienced woman and despite her attempts to escape him by running off to Geneva, they begin an affair which is characterised from the start by a simple physical connection rather than anything deeper. However, this relationship is nothing if not complex and we follow its twists and turns until it reaches a perhaps unexpected conclusion…

A simple sounding tale, perhaps, but in the hands of an author like Colette it’s anything but. Renée herself is a complex mix, attempting to resist the allure of the younger man yet unable to; despite her avowed independence, she craves love, and also to be reassured that she’s still attractive. As for Jean, for much of the book he’s unreadable and it’s only towards the end of the story that we see a little more of his personality emerge. All the nuances and complexities of an affair between man and woman are laid bare here: the little lies and compromises, the obsession and the disillusionment, the arguments and the bliss. In many ways Renée is trying to keep herself detached during the affair; she tries to convince herself that it’s simply a physical thing between them, but the longer the relationship goes on, the harder it is to really believe that. The title has been translated before as “The Shackle”, perhaps to indicate that love is such a thing and that Renée has been captured by the emotion. However, I believe the literal translation of the original French “L’Entrave” is ‘obstacle’, and Renée certainly encounters one in her quest for freedom.

You pretend to love me; this means that all day long I must bear the burden of your anxiety, your watch-dog vigilance, your suspicion. Tonight I am not off the chain, but it has slipped from your hand and trails behind me so that I do not feel the pull of it.

There are elements of the story which might sit uncomfortably with modern readers: the casual violence between Jean and May; the constant smoking; and the fact that a woman is considered past it at the ripe old age of 36… (heavens!) This latter is particularly striking, as modern attitudes would consider 36 to be in the prime of life; but Renée/Colette makes constant reference to her increasing age, the need to keep up certain barriers between the lovers, a certain heaviness of age – most odd! Much of the plot is concerned with the power balance within the relationship, which shifts as the story develops, and a to modern eyes the sacrifices Renée makes might be unacceptable; although I would wager that things have not changed as much as we might think they have… And it’s worth remembering that she is in a position of having basically no occupation: she misses the music hall (and a visit to her old colleague Brague makes that pain even worse), has no need to make a living and is at a loose end, so ripe for an emotional intrigue. There is a hint at one point that she is attempting a career as a writer, but this is never stated outright, and Renée seems very much a woman at a transitional period of her life.

Colette in the 1900s by Henri Manuel – this is rather how I image Renée…

The story itself is fascinating and involving; and I felt it very much reflected Colette’s view at the time, as she was a woman who certainly needed love. Yet there are other elements creeping in, those which became more prominent in her later books: her profound love of nature is evident, as well as her wonderful powers of observation and her ability to capture a place or person in a few lines. As I read I really felt as if I was *in* the South of France, or Paris, or Geneva, so vivid are the pictures she paints.

I’m never sure how widely known Colette is nowadays; in my feminist youth, she was someone we turned to readily as a pioneering woman who carved out her own life and lived it on her own terms, while writing wonderful books along the way. Returning to her writing with this book I felt, as I always do, not only what wonderful prose she wrote but what a wonderfully adventurous life she must have had. I loved my re-read of “The Captive” and if you haven’t read anything by the marvellous Colette I would strongly urge you to – a remarkable woman and a remarkable writer.

A poet encapsulated

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A Short Life of Pushkin by Robert Chandler

As an antidote to all of the fiction I’ve been reading lately, I felt drawn to picking up something more factual; and coincidentally a lovely review copy arrived that fitted the bill! Pushkin Press have just reprinted a slim biographical volume about the father of Russian poetry, Alexander Pushkin, by esteemed translator Robert Chandler, so it was a no-brainer that I’d want to read it.

Pushkin, of course, is an author I’ve read before, mostly notably in poetry anthologies (I have a lot of Russian collections…) and also when I reviewed a nice edition of “Belkin’s Stories” for Shiny New Books. I had a vague idea of the outline of his life, but was keen to fill in the gaps – which this does in exemplary fashion.

The book divides Pushkin’s life up into short, readable chapters and takes us through the various stages. Chandler focuses on the events of Pushkin’s life, but also his poetic responses to it, and the book is laced with excellent quotations from Pushkin’s work which reflect what was happening to him. And certainly the poet did indeed have a colourful life; his heritage was fascinating, as his matrilineal great-grandfather was a Black African Page (Abram Petrovich Gannibal) brought over to Russia as a slave. He was a serial duellist (a fact that would eventually lead to his downfall), associated with the outlawed political group The Decembrists, spent time in exile, met the young Gogol and had a very complex relationship with the Tsar and the authorities. And then there’s the womanising… Pushkin was nothing if not erratic and Byronic in his outlook, and in fact Lord Byron was something of an idol!

Reading about the disordered nature of his life you wonder how the man managed to write any poetry, but he did, and the extracts that Chandler includes are excellent choices which stick in the mind and show just how much Pushkin’s emotional natural found its way into his work. Like many an artist he struggled financially, and the fact that his wife was required to participate in society (ah! Russian society – how much more I know about that after War and Peace!) meant that he was constantly borrowing from Peter to pay Paul, so to speak, and died in much debt.

As for his death – well, that’s still somewhat controversial, but it certainly affected me emotionally and made me wish Pushkin hadn’t been so hot-headed when it came to duelling. Chandler hints also that by that point of his life Pushkin was in a rather fatalistic mental state, which didn’t help, and part of me wishes he had had less terrible ups and downs in his life – but I suppose if he’d lived a quiet and sedate existence, then he wouldn’t have written the works he did! And it often seems that Pushkin spent much of his time restricted in different ways – exiled, confined to an area by the plague – and in each of these settings he responded by producing substantial amounts of work.

Author and subject

Chandler’s book is a brilliant introduction to Russia’s national poet; lucid, readable, erudite and scholarly, yet it has a light touch which conveys much information in an easily absorbed format. The verse quotations are powerful and moving, and Chandler regularly points out the influence Pushkin’s work has had on a diverse range of later works – “Amadeus” by Peter Shaffer and operas by Mussorgsky being just two examples. He also brings out in more detail the links with Gogol and the influence on Dostoevsky, and covers in detail the complexities of censorship and Pushkin’s relationship with Nicholas I.

One aspect that fascinated me in particular was the fact that Pushkin had something of a sideline as a historian; many of his works drew on Russia’s past and one of the reasons he needed to keep in with society and the Tsar was so that he could gain access to the state archives for his research. We take for granted nowadays the access we have to the Internet and so many archives and records that it seems unimaginable that a man would have to make so many compromises to be able to carry out his work.

Chandler is always even-handed in his treatment of the protagonists in Pushkin’s story (I *love* an unbiased biography!!!) and his refusal to condemn Pushkin’s young wife, Natalya Goncharova, is refreshing. I was interested to learn that she was a relative of one of my favourite Constructivist artists who bore the same name; the book is scattered with such interesting facts which I’ve not come across before.

At the end of the book, Chandler looks at Pushkin’s legacy down the years from Gogol shortly after his death and eventually reaching into Soviet times; and the attempts by various people and regimes to claim the poet for themselves. However, Chandler reminds us of Pushkin’s universal appeal and how he was popular with each level of society; his poetry is still alive and vital today, and the poet’s legacy is assured regardless of who tries to claim it.

I can’t recommend this excellent little book enough if you want to discover more about Pushkin’s life and work. There are bigger and longer volumes out there, but this distills all you need to know into 150 pages or so and gives a flavour of the poet’s writing too. For me, I gained a much wider understanding of Pushkin and his place in Russian literature, as well as thoroughly enjoying the journey through the poet’s life. I’ve read many of Robert Chandler’s translations with great pleasure, but I think this is the first book I’ve read which he’s written and it was a great joy – highly recommended!

Many thanks to Pushkin Press for kindly providing a review copy – much appreciated!

A poignant encounter

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Odette by Ronald Firbank

I’ve written about author Ronald Firbank before on the Ramblings, covering two entertaining volumes brought out by independent publisher Michael Walmer – “Inclinations” and “Vainglory“. These witty and original works were Firbank’s first two novels, and now Mike has produced a lovely reprint of Firbank’s early, first published work – and a very different type of story it is too.

Subtitled “A Fairy Tale for Weary People”, “Odette” is a short story which tells of the titular character’s encounter with reality and how it changes her. Odette lives life in a kind of fairy-tale setting; comfortably settled with her widowed aunt, her nurse and an aged butler in an old château in France, she spends her times in dreaming of religious encounters with saints. The visits of the local Curé fuel her imagination and she becomes determined to emulate Bernadette, who saw the Virgin Mary in the mountains.

So Odette sneaks out of the house one night, setting off on what she hopes will be a holy adventure. However, what she encounters is as far from the Virgin Mary as you can get, and Odette’s meeting with reality will not only change her, but also have an effect on the real world.

“Odette” is an affecting little work which stays in the mind despite being only 44 pages long. Odette lives in a gilded cage, and her encounter with reality could have been much harsher than the one which Firbank gifts her. As it is, he seems to believe in the power of good to influence those who’ve gone astray, and there is a strong religious element; certainly, Odette’s innate goodness shines through, and although after her encounter there is a sense that she has grown up and her worldview has been forever changed, there is also the feeling that she will continue along a righteous path and try to bring happiness throughout her life.

Firbank drawn by Augustus John

Interestingly, according to Wikipedia, “Odette” was published when Firbank was just 19, just before he attended Cambridge, and his novels came some 10 years later – which would explain the dramatic difference in style! The book is beautifully produced – a hardback with lovely illustrations by Albert Buhrer which are in the style of Aubrey Beardsley, and the cover also features one of his images.

So another intriguing reissue from Mike Walmer, and one which shows Firbank in a very different light to his later more camp and snarky books. Ronald Firbank died young when he was just 40, of a lung disease which had dogged him most of his life; and I can’t help wishing that he’d lived longer and been able to write more. If you haven’t yet read any of his work, “Odette” certainly might be a gentler way to start with Ronald Firbank, who definitely deserves to be more widely read nowadays!

Many thanks to Mike Walmer for kindly providing the review copy – much appreciated!

… in which the best laid plans… #warandpeacenewbies

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I know myself as a reader; and I had my doubts when I started my reading of “War and Peace” as to whether I’d be able to stick to the schedule. Well, I haven’t I have to confess – but not necessarily in a bad way… The trouble is that I became so invested in the story of these characters and their lives that I found it impossible to stick to the restriction of reading and reviewing a couple of sections a week. That isn’t the way I normally read, and although it worked at the start while I was busy at work, I found that when I set off for my recent round trip of visiting my Aged Parent and Offspring I just wanted to read the rest of “War and Peace” straight through. Which I have, and it was a wonderful experience.

I was conscious with my previous posts that they were veering towards just giving a summary of the action of the sections I’d read, and I did doubt whether I would sustain weekly posts of any substance. Therefore, I think I’ll just give some overall thoughts in a kind of bullet point way, drawing on my thoughts and reactions to the book. I would say, however, that I can’t recommend highly enough that you read “War and Peace” – definitely one of the reads of the my life. So, some thoughts:

* Plot-wise, after some years of fragile peace, war breaks out again when Napoleon invades Russia. Andrei, Nikolai and Petya fight; Pierre becomes embroiled in the fall of Moscow and comes up with some harebrained schemes at one point; the Bolonsky family flees the French and hooks up with the Rostovs eventually; Natasha and Marie become BFFs; St. Petersburg society carries on much as normal; the common soldier suffers (of course); the Generals and those in charge of the armies attempt to strategise and fail; Napoleon is *not* apparently defeated by the Russian winter alone, but by a number of factors including the fact that his army is human and undisciplined and exhausted; some characters survive, some don’t, some (rather pleasingly) get their comeuppance, and life will eventually resume a calmer course for those who remain.

* Perhaps the things that strikes me most strongly is Tolstoy’s masterly handling of his material, expertly juxtaposing the lives of his characters against the vast panoply of war. In fact, I guess the point of the book is to show the effect of great events on ordinary people, and this he does brilliantly.

On the 12th of June 1812 the forces of Western Europe crossed the frontiers of Russia, and war began; in other words, an event took place counter to all the laws of human reason and human nature. Millions of men perpetrated against one another such innumerable crimes, deceptions, treacheries, robberies, forgeries, issues of false monies, depredations, incendiarisms and murders as the annals of all the courts of justice in the world could not muster in the course of whole centuries, but which those who committed them did not at the time regard as crimes.

* The war sections, even when Tolstoy was pontificating on the point of conflict and how grand events come about, were fascinating; I’d somehow expected these to be a problem, but I didn’t find them so at all. Tolstoy makes no bones about what happens in a war, about the death and horror and gore, and there were some real shocks and tragedies to come. He doesn’t shy away from showing not only the effect on those wounded and killed, but also their families back at home, and some of the events really put me through the emotional wringer. Andrei’s final fate, for example, was perhaps inevitable but no less painful; and the outcome for Petya was hard to take.

Andrei looks a tad poorly

* Much of Tolstoy’s genius seems to me to come from his skill at building up a big picture from small events: there are wonderful little vignettes that stick in your mind, like the three soldiers helping Pierre after the battle of Borodino, and this kind of approach is much more human and approachable than something like, say, “The Glory of the Empire”; this latter took a broad brush approach to grand events, but was much harder to relate to because of that detachment.

War is not a polite recreation but the vilest thing in life, and we ought to understand that and not play at war. Our attitude towards the fearful necessity of war ought to be stern and serious. It boils down to this: we should have done with humbug, and let war be war and not a game… What are the morals of the military world? The aim and end of war is murder…

*Napoleon (and indeed all the historical characters) were entirely convincing; Tolstoy’s version of him was not just a cardboard cut-out villain and I felt that he entertained a certain sympathy with the emperor of France.

Napoleon in the BBC 1972 adaptation

* The book conveys a strong sense of the random forces that come together to cause a huge historical moment. Tolstoy is clear that it is never just one person or happening that causes a war to be started, won or lost, but a combination of factors, from personal ambition and politics, through planning (good or bad) to pure chance.

* The character development is wonderful – we watch each participant on their journey through the story to their final destination, whatever that may be, and I for one became completely involved in their lives and fates.

* The behaviour of human beings in the middle of a cataclysmic conflict was another strong element in the story; and when war and peace collided, the contrast between the fall of Moscow and the flight of the Rostovs, set against St. Petersburg society blithely continuing its frivolous pursuits as if nothing had happened, was striking.

* The treatment of the male characters was interesting; they often broadly fell into the categories of superfluous or sneaky and conniving, but even when stereotyped a little were very nuanced. I certainly felt that Tolstoy’s sympathies did not lie with the society characters, but more with the landowners or the lower ranks of the army or the ordinary people; although he is often a little cynical in his outlook generally, and no-one escapes criticism!

*As for the female characters; well, their lot is not usually a happy one. Again, there is often the split of conniving society woman or nice and naive. As usual, different standards are applied for women: a man can behave as badly as he likes, but for a woman to be seen to transgress at all is the end of everything for her. One of the most dramatic episodes in the book is Natasha’s involvement with Anatole Karagin, and his attempt to seduce her. She’s an impulsive, emotional and unworldly girl who’s out of her depth with a serial womaniser like him; so it’s no real surprise that she falls completely under his spell and is prepared to run off with him without knowing anything at all about him. Fortunately, Sonya proves to be a wiser young woman than her cousin, and disaster is averted; but as usual in society of the time, her reputation is at stake while a man in the same position is praised. So a young and inexperienced girl can have her life ruined by a nasty rake for no reason other than being immature; had she been a mature and experienced woman like Helene, able to carry out her affairs discreetly, she would have met with society’s approval. I’m not sure I entirely approve of Natasha’s final place in life, as the solution for her seems a little stereotypical, but we’ll pass that by.

Anthony Hopkins as Pierre

* It seemed to me that Pierre was in many ways the focus of the book; his moral struggles and search for meaning in the middle of chaos, as well as his experiences during the occupation of Moscow, made him a lynchpin of the story, and I grew to love him as a character very much. He comes out of the war changed, but for the better, and is rewarded in a way that is entirely satisfying for him. In fact, spiritual searching is a consistent thread in the story, and both Pierre and Marie end up with a shining happy belief and a new extended family, which perhaps ties in with Tolstoy’s views.

Whatever he tried to be, whatever he engaged in, he always found himself repulsed by this knavery and falsehood, which blocked every path of action. Yet he had to life and to find occupation. It was too awful to be under the burden of these insoluble problems, and so he abandoned himself to the first distraction that offered itself, in order to forget them. He frequented every kind of society, drank too much, purchased pictures, built houses, and above all – read. (Pierre gets his priorities right at the end there…)

* No book can be without criticism and if I had to make one, I would like to have strong words with Tolstoy about some of his characters’ names and their similarities, which really don’t help the reader. For example, Dokhturov and Dolokhov; Kuragin and Karagin; I mean, that latter one is like having two main characters in an English book called Smith and Smythe. Why?!?!

I should state upfront that I took a decision when it got to the epilogues and only read the first one; as I read somewhere (and I wish I could remember where) that a commentator said they wished they hadn’t read the second one as it added nothing, and they advised not reading on. The first epilogue certainly wraps things up nicely; set seven years after the events of the main book, it brings the reader up to date with the lives of the surviving characters and allows us to see how they’ve developed. That in itself is interesting, as they haven’t all necessarily become what we would expect. Natasha, for example, has become a devoted mother and jealous wife; Pierre a happy, saintly husband who loves all; Marie an unexpectedly happy wife; and Nikolai a successful, if somewhat rigid, landowner. All of their basic characteristics have come to a kind of fruition and final stage, and they have the life they want in their re-adjusted family. I was particularly pleased to see Denisov making a reappearance, as he’s such a wonderful and entertaining character!

A final word on the translation; it worked absolutely perfectly for me and I salute Rosemary Edmonds. The book was readable, gripping, the language never got in the way of the story and I felt as though I was reading a book about Russia and Russians. The English is my sort of English (late 20th century no doubt) and I wouldn’t want to have experienced any other version.

So there you go: 1400-odd pages in about 6 weeks and a remarkably powerful and involving read; one that gripped from the start and that I really couldn’t put down. Having read “War and Peace” once, I’m sure that I’ll return to it again at some point, and pull out even more from it than on my first visit. I have to thank Laura for coming up with the War and Peace Newbies read, because I don’t think I would have particularly picked up the book at this time; but I’m extremely glad I did, and now I just have to try and shake off this book hangover I have and move into a new fictional world!

#AllVirago/All August – The Genius of Margaret Atwood

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Murder in the Dark by Margaret Atwood

August is traditionally the month where we on the LibraryThing Virago Group read as many Viragos (and Persephones too, as they often share the same ethos and type of author) as we can. I never commit to reading only these books, although some do, but I know I would fail if I did so – particularly as I’m balancing this with my “War and Peace” read and I want to fit in some translated women for “Women in Translation” month too. And the first book I picked up was a very slim volume by an author I adore but haven’t read for far too long and wanted to get back to – Margaret Atwood.

Atwood needs no introduction from me, and her name is currently to the fore even more than usual because of the current political situation and the recent (and very relevant) adaptation of her great work, “The Handmaid’s Tale”. I have a shelf stacked with her books, and back in the 1980s when I discovered her writing I read most of the novels that were available then, and kept on reading as they came out. I want to revisit them, particularly “Alias Grace” and “The Blind Assassin”, which I remember being particular favorites; however, this time my hand went to a small volume of short pieces entitled “Murder in the Dark” which looked very intriguing. And what a powerful read it was for so small a book.

“Murder in the Dark” is 110 pages of short pieces varying in length from a page to around 7 or 8, and the subject matter is variable and intriguing. The back of the book declares that the work is fiction, yet it appears to straddle a number of genres, reading at times like memoir, at others like short essays on reading and writing, but always with Atwood’s distinctive voice and fierce intellect at play.

I no longer want to read about anything sad. Anything violent, anything disturbing, anything like that. No funerals at the end, though there can be some in the middle. If there must be deaths, let there be resurrections, or at least a Heaven so we know where we are. Depression and squalor are for those under twenty-five, they can take it, they even like it, they still have enough time left. But real life is bad for you, hold it in your hand long enough and you’ll get pimples and become feeble-minded. You’ll go blind.

The title work, for example, was a particular favourite which compared the act of authorship with the game of Murder in the Dark; and in another piece Atwood lays out possible plots for women’s novels, only to come to a devastating conclusion at the end. She discussed the page before us, whether happy endings are essential, how our perceptions change when our imagination takes hold, and riffs on the importance of who does the cooking and how it can affect the whole of society.

Then there are short fragments, almost prose poems, that conjure up brilliantly a situation or event or character in just a couple of paragraphs, leaving you completely involved and wanting more, yet knowing that what Atwood has written is enough to tell you all you need to know. One of the longer pieces, “Raw Materials”, was quite brilliant in its portrayal of claustrophobic locations and made me, as someone who doesn’t like being closed in, feel very jittery.

Have you never seen the look of gratitude, the look of joy, on the faces of those who have managed to return from the page? Despite their faintness, their loss of blood, they fall on their knees, they push their hands into the earth, they clasp the bodies of those they love, or, in a pinch, any bodies they can get, with an urgency unknown to those who have never experienced the full horror of a journey into the page.

Had I forgotten just what a genius of a writer Atwood is? No – I always think of her as that; but not having read anything by her for a little while, it was an exhilarating shock to the system to re-encounter her wonderful prose. Surreal, thought-provoking, unusual and very, very memorable, this slim book showcases just what a wonderful author Margaret Atwood is – and I really must read more of her soon.

A teeny, tiny haul…

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I’ve been slightly off grid lately as I was away making my usual summer round trip visit to my Aged Mother and then the Offspring in Leicester. It was an enjoyable, if tiring, week and not without its issues, as the Aged Mother is getting very forgetful nowadays which causes the occasional bit of friction. But I took her out for several visits, and also of course had the opportunity to visit the Leicester shops, so it was inevitable that I would come into contact with books…

However, I think I was pretty restrained (possibly owing to being completely embroiled in “War and Peace”) and so I came book with only a few volumes:

These first two came from a little hop I took with mum to Market Harborough, one of her favourite places to go. It was a bit of a mission as the buses are erratic, but she enjoyed it, and I did get to pick up a couple of treats from the Oxfam. “Algernon” is a title I’ve heard recommended highly, and I keep meaning to read more sci-fi…. As for the Carey book, I’ve always found him an erudite and entertaining commentator when he’s been on TV; I did borrow this from the library once but never actually read it, so was happy to find a second-hand copy for myself!

Leicester has a bookish area in Queens Road, with Loros and Age Concern charity bookshops, and I persuaded Eldest Child to accompany me for a visit to them this year. Let’s not talk about the detour we had to take because Victoria Park was closed for a festival, or the rain; suffice to say that the local Costa was very welcome! However, I did find a couple of nice treasures – a collection of interviews with Margaret Atwood, and a nice edition of a Colette. I already had an old edition of the latter book, but it’s very fragile, and I’m a bit nervous of reading it again, so this one was just the ticket.

The final find was from a little secondhand bookshop in The Lanes at Leicester. There was a very tempting section of Golden Age crime, including a lot of Green Penguins, but I was strong and only came away with a John Dickson Carr. Really, I’m enjoying his books so much that I’m likely to pick up whichever one comes my way, and this one has such a wonderfully lurid cover!

So those were my bookish finds while I was away; I could have picked up many more volumes, but of course I would have had to lug them back on the train, and as it was my very small suitcase was already half full of reading matter…. 😉

Week 5 – Natasha grows up… #warandpeacenewbies

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Perhaps that’s a slightly trite heading to choose for a section of “War and Peace” so packed with action, but it *is* something pivotal to this part of the epic journey I’m on with the book; which also contains one of the iconic scenes of Tolstoy’s great works.

Nearing the end of book 1!!!!

This section opens with the fragile peace between Napoleon and Alexander still in place, and meanwhile life goes on as normal for the majority of people. Andrei is still living in the country, running his estate very competently and emancipating his serfs; in fact, he achieves everything that Pierre sets out to do but cannot, simply because he is so able and Pierre is totally impractical. However, Andrei is cold and emotionally locked away, and it’s only an encounter with the young and beautiful Natasha that draws him back to society and the more practical world of the court. For a while, Andrei comes back to life a bit whilst mixing in these circles again, but a re-encounter with Natasha at her first ball changes his outlook again quite dramatically.

Pierre, meanwhile, is as troubled and lugubrious as ever, spending most of this section in a haze of moral and spiritual soul-searching. The Masons are proving to be a little too worldly for him, most definitely not what he thought; and despite having agreed to live under the same roof as his estranged wife, there is no proper marriage. He is not ‘being a husband’ to her, and that seems to suit Helen perfectly, leaving her free to flirt and spend time with young men such as Boris. The latter seems to have changed for the worse as he’s matured, and despite his young infatuation with Natasha, it’s clear that neither wish to carry that relationship on as they grow up.

In the eyes of the world Pierre was a fine gentleman, the rather blind and ridiculous husband of a distinguished wife, a clever eccentric who did nothing but was no trouble to anyone, a good-natured, capital fellow – while all the time in the depths of Pierre’s soul a complex and arduous process of inner development was going on, revealing much to him and bringing him many spiritual doubts and joys.

Natasha Rostov herself comes much more into the fore in these chapters; at 16 she attends her first ball, and becomes the belle of it, spending much time danced with Andrei, who is completely smitten – just a bit of an age difference there, though…. She’s a vibrant character, injecting life into the story and her surroundings, although still very immature. She responds strongly to Andrei’s declaration of love, although she sees the good in Pierre too; and an engagement is agreed between Andrei and Natasha, although with the stipulation they must wait a year, leaving Andrei free to swan off abroad for his health.

In fact, the Rostovs and their fortunes are a troubling element here; through mismanagement they are lurching towards genteel poverty and it’s in the interests of the Count and Countess to match their children off to rich spouses. Eldest sister Vera has married a lowly soldier and so hopes now lie on Natasha. Interestingly, the inability of the nobles to deal with business and sort out their issues is a strong thread in the book; old Count Rostov is being systematically cheated, Pierre is totally fuddled by it all and only Andrei seems to have a business head.

Nikolai makes a lengthy reappearance and reconnects with his sister, spending happy hours hunting with her and celebrating Christmas. I’ll confess here that I skimmed some of the hunting pages, because I really *don’t* want to read them; but after the hunt, the group visits a local eccentric known as “Uncle” and it’s here that the famed dance of Natasha takes place. As a balalaika is played, Natasha taps into her unconscious heritage and performs a native Russian dance from who knows where, and it’s a powerful moment.

Tolstoy introduces another interesting aspect in the form of Pierre’s diary; he takes up the writing habit and Tolstoy treats us to regular extracts which plot the tortuous state of Pierre’s mind. It’s clear the poor man needs to be loved, but there seems to be no prospect of that on the horizon. Instead, he frets about his friends, uncertain for example whether the engagement of Andrei and Natasha is a good thing. Actually, no-one feels she is right for Andrei, and I felt a little uncomfortable about an old widower marrying a 16-year-old, particularly when she’s portrayed here as so childlike. However, towards the end of these chapters I felt that the cracks were showing slightly, with Andrei showing no inclination to rush back from abroad and visit his betrothed, and so I’m not sure whether this marriage will go ahead. By the end of this section, Nikolai had rekindled his childhood love for Sonya, but I feel a little trepidation about that too – Tolstoy doesn’t seem to want to portray happy relationships!

So another cracking couple of sections, packed full of action and an absolutely wonderful read. I’m constantly impressed by how well Tolstoy handles his material and keeps you involved at all times; and also by his powers of description. I felt I was actually living alongside the characters at times, racing through the snow in sledges, watching Natasha sing or dance, laughing at the mummers entertaining local children – the narrative was so vivid, and I’m absolutely hooked and desperate to find out what happens next!

 

Some surprisingly downbeat delights

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A Village in a Valley by Beverley Nichols

I had a lovely trip to London last month where I met up with J, my oldest BFF, and we spent happy hours visiting the Moomin exhibition at the Royal Festival Hall, the Russian exhibition at the British Library, plus some general gallery visits and a little bit of shopping. J came bearing gifts, in the form of two lovely Beverley Nichols books, and it was just too tempting – I was supposed to be reading another part of “War and Peace”, but I couldn’t resist picking up this Beverley book!

The edition J kindly presented me with is a first edition from 1934; no dustjacket, of course, but in pretty good condition for a book of its age (apart from one oddity – more of which later in this post). “Village” is the third in Beverley’s Allways sequence, set in the fictional place of that name (which is apparently based on his home in Glatton), and I read and loved the first two here. Nichols’ writing is so engaging and funny, yet often lapsing into the lyrical, and I was hoping for some more of that kind of thing – which I did get, but the book is often rather different in tone from the first two.

All the characters we loved and loathed from the first books – Mrs. M, the competitive neighbour; Undine Wilkins, the ditsy, artsy type; the Professor, as absent-minded as you could wish – are present and correct and the lovely location is the same. However, there is a new distraction, in the form of Miss Hazlitt; stated as Nichols’ former governess, she’s an impoverished and saintly woman who everyone feels the need to protect, and much of the plotline revolves around her. There is also Mrs. M’s visiting nephew, Leo, who provides a wealth of humorous distraction, and an entertaining side-plot about the missing church windows.

However, the tone of the book is more thoughtful than the earlier ones, and this is flagged up early on. It’s clear that we are living in the 1930s, where the Depression has had its effects and people are struggling with reducing incomes. These are not the ‘lower-classes’ (although they do feature in the book) but those living and coping in genteel poverty, and Nichols casts a sympathetic eye on their attempts to keep up standards as best they can. The financial squeeze has had its effects in other ways, as those who own the land are having to sell it off (and one particular chapter allows Nichols to pour scorn on Lady Osprey, who is obviously still rolling in it, but is happy to sell land to developers). And it is this change in the nature of Allways that is causing most concern; the arrival of a nasty modern bungalow is met with horror and there is a strong sense that the quiet village way of life is a world under threat from encroaching modernity.

    The storm broke that night, and though there was little sleep for most of us, I did not care. For there are not many better things in life than to lie in bed, in a sturdily timbered room, under a thatched roof, while one’s own garden thirstily drinks the welcome rain, and the wind whistles down the chimney, and under the crack in the door.
    It is at moments like this that one is inclined to count over one’s blessings.

And events take a darker turn towards the end of the book, with one particular character’s health becoming an issue, which leaves Beverley in philosophical mood; the end chapters are moving and poignant, where he reflects on mortality and how the world will change, but glories in his great love, which is the beauty of flowers.

The book is beautifully illustrated by Rex Whistler’s peerless line drawings.

It’s easy to criticise Nichols for his snobbishness and elitism (which I recognise); nevertheless, I think he’s very right in his love of beautiful things and his wish to embrace the everyday wonderfulness around us. There’s a touch of the Betjeman about his lamentations about the invasion of uncouth elements into the loveliness of Allways and you can’t help but wish that these small English oases of calm still existed.

‘Civilization’ is the death of the finer senses of man. If a cigarette is always between your lips, you can’t ever smell the sweetness of the bean fields, on a summer evening. If you begin to drink cocktails at twelve, you forget, for ever, the keen, silvery taste of cold water in a clear goblet. Which sounds like on of the most embarrassing moralizations of Eric or Little by Little but it happens to be true.

However, the book is not all downbeat, and there are some wonderful humorous exchanges, snarky comments and hilarious situations which had me laughing out loud. And Beverley is not averse to mocking himself; his father makes another appearance, giving out wise and sensible advice, while the son paints himself as an impractical dreamer; he also makes reference to his tendency towards purple prose!

The gentlemen of the press who parody me may now draw an elegant picture of me shrinking in horror from the thought of being alone in a room with a rampant poppy. The idea is, as they say, ‘a gift’.

With this book particularly I felt the need to do a bit of digging into the background, particularly Miss Hazlitt, to see if she had any basis in reality. She did indeed draw on Nichols’ old governess, although the events in the book are pretty much non-factual as far as I can tell. It seems that Nichols’ publishers wanted another book about Allways to follow the success of the first two, although I’m not sure how much Beverley wanted to write it, which may explain the slightly more downbeat tone and the elegiac feeling of the writing. I imagine that most of Nichols’ gardening/house books are very well embroidered, but I don’t really mind – I love his adventures and characters, however invented they are!

*****

I read “A Village…” in a couple of settings one day, and later that same day went on to revisit a film I loved in my 20s but haven’t watched since, and it seemed to have a relevance and a connection with the Nichols book.

The film is the Ealing classic “Went the Day Well”; released in 1942, it was a propaganda film to warn the British public of the dangers of invasion. Set over a Whitsun weekend, a small English village discovers that the British troops billeted on them are not what they seem, and the film sees them fight back against the threat to the war effort. Based on a story by Graham Greene, it’s still an incredibly powerful film and the small threatened village resonated with what I’d been reading in Beverley’s book. I love Ealing films anyway, and I did wonder how this one would stand up all these years later; well, I was on edge of my seat all the way through, and both Beverley’s book and this film rather reduced me to a jelly in several places.

I really recommend “Went the Day Well” if you haven’t seen it – it captures a Britain and a way of life long gone.

*****

And now for the strangeness in my first edition of “A Village in a Valley”. Early on in the book I came upon four pages that had missing text and odd blank areas with just a few asterisks, looking something like this:

There was definitely text missing, as some parts stopped mid sentence, and I couldn’t work out what was going on. In one place, it looked a little like a page could have been stuck in and then removed, and I wondered if there was some kind of printer’s error that was rectified and then removed. Whatever had caused this (and the rest of the book was ok) I was a little frustrated at having missing bits, so I sent off for a cheap later edition.

It arrived a little tatty but intact, and when I compared the missing sections, all the text was in the later edition:

1st edition on the left vs later edition on the right

So I’m a little flummoxed, but at least I’ve been able to read all of Beverley’s book. There seems no reason why the text should be missing from the first edition, as it simply relates some funny extracts and comments by Beverley on a local newspaper – most peculiar indeed, and I haven’t been able to find out anything about this online! =:o

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