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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

High(land!) Jinks!

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The Case of the Constant Suicides by John Dickson Carr

I seem to be spending a reasonable amount of time nowadays in the company of JDC and his marvellous detective Dr. Gideon Fell; but I feel no guilt at all, as these books are Golden Age crime at their best, and such satisfying reads! I was casting about recently for something to read on the train during a short hop to London for a day out with my BFF, and ruing the fact that I didn’t have any of Dr. Fell’s adventures to hand, as that was what I fancied reading. However, a rummage amongst a pile of old green Penguins revealed that I *did* have one lurking, even if the title did sound like it should belong to a Perry Mason story! The first chapter seemed familiar when I picked the book up, which was a bit worrying till I remembered that I started the book once and then got distracted; so I was sorted for my train reading!

Isn’t that cover just wonderful???

“The Cast of the Constant Suicides” is, of course, a locked room murder; what else would you expect if you pick up a Carr? Published in 1941, and set in the early days of WW2, the book opens with Alan Campbell, a young professor of Scottish extraction, making his way by (slow and erratic) train up to the land of his ancestors. A distant relative, one Angus Campbell, has taken a fatal plunge from a tower in his remote Scottish castle, and so the solicitors have summoned all the remaining members of the family. Alan is happy to get away from London, and from an intellectual feud he’s been having with a fellow professor. However, an encounter en route with a distant cousin causes mixed emotions, and on arrival in the depths of Scotland they encounter Angus’s larger than life brother Colin as well as a strange American called Swan. Throw into the mix the local lawyer and a troubled insurance agent, along with the fearsome Aunt Elspat, and you have a wonderful cast of characters all ready to explore the complexities of the plot – and complex it is! Old Angus took out a new insurance policy (his third!) just a few days before his death, and all of his policies have a suicide clause. So if Angus threw himself from the window the policies are null and void. However, he must have done because he had locked himself inside the tower, and it’s inaccessible from outside. But why would any sane man take out such an insurance policy and then kill himself?

Yes, I know it’s not Scottish but it has a lovely tower!!

Fortunately, brother Colin has a friend who may help – Dr. Gideon Fell! The latter arrives post-haste from London and begins his investigations. However, there is plenty more skullduggery to come before we reach, rather breathlessly in my case, a very clever and satisfying conclusion. And en route we’ll have a hint of the supernatural (of course!), a little romance, plenty of a very strong whisky known as the Doom of the Campbells, all sorts of tortuous twists and turns in the plots, as well as plenty of humour!

“Constant Suicides…” was a wonderful read, and confirmed me in my belief that Carr really is one of the greats and that any of his books will be worth picking up. Here, we were actually presented with a number of locked-room problems, all ingenious, all seemingly impossible and all solved by the great Dr. Fell. Interestingly, the War was a discreet presence in the book; some parts of the mystery hinged on a particular war-time element; but perhaps because the action took place in the Scottish highlands, it never dominated.

JDC by Howard Coster

If I had to rate this book against the other Carrs I’ve read recently, I would have to say that it doesn’t quite reach the standard of those stories. That’s not to say that this one wasn’t entirely engrossing and enjoyable, because it was – it was quite impossible to put it down. But there was perhaps a little less darkness in it than in the other two books, and there was quite a lot of slapstick humour. I enjoyed the latter too, and I did wonder if Carr lightened his tone a little as the book came out in wartime and perhaps it was thought that the public needed this kind of distraction from the darkness of real life.

These are minor quibbles, however; Carr was obviously a master of his art and it’s quite clear I shall have to read any of his books I come across. Interestingly, my BFF tells me that she has one of his Carter Dickson titles that I loaned her some time back. I actually can’t recall that at all, but I shall look forward to having it back and reading it at some point in the future! :)))

 

Rapturous – and just a little strange… #ShinyNewBooks

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Even the most casual reader of the Ramblings would be aware of my love of all things Russian, and also of rediscovered lost works. So these two elements came together wonderfully in a book I’ve just reviewed for Shiny New Books.

The author went by the pseudonym Iliazd, and was an émigré writer who made an alternative career for himself in design. “Rapture” is an early, experimental novel which has just been translated into English for the first time and it’s a fascinating, if odd, read. My full review is here on Shiny New Books – do take a look!

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”? 🙂

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?

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