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Tackling Tolstoy… again! @almaclassics

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You would think, wouldn’t you, that after my last run-in with Tolstoy over “The Kreutzer Sonata” I would want to give a little time and space before returning to his work. However, I have been determined to read more of his shorter works (although they’re not really anthologised in a logical way) and in particular to finish the collection Mr. Kaggsy gave me, as well as two pretty review copies from the lovely people at Alma Classics. And here is a picture of what is going to feature in this post:

I was reading some of these whilst suffering with a major sinus infection, so perhaps they weren’t the most obvious choice. Nevertheless I enjoyed these a lot more than Kreutzer (although they aren’t without their problems); and frankly, as I commented on Twitter, *any* Tolstoy other than Kreutzer is going to be a doddle.

I’m going to tackle “The Forged Coupon” first, as it kind of stands to one side in its subject matter and is an intriguing piece of Tolstoy’s short work. Published in 1911, after the author’s death, it was actually written in the period of 1880 to 1904 – so quite a long time for a short book. Structurally, and in its content, it’s in some ways unlike anything else I’ve read by the author, as it tackles a kind of butterfly effect of events that are all triggered by a young student falsifying a bank bond (the coupon of the title) and cashing it in. This has a catastrophic knock-on effect, as we follow a chain reaction which impacts on any number of peasants who lose jobs, turn to crime, commit murders and in many cases end up jail – all because of one seemingly small crime. The narrative is economic and cleverly follows each person affected, showing how their lives intertwine and are disrupted by the one immoral act. The book is split into two parts, and the second (shorter) of these two shows some of the protagonists in prison, attempting to come to terms with their crimes and in many cases finding God.

The story does, of course, have a didactic point as by this time in his life Tolstoy was limbering up to be the towering moralist he eventually became. But despite this, the book is entertaining and clever, showing how our lives *do* intertwine and how what we do affects others. There isn’t the hysteria directed at women in some of his other works, there is dry humour and the book is more Dostoevksian or Gogolian in its effect than what you might describe as typically Tolstoyan. I can’t quite explain that any more than to say that at points I felt as if I was reading Dostoevsky and not Tolstoy!

While lying in the ditch, Stepan could see continually before him the meek, thin, frightened face of Marya Semyonovna and hear her words – “You can’t do that “– in her own peculiar, lisping, piteous voice. And again Stepan would go through all he had done to her. And he would become terrified and close his eyes, and rock his hairy head to shake these thoughts and memories out of it. And for a moment he would be free of the memories, but in their place would come to him first one, then a second black figure, and after the second would follow still more black figures with red eyes, pulling faces and all saying the same thing: “You did away with her – do away with yourself as well, or else we’ll give you no rest. “And he would open his eyes, and again he could see her and hear her voice, and he would start feeling pity for her, and revulsion and terror at himself. And again he would close his eyes, and again… the black figures.

“The Forged Coupon” is published by Alma, and so has all the nice extras that so often come with their books (photographs, supporting material, notes). It’s translated and introduced by Hugh Aplin (whose work I always find reliable), and so this one is definitely recommended as a great way to read Tolstoy’s shorter works and see where his thinking was going later in life.

The other two Tolstoy works I tackled actually feature in two volumes, and there’s a reason for that…. The last story in the Wordsworth Classics collection is “The Devil”, and this is also one of the “Three Novellas” volume from Alma. However, the Wordworth has the title character as Eugene, whereas the Alma has him as Yevgeny. Pedant that I am, I am very uncomfortable with a Russian called Eugene (I had the same problem with character name translation during “War and Peace” – Andrey as Andrew!); so I switched to reading the Alma version, and was very happy with the translations featured here by Kyril Zinovieff (“A Landowner’s Morning”) and April FitzLyon (“The Devil”). The third story, “Family Happiness”, is one I’ve already covered here.

“A Landowner’s Morning” is from 1852, so early in Tolstoy’s career and a time when serfdom in Russia had not yet been abolished. And indeed, the plight of the serfs is the subject of the story, with the central young landowner (based apparently on the author himself) doing the rounds of many of his peasants to see about helping, educating and improving them and their lot. Alas, it doesn’t quite work out for young Nekhylyudov, who meets obstacles wherever he goes, and it seems the serfs do not want his help but only to be left along to go about their lives. Apparently Tolstoy was not in favour of educating the peasants, instead being of the opinion that all they needed was to be kept in thrall and given a bit more help. As serfdom was basically slavery, that’s not a comfortable message… 😦

The final story I’m going to write about here is a very different kind of work: “The Devil” was again published in 1911 and belongs to the later period of works like Kreutzer. And once again, Tolstoy draws on his life for his fiction, telling the story of a young landowner who takes over the family estate to try to rebuild it and save it from financial collapse. Yevgeny has his *needs* (i.e. he has a sex drive); and it’s harder to satisfy these needs out in the country where everything is more noticeable. An enforced period of continence sends him a bit crazy, so he arranges for a local peasant woman, Stepanida, to be sent to him. The latter is willing, and their meetings become more of a liaison, although the impression is that Stepanida is not desperately bothered, although Yevgeny is well and truly hooked. However, he needs to marry and settle down, and does so to the pale and beautiful Liza who brings money to the marriage. Liza is a lot more fragile than a peasant woman; she loses their first child, and the second is touch and go. However, Stepanida is still there in the background and when their paths cross, she still exerts a strong and magetic force which Yevgeny seems unable to resist. Tolstoy gives two alternative endings, neither of which I would have chosen – and it seems he is *still* struggling to cope with the concept of the animal passions…

Although “The Devil” is much less inflammatory than Kreutzer, it still has its problems. The devil of the title is Stepanida, and she’s portrayed as a constant temptation. Well, excuse me, but I think it takes two to tango, and if Yevgeny can’t control himself it’s his problem and not Stepanida’s. We are supposed to sympathise with the poor man, a slave to his urges, entrapped by a woman and unable to break free. Oh really – so it’s all the woman’s fault, is it? (sounds like victim blaming if I ever heard it…) The women in “The Devils unfortunately exemplify that old ‘Madonna/Whore’ cliche – apparently we all have to be either amoral, highly sexed and healthy like Stepanida or pale, frail and spiritual like Liza – there’s no middle ground. This is of course ridiculous…

It’s difficult for me, morally bruised as I am by Kreutzer, to approach Tolstoy’s shorter works entirely objectively; perhaps shouldn’t be reading these with such a sharp feminist eye, but if he’s going to come the moral high horse I don’t see there’s an alternative. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy these works, because I did – the writing was evocative and interesting, and he conjured up rural Russian quite brilliantly. The difficulty is that he so often lets the moraliser in him become more important than the storyteller, which is a shame, because when you’re reading a book with the epic sweep of “War and Peace” or “Anna Karenina” the story takes centre stage and that’s how it should be.

Nevertheless, this *was* a particularly fascinating selection of stories to read and think about. I’ve previous read other shorts by Tolstoy (he was one of the Penguin Little Black Classics) and part of me really wishes there was some kind of collected Tolstoy in English – perhaps volumes with all of his non-fiction works and one with his short stories in some kind of chronological order (the pedant in me is winning out here). Despite my problems and caveats, he *is* an important writer and I still have some of the longer works unread. I reckon, however, I *will* need to be morally strong and tolerant when I tackle even more Tolstoy! ;D

Many thanks to Alma Classics for providing review copies of “The Forged Coupon” and “Three Novellas” – much appreciated!

Tolstoy gets worked up (and not in a good way)… :(

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When it comes to Russian literature, there’s often a Tolstoy v. Dostoevsky split, and despite having read quite a bit of the former, I always come down in favour of the latter. However, as I’ve read both Tolstoy’s epic big works, I’ve been trying to make my way through some of his shorter works, though it’s a little while since I got to any. However, I was reminded recently of this little volume of four collected works that Mr. Kaggsy gifted me some time ago:

I’ve read the first two stories, “Family Happiness” and “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” and found them both interesting, although I could see Tolstoy’s rather troubling views about marriage forming. However, I confess to having stalled at the third story in the book – “The Kreutzer Sonata“. I tried to read this some years back (possibly pre-blog) and I abandoned it after a few pages – the extreme anti-women spouting of the main character was just too much for me. However, I’m pretty sure this was before I read “Anna Karenina” and “War and Peace”, so I determined to be strong and give it another go. I rather wish, however, that I hadn’t….

“The Kreutzer Sonata” is a later work by Tolstoy, and the introduction to my edition describes it as controversial; it’s not hard to see why. Set during a train journey, the narrator encounters a fellow passenger who turns out to have murdered his wife, and this man tells his story to the narrator. It’s not a pretty one, laced as it is with misogyny, guilt, obsession, jealousy, lust and moral rantings. It’s uncomfortable reading at the best of times, particular as a woman, and this is made worse with knowledge of Tolstoy’s behaviour to his long-suffering wife and the fact that some of the nastier elements in the story are drawn from the author’s life.

I guess it’s worth remembering that later in his life Tolstoy had become a bit of a religious fanatic, and this informs much of the narrative. However, if the views of the husband are those of Tolstoy, they’re actually terribly worrying. One minute he’s berating men for seeing women only as sexual objects, then he’s chastising women for taking sexual pleasure, then saying women should be virgins, then saying that any act of sex is debauchery, and so on. It’s desperately contradictory and when you read the afterword where Tolstoy states his views following the release of the story, it gets worse. He *does* have a point when he goes on about the marriage market, as pre-Revolutionary Russian was notorious for this, marrying young women off to rich old men (although I’m sure just about every Western country did the same). However, he seems to believe that love between man and woman can’t and doesn’t exist, marriage is only to allow the “animal” love, and that basically everything is the woman’s fault. This is not nice, to put it mildly, and if he had such a problem with sex he should have stopped putting it about, frankly. For goodness sake, he even thinks that music is an issue!

“The Kreutzer Sonata” is a horrible book to read; a madman raving about the horror of sexual relations, about his wife being burdened by childbirth and then rediscovering some kind of pleasure in life, about his wild jealousy and his murder of his wife, and this is someone who’s supposed to be making a moral point for Tolstoy? His beliefs were obviously pretty extreme by this point (as well as contradictory), and the fact that the murderer is acquitted just reinforces the nastiness of this story. Apparently G.K. Chesterton was very critical of Tolstoy’s beliefs as reflecting that what the Russian disliked was being a man, going on to say, “You are at least next door to hating humanity, for you pity humanity because it is human”. Certainly, I think Tolstoy had problems…

Tolstoy used real instances from his life in “Kreutzer” (for example, the fact he showed his wife to be a diary of his earlier sexual activities) which kind of makes this book even worse. By the end of his life he’d obviously moved to a position of rigid fanaticism, and as someone who has no problem with the sexual act I can’t begin to get into his mindset. This really is a nasty book; I have no sympathy with Tolstoy or his characters, and I can’t imagine what his poor wife had to put up with. The book is hysterical, muddled, skewed, dismissive of sexuality (female in particular), judgemental and downright disturbing. I’ll continue to read Tolstoy, and explore more of his shorter works, but I shan’t touch this one again with a bargepole. And it’s going to be Dostoevsky for me *any* time….

“…to immerse yourself, to become possessed…” #elifbatuman #dostoevsky @bananakarenina

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The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People who Read Them by Elif Batuman

There have been any number of fascinating books arriving at the Ramblings recently, and some of the most inspired were the two lovely Valentine’s Day gifts from Mr. Kaggsy. I reviewed the first of the pair, “To the River”, here and it was a most wonderful reading experience. The second book was perhaps a surprise – a book on the Russians which I don’t already have and which looked very intriguing. So it was a given that it would come off the shelves soon – I can’t resist the Russians….

Batuman is a new author to me; a staff writer at the New Yorker since 2010, “The Possessed” was her first book and also came out that year. Since then she’s also written a novel “The Idiot” (hmmmm – I sense a theme here…) and she describes herself as “A six-foot-tall first-generation Turkish woman growing up in New Jersey”. “The Possessed” itself probably falls comfortably into that genre of what you might call ‘enhanced or themed memoir’ which seems to be so prevalent nowadays (you could perhaps put the Laing in there with it) and is none the worse for it – especially, from my point of view, when it turns out that the focus is on Batuman’s encounters with classic Russian literature and how it impacts on her. The result is a heady mix of memoir and experience with tales of how reading Russians has been a thread influencing important parts of her life – something with which I’d obviously empathise, though I don’t think mine has been quite so exciting!

Central to the book is a summer Batuman spent in Samarkand, studying the Uzbek language in the company of her then boyfriend Eric. Three chapters on their adventures are dotted throughout the book, and like all of the narrative it’s entertaining, funny and yet often very moving. Batuman’s encounters with other cultures can be quite eye-opening, and there are often near disasters as she stumbles through situations not quite knowing what to expect. In fact, the subtitle would have more accurately started with the word “Misadventures”!

Isaac Babel

Inevitably, as the book deals very much with Batuman’s experiences in the university sector, there are tales of boredom and bad temper at academic conferences and these are often hilarious; her dry humour captures the silliness and the rivalries and the tensions of these events wonderfully – although there are many uncomfortable conversations which are funny to read about but would be less so to experience… There are encounters with Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky biographer and scholar; and with Isaac Babel’s daughters at a high-profile Babel conference, an event that sounds extraordinarily stressful! Her visit to the Tolstoy Conference at his estate was fascinating, ending with some fascinating musings on Tolstoy and Chekhov; interestingly, she finds less of Chekhov’s presence in her visit to his house than she does of Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana. Dostoevsky features in the book towards the end, in perhaps a rather low-key way, given that the title is from one of his books, and there is the inevitable comparison between the two authors. Batuman is definitely a woman who prefers Tolstoy and although I’d choose Dostoevsky in the debate, I had to smile at her analysis of his style!

“Like much of Dostoevsky’s work, Demons consists primarily of scandalous revelations, punctuated by outbreaks of mass violence.”

“The Possessed” is an unusual book in many ways; choosing to define your life by your experiences in the sphere of Russian literature is not your everyday approach. But a book that discovers the connections between “King Kong” and Babel has got to be special, and Batuman is always an engaging, witty and self-deprecating narrator. As well as telling of her fascinating (mis)adventures, which are entertaining enough on their own, she brings much insight to the Russian authors she discusses. Dangerously, she gives a list of books and sources at the end which set me off researching; frustratingly, some seem to be untranslated, but the core chapters in Samarkand drew on a piece of writing by Pushkin I hadn’t encountered and have unfortunately led to me having to invest in this:

Yes, I’ve already read the “Tales of Belkin” and have at least two translations of them on the shelves; however, this collection contained the only non-P/V version I could find of his travelogue “Journey to Arzrum” and so inevitably I need to read this after the Batuman.

“The Possessed” was really a marvellous read, a wonderful mixture of funny and entertaining memoir alongside some beautiful discussions of, and insights into, many of my favourite authors. I came out of it not only even more impressed with Mr. Kaggsy’s Book Choosing Skills, but also with a very strong need to read a book that’s been languishing on my TBR for too long and which has had a number of versions of its title in translation – yes, “The Possessed” or “The Demons” or in the version I’m embarking on, “The Devils”.

698 pages…

I’m really in the mood for FMD’s revelations and mass violence, and in the immortal words of Captain Oates, I May Be Some Time….. ;D

 

A little more library love…

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That heading is a bit of a giveaway, I suppose – yes, it’s time for more pictures of books…. 🙂 Not that I suppose anybody who drops in at the Ramblings will mind, and I like to keep singing the loud praises of libraries – what would we do without them, I often ask myself.

I picked up a few titles recently, all of which have Very Good Reasons for me borrowing them.

I was bemoaning on a recent post the fact that there was so little available by Bruno Schulz. Then, whilst browsing the library catalogue, I discovered there was a Collected Works, so I of course had to have a look to see if it contained anything I hadn’t read. Well, it weighs a ton and I had to haul it round town with me… However, it has letters and artwork as well as the stories so I shall have a bit of an explore.

As for the Russians – well, Steiner’s “Tolstoy or Dostoevsky” is kind of essential for me and Steiner has been getting a lot of love on Melissa and Anthony‘s blogs, so I really needed to have a look. The Tsvetaeva is just so I could see whether any of her Mayakovsky poems have been translated into English. I suspect not, although there *is* a fragment in the Penguin Book of Russian Poetry …

Now for some Golden Age crime, courtesy of my BFF J. She’s taken to sending me books (not that I’m complaining – ta muchly!) and these three have arrived so far this year. So kind, and ones I haven’t yet read!

Aren’t they enticing?

And yet *more* GA Crime has arrived in the form of review copies from the lovely British Library in their Crime Classics range. This is another author new to me and I can’t decide which one I want to try first…

Last but not least, I confess I *did* actually pick  up a couple of books (yes, actually bought them though I’m trying not to…) The little Swiss travel book came from The Works and just sounded fun. The Pasolini was from a charity shop for £1 so it would have been rude not to. So yes, I’m definitely going to have to abandon sleeping very soon…. =:0

Books. Tomes. Publications. Texts. And a marvellous festive treat from @BL_Publishing !

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It’s the usual story on the Ramblings: despite my best intentions, books *will* keep finding their way into the house… In fairness, I have bought very few of them, and I *have* piled on the floor in one of the Offspring’s ex-bedrooms at least 100 volumes to be sold or donated or passed on to friends. So the house rafters will hopefully survive for a little longer, and in the meantime I thought I should share some book pictures – because, let’s face it, we all get vicarious pleasure from seeing other people’s book hauls!

First up, the charity shops. I should just avoid them, I suppose, but *do* pop in every week – and mostly I’m good, reminding myself that I have plenty to read at home.

However, the previous weekend I couldn’t resist another Allingham (I kind of think I might have read this once, but I can’t remember) – it sounds good and was terribly cheap! The Capote short stories is a book I haven’t come across in my second-hand book searching, and I blame Ali – she’s reviewed Capote’s short stories glowingly, and although I’ve read his longer works I haven’t read this, so I had to pick it up.

The rather large volume that is “Middlemarch” is a Bookcrossing book – they have a little selection in my local Nero, and since I always have a coffee there on a Saturday I always check the books out. I have a very old and gnarled Penguin of the book, but the type is so small that it’s off-putting – so I figured this might spur me on to read it. It’s in almost new condition with decent size type and lovely white pages (as opposed to the brown and crispy ones of my old book) so that’s a bonus!

However, the bestest find (so to speak) of recent weeks is this lovely!! I’ve written about Anthony Berkeley’s works before on the blog – I love his Golden Age fictions, as he brings such a twist to the format, and in particular the British Library Crime Classics reprint of “The Poisoned Chocolates Case” was a really outstanding addition to their range. It seems the BL are not the only ones going in for classic crime reprints (although I would say they are leading the field), as this is a Collins reprint which seems to be part of a series of ‘Detective Club’ reissues. A lovely hardback in a dustjacket, for £2 not to be sneezed at. I can see myself picking this one up very soon!

Then there are the review books…. gulp. As you can see, a few have been making their way into the Ramblings – some rather substantial and imposing ones amongst them, particularly from the lovely OUP. The hardback Russians are calling to me, particularly “Crime and Punishment”, which is long overdue a re-read. Then there’s another edition of the quirky and entertaining Stella Benson from Mike Barker.

As for the Christmas paper… well, you’ve probably picked up on social media and the like that the British Library have a rather special volume planned as their Christmas Crime Classic this year, and this is what popped through my door, beautifully wrapped.

Early Christmas present – has to be good! This will be the 50th British Library Crime Classic, and it’s being released in a hardback with special extra material. Inside, it looks rather like this:

Isn’t it beautiful? The story itself sounds wonderful enough, but the book comes with an exclusive essay on the history of Christmas crime fiction, as well as an introduction, all by the marvellous Martin Edwards. And the book itself is beautifully produced, with the usual gorgeous cover image, plus a ribbon bookmark (I *love* books with a built in bookmark). What a treat! Part of me wants to devour it straight away, and part of me wants to wait until Christmas – what torture. Thank you, British Library!

So – some fascinating incoming books, I feel, and yet more difficult decisions to be made about what to read next. At least there’s not much risk of me running out of things to read…. 😉

… 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!

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!

 

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