Books Read: War & Peace

Well, I’ve done it. I finally (five and a half months later) finished Tolstoy’s epic tale.

I’ve discovered that while I enjoy Russian literature, I can really only read in small-ish chunks at a time because I find it all a bit exhausting. Everything is so epic! So overblown! So many feeeeelings!

This is a big story taking place during the Napoleonic wars. It bounces between “war” sections in the fighting and “peace” sections in society.

Tolstoy’s war sections focus on soldiers, their feelings at the moment, the larger movements of campaigns, and Tolstoy’s own theories of war and how history (mis)represents them, and a few main characters in particular.

The “peace” sections focus primarily on three families: the Bezukhovs, the Bolkonskys, and the Rostovs, though members of these families all fight in the war as well.

What can I say about this book that has not already been said, and more eloquently? I did really enjoy falling into the story, and the characters were well-drawn and engrossing. It moved more quickly than I anticipated, opening at a party without preamble.

Some war sections were a bit of a slog for me, but overall it’s pretty well paced. It’s just a LOT of book.

Three tips if you decide (which you definitely should!) to read this book:

1. Have a list of characters and their nicknames handy. The version I read had a list at the front, which I copied and had next to me when I read. Everyone has their given name, at least a couple of nicknames, and there are MULTIPLE CHARACTERS NAMED NIKOLAI! So it’s good to have a reference.

2. Settle in. I recommend you start reading in the winter–it just feels more appropriate to the setting (you too can pretend you’re the French army freezing to death as you try to retreat out of Russia in 1812!). Just let yourself sink into this story, into the characters, and hang in there for some intra-story essays on war and how history treats war.

Tolstoy has mostly story and history here, but he definitely blends some essays into this work.

3. Prepare yourself for some French, which in my version, Pevear & Volokhonsky (the translators) translated in the footnotes. The aristocrats speak a lot of French in society, though as the war progresses the amount of French decreases. On the one hand, it’s a little annoying to have to read the footnotes to understand everything, but on the other, it makes it clear when someone is speaking French and when they’re speaking Russian. I don’t know how they would have achieved this if they’d just translated everything into English.

I hope you read this book, and when you do (or if you already have), please come find me and talk about it! It’s a daunting book to pick up because of its length and reputation, but I found it much more readable than I feared. I haven’t read any other versions, obviously, but I recommend this translation by Pevear & Volokhonsky–there was nothing choppy about the style of writing, it all flowed smoothly, which I appreciated. I’ve read other translated works where I’m sure I missed some of the beauty of the language because while the sense was translated, the prose felt stilted. None of that was present here, making it easy to immerse myself in the world of Natasha’s singing, Pierre’s muddled philosophizing, Andrei’s moodiness, Nikolai’s excitement being with his fellow soldiers….

When people say this book is about everything, they aren’t wrong.

★ ★ ★ ★

Books Read: Mary Barton

Since I had read North & South, Wives & Daughters, and Cranford (sadly, there’s no “and” in that title) I decided it was time to tackle Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton.

While the title gives the impression that the story will mostly be about the titular girl, and the book is partially centered around her, this is a book that deals more with class divide in the manufacturing town of Manchester, UK in the mid-nineteenth century.

Mary is the daughter of a working-class man, and the book focuses a good bit in the first half on her father, John,  with his depression over the lot of the workman and the difference between the wealthy factory owners and their employees.

Gaskell describes the incredible poverty of the factory workers and the horror of their living conditions, their constant hunger, and the high mortality rate. She also focuses on the Bartons and another family, the Wilsons, and the way that these poor band together to survive.

The second half of the book takes a turn which I don’t want to spoil — while it still is about Mary and her family and her father’s trade union, she becomes involved in a scandal which occupies most of the rest of the book.

I enjoyed this first book of Gaskell’s, though I think she definitely improved with her later novels. Apparently she wrote this novel after the death of her infant son, and I can certainly see echoes of this grief in the mouths and actions of parents in this book, trying desperately to keep their children alive, and often not succeeding.

Overall I found it worthwhile, and I enjoyed the audio version narrated by Juliet Stevenson, who gave a wonderful warmth to the narration.

★ ★ ★

Mansfield Park

golden light park benchMansfield Park seems to be one of the more contentious Jane Austen works. It feels more serious, and the heroine is much less “fun” than many Austen heroines.

Fanny Price is quiet, shy, and almost unbelievably good. Fanny is physically weak, and her position is one of dependence on the whims of her rich relations. Because she is so subdued, she is many readers’ least-favorite of Austen’s heroines. She doesn’t have the sparkle and athleticism of Elizabeth Bennet, nor the brashness of Emma, nor the naivete of Catherine Morland. She’s closest to Anne Eliot in temperament, but Anne is older and her reticence isn’t due to shyness.

Here’s a brief synopsis of the story if you need such a thing:

Fanny Price is brought to live (at age 10) with her richer relations, the Bertrams, at Mansfield Park. Initially she has a difficult time adjusting to her new surroundings and her livelier cousins, and as she is highly sensitive and meek, she’s easily overlooked by almost everyone. Her cousin Edmund is the one exception to this.

The action mostly takes place when Fanny is 18 and the lively, worldly Crawfords (eligible brother and sister Henry and Mary) come to the neighborhood and shake things up. There are love triangles, questionable theatricals, and Fanny harbors a secret crush….

The back of my copy starts off by saying “Adultery is not a theme Austen usually explores…” which made me think the book was all about adultery, so the first time I read it I was waiting for that shoe to drop. I waited most of the book, and probably missed a lot .

Austen’s descriptions of people bring them to life, as always, and on this re-reading the minor villain Aunt Norris really stood out to me in the subtle ways she tried to manipulate everyone around her, putting Fanny down, seeking to live off her sister’s wealth as much as possible, and making a martyr of herself to achieve her ends. All her scheming doesn’t make her happy, of course, but it doesn’t stop her from trying.

While this isn’t my favorite of Austen’s works, I think I understand and sympathize more with Fanny than I did when I was a teenager, being shy myself. I do also wonder how it might have helped Fanny if she’d ended up with a better version of Henry Crawford–someone unlike her who might have livened her up a bit, but I didn’t actually want her to end up with Henry, as I think in the end he would have broken Fanny’s heart, and Austen wants to reward her heroines with stable marriages.

Note: I read this in the fall of 2018 but lost the blog post in draft purgatory for a while. 

★ ★ ★

Photo by Simon Wilkes on Unsplash

Peril at End House

I started this post a long time ago and then got busy and didn’t finish until now. Sorry for the back log!

It felt appropriate to kick off October with a mystery, and who better to read than the Queen of mystery herself: Agatha Christie!

I listened to this as a palate cleanser after listening to 30 hours and 34 minutes of Nicholas Nickleby.

In this story, Captain Hastings and his detective friend Hercule Poirot are vacationing and meet a young woman who has had some strange accidents–narrow escapes but is DEFINITELY FINE AND NO ONE IS TRYING TO MURDER HER. Poirot, of course, is intrigued and feels she is in danger, so they investigate to try to stop the murderer before she or he succeeds in killing their young friend.

But a few days later someone does die; not their friend, but her cousin, and Poirot must find the killer before they strike again.

Things are, of course, not all that they seem, and only Poirot can untangle the evidence and motivations of the cast of characters.

I’d put this in the middle of Agatha Christie mysteries: not every book can be Murder on the Orient Express, but this wasn’t a clunker either. It was entertaining, and if you’re looking for a good Audible listen, I’d recommend the Christie mysteries with either Hugh Fraser or David Suchet as narrator. They played Hastings and Poirot respectively in the great BBC adaptation of Poirot mysteries, and do an excellent job narrating these stories.

★ ★ ★

Nicholas Nickleby

iron gate flowersI haven’t read a lot of Dickens (don’t tell my Mom, but I didn’t make it all the way through Great Expectations in high school; skimming was involved), but I’m tackling him this fall. Now that I think of it, I should have started with The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (which is next on my list), as that was Dickens’ first novel, but instead I started with number three, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby.

Overall, I enjoyed my foray into Dickens. His stories are a little sprawling, with many characters, which means that if you tire of a couple characters, there are plenty more to keep you entertained.

The story centers around the titular Nicholas, a young man who, after the death of his father, is left to support his mother and sister. The family travels to London to seek work and assistance from the deceased’s brother, Ralph. Ralph turns out to be, of course, unhelpful and takes an instant dislike to Nicholas, possibly because he’s too perfect.

The novel was first published as a monthly serial, and I can certainly see that structure, especially in the beginning, with chapters being somewhat self-contained (while still furthering the overall story).

The chapters bounce between Nicholas’s adventures with the evil schoolmaster Squeers, then his brief return to London, his travels with the Crummles acting troupe, and finally his position with the Cheeryble brothers. Alternate chapters follow Nicholas’s sister, Kate, and her misadventures in London, and some chapters follow the wicked Ralph and his schemes.

Nicholas as a character is almost too perfect (his main flaws seem to be that he’s a little impetuous and has a temper), and poor Kate is also mostly angelic. I loved Mrs. Nickleby as a weak-willed character who is easily drawn into telling long boring stories and who thinks she’s a shrewd judge of character (spoiler: she’s not). There are some great secondary characters too, who I think would be really fun to play in a stage or screen version.

It feels like Dickens had more fun coming up with the side characters, and I have to say, the female characters don’t come off too well, as there’s a lot of fainting and weeping. What’s the deal with women fainting? I’m hoping in later Dickens novels to read fewer fainting scenes, but I guess we’ll see.

There were also some great comic moments, such as the letter from Fanny Squeers to Ralph Nickleby:

“Sir,

“My pa requests me to write to you. The doctors considering it doubtful whether he will ever recuvver the use of his legs which prevents his holding a pen.”

Excellent. Fanny Squeers in general is a pretty hilarious character.

Overall, I enjoyed the story, especially as it gathered steam near the end and everything came together. It took a little while to really get into it, and many chapters begin with a long descriptive passage that doesn’t seem 100% necessary, but I see why Dickens was popular. I can’t imagine having to wait a month to read the next chapter, so I’m glad I could do the equivalent of a series binge for this story.

As with many Dickens stories, there are a couple movie/ miniseries versions. I’ve seen the 2002 movie, which I like (mostly). Charlie Hunnam seems a weird choice for Nicholas, and I don’t think he’s too convincing, but many of the other characters seem to be completely enjoying their roles and do a great job. Jamie Bell is great as Smike, and Christopher Plummer is an excellent choice for the crafty Ralph.

Apparently there’s a 2001 miniseries with James D’Arcy as Nicholas?? I can’t really imagine him as Nicholas either, though I haven’t seen that version, so I’m not sure. Maybe this means it’s time for an updated version (ahem, BBC)!

★ ★ ★

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash