And by old habit he asked himself the question: ‘Well, and what then? What am I going to do?’ And he immediately gave himself the answer: ‘Well, I shall live. Ah, how splendid!’

War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy (Maudes/Mandelker translation)

Where to start? Perhaps by saying this will be a long piece and will include some lengthy quotes.

First the obvious and perhaps not so obvious. War and Peace is a historical novel about the Napoleonic wars, written from the Russian perspective. Except that’s crudely reductionist, but I have to start somewhere.  It explores Russia’s attempts to modernise, the impact of French and European culture on Russian society, and it explores the history of the period using fiction as an illustrative tool. It includes both war and peace, so it definitely lives up to the title.

Probe a little deeper and it becomes an essay on historical theory and a moral examination of how to live well in the knowledge of mortality and the uncertainty of the divine. Probe deeper, well, probe deeper and you get over a century’s academic analysis which I’ll happily leave you to. This isn’t the place for that.

For Tolstoy, the true interest of War and Peace was the implications of the history – the problem of free will and “the question of how man’s consciousness of freedom is to be reconciled with the law of necessity to which he is subject”.  For the reader, for this reader anyway, the interest is the characters. So many characters, so many of them so very memorable.

General thoughts

I just mentioned characters, and the first to appear are happily a couple of my favourites even though neither is terribly central to the narrative. Tolstoy opens with a dialogue paragraph written almost entirely in French forecasting war and comparing Napoleon to the antichrist:

Eh bien, mon prince, Génes et Lucques ne sont plus ques des apanages, des family estates de la famille Buonaparte. Non, je vous Préviens, qui si vous ne me dites pas, que nous avons la guerre, si vous vous permettez encore de pallier toutes les infamies, toutes les atrocités de cet Antichrist (ma parole, j’y crois) – je ne vous connais plus, vous n’étes pas plus my faithful slave, comme vous dites. Well how do you do? How do you do? Je vois que je vous fais peur – sit down and tell me all the news.’

It was in July 1805, and the speaker was the well-known Anna Pavlovna Scherer, maid of honour and favourite of the Empress Marya Fyodorovna. With these words she greeted Prince Vasili, a man of high rank and importance, who was the first to arrive at her reception. Anna Pavlovna had had a cough for some days. She was, as she said, suffering from la grippe; grippe being then a new word in St Petersburg, used only by the élite.

It’s a bold opening. I appreciate most contemporary readers would have spoken French, but even so to open your book with text in a foreign language takes some confidence. The conversation continues with each of Anna Pavlovna and Prince Vasili dipping in and out of French as the mood and mot juste strikes them.

What follows over the next 1,300 or so pages is society parties, family intrigues, a rather wonderful sequence involving a last-minute change of will by one of the richest men in Russia, love affairs, loveless marriages and matches of the heart, children’s games, a duel, military marches, battles, childbirth, death, Freemasonry, court politics, financial struggles, family disputes, I exhaust myself trying to catch even a fraction of it. Life is in here. All of it.

Minor subplots here could be the entire subject of another novel. That episode I mention involving the will? Here that’s a few pages with Prince Vasili discovering that a fortune he expected to be his may be left to a literal bastard upstart by name Pierre who has all the society graces of a pet pig. As relatives gather in the gloomy immensity of the dying count’s palace schemers hurry through the halls hoping to preserve or make disappear the new will presumed to be in Pierre’s favour. It’s probably my favourite moment of the entire book, but here it’s a minor incident included primarily to set up Pierre’s situation for later in the novel.

By my count there’s approximately five major characters in War and Peace: the rather Darcy-esque Prince Andrei and his virtuous and much put-upon sister Masha; the delightful young Natasha Rostov and her brother the dashing young Nikolai Rostov; and naive but ever-enthusiastic Pierre. None of them are overly nuanced, this is a novel of broad sweep rather than fine detail, but they’re all pleasant to spend time with.

Around each of these characters is a bevy of relatives and close associates. The major characters often have to bear the brunt of carrying the novel’s ideas, particularly Prince Andrei and Pierre, but the minor ones are free of that and perhaps in consequence much of what I liked best was characters who actually weren’t that important to the wider story.

Prince Andrei’s and Princess Marya’s father, Prince Bolkonsky is one example. He’s an irascible but still energetic old man with a routine so fixed that at any moment of the day he can be certain precisely what he’s due to do. He’s argumentative and proud and sometimes cruel and just rather wonderfully drawn. It’s a slight stretch to say that he isn’t important to the wider story as he actually comes up a fair bit, but he’s certainly not a central figure.

Perhaps a better example is Berg, a friend of the Rostov family who becomes an army officer and pops up in the narrative from time to time. He’s an incredibly self-absorbed man interested in nothing beyond himself and convinced that everyone else is equally interested, but good natured with it so that nobody ever particularly holds it against him. I loved Berg, he’s terribly funny, and a tremendous little character portrait as is his eventual wife Vera Rostova ((Nikolai’s older sister) who though pretty and clever is somehow unlikeable in a way never quite easy to pin down.

Tolstoy is simply brilliant at these miniature portraits (some not so miniature, Prince Bolkonsky gets enough space to fill a decent novella but in the context of W&P he’s still very much a supporting role). When the book’s at its best it hums with life because they’re all so distinct. There’s a point here – this isn’t a realistic novel because realistically all these people wouldn’t be so clearly distinguishable. It’s art, and Tolstoy helps his reader navigate the fiction by making sure nobody fades into the background save precisely when he wants them to.

Tolstoy helps the reader. Russian doesn’t. You may have wondered who that Princess Marya was I mentioned a few paragraphs back. She’s the same person as the Masha I mentioned. Worse, both Nikolai Rostov and his father Ilya Rostov are counts and while the book sometimes refers to the old count to make it clear who’s being discussed there were times it simply referred to Count Rostov and left you to try to work out from context which one it was.

Russians love nicknames and almost everyone has a title, the result being that it’s quite easy to be reading a scene only suddenly to realise that what you thought was the young count is actually the old count or worse (and this happened to me once) that Platón and Karatáev are actually the same person (Tolstoy didn’t actually help there, as while the character had been introduced originally as Platón Karatáev there’s a section a 100 pages or so later where Tolstoy alternately refers in the same paragraphs to Platón and then to Karatáev creating a very real impression that they’re different people).

Bookmark the sensibly provided guide to characters at the front of the book. You’ll be referring to it often.

Peace

The book opens with peace and I’ve already included an apposite quote above. If you’ve read any fiction depicting the landed gentry and aristocracy pretty much anywhere in the 19th or pre-WW1 20th Century then you know what to expect – balls, dinner parties, salons, money and beauty and wit as the criteria of worth. As ever, inheriting wealth makes up for any number of social flaws and marriage remains the only reliable route out of poverty even for well-born women.

Position, maintaining it and improving it, is the chief focus for society people. As is common in 19th Century fiction for most the spectre of ruin is never that far away. A bad run at cards, a tendency not to keep track of how much you’re spending on carriages and grand hunts, and before you know it you could find yourself little more than a well-dressed beggar dependent on charity. The aged Princess Anna Mikhailovna is an example of what can happen – her financial capital long since exhausted and her social capital evaporating with it, she spends her days lurking in corridors asking favours from the powerful on behalf of her son Boris.

Proximity to the court means proximity to power and route to promotion. Prince Vasili takes pity on poor Anna Mikhailovna and sees that her son gets appointed to the prestigious Guards’ regiment. Boris becomes an adjutant, begins to mix with generals and before long his career is soaring. All it took was that proximity his mother had lost.

As some rise, others fall. The old count Rostov has no head for money and as the book progresses the Rostov family’s finances become steadily worse. If the young count marries an heiress they’ll be saved, but marrying for money is dishonourable and he’s promised himself to a gently-born but poor girl who’s herself already dependent on the family. His honour could ruin his family.

I love this kind of material. In one chilling scene a supposed friend (the calculatedly cruel Dolokhov, another of Tolstoy’s masterful minor character portraits) systematically destroys young Nikolai Rostov leaving him with a debt he can never repay. That leaves Rostov a choice between suicide and borrowing from his father, all as the family sinks ever further into debt.

Dolokhov manipulates men into duels knowing that with his icy calm he will almost certainly win, so killing men for no reason other than his own entertainment. He gets bumped down to the ranks but his courage in combat quickly sees him promoted again. He’s a tiger where young Rostov is a loyal and friendly borzoi. Peace isn’t necessarily safer than war.

Masha is kept from marriage by her loyalty to her father and desire not to abandon him, and anyway by his seclusion which prevents her meeting any marriageable men.  She is desperate and lonely, taking solace in charity and religion and denied any chance to participate in wider society.

Natasha by contrast is a society natural: beautiful, vivacious, a marvellous dancer and fine singer. Tolstoy does for her in the epilogue suddenly transforming her character into a homebody to make a rather dubious point about women’s empowerment and why they don’t need it, but until then she’s one of the most likable characters in the book.

Pierre meanwhile becomes involved with the Freemasons, seeking after a meaning to life he’d already tried and failed to find in politics. From there his adventures in philosophy continue as he bumbles along trying to free his serfs (never realising he didn’t actually manage to do so) and to do good in the world. Young Rostov rarely thinks; Pierre does little else. Neither approach makes much difference to the world which is too large to be moved by any one man (one of Tolstoy’s key themes in fact).

Tolstoy is marvellous too at social undercurrents. One of the book’s funniest scenes takes place when Natasha goes to her first opera. She understands nothing:

THE floor of the stage consisted of smooth boards, at the sides was some painted cardboard representing trees, and at the back was a cloth stretched over boards. In the centre of the stage sat some girls in red bodices and white skirts. One very fat girl in a white silk dress sat apart on a low bench, to the back of which a piece of green cardboard was glued. They all sang something. When they had finished their song the girl in white went up to the prompter’s box, and a man with tight silk trousers over his stout legs, and holding a plume and a dagger, went up to her and began singing, waving his arms about.

First the man in the tight trousers sang alone, then she sang, then they both paused while the orchestra played and the man fingered the hand of the girl in white, obviously awaiting the beat to start singing with her. They sang together and everyone in the theatre began clapping and shouting, while the man and woman on the stage—who represented lovers—began smiling, spreading out their arms, and bowing.

While the comedy continues Tolstoy reintroduces Anatole Kuragin, a handsome seducer seen earlier in the book. Natasha has never encountered anyone like him before, has no idea of the danger he represents. She’s defenceless, and as reader I found myself laughing at her reaction to the opera while at the same time fearing for Natasha when faced with such a practiced gallant. Here he makes his entrance:

He was now in an adjutant’s uniform with one epaulette and a shoulder-knot. He moved with a restrained swagger which would have been ridiculous had he not been so good-looking and had his handsome face not worn such an expression of good-humoured complacency and gaiety.

Though the performance was proceeding, he walked deliberately down the carpeted gangway, his sword and spurs slightly jingling and his handsome perfumed head held high.

Whose head wouldn’t be turned? As I said above, sometimes peace is more dangerous than war. Tolstoy is ever alive to the parallels between the two – Karagin mounting his campaign on Natasha’s defences as Bonaparte does on Russia’s.

War

What is it good for? Well, to be fair to Tolstoy it’s good for some of the most thrilling battle scenes I’ve read in fiction. Later in the book the war sections become pretty awful as Tolstoy increasingly just lectures the reader directly on his theories, but before then they are at times quite staggeringly good. The following is one of my favourite scenes from the book (though still behind the shenanigans with the disputed will I mentioned earlier). The he in this passage is young Nikolai Rostov who is carrying a dispatch:

He was riding almost along the front line. A handful of men came galloping towards him. They were our Uhlans who with disordered ranks were returning from the attack. Rostov got out of their way, involuntarily noticed that one of them was bleeding, and galloped on.

‘That is no business of mine,’ he thought. He had not ridden many hundred yards after that before he saw to his left, across the whole width of the field, an enormous mass of cavalry in brilliant white uniforms, mounted on black horses, trotting straight towards him and across his path. Rostov put his horse to full gallop to get out of the way of these men, and he would have got clear had they continued at the same speed, but they kept increasing their pace, so that some of the horses were already galloping. Rostov heard the thud of their hoofs and the jingle of their weapons and saw their horses, their figures, and even their faces, more and more distinctly. They were our Horse Guards, advancing to attack the French cavalry that was coming to meet them.

The Horse Guards were galloping, but still holding in their horses. Rostov could already see their faces and heard the command: ‘Charge!’ shouted by an officer who was urging his thoroughbred to full speed. Rostov fearing to be crushed or swept into the attack on the French, galloped along the front as hard as his horse could go, but still was not in time to avoid them.

The last of the Horse Guards, a huge pock-marked fellow, frowned angrily on seeing Rostov before him, with whom he would inevitably collide. This Guardsman would certainly have bowled Rostov and his Bedouin over (Rostov felt himself quite tiny and weak compared to these gigantic men and horses) had it not occurred to Rostov to flourish his whip before the eyes of the Guardsman’s horse. The heavy black horse, sixteen hands high, shied, throwing back its ears; but the pock-marked Guardsman drove his huge spurs in violently, and the horse flourishing its tail and extending its neck, galloped on yet faster. Hardly had the Horse Guards passed Rostov before he heard them shout, ‘Hurrah!’ and looking back saw that their foremost ranks were mixed up with some foreign cavalry with red epaulettes, probably French. He could see nothing more, for immediately afterwards cannon began firing from somewhere and smoke enveloped everything.

Phew! I’ve rarely read something more cinematic. Tolstoy had seen action himself and it shows. War here is messy, bloody, and above all confusing. Situation updates arrive at headquarters too late to be actioned; orders reach the front long after they’ve become irrelevant to a changed situation. Smoke clouds the field and men advancing to what they think is a safe position find themselves suddenly in battle while others fail to see the enemy all day.

Rostov and Prince Andrei both go to their first battle filled with dreams of glory, as later do other characters. Rostov finds it without doing very much of anything. Prince Andrei leads a charge and captures an enemy standard but nobody of consequence particularly notices. Everywhere is chaos and the cost paid for these bits of captured cloth is horrific.

Two more (I’m afraid lengthy) quotes now to illustrate. The first is from a Russian retreat which goes wrong as the soldiers find themselves logjammed as they seek to flee enemy guns:

The general on horseback at the entrance to the dam, raised his hand and opened his mouth to address Dolokhov. Suddenly a cannon-ball hissed so low above the crowd that everyone ducked. It flopped into something moist, and the general fell from his horse in a pool of blood. Nobody gave him a look or thought of raising him.

‘Get onto the ice, over the ice! Go on! Turn! Don’t you hear? Go on!’ innumerable voices suddenly shouted after the ball had struck the general, the men themselves not knowing what, or why, they were shouting.

One of the hindmost guns that was going onto the dam turned off onto the ice. Crowds of soldiers from the dam began running onto the frozen pond. The ice gave way under one of the foremost soldiers, and one leg slipped into the water. He tried to right himself but fell in up to his waist. The nearest soldiers shrank back, the gun-driver stopped his horse, but from behind still came the shouts: ‘Onto the ice, why do you stop? Go on! Go on!’ And cries of horror were heard in the crowd. The soldiers near the gun waved their arms and beat the horses to make them turn and move on. The horses moved off the bank. The ice, that had held under those on foot, collapsed in a great mass, and some forty men who were on it dashed, some forwards and some back, drowning one another.

In this second quote a regiment has been told to hold its ground in case needed, neither advancing nor retreating. They are under direct enemy fire, but cannot move in case needed, which they never are.

Without moving from that spot or firing a single shot the regiment here lost another third of its men. From in front and especially from the right, in the unlifting smoke the guns boomed, and out of the mysterious domain of smoke that overlay the whole space in front, quick hissing cannon-balls and slow whistling shells flew unceasingly. At times, as if to allow them a respite, a quarter of an hour passed during which the cannon-balls and shells all flew overhead, but sometimes several men were torn from the regiment in a minute, and the slain were continually being dragged away and the wounded carried off.

With each fresh blow less and less chance of life remained for those not yet killed. The regiment stood in columns of battalion three hundred paces apart, but nevertheless the men were always in one and the same mood. All alike were taciturn and morose. Talk was rarely heard in the ranks, and it ceased altogether every time the thud of a successful shot and the cry of ‘stretchers!’ was heard. Most of the time, by their officers’ order, the men sat on the ground. One, having taken off his shako carefully loosened the gathers of its lining and drew them tight again; another, rubbing some dry clay between his palms, polished his bayonet; another fingered the strap and pulled the buckle of his bandolier, while another smoothed and refolded his leg-bands and put his boots on again. Some built little houses of the tufts in the ploughed ground, or plaited baskets from the straw in the cornfield. All seemed fully absorbed in these pursuits.

I enjoyed the peace more than the war but that’s simply a question of personal interest. Tolstoy writes exceptional military fiction when he turns his hand to it.

Sadly in the last fifth of the book war increasingly squeezes out peace and Tolstoy increasingly comes to prefer directly addressing the reader to scenes of the sort above. It’s fair to say that War and Peace sags badly in the final section and for me became something of a chore to read until, gratefully and wearily, I reached the first epilogue where it mercifully (but only partly) recovered. This is a book you read very much for the journey rather than the destination.

The wolf hunt

Tolstoy brings war and peace together in a central chapter the importance of which initially escaped me. The Rostovs go on a winter wolf hunt, a vast affair featuring hundreds of dogs, scores of men (and Natasha), horses and carriages and significant expense. I couldn’t select a single quote from this section as the density of description increases dramatically, Tolstoy really taking you into the hunt.

It’s a well-described episode and everything about it rings true, but while reading it I did rather wonder why it was there since it’s lengthy even by War and Peace standards and didn’t seem to add much to what I already knew about the characters. Later, however, as Bonaparte’s fortunes turn the parallels become evident.

In peace the men prepare for war in part by riding to hunt, organising themselves to ensure their prey does not elude them and commanding packs of dogs as in battle they’ll command their men. In war the defeated Bonaparte seeks to outrun the Russians harrying him back from Moscow as packs of partisans harry and diminish his forces.

A battlefield and a ball have this in common – they are both social constructs, created by people with gains to be made and losses hopefully to be avoided. A battle may yield a captured standard, the notice of a general or prince, promotion and favour; a ball may yield a marriage, praise for a clever quip, an introduction to those of higher station.

The parallels are not of course exact. Few people die at balls. But then, few of the adjutants and hangers-on at the front die either. Princess Anna Mikhailovna’s son Boris doesn’t make the progress he does by riding into enemy fire but by running errands for generals.

Serfdom

The wolf hunt brings out one other parallel which struck me, and perhaps a less appealing one. The hunters have their packs of borzoi, among which typically are a few dogs of particular note and value.

Similarly each of the characters has their serfs, sometimes thousands or even tens of thousands of them. In the main serfs are an asset, an undifferentiated mass from which you generate revenue. Some serfs however have unusual talents, such as Taras for whom the Rostovs paid a thousand rubles due to his gift for cookery. For that they could have purchased eight to ten ordinary serfs, but his talents enhance their dinner parties and so he is worth the cost.

Serfs are, in short, slaves. They are property, bought and sold. Sometimes the characters are fond of particular named serfs, but in the same way they are fond of particular named dogs. It doesn’t mean they see them as people.

Society was as it was and it’s pointless now to condemn fictional characters for quite ordinary behaviour in their setting. However, the writing does occasionally fall into the slightly uncomfortable trap of showing smiling serfs (slaves) looking adoringly on at their masters without any sense of their having their own interiority. Tolstoy gets people, but it’s not entirely clear here that he gets the serfs as being people in the same way the other characters are. A couple of examples:

As soon as the provocatively gay strains of Daniel Cooper (somewhat resembling those of a merry folk dance) began to sound, all the doorways of the ballroom were suddenly filled by the domestic serfs—the men on one side and the women on the other—who with beaming faces had come to see their master making merry.

His means increased rapidly: serfs from neighbouring estates came to beg him to buy them, and long after his death the memory of his administration was devoutly preserved among the serfs. ‘Now that was a master … the peasants’ affairs first and then his own. But he never gave in to us—in a word, he was a real master!’

It’s not really a flaw because this isn’t a book about the serfs and none of the characters would ever give them much consideration (save Prince Andrei, who quietly and efficiently frees his without fuss). It would ultimately be odd if Tolstoy had a serf with the agency of a Pierre or Natasha. However, the parallels between dogs and serfs did help explain why fifty years after this book was first published the system it portrays was so decisively destroyed.

History

Finally, from a minor criticism to a major one. The history. I’ve already mentioned it more than once, but it is deathly. Initially it’s the odd aside, but near the end of the book it’s page after page after page of tedious historical argument generally made against unnamed “historians” with whom Tolstoy has some pedantic point to prove. Here’s an example:

THIS campaign consisted in a flight of the French during which they did all they could to destroy themselves. From the time they turned onto the Kaluga road to the day their leader fled from the army, none of the movements of the crowd had any sense. So one might have thought that of this period of the campaign the historians, who attribute the actions of the mass to the will of one man, would have found it impossible to make the story of the retreat fit their theory. But no! Mountains of books have been written by the historians about this campaign, and everywhere Napoleon’s arrangements are described, the manoeuvres, and his profound plans which guided the army, as well as the military genius shown by his marshals.

The retreat from Malo-Yaroslavets when he had a free road into a well-supplied district and the parallel road was open to him along which Kutuzov afterwards pursued him—this unnecessary retreat along a devastated road—is explained to us as being due to profound considerations. Similarly profound considerations are given for his retreat from Smolensk to Orsha. Then his heroism at Krasnoe is described, where he is reported to have been prepared to accept battle and take personal command and to have walked about with a birch stick and said:

‘J’ai assez fait l’empereur; il est temps de faire le général,’1 but nevertheless immediately ran away again, abandoning to its fate the scattered fragments of the army he left behind.

Then we are told of the greatness of soul of the marshals, especially of Ney—a greatness of soul consisting in this: that he made his way by night round through the forest and across the Dnieper, and escaped to Orsha abandoning standards, artillery, and nine-tenths of his men.

And lastly, the final departure of the great Emperor from his heroic army is presented to us by the historians as something great and characteristic of genius. Even that final running away, described in ordinary language as the lowest depth of baseness which every child is taught to be ashamed of—even that act finds justification in the historians’ language.

When it is impossible to stretch the very elastic threads of historical ratiocination any farther, when actions are clearly contrary to all that humanity calls right or even just, the historians produce a saving conception of ‘greatness’. ‘Greatness’, it seems, excludes the standards of right and wrong. For the ‘great’ man nothing is wrong; there is no atrocity for which a ‘great’ man can be blamed.

C’est grand!’ say the historians, and there no longer exists either good or evil, but only ‘grand’ and ‘not grand’. Grand is good, not grand is bad. Grand is the characteristic, in their conception, of some special animals called ‘heroes’. And Napoleon escaping home in a warm fur coat and leaving to perish those who were not merely his comrades but were (in his opinion) men he had brought there, feels que c’est grand, and his soul is tranquil.

There’s not quite an ocean of this stuff, but definitely a decent sized sea. At times it feels like score settling in a dispute of which I know nothing and care less, as here:

All that strange contradiction, now difficult to understand, between the facts and the historical accounts, only arises because the historians dealing with the matter have written the history of the beautiful words and sentiments of various generals, and not the history of the events. To them the words of Miloradovich seem very interesting, and so do their surmises, and the rewards this or that general received; but the question of those fifty thousand men who were left in hospitals and in graves does not even interest them, for it does not come within the range of their investigation.

I don’t even particularly disagree, but who are these “them” who are claimed to be so uninterested in fifty thousand men injured or dead? It’s always easy to rail against an unspecified opponent who by virtue of their anonymity never has an opportunity to rebut.

The historical passages come pretty close to killing the book, and I absolutely urge you not to read the second epilogue which is literally nothing but historical theory and comes after a rather affecting first epilogue which neatly captures many of the book’s major themes (albeit also crudely and unconvincingly transforming Natasha’s character as I mentioned above).

There’s a common criticism of War and Peace best summarised by Henry James, who called it ‘a loose, baggy monster’. I have some sympathy with that. There is in fact considerable structure here, but the sheer size of the book tends to mean it’s difficult to keep sight of and parallels and themes get lost in sheer volume.

And yet, and yet. I finished it with a mood of boredom and frustration, but it stays in the memory. The characters are with me yet. The history, mercifully, fades. The rest remains. At risk of blasphemy it could have used an editor with a bright red pen to strike out much of the theory which Tolstoy would have done better to publish as separate essay, but the book’s lasted well enough so who am I to say it should have been done differently?

The use of French

I’ll end with one final observation. Some translations convert the French passages to English. That’s a mistake. It’s a mistake that could easily be fixed by translating the French to English but italicising it to make it clear when French is being spoken, but it is important to know which language the characters are using and when.

As I said above, this is not a realistic work. Language here denotes character. Early on Pierre speaks little to no French marking his lack of sophistication. Around him are society figures who use little else, cosmopolitans who see him as painfully earnest and rather comical. Later as he loses his way for a while he comes to speak French frequently, his linguistic gain mirroring his moral loss.

As the war develops French becomes unfashionable and is less used, but some characters never quite abandon it. Society beauty Helene Kuragin  uses it throughout, in keeping with her amorality and self-absorbed carnality. Natasha speaks French only once – at the opera when her innocence is most at peril from Anatole Kuragin’s practiced experience (I have the introduction to thank for that observation).

French here is not just a language, it’s an indication of character. The virtuous speak Russian, the sophisticated speak French. France’s physical invasion followed a cultural invasion.

Tolstoy is never anti-French, but he is pro-Russian. The problem here is not the adoption of a few French phrases, but the adoption by some of Russia’s elite of a morality alien to the Russian soul. Translate Russian and French equally into English and you lose that. The differentiation between the two is vital.

Wrapping up

Perhaps fittingly, this is if not the longest then certainly among the longest pieces I’ve ever written here. If you made it this far (without skimming), congratulations, you’re ready to read War and Peace. I’ll see you in a couple of months…

Other reviews

None I know of, but I would flag to you these excellent pieces by Tom at Amateur Reader: here where he describes the challenge the book sets itself; here and here where he makes a very compelling comparison to Victor Hugo (though Hugo’s much better at the essayistic stuff in my view); here where he talks about style and point of view; and above all here where he analyses the wolf hunt. He also discusses death in War and Peace here, though be warned that piece does involve a spoiler regarding a character death (though I guessed what was coming in the book pages in advance and I suspect most other readers will also).

Please let me know of other interesting posts in the comments.

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Filed under Historical Fiction, Russian Literature, Tolstoy, Leo

On reading War and Peace

War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy and translated by the Maudes with revisions by Amy Mandelker

So I finished War and Peace.

Reviewing a book like War and Peace is a bit like reviewing Henri Rousseau’s Tiger in a Tropical Storm. You may think Tiger is a masterpiece. You may agree with contemporary critics who argued Tiger was implausible and amateurish. Whatever your opinion it’s been argued by experts for well over a century. What’s left to add besides personal reaction?

My complete lack of qualification to do so won’t stop me reviewing War and Peace (it’s never stopped me reviewing anything else), but before I do that I thought I’d write a post about the experience of reading it and recommendations for anyone else considering doing so. My next post on it will be the actual review, and then I’ll do a third and final post comparing translations.

war_and_peace_poster_1967

That picture’s actually the poster for the 1967 Soviet film version. For a single piece of art it captures the book surprisingly well.

The first thing to say about War and Peace is the strikingly obvious. It’s very, very long. My version weighed in at 1,318 pages including both parts of the epilogue and the Appendix written by Tolstoy in 1868. If you decide to read this you’re in for the long haul.

The second thing though is that mostly it’s also very readable. As I write this readability is once again the subject of debate. Is it a good thing in a novel? That’s not a question I generally find interesting and I think the whole supposed contrast between readability and quality is a nonsense, but in the specific context of a book that’s this long? Yes, yes readability is a good thing.

War and Peace divides into four books and an epilogue. Each of those four books divides into between three and five parts (the epilogue into two parts). Each of those parts then divides into chapters, each neatly capturing a particular incident or character moment (or idea, but I’ll come back to the historical theory aspects of the book in a bit). Each of those chapters is fairly short.

What all this means is that once you’re stuck in it’s actually surprisingly easy to pick the book up, read a chapter or two and put it down again. You can treat it like a tv box set, putting a half-hour or hour aside to read a bit and then returning to it the next day or a couple of days later. It stands up perfectly well to that. Some sections benefit from a more sustained commitment (a wolf hunt sequence for example), but happily those sections tend to be pretty gripping so it becomes natural to give them a bit more time.

For 80% or so of the book Tolstoy judges the balance between narrative and reader time commitment very well. If you’re a student or retired and can down this in a couple of weeks then all power to you and you’ll pick up connections the slower reader will miss, connections I missed. If like me though you have a job and other commitments that’s ok, Tolstoy gets that and structures the book accordingly. 80% of it.

The book is also absolutely rammed with characters. That has the potential to be a flaw, but apart from keeping the names straight in practice they’re all well enough drawn that it’s easy to keep track. I’ll talk more about this in my review proper, but Tolstoy is an absolute master of the minor character and much of what I loved best about the book were the lesser cast members.

This is a sprawling gossipy book, a grand soap opera filled with love affairs and cavalry charges, fortunes lost and won, homebodies and adventurers and life so brimming the pages can hardly keep some of it in. Helpfully, intentionally, the earlier parts of the book are among the most gripping so that by the time Tolstoy starts introducing his arguments on historical theory you’re already several hundred pages into the text.

Unfortunately, once Tolstoy starts introducing his historical theory things do get a bit patchier. I said above that 80% of the book is well judged. It might even be 90, but that remaining percentage? That’s the history.

Tolstoy famously said that War and Peace is not a novel, and he pretty much meant what he said. In many ways War and Peace is a treatise on Tolstoy’s ideas on the science of history and his issues with contemporary historical theory, all illustrated by use of fictional characters. In the final section of the book this leads to lengthy sections where Tolstoy directly addresses the reader  (nine pages at one point, much worse later). The narrative is increasingly abandoned in favour of direct criticisms of the great man theory of history.

As a writer of character and description Tolstoy is a master. As an essayist, not so much.

That takes me back to the epilogue, and to a recommendation I’ve never made before. I said above that the epilogue is divided into two parts. Stop at the end of the first part. It’s a clever and emotional ending that works well. What follows in the second part is 39 pages of pure historical theory (and another ten in the Appendix). The characters don’t reappear. The story is done. It’s a 39 page essay on Tolstoy’s views on history and reading it straight after the first part of the epilogue just kills any emotional impact and ultimately numbs the reader. It certainly numbed me.

If Tolstoy’s views on history interest you then by all means read that second epilogue and the appendix, but read them separately. Even the marvellous introduction in the edition I read talks as if the book ends after the first epilogue, makes no mention of the further 39 pages which utterly diminish the book’s impact.

My other recommendation, having said that the book is easily read in small chunks, is that initially at least don’t do that. I read the first 300 pages or so on a long flight, and after that on my daily commute in half-hour instalments. That first time commitment made a huge difference. I knew who everyone was, I had a sense of the setting, I was interested to know what happened. I was engaged.

Please feel free to ask questions in the comments. As I said at the start of this piece I’ll write an actual review and I’ll write a piece comparing translations, but today I just wanted to talk about how one reads a book like this, what’s required and what the challenges are. War and Peace is undeniably long, but the structure and the sheer volume of incident and character packed into the pages makes it a much easier read than you might imagine.

Finally, here’s Henri Rousseau’s Tiger in a Tropical Storm. In case you were wondering, I think it’s a masterpiece.

tiger-in-a-tropical-storm-surprised-rousseau-1891

22 Comments

Filed under 19th Century Literature, Historical Fiction, Russian Literature, Tolstoy, Leo

A lover of baroque music, classical literature, and women who are still breathing,

Three-Card Monte, by Marco Malvaldi and translated by Howard Curtis

I read Marco Malvaldi’s Game for Five while feeling a bit under the weather during Christmas 2015. Fast forward a year and I was again feeling a bit under the weather, now at Christmas 2016, and once again Malvaldi seemed a good bet.

There’s always a difficulty converting a successful crime novel into a series. Ian Rankin’s Knots and Crosses, his first featuring Inspector Rebus, sits a bit oddly with what follows with Rebus having a taste for jazz rather than classic rock and hints in the narrative that he might himself be the killer. That made sense when that was the only novel he appeared in, but not so much now he’s in 20 or more.

I’ve no idea whether Game for Five was originally intended as part of a series or not. It stands on its own very well. It became one though, with seven novels so far of which two have been translated into English (there’s also an Italian TV series which I suspect would be rather fun).

three-card-monte

Game for Five shone best with its memorable characters: Massimo, a barman with his own bar in a small Italian town not far from Pisa; his four octogenarian regulars (I’ve seen men like them passing the time outside countless Italian bars over the years); and Tiziana his bright and decidedly attractive barmaid. They’re a good bunch and there’s great chat between them.

Three-Card Monte opens with a prologue in which a Japanese academic arrives in Italy for a conference in Massimo’s town. It establishes some of the incidental characters who’ll appear in this novel, but mostly allows Malvaldi some mild comic reflections on academic conferences and Italian airports. The action proper starts back at the bar, where Massimo has just installed wifi only to find that the only table where it works reliably is the one the four old-timers have long claimed as their own. He needs them to move, but they’ve always sat there and besides it’s the only table with reliable shade…

Some crime novels are about the crime. Some only have a crime to give the characters something to do. The Bar Lume novels are firmly in that second category. The fun here is Massimo’s gentle feuds with his best and certainly oldest customers, Tiziana’s attempts to referee between them and perhaps to update the bar’s decor to something a little more modern, and Malvaldi’s asides on Italian life.

Massimo’s busier than usual due to that academic conference I mentioned. One of the regulars, Aldo, owns a restaurant and landed the catering contract and he and Massimo are laying on food and coffee to the endlessly hungry and thirsty delegates. That puts Massimo at the scene when a delegate is, very probably, murdered. At any rate he’s definitely dead.

In the first novel Massimo is the intelligent amateur and he largely has to force his way into the investigation when he sees local police officer Inspector Fusco messing it up. This time Inspector Fusco quickly brings Massimo on board realising he needs all the help he can get:

“To sum up the situation, I’m faced with the need to question a large number of people who are potential witnesses. Most of these people will leave the conference and Italy on Saturday, which means that I have three days to question them, because there’s no way I can put two hundred people in custody, let alone force them to stay in the country. Once everyone has been questioned, I should ideally be able to establish what happened and, if there has indeed been a crime, to identify the culprit and make an arrest.”

The narrative flows along neatly enough, but the background to the crime which involves advanced computer models and rivalry in biomolecular chemistry didn’t do a lot for me. Like Hammett I prefer my crime to come out of more recognisable motives than are at play here.

The incidental characters mostly work pretty well. There’s a likable young Japanese chemist named Koichi Kawaguchi that I’d happily have seen more of, and the distinguished if appallingly badly dressed Dutch professor Antonius Snijders who speaks grammatically perfect but heavily accented Italian and who helps Massimo get up to speed with the academic infighting. The rest are pretty forgettable, but it’s not a long book and I imagine Malvaldi didn’t want it to get too crowded.

The solution to the crime is unobtrusively signposted in quite an old-school way. Malvaldi puts the clues in the text and then distracts you from them in classic crime fiction manner, but I’m not a huge fan of mysteries where an intuitive leap and unexpected accusation elicit a convenient confession. Perhaps though that’s like complaining an SF novel features aliens. Some things come with the genre.

More problematically, there were a couple of times the language felt a bit pedestrian (a character smiles with “all thirty-two teeth” on two separate occasions, and since it’s not a common English phrase it rather stood out to me). Generally I’d say that the focus just didn’t feel as tight as with the first novel.

If I operated a star system Game for Five would have scored a comfortable four stars. Three-Card Monte is more a rather average three. It’s not bad, but it’s not as good as the first. I’ll probably try another Bar Lume if more are translated, but if there isn’t a return to form I doubt I’d continue from there.

If, however, you’re in the mood for a gentle crime novel with likeable characters who largely care about each other you could do an awful lot worse. It’s a good choice for when you’re ill or for when you need something not too demanding while on a plane or the beach.

Other reviews

None in the blogosphere that I know of, but always happy to be corrected in the comments. I did find this review at Shiny New Books which some might find interesting and which is a bit more positive than mine.

15 Comments

Filed under Crime Fiction, Italian Literature, Malvaldi, Marco

man has always found it easier to sacrifice his life than to learn the multiplication table.

Ashenden: Or the British Agent, by W. Somerset Maugham

Some books grow in memory, some diminish. I read Ashenden in chunks over a couple of months towards the back of 2016, and it’s fair to say that it’s one of the growers. Writing this now at the end of January 2017 I’m slightly puzzled that I didn’t include it in my end of year list.

Ashenden is an early piece of spy fiction based on Somerset Maugham’s own brief career as a spy in World War 1. The real author and the fictional character track pretty closely: both are recruited by a senior intelligence officer known as “R”; both are initially stationed in Switzerland; both are later sent on an urgent mission to Russia to help prevent the Russian revolution. Ashenden isn’t quite Maugham and this is fiction rather than autobiography, but at the same time Maugham lived what he writes.

ashenden

I love these Vintage covers for Maugham.

Ashenden is half-way between novel and short story collection. Many of the stories here can be read by themselves (and I did just that). Several are paired so that the first sets up a situation and the second resolves it. Taken together they create a chronology of Ashenden’s career as a spy.

Ashenden himself is a dryly humorous sort; intelligent but emotionally distant. He’s well suited to his role. Here he’s just accepted the job from R:

The last words that R. said to him, with a casualness that made them impressive, were:

‘There’s just one thing I think you ought to know before you take on this job. And don’t forget it. If you do well you’ll get no thanks and if you get into trouble you’ll get no help. Does that suit you?’

‘Perfectly.’

‘Then I’ll wish you good afternoon.’

The stories vary in quality as you’d expect. Some are closer to being interesting anecdotes than anything more substantial. Others are very good and there’s a definite cumulative effect. Neutral Switzerland is crammed with spies, most aware of each other and all of them constantly scheming and trying to win each other over to their side. Maugham captures the sense of time and place marvellously:

At that time Geneva was a hot-bed of intrigue and its home was the hotel at which Ashenden was staying. There were Frenchmen there, Italians and Russians, Turks, Rumanians, Greeks and Egyptians. Some had fled their country, some doubtless represented it. There was a Bulgarian, an agent of Ashenden’s, whom for greater safety he had never even spoken to in Geneva; he was dining that night with two fellow-countrymen and in a day or so, if he was not killed in the interval, might have a very interesting communication to make. Then there was a little German prostitute, with china-blue eyes and a doll-like face, who made frequent journeys along the lake and up to Berne, and in the exercise of her profession got little titbits of information over which doubtless they pondered with deliberation in Berlin.

It’s easy at times amidst the black-tie dinners and hotel conversations for the reader to forget that there’s a war on, but Maugham never quite lets you do so and the real cost of Ashenden’s work is never too far away. More than once Ashenden lures enemy assets over the French border so that they can be captured by the British and shot. Sometimes he sympathises with those he manipulates, admires them even, but that doesn’t prevent him doing his duty and he doesn’t wash his hands of his responsibility for their deaths.

Clear victories and defeats happen, but they’re in the minority. Mostly it’s bland routine coupled with uncertainty as to whether he’s won, or lost, or made any difference to anything at all.

Ashenden’s official existence was as orderly and monotonous as a city clerk’s. He saw his spies at stated intervals and paid them their wages; when he could get hold of a new one he engaged him, gave him his instructions and sent him off to Germany; he waited for the information that came through and dispatched it; he went into France once a week to confer with his colleague over the frontier and to receive his orders from London; he visited the market-place on market-day to get any message the old butter-woman had brought him from the other side of the lake; he kept his eyes and ears open; and he wrote long reports which he was convinced no one read, till having inadvertently slipped a jest into one of them he received a sharp reproof for his levity.

The stories have a nicely judged dry sense of humour running through them. I particularly enjoyed this exchange with R which is possibly the most British thing I’ve read in years:

‘I’m expecting a fellow to come and see me to-night,’ he said at last. ‘His train gets in about ten.’ He gave his wrist-watch a glance. ‘He’s known as the Hairless Mexican.’

‘Why?’

‘Because he’s hairless and because he’s a Mexican.’

‘The explanation seems perfectly satisfactory,’ said Ashenden.

The Hairless Mexican is a paid killer that Ashenden has to guide to a target (it’s not all Swiss hotel conversations and rote administration). Like many of those Ashenden encounters he’s a larger than life sort. The Mexican boasts to R that he doesn’t know ‘the meaning of the word failure.’ R dryly replies that ‘It has a good many synonyms’. So it does, and Ashenden’s mix of competence and fallibility is part of what makes this so enjoyable.

There are the occasional odd notes. Fairly early on there’s a piece of descriptive text which has aged very badly (“A scudding rain, just turning into sleet, swept the deck in angry gusts, like a nagging woman who cannot leave a subject alone.”) Mercifully it’s something of a one-off and I mention it mainly so that if you do try this you’re not put off by it.

R also uses some very ugly racist language at one point, but it’s pretty clearly in character and the individual he’s speaking of (an Indian rebelling against British rule) is shown in the narrative to be sympathetic, intelligent and honourable. Again, I mention it only in case a reader might have an issue with it but racist attitudes in upper-middle class Englishmen of the early 20th Century are hardly surprising, particularly in a colonialist context.

I mentioned in my review of Far Eastern Tales that my grandfather, Jim, was a big Maugham fan. Reading this I can see why. Maugham really is very good. He’s absolutely in command of his material, and while his style is arguably a little old fashioned that’s only because he was writing between 70 and a 100 years ago. He deserves his reputation.

One last note. While I think the book itself has held up well to the passing of time, the Preface hasn’t aged quite so successfully. Maugham complains about the inadequacies of Modernist fiction (without using that term) for no particularly obvious reason and in passing criticises the Impressionists, commenting of them that “it is strange how empty their paintings look now”. As of today he looks comically wrong, but in another 90 years majority opinion may be with him again. Who knows? Prediction is hard, particularly about the future.

Other reviews

None that I know of, but I’d be delighted to be told of any in the comments.

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Filed under Maugham, W Somerset, Short Stories, Spy Fiction

‘I’ll devote the washing up to God.’

The Loney, by Andrew Michael Hurley

[I previously posted an incomplete version of this review – I accidentally deleted the majority of the text while making some fairly minor edits and didn’t realise until about a month later. The result didn’t make much sense. This is the review as it should have read.]

The Loney (and yes, that is the correct spelling) is a pretty much ideal winter read. I read it on kindle, where it comes rather pushily subtitled ‘The Book of the Year 2016’. I don’t know if I’d go quite that far, but it is intelligent, thoughtful and highly atmospheric and I can definitely see why it won a couple of first novel awards when it came out.

loney

The Loney is a desolate piece of liminal landscape in the North West of England. The narrator’s family and church group used to go there on pilgrimage every year, back in the 1970s. Holidays were fewer back then and it’s clear that the trip was the highlight of their year.

In the first couple of pages or so we learn that the narrator’s brother, Hanny, is now a successful media friendly priest with a number of well-selling books to his name. It wasn’t always so. Back when they used to visit the Loney he suffered from a profound learning disability and each trip ended with a visit to a local shrine in the hope its waters would heal him.

In the present the narrator and his brother are semi-estranged, everyone talks to Hanny but him. When they were children it was very different:

He watched me as I undid the buttons for him and hung it on the peg on the back of the door. It weighed a ton with all the things he kept in the pockets to communicate with me. A rabbit’s tooth meant he was hungry. A jar of nails was one of his headaches. He apologised with a plastic dinosaur and put on a rubber gorilla mask when he was frightened. He used combinations of these things sometimes and although Mummer and Farther pretended they knew what it all meant, only I really understood him.

That discrepancy hangs over the book with its so very different present and past Hannys. The Loney doesn’t feel like a place where prayers will be answered, so what happened? The question lingered at the back of my mind as I read, creating a constant sense of foreboding. The framing device disappears for most of the novel leaving the reader aware that something will happen but as ignorant as those 1970s pilgrims of what it might be.

In previous years the church group had always visited with Father Wilfred, a severe priest marked by early poverty but with a clear devotion to his flock. For this trip he’s been replaced by the easy going Father McGill from Belfast. There’s a sense that they’re both in their ways good priests (this is actually a fairly priest-friendly novel), but those ways are very different.

The driving force for the group is the brothers’ mother. The narrator calls her “Mummer”, both giving a sense of regional dialect and hinting that she might not be entirely what she seems. She’s a deeply religious woman who wants everything just so. There’s a sense that under her strict demeanour she’s barely hanging on and that any deviation from how Father Wilfred did things could cause her to crumble.

In a lesser novel she and Father McGill would become enemies, sniping at each other in minor disagreements. Certainly it starts that way as she constantly corrects Father McGill telling him that Father Wilfred took grace this way, made himself available at these times, took confession in this fashion and so on. Father McGill is a better priest than she realises, sees her brittle fragility and patiently bends to accommodate her ideas of how things should be done while gently trying to tend to the needs of the others in the group also.

Behind this foreground of quiet despair and struggle lies the desolate Loney itself:

A sudden mist, a mumble of thunder over the sea, the wind scurrying along the beach with its crop of old bones and litter, was sometimes all it took to make you feel as though something was about to happen. Though quite what, I didn’t know. I often thought there was too much time there. That the place was sick with it. Haunted by it. Time didn’t leak away as it should. There was nowhere for it to go and no modernity to hurry it along. It collected as the black water did on the marshes and remained and stagnated in the same way.

There’s no sense this is a holy place. It’s been a few years since the last pilgrimage and on this visit the locals seem clannish and curiously unwelcoming. It soon becomes apparent that some are positively antagonistic, leaving a blasphemous effigy in the woods where the group will find it. Farther finds a walled-up room in the old house the group have always stayed in. It seems to have held children, long years past, and he finds in it an old artefact suggestive of past folk beliefs having survived longer than one might wish.

Tensions rise. Mummer can’t abide anything going amiss because if it does God may not heal Hanny. She means well, but it manifests as cruelty. Here Hanny doesn’t understand they’re supposed to be fasting in preparation for his cure:

Hanny started to lick his fingers, and Mummer gasped and grabbed him by the arm and marched him over to the back door. She opened it to the hiss of rain and pushed Hanny’s fingers further into his mouth until he emptied his stomach on the steps.

It’s little surprise that the narrator and Hanny get out whenever they can and wander the Loney’s windswept beach and the causeway which leads to another nearish (nowhere is that near) house. Usually there’s nobody there, but this year there’s a family staying and among them a heavily pregnant young teenage girl. It’s when they encounter her that things start to get really strange:

The injured gull had stopped shrieking and was hopping tentatively over to her outstretched hand. When it was close to her, it angled its head and nipped at the weed she was holding, its damaged wing open like a fan. It came again for another feed and stayed this time. The girl stroked its neck and touched its feathers. The bird regarded her for a moment and then lifted off silently, rising, joining the others turning in a wheel under the clouds.

It’s a miraculous healing, but there’s no sign of God. The Loney has a definite gothic atmosphere and has elements which seem plainly supernatural, though of an older order of faith than that which the Christians bring to the place. It’s not a neat tale and much is left unexplained (rightly so as explanations would have moved the book from a mood piece to fantasy). For the first half I just enjoyed it as an atmospheric spooky tale. The sort of thing that might have made a TV play back in the 1970s: The Stone Tapes; Children of the Stones; The Murrain; Quatermass; the play Baby from Nigel Kneale’s Beasts’ series. Folk horror.

The book remains throughout a highly effective folk horror tale (folk horror is rarely that scary, but often very disquieting). However, the supernatural elements do more than just spook the reader. They introduce proof.

The group worry that near the end of his life Father Wilfred lost his faith. Doubt seems to have corroded him. Doubt can of course be an enemy of faith, but it’s an enemy people of faith tend to know pretty well. The other great potential enemy of faith is proof, for with proof you have no need of faith. With the loss of Father Wilfred the group are hungry for proof, and when you’re that determined you can be sure you’ll find it:

After all, signs and wonders were everywhere.

Father Wilfred’s faith was a slab carved from the rock of doctrine and orthodoxy. Father McGill’s faith is softer, warmer, more malleable and so perhaps less vulnerable. The whole group could stand upon the solidity of Father Wilfred’s faith, but a single crack could destroy it. Father McGill’s faith is quieter and less inspiring, but perhaps a little more human. Father Wilfred died falling down church stairs – a literal fall to accompany his spiritual one.  (This is a book that echoes with meaning, just as the Loney is a landscape that echoes with the absence of it.) Father McGill doesn’t try to carry the world alone. He just helps others carry their little bit of it.

Hurley leavens all this faith and desolation with a nice trace of humour, clearly understanding that 360+ pages of faith and gloom and doubt and barren landscapes would prove a bit indigestible. I particularly enjoyed the subtle competition between reigning queen of the group Mummer and the younger and more modern Miss Bunce who perhaps seeks to take her place:

Mummer was too engrossed in a contest with Miss Bunce as to who could be the most moved by the ceremony.

I really enjoyed the Loney. I’m not remotely religious myself, but faith in some ways is another word for meaning and we all struggle in our different ways to find that in the world. I thought Hurley pulled off the tensions of the book’s more intellectual explorations with the horror elements which are essential to avoid it becoming too dry.

This is a slow book and from the reviews it’s clearly a bit too slow for a fair number of people, but I found it deeply satisfying. Ideally you’d read it by a fireplace on a cold and windy night, glad as with all such stories that when it ends you can close the covers and head off to the comforts of a hot cup of tea and then a nice warm bed.

Other reviews

Caroline reviewed this at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat, here, which sparked a sleeping interest I already had in it. Tony reviewed it here at Tony’s Book World, and is absolutely right about that cake. Eric at The Lonesome Reader also reviewed it here and is very good on the symbolism (this is a book with a lot of symbolism).

12 Comments

Filed under Horror Fiction, Hurley, Andrew Michael

Ian Curtin’s end of year list – guest post

I recently saw Ian Curtin post some highlights of his reading year on Twitter. It was a really great list and it occurred to me that it was easily missed by anyone who didn’t happen to be on Twitter when he posted his thoughts (or at all) which seemed a shame, so I asked Ian if he wanted to write a guest post so people had another chance to see them. Everything that follows the sub-header below is Ian:

Ian’s 2016 end of year list

My contribution to the end-of-year book list is more in the line of highlights rather than a “best of” – things that made a particular impact on me, that still resonate, or that have lead me off in a particular (hopefully new) direction. Things that surprised or delighted.

I tweeted these out a few days ago, and Max very kindly offered me a guest post here at Pechorin’s Journal to share them in maybe a little more of a thoughtful manner than Twitter allows. I won’t alter the list (much) but I am conscious that there’s an element of unfairness – some fine, very high quality books don’t get mentioned that perhaps would if this was just “best of”. Can’t be helped. I guess if I want to opine on everything through the year I’ll have to start my own blog.

Short Stories

I have fallen into the habit of reading a collection as my first book each year, and I knew when I bought it a few months previously that A Manual for Cleaning Women would be my first of 2016. It was a marvel that did not disappoint. Two elements make Berlin’s book stay in mind – the writing, which is by turns harsh, unsparing, funny, gentle and melancholy; and the context, which is of such a fine writer labouring in relative obscurity before a seemingly miraculous rediscovery. The latter is something I find both immensely depressing but also pleasing. The work is so transparently wrung from her own life, with such skill and need, that you wish she had been able to see the pleasure her rediscovery has given to readers.

A couple of other collections stood out for me: The Means of Escape by Penelope Fitzgerald, because she produces such seemingly effortless and controlled writing, which very precisely describes situations of immense drama and turmoil; and Vertigo by Joanna Walsh which was so unsettling and fractured in its style and tone. I wouldn’t say I exactly enjoyed Vertigo, or not all of it, but it’s the most original and challenging thing I came across this year (and recalls Pond for anyone who has read that).

Honourable mentions must also go to the playful Revenge of the Lawn by Richard Brautigan and the marvellously ominous Pre-War House & Other Stories by Alison Moore.

Novels

Most of the books I read are novels – in some form. Some flirt with memoir and biography, some are angrily denounced as pseudo-short story collections, some up-end form and convention, some are just “long single stories told to the end.” What makes them memorable? I think for me they have to have something different about their form, something tricksy, or a game the writer plays, something that forces me to trust and go with the writer. That said, I will always enjoy a good tale as it scrolls past the reading mind. But what I wanted to pick here were things that jumped out at me and made me think.

First I chose The Melancholy of Resistance by László Krasznahorkhai (translated by the marvellous George Szirtes). This is my second foray into the dense, complete worlds created by K’s early style (his more recent books seem to be quite different) and as with Sátántangó this is a book that the reading of is a genuine experience, something that “happens” to you. It’s impossible not to get wrapped into the folds and slithers of the vast tranches of text that K unrolls, the bleak landscapes, the obsessed and unstable characters, the ambiguous and threatening situations. When I think back to reading this book, the picture in my mind is of me staring off into space, following the writing somewhere in my own thoughts. What a rare state! And yet it is by turns also extremely funny, and despite K’s reputation for endless convolutions of sentence and paragraph, I found I flew through it. Even if his other books fail to land entirely with me, these two will always be part of my evolving canon.

Human Acts by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith, is a very different book – and Kang has been so widely read and praised that is seems a little superfluous to add my own small paean. It’s a really affecting novel, about power and survival, and I loved it for two reasons. Firstly, it did give the vaunted “window into a new world” of an event in Korean history that I was entirely ignorant of. Secondly it is told in a manner that is itself arresting, and marries form and intent in a manner that is very satisfying. (Perhaps an unfair comparison: I finished the similarly constructed Ghostwritten by David Mitchell and thought – great, but so what? Whereas I finished this and thought – wow.) It is also in places harsh, unflinching and tough to read.

Final mentions for 10:04 by Ben Lerner and Outline by Rachel Cusk. Everyone in 2016 has moved onto to Cusk’s next book, Transit, which following this I am immensely looking forward to. Of this book, I must admit its chief value (for me) is that it has totally flipped my view of Cusk, to the point I want to read all her stuff (and, I suppose, make my own judgement on the books that attracted so much negativity earlier in her career). This one is fabulous: judgemental, revealing, honest – perfect. Lerner’s book seems to me to be both sly and knowing and warm and personal. It’s brilliant – funny, immensely interesting about his writing life, has an engaging plot (of sorts), is a New York novel par excellence, and has shed the sneer that I thought was a key flaw in Atocha Station. Recalling the episodes and tone makes me want to re-read it.

Honourable mentions to David Szalay’s noxious blast of consumerism and hangovers, London and the South East, and to a title rescued from an “unjustly neglected” list about ten years ago, The Balloonist by Macdonald Harris, which covers the tired old ground of polar exploration and identity-swapping in the 19th century.

Crime

Is it fair to separate “crime” from “novels”? Probably not. But good crime does something different from the whole other family of novels I read – and I allow things in it I wouldn’t swallow elsewhere. Black Wings Has My Angel was the standout here – incidentally, another book “rescued” after its writer, Elliot Chaze, had slipped into disgruntled obscurity. Guy alerted me to this one, and as with so many of his recommendations, this hits the mark – the crime is just a framework for a tale of cruelty, mistrust and strange, violent love.

History, Reportage….Other Stuff

Can’t bring myself to say “non-fiction” somehow. Anyway.

Two books immensely relevant to the events that have unfolded in the US this year – Battle Cry of Freedom, a single-volume account of the Civil War; and Ghettoside, a monument through reporting to the epidemic of black male gun violence and how US society perceives and handles it. Appreciate people are sick of all this stuff by now, but these are both magnificent and sadly illuminating books.

Two accounts of crime and aftermath – This House of Grief by Helen Garner, about a terrible domestic murder (as these all are when a light is shone on them) and how the legal process struggles to put order on our messes; and One of Us by Åsne Seierstad, which documents Breivik’s appalling hate crime and incidentally makes a pretty compelling case for why unacceptable racist propaganda should not be allowed roam free across traditional or digital media.

Finally, a book that veers between comedy, farce and ultimately something much darker, The Quest for Corvo by AJA Symons, a biography of the vexing Frederick Rolfe, self-styled Baron Corvo and a writer and personality of unusual extremes.

That’s it – thanks to Max for letting me ramble on – thank you to all bloggers and tweeps for the suggestion, inspiration and discussion – hope 2017 is a rich reading year for everyone.

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2016 end of year roundup

2016 was a pretty good reading year for me. In terms of pure numbers I read around 56 books (plus a bunch of short works that I didn’t blog). As best I can tell that’s fewer than almost any other literary blogger, but I’m happy enough with it given work and other interests and commitments.

It’s been a year of discoveries, which is great. I discovered (more accurately, other bloggers introduced me too) writers such as Elizabeth Taylor, Yuri Herrera and Alain Mabanckou; I finally gave Joseph Conrad a try, with admittedly mixed results but I’ll be reading more by him; and I got stuck into Pushkin Press’s new Vertigo imprint which has proven a very reliable source of quality crime fiction.

[Edit: I thought I’d add a picture to accompany the post. This has nothing to do with anything that follows, I even watched it before 2016, but it fits the blog and I like the movie.]

grand_budapest_hotel_ver2_xlg

Anyway, enough with the preambles. 2016 has been a hard year to whittle down to just a dozen or so end of year favourites, but here they are (the order is based on when I read them rather than any attempt to rank them against each other):

Best Viennese novel: Late Fame, by Arthur Schnitzler. It might not seem it, but best Viennese novel tends to be a highly contested category on this blog. This is arguably a lesser Schnitzler but still a marvellous read and beautifully packaged by Pushkin Press in a wonderful hardback edition. It shares with the Szerb an affection both for its characters and for humanity more generally. I adored it and am really pleased that Pushkin brought it back to us.

Best novel about aging, among other things: Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, by Elizabeth Taylor. A novel about an old woman whiling away her days in a cheap hotel while waiting for infirmity to remove her last independence doesn’t sound funny and warm and human, but it is. Mrs Palfrey is astonishingly well observed, well written and horribly sad while at the same time not being at all depressing. It’s a marvel, much recommended to me and rightly so.

Best novel about, actually I have no idea what it’s about: Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer. A disturbingly brilliant slice of weird fiction.  My review describes it using words such as “slippery”, “disquieting” and “dread”. I meant to read the sequels fairly soon after but got caught up in other reading. Correcting that omission will be one of my priorities for this year.

Best novel about youth, among other things: King of a Rainy Country, by Brigid Brophy. This captures the sense of possibility that comes with youth better than anything else I’ve read in a very long while. It’s also structurally clever, remarkably witty and just generally something of a delight. It’s probably the most romantic book on this list, with a lower case r, and all the better for being so.

Best novel on so many fronts that it’s really a bit shameful it’s not my book of the year: To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf. This is arguably the best book I read this year in terms of the sheer quality of the writing (though The Easter Parade would be in with a shot on that front too). This is a rich and superbly crafted novel which isn’t nearly as difficult as one might expect. Don’t be put off by her reputation, Woolf is a joy.

Best novel about a porcupine, among other things: Memoirs of a Porcupine, by Alain Mabanckou. Mabanckou uses African folklore to explore a wasted life in what was a very strong contender for my book of the year. I read this in follow-up to Amos Tutuola’s memorable The Palm Wine Drinkard (which Mabanckou gives a shout-out to in the course of Porcupine) and it led me on to Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s Tram 83 (Mujila being influenced by Mabanckou).

Best novel that puts the fucking back into African literature: Tram 83, by Fiston Mwanza Mujila. This was a last minute addition to the list, replacing St Aubyn’s Never Mind which got squeezed out in consequence. I thought this good but flawed, with phrasing that always impressed but that sometimes didn’t seem to bear too much close examination. Looking back though its energy and imagery have stayed with me and it (rather pushily) insisted on a place on the list.

Best domestic drama: The Secret Agent, by Joseph Conrad. I didn’t take particularly well to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which I found less impressive than I’d expected and unfortunately a bit racist. The comments under the review persuaded me to try another Conrad, and rightly so since Heart of Darkness blew me away with its atmosphere and tremendous psychological insight.

Best overlooked novel: The Small Back Room, by Nigel Balchin. The Brophy was a strong contender in this category, but I don’t think the Balchin is even in print any more which definitely makes it overlooked. This is a taut and impressive thriller which makes an interdepartmental meeting as tense as the defusing of a new type of enemy bomb.

Best Mexican vampire novel: Vlad, by Carlos Fuentes. This also wins the “Best book that probably doesn’t deserve to be on this list category”. This was my first Fuentes and I understand it’s not seen as one of his strongest efforts. Being blunt it’s probably not as good a book as several I’ve not included this year. I really enjoyed it though and I found it interesting and memorable, and it’s my blog so on the list it goes.

Best novel for so many, many reasons: The Easter Parade, by Richard Yates. This was a December read and was very nearly my book of the year. It’s superbly well written, honest and beautiful. The novel as art form doesn’t get much better than this.

Drum roll, drum roll, drum roll …

Best book of 2016: Signs Preceding the End of the World, by Yuri Herrera. I read this back in February or March and right through until the Yates in December there was no question but that this was my book of the year. I thought it fresh, exciting, interesting, intelligent, I could easily go on. This uses mythic structures to explore issues of language and identity and does so with flair. The Yates was so well written that it nearly squeezed this out from the top spot, but when I look back to the books that gave me joy in the year (to get a bit Marie Kondo for a moment) this definitely did. Herrera’s The Transmigration of Bodies also came close to making my end of year list, though much as I enjoyed it there’s no risk it would have beaten out Yates or Woolf to the top spot.

Honourary mentions. Each of these was on my shortlist, but got cut as I put this post together: Azazael by Youssef Ziedan, a fascinating exploration of sectarian conflict which deserves a much wider readership than it seems to have received; Young Man with a Horn by Dorothy Baker, a really well executed exploration of a life sacrificed to music; Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson, probably the best new SF I’ve read in a very long while and a writer and series I intend to stick with; Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys, and you know it’s a good year when I don’t let a Rhys on to the end of year list; Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson, which is simply the funniest book I read all year and certainly the most delightful; and Run River by Joan Didion, it’s Didion so naturally it’s good though for me this year it perhaps got slightly eclipsed by the Yates which I read not long after.

I should also mention as particularly noteworthy honourable mentions Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb and Never Mind by Edward St Aubyn, each of which actually did make the list and only got cut as I finalised this post as I decided not to go over twelve total. The Szerb is funny, warm, melancholic and rather wonderful while the St Aubyn is blackly comic and rather vicious. Both are very, very good.

Each of the honourary mentions on another day might well have made the end of year list, and some of them arguably merit it more than some of the books I did include. The gender balance isn’t as good as the last couple of years for those who keep track of such things – only three of the twelve on the list are books by women. Interestingly my balance over the year’s reading is much more even, but the Baker, Rhys and Didion didn’t quite make the end cut which I would have expected them to (and the Spark didn’t even make the honourable mentions, good as it was). Clearly the answer is that I need to read more Taylor, more Barbara Pym and probably more Nicola Barker.

So, there we are. Now I’ve written this I can read other people’s end of year lists (I didn’t want to be influenced by them) and find out what I should have read. I’m on holiday for two weeks in January so while I’ll probably leave some comments and hopefully get another post or two up the blog proper probably won’t be restarting until February.

Happy new Year!

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‘I’ll devote the washing up to God.’

The Loney, by Andrew Michael Hurley

[I accidentally posted this review with the majority of the text deleted following an editing error on my part. What follows doesn’t therefore make much sense. The correct review can be found here.]

The Loney (and yes, that is the correct spelling) is a pretty much ideal winter read. I read it on kindle, where it comes rather pushily subtitled ‘The Book of the Year 2016’. I don’t know if I’d go quite that far, but it is intelligent, thoughtful and highly atmospheric and I can definitely see why it won a couple of first novel awards when it came out.

It’s a miraculous healing, but there’s no sign of God. The Loney has a definite gothic atmosphere and has elements which seem plainly supernatural, though of an older order of faith than that which the Christians bring to the place. It’s not a neat tale and much is left unexplained (rightly so as explanations would have moved the book from a mood piece to fantasy). For the first half I just enjoyed it as an atmospheric spooky tale. The sort of thing that might have made a TV play back in the 1970s: The Stone Tapes; Children of the Stones; The Murrain; Quatermass; the play Baby from Nigel Kneale’s Beasts’ series. Folk horror.

The book remains throughout a highly effective folk horror tale (folk horror is rarely that scary, but often very disquieting). However, the supernatural elements do more than just spook the reader. They introduce proof.

The group worry that near the end of his life Father Wilfred lost his faith. Doubt seems to have corroded him. Doubt can of course be an enemy of faith, but it’s an enemy people of faith tend to know pretty well. The other great potential enemy of faith is proof, for with proof you have no need of faith. With the loss of Father Wilfred the group are hungry for proof, and when you’re that determined you can be sure you’ll find it:

After all, signs and wonders were everywhere.

Father Wilfred’s faith was a slab carved from the rock of doctrine and orthodoxy. Father McGill’s faith is softer, warmer, more malleable and so perhaps less vulnerable. The whole group could stand upon the solidity of Father Wilfred’s faith, but a single crack could destroy it. Father McGill’s faith is quieter and less inspiring, but perhaps a little more human. Father Wilfred died falling down church stairs – a literal fall to accompany his spiritual one.  (This is a book that echoes with meaning, just as the Loney is a landscape that echoes with the absence of it.) Father McGill doesn’t try to carry the world alone. He just helps others carry their little bit of it.

Hurley leavens all this faith and desolation with a nice trace of humour, clearly understanding that 360+ pages of faith and gloom and doubt and barren landscapes would prove a bit indigestible. I particularly enjoyed the subtle competition between reigning queen of the group Mummer and the younger and more modern Miss Bunce who perhaps seeks to take her place:

Mummer was too engrossed in a contest with Miss Bunce as to who could be the most moved by the ceremony.

I really enjoyed the Loney. I’m not remotely religious myself, but faith in some ways is another word for meaning and we all struggle in our different ways to find that in the world. I thought Hurley pulled off the tensions of the book’s more intellectual explorations with the horror elements which are essential to avoid it becoming too dry.

This is a slow book and from the reviews it’s clearly a bit too slow for a fair number of people, but I found it deeply satisfying. Ideally you’d read it by a fireplace on a cold and windy night, glad as with all such stories that when it ends you can close the covers and head off to the comforts of a hot cup of tea and then a nice warm bed.

Other reviews

Caroline reviewed this at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat, here, which sparked a sleeping interest I already had in it. Tony reviewed it here at Tony’s Book World, and is absolutely right about that cake. Eric at The Lonesome Reader also reviewed it here and is very good on the symbolism (this is a book with a lot of symbolism).

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In Britain, it was a time of whispers, for re-examining one’s friends and neighbours.

The Summer Isles, by Ian R. MacLeod

There’s a long tradition of alternate history novels, sometimes marketed as science fiction and sometimes not. Many are pure what-ifs having a bit of fun exploring what might have been. Some, however, explore the world we have through the funhouse mirror of the world we could have had.

The Summer Isles is a novel of a fascist Britain. I read it in the run up to the present US elections, shortly after our own Brexit vote. It’s a timely moment for this sort of book, but perhaps too timely to make it entirely enjoyable.

summer-isles

Brooke is a sixty-something Oxford history don in 1940s Modernist England. He’s a mediocre talent brought to prominence by his once having taught John Arthur, Britain’s prime minister and beloved leader, the architect of Britain’s Modernist renaissance and recovery from post-Great War ruin. John Arthur praised Brooke, or Brook as he accidentally called him, in his memoirs and that was enough for just a little of Arthur’s glamour to rub off on him.

John Arthur’s Britain is a gleaming and successful place. Portraits of John Arthur are everywhere, gazing down from offices and public lavatory walls alike. The trains are clean and they run on time. The country’s become something of an international pariah, but who cares when it’s recovered its prosperity and pride?

Brooke has found his own cosy Oxford nook and learned to forget inconvenient facts and to ignore inconvenient questions. He mostly doesn’t even correct the frequent misspelling of his name, accepting Arthur’s version as somehow supplanting the original. He reflects that “As easily as some faintly flavoured and not entirely disagreeable medicine, my whole life was already slipping by.”

Then come two crises. The first isn’t wholly unexpected. Brooke is gay and that is of course quite illegal, and in John Arthur’s Britain punished by mandatory cures and possible disappearance. He meets his lover, a married man, via a public toilet where each of them marks the wall to signal their availability and chosen meeting spot. One day his lover has left his mark on the wall, but doesn’t turn up to their rendezvous. Something has clearly happened to him.

The second crisis is less predictable. Brooke’s been unwell for a while now, but a trip to the doctor leads to visits to consultants and in less time than he’d have dreamt possible a terrible diagnosis:

“As I was saying, Brooke, I’ve been following your case, and giving it quite a lot of thought. Outwardly, you’re still in good enough health. I can see that. But as I think I explained, this tumour in your right lung has been growing for some time. With the problem of metastasis—I mean, of course, lymphatic spread—I really don’t think that there’s any need to operate.”

Not even any need for an operation! A stupid bubble of joy rises up from my stomach, then dissolves.

I’m very annoyed with myself by the time I finally step back out into the sunlight. I’m even annoyed with myself about feeling annoyed. So stupid, stupid. The idea that you might eventually die is something that you get used to as you grow older, but actual death is quite different. Death that could stop you seeing this year’s Wimbledon. Death that makes it pointless to buy a decent pair of shoes that’ll last you through next winter.

Somehow, I hadn’t realised that having lung cancer meant not just being ill, not just having my life shortened, but really dying.

I feel so angry.

The Summer Isles is shot through with melancholy and regret. Brooke has bargained away his life as has his Britain, both in thrall to a man who redefined them to his own design. Brooke decides to find out what happened to his lover, and so accidentally sets himself on a path to the heart of Modernist Britain.

Here he has found his lover’s house and asks a neighbour what happened to the family. The neighbour explains that the wife was Polish, then continues:

“Yes. And a few of them over here—it’s understandable that they want to come, isn’t it—just as long as they don’t make themselves a burden, earn a decent living, talk like we do and don’t bother our children and keep themselves to themselves and make a proper effort to fit in.”

“So what was the problem?”

“She was a Jew, wasn’t she. All these years they’ve been living next door and acting all normal and hiding it from us. I mean, it’s the deceit I really can’t stand. And he must have known. Must have been in it with that job of his, and helped her fake the papers when they married. Her with coming round through that door in a sunhat sometimes to give me a few extra cuttings for the rockery Les was working on.” Mrs. Stevens raises her shoulders and shudders theatrically. “To think of it. It’s the dishonesty. And her nothing but a dirty little Jew.”

Modernism needed someone to blame for the country’s disappointments. Immigrants, Jews, they made good culprits. The Jews were relocated to the far north, to Scotland’s Summer Isles where they were reportedly given pretty whitewashed houses and where nobody ever heard from them again. They were tempted there by:

Government leaflets with titles like What To Do If You’re A Jew (report straightaway to the Duty Sergeant at your local Police Station—“don’t worry, he’ll have dealt with your problem many times before”)

But if the leaflets didn’t tempt enough they were moved there all the same.

Brooke’s lover and his family have now been sent to the same location, and Brooke decides to take some long-overdue leave and follow the footsteps of an old holiday he took thirty years past with the great love of his life: a trip around Scotland in which they’d meant to visit the Summer Isles but had never quite made it as the war intervened and Brooke’s lover returned home to sign up. This time Brooke plans to complete the journey.

Brooke has no idea what may have happened in the Summer Isles and is mystified when he reaches Scotland and finds that nobody admits any memory of the Jews passing through and that the islands themselves are no longer even shown on local maps. Of course, as readers we have a pretty good idea what’s happened because we know our own real history. Brooke becomes more interested in his own past and his memory of his lost love than the absent islands and forgotten Jews, and frankly I thought this a better book for not showing what the reader can imagine all too well.

On his return Brooke finds the past returned in more immediate form: the tenth anniversary of John Arthur’s rule is fast approaching as is John Arthur’s fiftieth Birthday and John Arthur has personally asked that Brooke be invited to the celebrations at Number 10. It occurs to Brooke that after all these squandered years this could be an opportunity to finally make a difference. If one man had killed Napoleon early on what harm would Europe have been spared? If one man kills John Arthur, what harm might Europe yet be spared?

I won’t go into what happens, not least as the solidly executed plot is the least interesting part of the book. I loved MacLeod’s characterisation of Brooke himself, not so much a has-been as a never-really-was but who retains a quiet humanity regardless. Now he’s John Arthur’s personal guest he finds himself sought after by Oxford’s ambitious dean and invited to exclusive parties. Sadly for Brooke, while he was never quite brilliant enough to have won his way to his Oxford position on his own he’s more than clever enough to see the truth of his shabby world and the compromise he’s made of his life.

MacLeod’s vision of a fascist Britain also persuades. It’s a passive-aggressive sort of place, quickly turning when fuelled with drink to just plain aggressive. Ugliness is kept behind the scenes. Torture is carried out in ordinary looking office buildings. John Arthur promised certainty to people who felt left behind by history, and for that his followers were prepared to believe anything:

After the confusions and disappointments of their lives, these poor and jobless men were desperate to be told that, yes, it was all quite simple.

Besides, what he tells them is what they secretly wanted to believe anyway:

… all Modernism did was take what people said to each other over the garden fence and turn it into Government policy.

There’s even at times a rather British sense of humour to it all. It’s a quiet novel which fits because it’s an exploration of how fascism may manifest differently in different countries but of how the same underlying ugliness remains. We look at the trappings of other countries’ insanities – of 1930s Germany or McCarthyite America – and we say to ourselves “that couldn’t happen here, that’s a product of their history, their culture” but all we’re doing is confusing the cosmetic for the actual. If it happens to us it won’t wear the same clothes or shout the same slogans, but that doesn’t make us immune.

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… she would drink nothing for a week except a beer or a glass of wine after work each day.

The Easter Parade, by Richard Yates

Where to start with such a book? Perhaps with the opening paragraph which is sufficiently brilliant that it leaves anything I might say quite redundant:

Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce. That happened in 1930, when Sarah was nine years old and Emily five. Their mother, who encouraged both girls to call her ‘Pookie,’ took them out of New York to a rented house in Tenafly, New Jersey, where she thought the schools would be better and where she hoped to launch a career in suburban real estate. It didn’t work out – very few of her plans for independence ever did – and they left Tenafly after two years, but it was a memorable time for the girls.

easter-parade

The Easter Parade is a study in disappointment, and that first paragraph sets the stage beautifully. Leaving aside the power of that first sentence let’s look at some of the other elements for a moment: we know that ‘Pookie’ wants to be seen by her daughters more as friend than authority figure; the cutesy nickname suggests she might not be very practical which is immediately confirmed by that unsuccessful move to Tenafly and by that aside on her various plans; and then that final coda that “it was a memorable time for the girls” which somehow makes the whole thing infinitely sadder.

Easter tracks the Grimes sisters from childhood through to middle age. Sarah is the pretty one, popular and conventional. Emily lacks her sister’s curves and confidence but is both more independent and clearer-sighted. Early on they travel to the city to see their father. They think he’s an important journalist and are shocked when he explains that he’s “only a copy-desk man”. Sarah still boasts of him at school; Emily reminds her afterwards of the diminished reality.

Sarah saves herself through adolescence and marries a dashing and popular boy named Tony who has English parents and movie-star good looks. It’s what a good girl does and he seems a good catch, but we know from that opening sentence that the marriage won’t make her happy.

Emily meanwhile loses her virginity to a soldier on leave whom she never sees again, goes to college and then gets jobs in journalism and ultimately in advertising. Where Sarah chose marriage, family and domesticity Emily chooses independence and a career, but we still have that opening sentence reminding us that neither sister has a happy life.

The writing, as ever with Yates, is exquisite. I loved this description of part of Emily’s encounter with that soldier:

Somewhere above Forty-second street he kissed her. It wasn’t the first time she had been kissed – not even the first time she’d been kissed on top of a Fifth Avenue bus; one of the boys in high school had been that brave – but it was the first kiss of its kind, ever.

Despite that theme of disappointment, or perhaps because of it, there are no great tragedies here. Sarah would count losing her virginity to a random soldier as a disaster but Emily doesn’t suffer any for it. There are deaths, but from illness or age (perhaps sometimes exacerbated by too much to drink for too long, but natural all the same). Nobody is murdered; nobody dies in a car crash or rail collision; aliens don’t invade; the world doesn’t end; life carries on.

Years slip by sometimes in a sentence. Sarah and Emily drift apart. Each of them wants a little of what the other has perhaps because neither has a whole life. But then, who does? We all have to make choices.

Sarah dreams of doing some writing and her early efforts suggest talent, but her husband isn’t interested and she’s not part of that world. Nothing she writes ever gets finished and nobody really cares except her.

Emily meanwhile marries a man who comes to resent her for his impotence and some years later moves with an aging poet named Jack to a writer’s workshop in Iowa where he hopes to rediscover his early talent. Like Sarah, Emily tries putting her man ahead of herself and briefly abandons her career to support Jack’s but he too comes to resent her when his writer’s block fails to clear. Somehow Sarah can’t unlock the door to Emily’s creativity, nor Emily the door to Sarah’s domesticity.

There’s a sense that it all tracks back to their parents. To their father who considered himself a failure and who wrote headlines for a minor newspaper whose politics he disagreed with. To their mother with her fantasies of a grandeur and an elegance she could never realise. But perhaps that’s too easy, because none of the other characters seem any happier and they don’t all have divorced parents.

Early on in the novel Sarah and Tony go to watch the Easter Parade. They’re photographed there, young and happy and full of life and love. It’s paradise captured in a Kodak moment. Perhaps that’s the clue to this novel. Happiness is fleeting. Life can’t be frozen in a snapshot; kept inviolable against age and defeat.

Tony’s career never takes off. Sarah drinks too much and grows fat and dowdy. Emily is successful but lonely. Pookie dissolves into her own fantasies. Years after their breakup Emily sees a review of Jack’s new volume of poetry which he’s finally managed to write. It’s lacklustre and the reviewer quickly moves on to a newer poet.

If Tony and Sarah had died that day at the Easter Parade, if some chunk of masonry had fallen from a building flattening them both, then their lives would have been judged happy to that point. People would mourn their lost potential; their bright future. Instead they lived and the future turned out not to be so bright after all. It’s not the divorce that makes the Grimes’ sisters’ lives unhappy. It’s living.

I’ll end with one final quote from fairly early in the novel. Here Emily and Pookie are visiting Sarah and Tony who’re now set up in a home of their own. Sarah is married as she wanted, Emily’s at college as she wanted. Pookie can see her daughters doing well for themselves. They should all be happy and yet …

[Sarah] served a lunch that was almost as inadequate as one of Pookie’s meals; then the problem was that the conversations kept petering out. Sarah wanted to hear ‘everything’ about Barnard, but when Emily began to talk she saw her sister’s eyes glaze over in smiling boredom. Pookie said “isn’t this nice? Just the three of us together again?” But it wasn’t really nice very nice at all, and for most of the afternoon they sat around the sparsely furnished living room in attitudes of forced conviviality. Three women with nothing much to say to one another. Color illustrations of Magnum Navy fighter planes in action occupied one wall; on another was the framed Easter photograph of Sarah and Tony.

I suspect I’ve made this sound bleak and to be fair a novel about the disappointments of life can’t help but be a little bleak. However, the honesty and the beauty of the writing takes it above that. This is a sad novel, but not a depressing one. As it closes nobody is any the wiser, but life continues. It may not always be all we’d wish, but it’s the only game in town.

Other reviews

Jacqui over at Jacqui Wine’s Journal pushed me over the line into reading this (I’ve owned it for ages). Her review is here. Jacqui also linked to reviews by Kim at Reading Matters here and by guest reviewer Carly at Tomcatintheredroom here.

Carly’s review picks up two key themes that I wish I’d picked up above, but it felt like cheating to change my review to follow hers. They’re the theme of the pursuit of art as an unsuccessful route to meaning which crops up repeatedly here; and the devastating quality of small heartbreaks. Carly quotes an exchange that she calls “one of the most quietly devastating in any work of fiction” and I can’t disagree with her. Follow the link above to see it for yourself.

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