Who knows her thoughts? Who can tell?

The Driver’s Seat, by Muriel Spark

It’s a long time since I’ve been as ambivalent about a novel as I am about this one. On the one hand it’s exceptionally technically accomplished. On the other, I didn’t actually like it. Of course, quality and what we like don’t always overlap.

The Driver’s Seat is weaponised narrative honed to achieve disturbing effect. It’s unforgettable, for better or worse, and far better read without spoilers. In many ways the less you know about this book the more powerful it will be. For that reason I’m going to be light on detail in this review.

The cover by the way is accurate to the novel. That’s how the main character, Lise, dresses save that she adds a narrow-striped red and white coat over the lemon blouse and multi-coloured V-striped skirt. Like everything in this book the clothing is carefully chosen.

From the opening page we know that something is wrong. The clothing is a clue. Lise is shopping for her work-enforced holiday to an unnamed Mediterranean destination. In the first shop she’s offered a dress that’s stain free. Lise goes berserk claiming that the very suggestion she’d need such a thing is an insult. In the next shop she chooses the colours you see on the cover. Her reactions are excessive; her choices off-kilter.

Just eleven pages in and that sense of something profoundly wrong becomes all the more pronounced. Here Lise is queuing at airport check-in:

There are two people in front of her. Lise’s eyes are widely spaced, blue-grey and dull. Her laps are a straight line. She is neither good-looking nor bad-looking. Her nose is short and wider than it will look in the likeness constructed partly by the method of identikit, partly by actual photography, soon to be published in the newspapers of four languages.

At times Spark repeats sentences as if they form some kind of mantra. We hear over and over that “She is neither good-looking nor bad-looking.” The eye skates over Lise, or would but for her choice of clothes and habit for making herself highly noticeable through arguments with shop-staff, pointless boasting to the check-in clerk or yet further arguments at duty-free and her hotel.

What follows is how chapter three opens. It may seem it, but it’s not a spoiler:

She will be found tomorrow morning dead from multiple stab-wounds, her wrists bound with a silk scarf and her ankles bound with a man’s necktie, in the grounds of an empty villa, in a park of the foreign city to which she is travelling on the flight now boarding at Gate 14.

From that point the whole book takes on a nightmarish quality. We know Lise will die, but not who’ll kill her. Everything that happens is now overcast by what will happen. She’s searching for her “boyfriend”, whom she hasn’t met yet. When she catches the eye of a young businessman on her flight or gets noticed by an obsessive macrobiotic diet guru we wonder, as she does, “is it him?”

What’s key here is that this isn’t a crime novel nor is it a psychological novel. It is its own beast – utterly conscious of its own artificiality. Spark doesn’t attempt realism. None of the characters are given any depth or persuade as people. They’re automatons serving Spark’s will, which is perhaps a large part of what I didn’t like about the novel. It lacks humanity.

Lise in particular seems both oblivious and fated. She careens around in her ill-matched clothes leaving a trail which the police will find easy to follow, but underneath it there’s no her there. We never hear her thoughts. She seems a mystery even to Spark as author/narrator. This isn’t accident or incompetence. Spark means Lise to be hollow.

At times the artificiality jarred me, perhaps because the book sails so close to realism that I started to expect it to be realistic. When Lise goes to a department store there’s an incident which leads to a crowd having an argument near her and she also hears a news broadcast on a display tv. It’s all in English, or alternatively it’s all in the local language which Lise apparently speaks so well it might as well be English (which seems highly unlikely).

I found myself wondering how Lise could possibly follow what was going on around her. The answer ultimately is that it’s irrelevant. She can follow it because Spark wants me as reader to follow it. Language barriers are real-world issues. The novel isn’t really set in an unnamed Mediterranean country. It’s set in a non-place, a Newhon or Erewhon that just reminds us of our own world. In a way it might as well be about aliens on Deneb-IV for all it relates to credible people and events. Again, that’s not accident or incompetence.

Very occasionally Spark does misfire. I rather winced at this line which comes after a hotel maid is reprimanded for a dirty glass in Lise’s room: “ “The maid understands, laughs at the happening, and this time makes a quick getaway with the glass in her hand.” The phrase “laughs at the happening frankly isn’t English and felt uncharacteristically clumsy.

Mostly though The Driver’s Seat is a piece of flawless polished marble. Nothing here is chance or wasted. Even the title which for much of the novel seems as good a choice as any other eventually becomes all too horribly perfect. All novels are crafted but most pretend to nature. Spark doesn’t.

By the two-thirds mark I was struggling. I found the characters unpersuasive and Spark’s authorial voice oddly cruel. The prose drove me on (that and the knowledge that it’s short). As it unfolded to its ending I realised I was reading something much better and much more disturbing than I had imagined. The completed novel is ugly and unsettling – a literary maggot lodged in your brain. It is in its own way a masterpiece.

So, as I opened, it’s exceptionally technically accomplished but I didn’t like it. I rather wondered at the point, all this inhumanity dancing to the author’s obvious strings. Then I think about the impact and realise that is the point. It creates its own point. I’m not sure though that it creates enough of one to be worth the ugliness.

Other reviews

I’ve not noted many sadly but it was this one of John Self’s at The Asylum which first made me want to read this. There’s another good review here at themookseandthegripes. Lastly, this review by Sam Jordison at The Guardian is hugely critical of the book (and contains massive spoilers). I’m probably closer to Sam’s take than I am to either of John or Trevor’s save that I’d give the book more credit for its execution than I think Sam does. I may yet read Memento Mori, but equally after this I may be done with Spark. I’m not sure yet.

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Filed under Spark, Muriel

A child of heaven, of hell perchance, Devil and god of arrogance.

Yevgeny Onegin, by Alexander Pushkin and translated by Anthony Briggs

Back in 2012 I read and thoroughly enjoyed the Tom Beck translation of Eugene Onegin. Fast forward a few years and Pushkin Press have published a new translation interestingly titled Yevgeny Onegin. Onegin (with any first name) is notoriously difficult to translate so I thought I’d return to it and see how the two translations differed.

Before I get into that a quick word: Briggs quotes early 20th Century Russian literary historian Prince Mirsky as saying that the poetry in Onegin flows and bubbles “like champagne in sunshine”. I can’t speak to how faithful Briggs is to the original Russian – I can’t read that after all – but I can say that Briggs’ translation definitely has that sunlit champagne quality and was an absolute pleasure to read.

Isn’t that a marvellous cover? I absolutely love it.

Before I get into the translation itself it’s worth spending a moment on one of the best translator’s introductions I’ve read. Briggs explains in clear non-technical language the type of poem Pushkin is writing here – the 14 line sonnet. He then sets out the differences between what are typically called English sonnets and Italian sonnets (a question of how rhymes are paired rather than nationality).

The Italian sonnet clusters its lines in two sets of four rhymes then two sets of three rhymes. The English sonnet clusters them instead in three sets of four rhymes with a final set of two rhymes (which tend to either dramatically complete the first twelve sets of rhymes or subvert them).

Pushkin uses both forms (and other sub-forms) in Onegin which is apparently quite unusual. In most poems that use the sonnet form you can tell where you are and what’s coming by the clustering of the rhymes. In Pushkin, because the form varies, by the time you get to the mid-point you don’t know whether this particular stanza follows the English sonnet form or the Italian which means you are intentionally disorientated and often can’t resolve the individual stanza until you finish it.

Briggs explains that this flexibility of form is part of why the poem never becomes tedious to read – it’s constantly changing and refreshing itself. I found this absolutely fascinating and it really helped me understand what was happening structurally within the poem as I read it.

Briggs also touches on a particular difficulty in translation from Russian to English (which generally by his account isn’t all that hard). This is what’s known as masculine and feminine rhymes.

Masculine rhymes end in a single stressed syllable – the cat sat on the hat. Feminine Rhymes follow a stressed syllable with an unstressed one – and that’s harder to give an example of because it’s common in Russian but rare in English. In fact, it’s so rare that all the examples tend to be extremely obvious. As Briggs points out if you hear “languish” the rhyme is very likely to be “anguish”; if you hear “creature” then “feature” is likely to follow.

What all this means is that when translating from Russian in most cases where the Russian uses a feminine rhyme there won’t be a direct English equivalent. When there is it will likely be tediously obvious and therefore dull (Briggs notes “hoping/moping” and “related/dated”). This issue is very present in Onegin, which uses alternate feminine rhymes. The result is the translator needs to be creative making use where possible of part-rhymes and words that sound or feel similar  even if they don’t actually strictly rhyme.

The introduction is a good few pages long and it’s packed with this kind of interesting and useful information. I have no technical background in poetry but even so I found it very easy to follow. Briggs is never patronising but instead writes for the benefit of the intelligent lay reader. Frankly, even if you don’t like his translation the book’s worth buying for the intro alone.

I should though probably now turn to the translation. I’m initially going to quote the very first stanza from each translation, after which I’ll quote several stanzas from my Tom Beck review and after each I’ll again set out the Briggs’ equivalent. Here goes:

Tom Becks:

1
“My uncle’s acted very wisely,
to seek his best when he’s so sick;
his family’s reacted nicely
and he’s most happy with his trick.
He’s set the world a good example,
which others really ought to sample,
but it’s a bore when night and day
the sick man forces you to stay!
To keep him sweet, as if he’s dying,
give him his daily medicine
and make quite sure that it goes in,
adjust the pillows while one’s sighing:
‘Don’t even think of getting well,
The devil take you, go to hell!’”

And here, by contrast, is the Briggs:

1
“Uncle, a man of purest probity,
Has fallen ill, beyond a joke.
Respected now, and scorned by nobody,
He has achieved his masterstroke
With this exemplary behaviour,
But it would try the Holy Saviour
To tend a sickbed night and day,
And never stir a step away,
Employing shameful histrionics
To bring a half-dead man some cheer,
Plump pillows and draw sadly near,
Indulging him with pills and tonics,
Heaving deep sighs, but thinking ‘Ooh!
When will the devil come for you?’”

What immediately strikes me there is that it’s evident that Beck has prioritised flow (as he says in his own introduction – he’s a musician by training and wanted to preserve the musicality of the verse). Briggs here is trickier. See for example his pairing of probity” with “nobody” or (and I think this is rather clever) “histrionics” with “tonics”.

In places the choices change the meaning. In Beck the uncle has acted wisely, which isn’t really a comment on his character but rather on his actions. In Briggs by contrast the uncle is a man of utmost probity. Similarly, in the Beck the uncle is pleased with himself at being tended by his family suggesting a certain manipulativeness on his part whereas in Briggs the use of “masterstroke” makes the line more of an ironic comment by the narrator on the situation.

As to which meaning Pushkin intended I’ve no idea but I think it’s already possible to see how each translator pursues their different goals in the translation. I don’t think Briggs’ “ooh” quite comes off, but I also don’t think it’s fair to pick on the occasional jarring rhyme (and if I wanted to I could do it quite easily do it to Beck too).

Let’s continue. Here’s stanzas three and four from the Beck:

3
Completing service long and faithful,
his father ended his career
and left his son debts by the plateful
from having given balls each year.
And yet my friend was saved from Hades
by his Madame, a Gallic lady;
and then Monsieur took on the lad,
a lively child but never bad.
Monsieur l’abbé, who hated quarrels,
thought learning ought to be a joy,
tried not to overwhelm the boy.
He didn’t bother him with morals,
and if annoyed, he didn’t bark,
but took Eugene to Letny Park.

4
When Eugene grew and first felt passion,
was plagued by love and hope and doubt,
they did what’s always been the fashion
and threw the wretched abbé out.
My friend was free from every pressure,
could live and act as was his pleasure,
so he was always finely dressed
in what was surely London’s best.
He spoke and wrote French to perfection,
bowed constantly, his hair well curled,
and when he danced he turned and twirled,
his light Mazurka no exception.
He didn’t have too long to wait
before the world thought he was great.

And here from the Briggs:

3
With worthy service now behind him,
His father lived from debt to debt.
Three balls a year soon undermined him,
He was as poor as you can get.
Fate saved the boy, who was aware of
Madame, and being taken care of,
And her replacement, a Monsieur.
The child was frisky, though demure.
Monsieur l’Abbé, a Catholic father,
Not keen to weigh Yevgeny down,
Taught him by acting like a clown.
Morals seemed irksome; he would rather
Chide him for the odd naughty lark,
And walk him in the Summer Park.

4
Rebellious youth came in due season –
A season full of hopeful dreams
And gentle sadness – ample reason
To give Monsieur the sack, it seems.
Onegin now, devil-may-care-style,
Copied the very latest hairstyle
And came out like a London fop
To see society, Tip-top
In spoken French (no less proficient
In speech and writing), he could dance,
And with the utmost nonchalance
Perform a bow, which was sufficient
To show him in a pleasing light
As a nice lad, and very bright.

I actually think the Beck is rather good there. I like the references to Letsky Park and to the Mazurka (though again I’ve no idea if either is in the original) and again he clearly achieves the musicality he sets out for. Briggs I suspect wouldn’t be enamoured of rhymes like “lad” and “bad” but “dressed” and “best” is exactly the kind of paraphrasing that Briggs is fond of.

Briggs’ language is again I think intentionally tricksier and riskier. It’s the champagne effect. I love “devil-may-care-style” being rhymed with “hairstyle” which is inspired and I think his first three lines from stanza 4 (“Rebellious” to “reason”) are much more poetic than Beck’s equivalent first two rhymes in the same (“when” to doubt,”). Briggs takes three lines here to capture what Beck manages in two but I think to better effect and both ultimately maintain the overall fourteen line structure.

Moving on, this is from the Beck:

37
Alas! His feelings were now cooling,
he wearied of the social round,
the constant flirting and the fooling
now seemed to him absurd, unsound.
Pursuing beauties now fatigued him,
betrayals, friends no more intrigued him,
nor guzzling beefsteaks, Strasbourg Pie,
champagne until the day you die,
dispensing piquant sayings, grimace,
and bicker, have an aching head
from everything you’ve done and said.
Although he was a fiery scapegrace,
he’d lost his love of having fun,
of sabre-fighting and the gun.

And here from the Briggs:

37
No. While still young he lost all feeling,
Finding the noisy world a bore
And lovely girls not so appealing,
Not so obsessive as before.
Betrayals left him sad and weary,
Both friends an friendship he found dreary.
You cannot keep on sluicing steaks
Or Strasburg pie with what it takes –
The best champagne! And it gets harder
To please the diners with bons mots
When headaches leave you feeling low.
Yevgeny, once a man of ardour,
Acknowledged that his love was dead
For conflict, sabres and the lead.

Briggs makes nice use of French here both reminding us of Onegin’s class and at the same time rhyming “mots” with “low” which I rather like. Becks I think has a more modern feel with rhymes such as “fun” and “gun” while Briggs’ “ardour” through to “lead” feels more period to me. It’s also worth noting here how Briggs rhymes “ardour” with “harder” which I think in context he gets away with.

One final example. Here’s the Beck:

56
Oh flowers, love, you fields and meadows,
Oh idleness, yours is my soul;
I’m not Eugene, we’re different fellows,
that matters to me on the whole
in case some too sarcastic readers
or other bookish, slanderous creatures
should callously compare my quirks
with those of Byron and his works,
as if I were but merely scrawling
my effigy, just like that proud
fantast, as people put around
so shamelessly, (which I find galling),
as if we wrote of nothing else
but poems all about ourselves.

And here’s the Briggs’ equivalent:

56
O rural idyll, love and flowers!
O fields to you I yield my soul…
I mark what differences are ours,
What separates us on the whole,
So that no reader, no wild joker,
No literary libel-broker
Can publish somewhere by design
Onegin’s features as for mine,
And then repeat the claim (outrageous!)
That here my portrait has been daubed
Like Byron’s, proudly self-absorbed,
As if one could not fill these pages
By painting someone other than
One’s own self as the leading man.

I chose this stanza in the original so that I could talk about the links with Byron rather than because of any intrinsic interest to it. Even so it still makes a useful comparator. Again the translation choices impact the meaning slightly: Beck’s Onegin yields his soul to idleness while Briggs’ to the fields. Similar, particularly in context, but not quite the same.

Beck’s choice of “poems all about ourselves” is I think a little pedestrian, which I don’t think is true of Brigg’s “own self as the leading man.” Again though what shines through is the difference in intent. Becks flows well and has a clear rhythm. Briggs is more playful (note for example his “wild joker” with “literary libel-broker”).

What comes out of all this for me is a very clear pattern and a sense of very intentional translations (as of course they should be). Faced with the choice Becks goes most every time for flow and rhythm while Briggs is much fonder of linguistic tricks and little surprises for the reader.

I’m not qualified to talk to better here and I don’t think anyway which is better is an interesting question. As I said at the start of this piece I thoroughly enjoyed the Beck when I read it – so much so that I read a separate translation which is a tribute to the first (it kindled my enthusiasm). Reading his stanzas here afresh I’m reminded quite how good so much of it is. The Briggs’ delighted me. I loved the playfulness and cleverness of it.

Briggs sometimes comes unstuck. At one point he rhymes “intractable young beauties” with “Implacable non-venal cuties” which particularly stood out. That’s unavoidable though because he’s taking greater risks with his rhyme-choices and trying to capture that sense of “champagne in sunshine”. I think he succeeds.

One final remark and that’s on the title of the poem itself. Briggs notes that Yevgeny is more Russian than the commonly used Eugene which is plainly true. However, more importantly he notes that Yevgeny Onegin is a little poem in itself: yev-gen-y/o-ne-gin. Eugene Onegin just ain’t got the same swing.

I may at some future point read the Penguin Classics’ Stanley Mitchell translation. Briggs in his introduction talks a little about other translations but is at pains not to single any out for criticism, save to a small extent the Mitchell which he does raise points on. It may sound odd but I think that’s a form of compliment: Briggs clearly feels the Mitchell can stand up for itself. If I do I’ll post another comparison though I warn you now that’ll make it fifty per cent. as long again as this one…

Oh, and just in case anyone wants to know which translation I recommend you read that’s easy: both of them of course!

Other reviews

Honestly I have no idea so please feel free to leave links in the comments. Interestingly, Nick Lezard of the Guardian has also reviewed both these translations. His Beck is here and his Briggs here.

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Filed under 19th Century Literature, Byron, Lord, Poetry, Pushkin Press, Pushkin, Alexander, Russian Literature, Superfluous Man

“No one has real names anymore,”

Europe at Midnight, by Dave Hutchinson

I read Dave Hutchinson’s Europe in Autumn back in the summer of 2016 and was distinctly impressed by it. First of a trilogy, but standing perfectly well on its own, Autumn was original and intelligent science fiction with strong contemporary resonances.

Midnight is more obviously part of a series and is inevitably a bit weaker for that. However, it’s still an extremely enjoyable piece of SF/spy cross-genre fiction and still has plenty to say about current UK obsessions.

Midnight opens on the Campus – a strange society consisting of nothing except a vast university. It’s recently had a successful revolution deposing the old regime who had efficiently but brutally run the place for as long as anyone remembers. It’s quite clearly not our world but its inhabitants are unaware of any other.

The Campus is a sort of 1950s-ish Tweedy England shorn of any context. Everyone bicycles (they have no knowledge of cars); social status is hereditary; technology is comfortable and unintrusive. It’s a sort of dream of Englishness but not a sustainable one. The food’s running out. There’s no trade as there’s nobody to trade with. Anyone who tries to leave is killed by seemingly ubiquitous surrounding booby-traps. The place makes no sense.

The main protagonist of Midnight is the new head of intelligence at the Campus, previously a lecturer in the English department. His main goal is to find some way of escaping the place to the wider world he believes must exist. Beyond that he’s trying to understand the realities underpinning the old guard he’s replaced. What he finds is a horrific underbelly of secret police and unregulated human experimentation. Those responsible for the horror were of course all thoroughly good sorts. Here’s the Dean of the Science Faculty, a rare survivor of the old regime:

He was about five years older than me, and he had the clean, well-exercised look of a man who plays a lot of team sports and is rarely on the losing side. His hair was thick and brown and curly and touched a little with grey at the temples, his clothes discreetly expensive-looking. He radiated masculine bonhomie like a nicely bedded-in coal fire.

The intelligence head’s name isn’t given but he’s known to a friend by a literary nickname – Rupert of Hentzau – which he reuses after he finally escapes. That’s as close to a real name as we ever learn. He finds his way out and emerges in real-world London where he promptly gets stabbed on a bus. He survives but comes to the attention of our own intelligence services and from there it’s a classic spy novel of scheme and counter-scheme.

Rupert is that classic spy novel character – the man who knows too much. He is living proof of the existence of nested parallel Europes which can be reached from our one if one knows the route. The Campus was a pocket reality, embedded in another pocket reality known as the Community which in turn is embedded in the “real” Europe. The Community is the only one here with all the facts – both the Campus and our Europe are ignorant of it – and it’s willing to kill to preserve its power and anonymity.

The Community originated in England as part of real history before splitting off to become its own reality. Now it maps across most of Europe but with no neighbours or indigenous peoples to get in its way. It is the colonial dream of a certain kind of English xenophobe made (alternate) reality.

Everyone in the Community was English. From one end of the Continent to the other. There were only English things here. There were no other languages, only regional dialects. No other cuisines but English. No other clothing styles but English. No other architectural styles but English. It was awful.

Much of Midnight takes place in the Community with Rupert infiltrating it on behalf of real-world British intelligence. It’s an interesting setting but creates an issue for Hutchinson since one of the Community’s most telling features is that conformity carries a price:

In two hundred years, the Community had not provided a single playwright of any great note or a film which would have troubled an Oscar voter for more than a minute.

This means that a large part of the novel is set in a place that intrinsically is a bit dull. The Campus was based on the Community and while the Community is more technologically sophisticated it too is a highly conformist 1950s-ish Sunday-night-TV-drama sort of England. It’s a sharp contrast to the complex fractured Europe of Autumn.

The Community does allow Hutchinson to explore certain ideas of Englishness and their underlying historical reality. In the real world 1950s Britain was still a colonial power, even if a quickly fading one. Behind the cosy imagery of cricket matches in country villages and social deference was a system maintained overseas through violence and political oppression.

I read Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden recently and very much enjoyed it. I’ve also read some of his Far Eastern Tales short stories. Maugham makes no bones about the bloody underpinnings to Colonialism and British power (nor does he see it as anything to apologise for). Maugham, like many of his contemporaries, accepted that British dominance carried a price for those dominated.

With the Empire now gone there are those who like to pretend that it was all an act of altruism; that we went out into the world to give people efficient civil services and well-run trains rather than to get rich. Maugham and his peers would have seen that for the self-serving fantasy that it is.

The Community is another exploration of that myth. They are the England some want the real England today to become. An imaginary place where everyone knows their place and foreign influences are neatly swept away. It’s no accident that this dreary status quo is preserved with unhesitating ruthlessness.

All that works pretty well. Less successful are some elements of the contemporary (i.e. future) real London in the novel which feels pretty much precisely like London today. Autumn is set in a future Europe devastated by plague and war but Hutchinson’s future London isn’t remotely changed. The buses still have operator-drivers as they do now, people still get take-aways in Burger King, flatshare and go to work in the usual fashion.

It’s possible of course that Hutchinson felt that a strange future London would make the whole novel too distant when coupled with the Community and the Campus. It’s also fair to say that the contrast of the Community works much better when put against a London which remains recognisable. Still, it’s odd in an SF novel to have a future that’s quite so much of the present.

Another slight oddity is that Hutchinson’s characters aren’t as diverse as his setting which here is an issue as the book is in part a critique of conformity. Female characters tend to be secondary (Hutchinson has in fact recognised he needs to write better female characters who exist as more than plot supports for the male so this should improve). Future London is largely a place run for and by straight white men. Admittedly, depressingly, that may be realistic.

The result is a novel that isn’t quite so dazzling as was Autumn. The future London is a bit too much present-day London and some improved female characters wouldn’t hurt. For all that I still really enjoyed Midnight and I’m definitely planning to read the third of the trilogy before too long.

Other reviews

This review from the rather wonderfully named Battered, Tattered, Yellowed and Creased blog is a bit more positive than mine and I think largely fair. I was very impressed by this review from Strange Horizons which explores issues of diversity in the novel much more than I did (I don’t necessarily agree that the novel would have been better for a wider range of diverse figures such as, say, gay characters but I think the point and argument are both well made). It’s a very good critical piece.

Lastly, not a blog but Paul McAuley reviews it here at the New Scientist interestingly comparing the novel to Eric Ambler which I didn’t think of but wish I had. No idea why they describe McAuley as an SF blogger given he’s actually a pretty highly regarded SF author in his own right.

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Filed under Hutchinson, Dave, Science Fiction

He possessed hidden powers; he had more secrets than the blessed Rosh Hashonah pomegranate has seeds.

The Magician of Lublin, by Isaac Bashevis Singer and translated by Elaine Gottlieb and Joseph Singer

Magician is an exuberant and dark fable set in the shtetls of 19th Century Poland. It’s a story of lust and pride, doubt and faith, community and escape. It’s Faust but with no need for Mephistopheles. We are too good at tempting ourselves.

Masha Yazur, of Lublin, is the most famed magician in Eastern Europe. It’s an achievement that gains him friendship and praise but little money. His parochial Polish homeland assumes that anyone home-grown who hasn’t first made it big in Western Europe must be an also-ran.

Masha’s talents are extraordinary and he’s relentless in developing new and ever more impressive feats. Many believe him an actual sorcerer. Sometimes he suspects the same. The book captures his ability in breathless tumbling prose:

It was risky to debate with him since he was no fool, knew how to read Russian and Polish, and was even well-informed on Jewish matters. A reckless man! To win a bet he had once spent a whole night in the cemetery. He could walk a tightrope, skate on a wire, climb walls, open any lock. Abraham Leibush, the locksmith, had wagered five rubles that he could make a lock that Yasha could not open. He had worked over it for five months, and Yasha had picked it with a shoemaker’s awl. I Lublin they said that if Yasha had chosen crime, noone’s house would be safe.

[And later:]

He could walk on his hands, eat fire, swallow swords, turn somersaults like a monkey. No one could duplicate his skill.

If he went to the West he’d be rich but that would mean abandoning Lublin and his loving wife Esther and his culture. He lives the bulk of his life on the road returning home only occasionally and briefly to refresh and recharge.

Esther is childless but otherwise their marriage is blessed. She bakes him cookies to welcome him home and they still desire each other and are affectionate and playful. She reflects that “Every day she spent with him was like a holiday.” Perhaps that’s not an entirely good thing.

Esther suspects that he’s unfaithful while on the road but chooses not to probe too deeply. In this as in many things she’s wise for Yasha is prodigiously, recklessly, incontinently unfaithful.

When he tours he travels with a monkey, a crow and a parrot and with his loyal assistant Magda. She’s a Christian from an impoverished family who is like a second wife. She’s built her life around him and  unlike Esther she doesn’t have the option of ignoring his infidelities. What she does share with Esther is the knowledge that whatever happens he’ll come back to her. So far that’s been true.

Yasha heads out to Piask – home to the Piask thieves who wonder at him and ask why he’s never become a thief since he’d be the greatest of them. He has no aptitude for dishonesty and no stomach for the risk of capture. He entertains them with new card tricks and feats of lockpicking. As everywhere there’s no money in it but there’s laughter, a good meal with friends, an always-amazed audience.

Yasha has another woman here of course – Zeftel who is the deserted wife of a Piask thief. The thieves take care of her as one of their own but by sleeping with Yasha she’s offended their idea of honour. Yasha helps her leave but otherwise considers their affair finished. Later all he has to do is see her again for that not to be true. He can’t help himself.

Yasha dreams of flight, of constructing some winged apparatus that will let him soar as the birds. It’s another freedom-dream. He wants to escape but without leaving home. His life on the road gives him that but he doesn’t see it.

If this were all then Yasha’s life could continue as it always had, but like every mythic figure he reaches too far. He falls in love with Elaine – a Christian widow used to a better life than an impoverished entertainer can offer. She wants him to forsake his faith, marry her and then travel to Italy with her to start a career on the Western stages. All they need is money, a lot of it …

Yasha acts as if an atheist, but in his heart he still believes in god. He just isn’t sure that the god he believes in is the Jewish god. He finds it hard to be faithful to just the one deity. Would it make so much difference if instead of failing to pray to the god of the Jews he failed to pray to the god of the Christians instead? What after all do the Jews get from their god?

Jews – an entire community of them – spoke to a God no one saw. Although plagues, famines, poverty and pogroms were His gifts to them, they deemed Him merciful and compassionate, and proclaimed themselves His chosen people. Yasha often envied their unswerving faith.

And yet. To abandon one’s faith is no small thing. And Yasha is not just considering leaving behind his faith but also his community and those he already loves. Esther would be abandoned and he knows she has done nothing to deserve that. Magda too would be left behind since he could hardly take her to his new life with Elaine.

As with so many other women Yasha won Elaine in part by saying whatever she wanted to hear and believing it while he said it. Now he’s committed. With previous affairs he could move on and leave his world unchanged – Esther at home and Magda on the road. Not this time. He considers burglary as the solution to raising the money he needs. He’s lost himself.

Yasha has finally gone too far – soared too close to the sun. He spirals into crisis. He joins prayers at temple though he needs help to remember the trappings and rituals. He briefly becomes a Jew among Jews and takes comfort from it but as soon as prayers end his pride reasserts itself. He thinks too quickly and clearly to accept rote answers and is too restless to study the Torah for more than a source of clever quotes. For all his gifts he has no balance and can’t find a way to live both the life he enjoys and the life of a good Jew.

I won’t of course say what happens though the book wouldn’t be spoiled by knowing. What at first seems a picaresque story of a larger-than-life rogue becomes a story of existentialist crisis. What use is faith if god never answers? Yasha makes a joke of it but it’s stopped being funny:

‘Of course there is [a god], but no one has spoken with Him. How could God speak? If He spoke in Yiddish, the Christians wouldn’t understand; if He spoke French, the English would complain. The Torah claims that he spoke in Hebrew but I wasn’t there to hear it.’

The tone becomes darker. Yasha was comfortable with his doubting faith such as it was. He was comfortable with his equivocal life. Now the escape he always dreamed of is almost in grasp but is the price too high? He’s all too aware that even if it is it won’t be him that pays it but Esther and Magda.

Here Yasha is at the theatre watching a comedy. He’s no longer laughing:

He had seen hundreds of similar farces. The husband was always fatuous, the wife unfaithful, the lover cunning. The moment Yasha stopped smiling, his eyebrows tensed. Who mocked whom here? The same rabble existed everywhere. They danced at weddings and wailed at funerals, swore faithfulness at the altar and corrupted the institution of marriage, wept over a forlorn, fictitious little orphan and butchered each other in wars, pogroms and revolutions.

If there’s a message to Magician I’m not sure what it is. That’s one of many things I like about this novel. Yasha’s choices and fate are surprising and yet reflect his life. Like all fables there’s more here than can easily be measured.

Singer conjures up a vanished world but somehow despite its distance both in time and place – the novel was first published in Yiddish in the US in 1960 and I read it in English in London in 2017 – it is both real and somehow still ours. Yasha and his situation are particular and extreme but the challenge of wanting more than can exist within the one life is I think pretty universal.

Yasha is a man perhaps over-blessed. He is loved by four women. He is skilled at whatever he turns his hand to. He can out-debate rabbis and out-trick thieves. He cannot, however, outwit himself. We contain our own fall.

Other reviews

None I’m aware of. I’d be delighted to be wrong though. There’s a lot I can’t say or discuss here without potentially spoiling the book for a new reader.

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Filed under Singer, Isaac Bashevis

You don’t belong here.

Dream Story, by Arthur Schnitzler and translated by JMQ Davies

Arthur Schnitzler is probably the best overlooked author I know. Dream Story is easily his most famous work partly through getting a release from Penguin Classics and partly through being the source material for Kubrick’s last-completed film Eyes Wide Shut.

Whatever your views on the film (reactions vary wildly) the book is well written, subtle and psychologically astute. This is my fourth Schnitzler and I’d be hard picked to choose a favourite from among them.

Dr Fridolin is an early 20th Century Viennese bourgeois. He’s happily married with a young daughter. The novella opens with the couple telling their little girl a bedtime story – a fable. After she’s gone to sleep Fridolin and his wife Albertine stay up and the conversation becomes intimate as each shares with the other their tales of times they were tempted outside the marriage.

Albertine talks of the shock of her attraction to a young officer she saw for a moment while on holiday with Fridolin. He in turn talks of his attraction to a young woman out bathing whom he briefly locked glances with. It’s an unwise conversation and it leaves Fridolin reeling. Even though their experiences are similar and neither acted on their feelings he sees Albertine as unfaithful.

The conversation is interrupted when Fridolin is called out for an urgent late night visit. A patient is dying and by the time Fridolin arrives it’s already too late. The dead man’s distraught daughter confesses her love for Fridolin and while he rebuffs her it sets him ricocheting through the night.

He meets a young prostitute and goes to her room but they only talk. He’s too conservative a man to do anything even though he’s adrift and feels betrayed. From there he meets an old friend at a café and learns that the man plays piano at secret bacchanals. One is to be held that very evening.

Fridolin convinces his friend to give him the password for entry to this strange ball and then rushes to get a costume. Again things become strange, erotically charged, as the costumier’s daughter proves to be a young woman with possible developmental issues who two other customers are trying to seduce. She flirts with Fridolin evidently welcoming the attention she’s able to provoke despite her father’s disapproval.

The evening is already bizarre and curiously intense but once Fridolin arrives at the ball it gets far more so. His friend had warned him that uninvited guests risked serious harm if they were discovered. Fridolin doesn’t believe him and doesn’t care. He turns up masked, gives the password, and passes within:

… Fridolin entered a dark, dimly lit, high-ceilinged room, draped with black silk hangings. Some sixteen to twenty masked revellers, all dressed in the ecclesiastical apparel of either monks or nuns, were strolling up and down. The softly resonant tones of the harmonium, playing an old Italian sacred tune, seemed to descend as if from on high. In one corner of the room stood a small group of people, three nuns and two monks, who had been looking round at him rather pointedly and then quickly turning away.

Although Schnitzler never goes into explicit details (this was written in 1926 and Fridolin anyway doesn’t get to stay that long) it’s quite plain that the party is an orgy. The women quickly become naked. The men dance with them in a frenzy. It’s a wet fever dream quite beyond anything in Fridolin’s worldview.

Of course he’s spotted and expelled. The guests act as if they plan to kill him, but one woman who sought to warn him of his danger offers herself in his place. He leaves tortured by the thought that she could now be suffering for his folly.

What though is real? The next day he retraces his steps but it all slips from grasp. Nothing seems certain or quite as he thought it was. Was he truly in danger? Did an unknown woman give her life for him? Or did some bored decadents stage a little play to frighten him off? How could he ever know?

If the events of the waking world are nebulous the dreams by contrast seem all too real. He returns to Albertine who tells him of a dream in which she slept with that officer she’d once seen. In the dream Fridolin remained faithful to her and was crucified by a mob while she said nothing to save him. Fridolin becomes lost in his own jealousy and his resentment at Albertine’s perceived betrayal. The parallels with Proust are I suspect quite intentional.

Fridolin has lost himself to passions he can neither understand nor control. He careens from sex to death with the two seeming inextricably linked. At his lowest point he finds himself in a morgue looking for bodies that could be the woman from the previous night. He saw her naked and alive; he sees a corpse that could be hers naked and dead; we are most distinctly in Freudian territory.

Fortunately for Fridolin, Albertine knows that all dreams however erotic or terrifying have this in common: we wake from them. She tells Fridolin:

‘… neither the reality of a single night nor even of a person’s entire life can be equated with the full truth about his innermost being.’

In a sense nothing has happened. Fridolin became lost but swam back to Albertine’s shore, or perhaps better to say that she swims out to him and brings him home. There is more to her than he ever dreamed and more to himself than he ever wanted to know. There are some doors which once opened may lead us places we never dreamt existed within us. Whether one should open those doors and whether Fridolin and Albertine should have is left for the reader to decide.

There’s more to be said and I suspect there are elements which are hard for a contemporary reader to pick up on. For example: Fridolin’s friend is recognisably Jewish (mostly by his accent) and was once subjected to anti-Semitic insult from another Jew. The incident is mentioned only in passing but seems significant. Is Fridolin Jewish? Could that be another reason his gatecrashing was so unwelcome? Honestly I don’t think these are questions I’m well equipped to explore. For a relatively brief novella Dream Story packs a lot in – far more than I could unpack in one blog post.

This is a tautly written book rich with uncertainty and meaning. It’s currently available in Penguin’s Pocket Classics range in a really nicely printed and bound edition so it’s the perfect time to pick it up. If you’re a regular reader of this blog this is very likely one for you.

Other reviews

I’d been aware of this book for ages, but it was this excellent review by Litlove that prompted me to finally read it.

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Filed under Schnitzler, Arthur, Vienna

We have to deal with people the way they are, not how we’d like them to be.

Lightning Rods, by Helen DeWitt

The thing that makes A Modest Proposal horrific isn’t that it suggests eating babies. It’s that it uses the prevailing logic of its day to make a pretty good case for eating them.

Done well, satire takes our own assumptions and arguments and turns them around. It holds up a mirror to our own hypocrisy. It’s uncomfortable, and by that standard Lightning Rods is very good satire indeed.

Joe is a failing Midwest vacuum cleaner salesman. His product’s too good and all his prospective customers already have one. He drinks endless coffees with potential buyers who don’t want to replace their existing machines. He’s not found his market niche.

Joe spends more and more of his time in his trailer home idly masturbating. He’s not even very good at that: he keeps getting distracted by irrelevant background details in his fantasy scenarios and going limp.

What he doesn’t realise is that all of this is preparation. Like so many great American success stories Joe’s a failure at first because he hasn’t yet learned to follow his dream. Admittedly, his dream is a little different to most: it involves imagining having sex with women whose upper bodies poke through a hole in the wall or a window or whatever so that all he sees is their bottom halves. It’s an utterly objectifying dream which reduces his fantasy women to pure parts. Still, it’s his dream and that’s what makes it special.

The book’s written in hindsight – the reader knows that Joe will have an idea that will “one day lead to a multi-million dollar industry that would improve the lives of millions of Americans.” This then is an inspiring rags-to-riches story of a man who by being true to himself and daring to think differently changes lives and makes his fortune. It’s the American dream.

Joe’s idea definitely involves thinking differently. He realises that companies all across America are struggling with workplace sexual harassment. He theorises that it’s the libidos of top-performers that create all the tension. If you could have a workplace invention that helped discharge those tensions, well, then you could make real money while doing good at the same time.

If [a top earner] wanted an outlet for his sexual urges he would have to invest the time talking to someone about her interests, with no guarantee that anything would come of it, or he would have to go home and jerk off to a magazine or video, or he would have to pay someone, with all the risks that entailed. But how much time does the top earner in a company realistically have to talk to someone about her interests? If he hires someone, on the other hand, a guy in that kind of position has a lot to lose. He has a reputation that can be damaged. What real choices does he have? If he’s at the office he can’t even put M&M’s down somebody’s blouse. Let alone get any kind of real sexual satisfaction. And a guy like that is going to be spending a lot of time on the job. He works his butt off and at the end of the day he can go home to a magazine. Just like Joe Schmoe sitting on his butt all day in a trailer.

Joe is a salesman, and one of his many mottos is that “We have to deal with people the way they are, not how we’d like them to be.” So, some guys make money for their companies but harass female employees. You could change their behaviour, but that’s not how a salesman thinks. A salesman deals with the world as it is, not as he’d like it to be.

Joe decides that what the workplace needs is “lightning rods” – women who work as secretaries or administrators or whatever and who most of the time do that job, but who also anonymously provide a service where from time to time their rear-half is wheeled through a hole in the wall for the company’s highest-performing men to have sex with. Hiring them will help discharge the sexual tensions that could otherwise build up and become problematic.

It is of course an utterly repulsive concept. DeWitt though dresses it in the blandly positive language of corporate life. Joe sells the idea to his first client by pointing out that they have legally-mandated disabled toilets but no disabled employees. Why not make use of those cubicles by installing Joe’s facility within the existing unused facility? It’s just plain efficient and it makes good use of a wasted resource.

Of course some find the idea distasteful, but for Joe it’s all in the presentation. He’s not providing prostitutes but professional women who do a great day job and then provide this extra service (of course for a suitable uplift in pay). For it all to work he doesn’t just have to convince the (notably all male-run) companies but also the women who’ll slide backwards into those holes. Naturally, he sells the concept to them with the language of empowerment:

He said: “It’s not for everyone. We’re looking for the kind of woman who is confident about herself. The kind of woman who has aims she wants to achieve. We’re looking for someone with maturity. We’re looking for someone who wants to make a real contribution to the company and expects to be compensated accordingly.”

As Joe would say, it’s a win-win. The women get a pay uplift and the knowledge they’re making a difference. The guys get protected from their own impulses:

The way to look at it was, if a guy, through no fault of his own, has not been brought up to treat women with respect, is it fair that his whole career should be put in jeopardy? Is it fair that on top of the disadvantage he has anyway in competing against guys who have been to Harvard and Yale, he should have the additional handicap of endangering his career every time he is in the vicinity of female personnel?

DeWitt is too good a writer to editorialise about Joe’s idea or its adoption. Instead she adopts an utterly flat tone. Joe’s not a deluded creep who lucks out by finding himself in a culture that sees women as commodities. He’s a hero of contemporary capitalism. He’s a pioneer disrupting traditional industries and hierarchies. Before too long:

absenteeism was down, profits were up, everything was for the best in this best of all possible worlds.

Of course he faces difficulties along the way. Much of the book is a faintly repetitive telling of how Joe encounters some problem such as a hostile HR manager or race relations laws which require him to hire women regardless of ethnicity (which in turn makes it harder to maintain their anonymity), but each time he thinks of a solution. It’s the can-do ethic which made America great.

Of course some details have to be smoothed out along the way, but any great enterprise always encounters a few hiccups. As one of the women reflects (Renée who uses her earnings to study law and eventually becomes a Justice of the Supreme Court):

[America] was set up from scratch by people who managed to overlook minor details like slavery and a whole sex.

Sure, you can if you want get bogged down in questions of morality and legality, but why when you could be changing the world instead?

Lightning Rods is partly an examination of how language can be used to make the unacceptable palatable. The corporate-speak here masks something most of us would find viscerally wrong, but in real life we talk of “rightsizing” when we mean mass layoffs or of “finding efficiencies” when we mean sweating assets and, again, mass layoffs. Language doesn’t disguise what we do but it does put it in a candy shell so that we can swallow it without difficulty.

However, Lightning Rods is also a critique of a certain seductive mentality. Let’s look at that saying of Joe’s again:

We have to deal with people the way they are, not how we’d like them to be.

Superficially that makes sense. It’s persuasive. It seems almost like common sense. We have to engage with reality, with the people we actually have in front of us, not with the imaginary people that we’d like them to be.

All that’s true so far as it goes. The trouble is if we only ever deal with people as they are nothing changes. Nothing gets better. Women used not to have access to education or the vote. Deal with people as they are and that doesn’t change. You have to confront people to make progress. You have to refuse to deal with them as they are.

We don’t of course have lightning rods in the workplace. Joe’s idea would never fly in real life. Back in the ‘90s though and even early 2000s as a junior I overheard multiple senior workplace conversations about whether it was better not to put certain employees in front of certain clients. Companies weren’t in the business of social change. They had to deal with people as they are, and if a client was sexist or racist or homophobic it was unfair to both the employee and the client to put someone from one of those groups in front of them.

I don’t hear those conversations any more. I’m not saying they never happen but they’re no longer mainstream thought. Sometimes it’s better not to accept people as they are.

Other reviews

Lots, mostly absolutely glowing. John Self of The Asylum argues here that the book is primarily about language in a post that first alerted me to this; David Hebblethwaite here mildly disagrees with John in terms of the book’s focus but agrees on its excellence; Gaskella also sings its praises here. I’m sure I’ve missed others. Also worth noting is this tremendous negative review of the book by Bibliokept which is pretty much a model of how to write well about a book you didn’t like.

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Filed under Comic Fiction, DeWitt, Helen

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

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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.

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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