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The Gregory Peck-a-long: ‘War and Peace’ (Volume One) by Leo Tolstoy **** (Classics Club #13)

Classics Club #13; 20 Books of Summer

Belinda and I bravely challenged ourselves to read War and Peace as part of our wonderful Gregory Peck-a-long.  Belinda was ambitious and read the whole volume; I cheated, and purchased a beautiful old hardback edition of the first volume (albeit by mistake; I was under the illusion that it was the entire book).  Whilst I was most looking forward to our project – I have wanted to read the book for at least a decade, and very much enjoy Tolstoy’s shorter fiction – I must admit that I was rather daunted by the prospect, and it took me rather a long while (and a lot of spurring on!) to finally get around to adding the epic to my read list.

I have an absolute adoration for Russian fiction and literature and, quite as I predicted, I was soon absorbed within War and Peace – so much so that I managed to finish the first volume in just over a day whilst travelling and on holiday in June.  (One of my friends called me ‘ridiculous’ for doing this, but I think that deep down, he was actually really very impressed).  

The introduction to my volume was written by the edition’s translator, Rosemary Edmonds.  I found the reading experience of it lovely; she brings into play a lot of Tolstoy’s quotes about his craft and why he so adored it, as well as setting out the context of his life, and his inspiration for War and Peace.  In a letter to his cousin in 1863 which Edmond includes, Tolstoy writes the following of War and Peace: ‘Never before have I felt my intellectual and even all my moral faculties so unimpeded, so fit for work.  And I have work – a novel of the period 1810-1820, which has completely absorbed me since the beginning of the autumn…  I am an author with all the powers of my soul, and I write and reflect as I have never written or reflected before’.  He goes on to say, in rather a marvellous fashion: ‘If I were told that I could write a novel in which I could indisputably establish as true my point of view on all social questions, I would not dedicate two hours to such a work; but if I were told that what I wrote would be read twenty years fro, now by those who are children today, and that they would weep and laugh over it and fall in love with the life in it, then I would dedicate all my existence and all my powers to it’.

War and Peace took Tolstoy five years to write, and first appeared in serial form, before being published in six volumes in 1869.  His subject within the novel is humanity; ‘people moving in the strange delirium of war and war’s chaos’.  The interest within it, writes Edmonds, ‘is concentrated in two households’ – the relatively impoverished Rostovs, and the Bolkonskys, who are ‘standing outside the higher than “high” society’.  Edmonds believes that, ‘Nothing could be simpler than the mass of incidents described in War and Peace.  All the everyday happenings of family life… are threaded onto the necklace with as much care as the account of the battle of Borodino.  Each incident is vividly portrayed, each circumstance is real, as seen through the eyes of the various protagonists’.

War and Peace is immediately and wonderfully set within its historical background; the whole opens with Prince Vasili speaking to Anna Pavlovna: ‘It has been decided that Bonaparte has burnt his boats, and it’s my opinion that we are in the act of burning ours’.  As one would expect, the novel is rather politically minded in places, an element which I found absolutely fascinating.  The world of the characters seeps into the reader’s consciousness, and scenes are so vivid that they come to life without pause.  The reader has essentially been given an elevated position by Tolstoy we see absolutely everything in the manner in which his protagonists do, and nothing whatsoever is concealed from us.

Tolstoy has filled portions of War and Peace with quite profound ideas: ‘If everyone would only fight for his own convictions, there would be no wars’.  His scene construction abilities are marvellous.  Of a character in childbirth, for instance, he writes the following: ‘The most solemn mystery in the world was in process of consummation.  Evening passed, night wore on.  And the feeling of suspense and softening of heart in the presence of the unfathomable did not wane but was heightened.  No one slept’.

I found Edmonds’ translation incredibly easy to read, and found that the whole has a wonderful flow to it, almost to the extent that it does not feel like a work which was not originally written in English.  The structure of War and Peace is marvellous, and the way in which it is comprised of relatively short chapters makes it all the more accessible.  An aspect which I particularly loved was the feel of Russian life which it gives, from the entirely different perspectives of two families.  With regard to the character constructs, I certainly found Natasha the most interesting.

War and Peace is a soaring epic; there is love and heartbreak in swathes, and the characters are so realistic.  Whilst I did not adore it, it held my interest throughout, and I believe that I am just about ready to move onto Volume Two.

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The Gregory Peck-a-Long: ‘The Beautiful and Damned’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald **** (Classics Club #55)

Book number 55 on my Classics Club list is another by the wonderful F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and Damned.  It slotted in with my reading plans with the lovely Belinda, and is thus part of this week’s Gregory Peck-a-long spectacular.

The heir to his grandfather’s relatively large fortune, protagonist Anthony Patch is ‘led astray from the path to gainful employment by the temptations of the 1920s Jazz Age.  His descent into dissolution and profligacy is accelerated by his marriage to the attractive but turbulent Gloria, and the couple soon discover the dangerous flip side of a life of glamour and debauchery’.  The gorgeous Alma Classics edition which I read heralds The Beautiful and Damned ‘a tragic examination of the pitfalls of greed and materialism and the transience of youth and beauty’.

The novel, Fitzgerald’s second, was published in 1922, and is split into three separate books.  It takes place in New York City, and paints rather a ‘satirical portrait of the Jazz Age’.  As with much of his fiction, The Beautiful and Damned contains parallels to the fascinating and rather heartbreaking lives of F. Scott and his wife, Zelda.  It is possible to see certain characteristics of Fitzgerald himself in his initial description of Anthony, for instance: ‘As you first see him he wonders frequently whether he is not without honour and slightly mad, a shameful and obscene thinness glistening on the surface of the world like oil on a clean pond, these occasions being varied, of course, with those in which he thinks himself rather an exceptional young man, thoroughly sophisticated, well adjusted to his environment and somewhat more significant than anyone else he knows’.

The writing is beautiful, as one might expect, and those sentences and paragraphs which focus upon the young couple are sublime.  One could easily imagine scenes such as the following featuring F. Scott and Zelda: ‘They were stars on this stage, each playing to an audience of two: the passion of their pretence created the actuality.  Here, finally, was the quintessence of self-expression – yet it was probable that for the most part their love expressed Gloria rather than Anthony.  He often felt like a scarcely tolerated guest at a party she was giving’.

The Beautiful and Damned does feel quite different to some of Fitzgerald’s later work, but it is possible – and rather enjoyable, too – to view the progression from one work to the next, and also to pinpoint those aspects of his writing which he bettered over time.  Whilst the prose itself is stylish, it does not always have the feel to it of a Fitzgerald novel, and perhaps lacks a little of the sparkle which I have come to expect from his stories.  There is something a little less tight about its feel than in his later novels, but it is certainly worth reading, and is a most enjoyable novel nonetheless.

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