As a voracious reader, I have always been aware that there are several (hundred) tomes which I should have read already, but haven’t. I’m almost entirely sure that most readers have the same problem. Rather than make this a self-pitying post to the tune of my never having picked up anything by Umberto Eco, for instance, I thought I would make a post detailing some of the books which I Probably Should Have Read to date. I’m aware that I could probably fill a whole fortnight’s worth of posts with such material, but have decided to be relatively selective to compile a manageable list of ten. (NB. It was not my intention at all to list almost solely books by men!)
1. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
‘The year is 1327. Franciscans in a wealthy Italian abbey are suspected of heresy, and Brother William of Baskerville arrives to investigate. When his delicate mission is suddenly overshadowed by seven bizarre deaths, Brother William turns detective. His tools are the logic of Aristotle, the theology of Aquinas, the empirical insights of Roger Bacon – all sharpened to a glistening edge by wry humor and a ferocious curiosity. He collects evidence, deciphers secret symbols and coded manuscripts, and digs into the eerie labyrinth of the abbey, where “the most interesting things happen at night.”‘
2. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
‘After eighteen years as a political prisoner in the Bastille, the ageing Doctor Manette is finally released and reunited with his daughter in England. There the lives of two very different men, Charles Darnay, an exiled French aristocrat, and Sydney Carton, a disreputable but brilliant English lawyer, become enmeshed through their love for Lucie Manette. From the tranquil roads of London, they are drawn against their will to the vengeful, bloodstained streets of Paris at the height of the Reign of Terror, and they soon fall under the lethal shadow of La Guillotine.‘
3. The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber
‘Sugar, 19, prostitute in Victorian London, yearns for a better life. From brutal brothel-keeper Mrs Castaway, she ascends in society. Affections of self-involved perfume magnate William Rackham soon smells like love. Her social rise attracts preening socialites, drunken journalists, untrustworthy servants, vile guttersnipes, and whores of all kinds.‘
4. The Story of My Life by Helen Keller
‘An American classic rediscovered by each generation, The Story of My Life is Helen Keller’s account of her triumph over deafness and blindness. Popularized by the stage play and movie The Miracle Worker, Keller’s story has become a symbol of hope for people all over the world. This book–published when Keller was only twenty-two–portrays the wild child who is locked in the dark and silent prison of her own body. With an extraordinary immediacy, Keller reveals her frustrations and rage, and takes the reader on the unforgettable journey of her education and breakthroughs into the world of communication. From the moment Keller recognizes the word “water” when her teacher finger-spells the letters, we share her triumph as “that living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!” An unparalleled chronicle of courage, The Story of My Life remains startlingly fresh and vital more than a century after its first publication, a timeless testament to an indomitable will.‘
5. The Trial by Franz Kafka
‘Written in 1914 but not published until 1925, a year after Kafka’s death, The Trial is the terrifying tale of Josef K., a respectable bank officer who is suddenly and inexplicably arrested and must defend himself against a charge about which he can get no information. Whether read as an existential tale, a parable, or a prophecy of the excesses of modern bureaucracy wedded to the madness of totalitarianism, The Trial has resonated with chilling truth for generations of readers.‘
6. Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse
‘Steppenwolf is a poetical self-portrait of a man who felt himself to be half-human and half-wolf. This Faust-like and magical story is evidence of Hesse’s searching philosophy and extraordinary sense of humanity as he tells of the humanization of a middle-aged misanthrope. Yet this novel can also be seen as a plea for rigorous self-examination and an indictment of the intellectual hypocrisy of the period. As Hesse himself remarked, “Of all my books Steppenwolf is the one that was more often and more violently misunderstood than any other”.‘
7. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
‘A vicious fifteen-year-old “droog” is the central character of this 1963 classic, whose stark terror was captured in Stanley Kubrick’s magnificent film of the same title. In Anthony Burgess’s nightmare vision of the future, where criminals take over after dark, the story is told by the central character, Alex, who talks in a brutal invented slang that brilliantly renders his and his friends’ social pathology. A Clockwork Orange is a frightening fable about good and evil, and the meaning of human freedom. When the state undertakes to reform Alex—to “redeem” him—the novel asks, “At what cost?”‘
8. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
‘The Brothers Karamazov is a passionate philosophical novel set in 19th century Russia, that enters deeply into the ethical debates of God, free will, and morality. It is a spiritual drama of moral struggles concerning faith, doubt, and reason, set against a modernizing Russia.‘
9. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
‘Described by William Faulkner as the best novel ever written and by Fyodor Dostoevsky as “flawless,” Anna Karenina tells of the doomed love affair between the sensuous and rebellious Anna and the dashing officer, Count Vronsky. Tragedy unfolds as Anna rejects her passionless marriage and must endure the hypocrisies of society. Set against a vast and richly textured canvas of nineteenth-century Russia, the novel’s seven major characters create a dynamic imbalance, playing out the contrasts of city and country life and all the variations on love and family happiness.‘
10. The Stranger by Albert Camus
‘Through the story of an ordinary man unwittingly drawn into a senseless murder on an Algerian beach, Camus explored what he termed “the nakedness of man faced with the absurd.” First published in English in 1946; now in a new translation by Matthew Ward.‘
Have you read – or not read – any of these? I’m not going to pretend that I’ll get around to reading them very quickly at all, but hypothetically, which do you think I should begin with?
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.
First published in 1889, Leo Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata is the 77th entry upon my Classics Club list. Censored by Russian authorities upon its publication, the novella is a fascinating insight into the jealousy which love and passion can create.
Not wanting to give too much away here, I shall copy the official blurb of the piece, which gives a nice overview but does not go into too much detail: “Pozdnyshev and his wife have a turbulent relationship. When her beauty blossoms after the birth of their children, men begin to flock around her, and he becomes increasingly jealous. Convinced his wife is betraying him with a young musician, his overpowering suspicion drives him to ever more dangerous lengths.”
Some interesting and rather complex ideas manifest themselves within the story, and despite its relative shortness, it is nevertheless an incredibly rich, thought-provoking and memorable read. The first person narrator is a wonderful touch, adding a sense of immediacy to the whole, rather than the distancing effect which the use of a third person perspective would surely have brought to proceedings.
The Kreutzer Sonata is perhaps most interesting when viewed as a gender study. Tolstoy rather bravely goes against the norm in terms of themes and the standpoint of females within Russian society as a whole. As in many of his works, Tolstoy is rather profound at times, and certainly provides intrigue with regard to such ideas as generational gaps, the notion of parenthood (particularly with regard to maternal feelings), and with relationships forged between its adult characters.
The 76th entry on my Classics Club list is The Cossacks: A Caucasus Tale of 1852 by Leo Tolstoy, a novella-length story which took the Russian author ten years to write: ‘In 1831, at the age of twenty-two, Tolstoy travelled to the Caucasus and joined the army there as a cadet. The four years that followed were among the most significant in his life, and provided the material’ which he wrote about here.
Translated by David McDuff and Paul Foote, and with an introduction also penned by the latter, The Cossacks is printed in its Penguin edition alongside another novella, entitled Hadji Murat, and three short Sevastopol tales. The Cossacks, Foote writes, is ‘part ethnographic study, part morality tale’. He goes on to write of the concept of Cossacks within Imperial Russia: ‘The young Cossacks exemplify the freedom of life lived according only to natural instincts’. Whilst Foote’s introduction is undoubtedly intelligent and informative, it does give away a lot of plot details, so it is perhaps worth reading it once you are familiar with the titular story.
The central character of the piece, ‘the hero’ Dmitry Olenin – ‘a young man of the Russian cultivated class who detaches himself from the conventions of society and undertakes some venture which will satisfy his own moral aspirations’ – is based upon Tolstoy himself. We learn rather a lot about him rather early on in the story; he is ‘a young man who had never graduated, never served anywhere (apart from an obscure position in some office), squandered half his fortune, and reached the age of twenty-four without having chosen any career or ever having done anything much at all’. He was orphaned at an early age, something which has had what he believes to be a positive impact upon his life: ‘For him there were no fetters, neither physical nor moral; he could do anything he pleased, he lacked nothing and was bound by nothing. He had neither family, nor fatherland, nor faith, nor want. He believed in nothing and acknowledged nothing’.
As with all Russian fiction, I was struck immediately by the well-realised scenes depicting the good and evil of city life; here, Tolstoy first focuses upon wintry Moscow: ‘Everything has grown quiet… At rare, rare intervals the squeak of wheels is heard somewhere along the winter street… From the churches float bell sounds which, as they sway above the sleeping city, remember the morning in prayer’. He then goes on to show Olenin’s place within the wider scope of the city: ‘Olenin felt that only people who were setting out on long journeys ever travelled through these streets. All around it was dark, silent and dreary, but inside he was so full of memories, love, regret and pleasantly choking tears…’.
The Cossacks is rather profound in places; a lot of ideas have been woven in, particularly with regard to the conversations which unfold between different characters and Olenin. Whilst The Cossacks does have strengths, and a lot of care has been given to its translation, however, Tolstoy’s use of the overarching third person perspective causes it to feel rather detached. Consequently, it failed to hold my attention throughout. I had expected it to be far more compelling, and was rather disappointed by it. The Cossacks felt, to me, like the least competent and least enjoyable Tolstoy which I have read to date. I can only hope that I have more luck with War and Peace and Anna Karenina..
I like to theme my reading around the seasons as far as I can, and what better thing to post in the run-up to Christmas than a list of best books set in the wintry north? The first five are books which I have very much enjoyed and would highly recommend, and the last five are those which are high on my wishlist.
1. The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen ***** (Various parts of Scandinavia)
2. The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey ***** (Alaska)
3. Naive. Super by Erlend Loe ***** (Norway)
4. The Winter Book by Tove Jansson ***** (Finland)
5. The Siege by Helen Dunmore **** (Russia)
6. The Red Scarf by Kate Furnivall (Siberia)
7. With the Lapps in the High Mountains: A Woman Among the Sami, 1907-1908 by Emilie Demant Hatt (Northern Sweden)
8. Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy (Siberia)
9. Victoria by Knut Hamsun (Norway)
10. The Crow-Girl: The Children of Crow Cove by Bodil Bredsdorff (Denmark)
Which are your favourite books set in the north?