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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.

Purchase from The Book Depository

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The Gregory Peck-a-long: ‘In Falling Snow’ by Mary-Rose MacColl ***

The third book on this week’s project list is Australian author Mary-Rose MacColl’s In Falling Snow.  Neither Belinda nor I had heard about it before we decided to purchase copies (which we rather awesomely did at around the same time).  When we found out about our literary coincidence, we decided to incorporate it into our readathon.

First published in 2013, the premise of the novel appealed to me immediately.  In 1978, an elderly widow named Iris Crane, who lives in a quiet part of Brisbane, is invited to a World War One reunion in France, and is quickly ‘overcome by memories of the past’.  As a young woman, Iris travelled to France at the start of the First World War, following her younger brother, Tom, who joined up and left home.  Her intention at first is solely to bring him back to the safety of Australia, but she soon finds herself working at a field hospital at an old Abbey in Royaumont.  She is tasked under the capacity of being a personal assistant of sorts to the sometimes formidable Miss Ivers, merely due to her competence in French.

Part of the present-day story which runs alongside Iris’ memories deals with her granddaughter, Grace, a doctor and mother of three.  Interestingly, Iris’ tale makes use of the first person perspective, while Grace’s is told by an omniscient third person narrator.  This technique worked well to break up the plots and different generations of characters, but Grace’s portion of the plot did also feel rather detached in consequence.  I found myself far preferring Iris’ part of the story; whilst Grace’s had some interesting elements within it, it seemed a little lacklustre, and I could not make myself like her as a person.  Some of the decisions which she made did not seem at all rational for an educated woman in her position, and she did not come across as a believable protagonist.  The only character whom I felt endeared to in In Calling Snow was Grace’s young son, Henry; for the most part, he felt like a realistic construct.  He was also the least predictable of MacColl’s creations, and I believe that this helped towards my liking him.

There is real strength in some of MacColl’s prose, but the conversations let it down somewhat for me.  They did not feel quite balanced, and at times were either unnecessary or unrealistic.  Some of the descriptive phrasing was nice enough, but a lot of the prose lacked depth, particularly given the emotion which should have been packed into every page of such a novel.  I was reminded in part of Kate Morton’s work in In Falling Snow, both in terms of the dual storylines and familial saga aspects of the plot, but I do not think that MacColl quite pulled off the story as well as Morton could have done.  I did find a couple of discrepancies within the plot too – with regard to Henry’s age, for example.

I really liked the general premise of In Falling Snow, but it fell a little flat for me.  Some elements were perhaps not executed as well as they could have been.  The denouement was also quite precitable.  Iris’ gradual memory loss was handled sensitively, however, and I admire MacColl for being able to put this element of the plot, and her sympathy for Iris’ situation, across so well.

Purchase from The Book Depository

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The Human Beans Read: Project Announcement

The wonderful Belinda and I are going to be taking a week in August/September to blog about five of the same books, all of which we have in common on our teetering to-read piles.  We have already decided upon our schedule, which is as follows:

August 31st – Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
September 1st – In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
September 2nd – In Falling Snow by Mary-Rose MacColl
September 3rd – The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald
September 4th – War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

If anyone else would like to take part in our project for any of these books, please let us know – the more, the merrier!