Penguin Books ‘Great Loves’ series: Leo Tolstoy and The Kreutzer Sonata

Today’s post on Leo Tolstoy means a return to my occasional Russian theme, though yet again it is a digression from the TBR Pile. There is however, a good reason for the latest diversion from the straight and narrow as it resulted from my first ever visit to The Secret Book and Record Store in Dublin. As with so many things, I can’t believe that it has taken me years to get around to exploring this treasure trove of books (I haven’t yet tackled the record stock). Of course, I couldn’t come out without buying anything could I? Not only that, I had to fetch The Bookworm and show her what I had discovered, so yet more book buying occurred that day.

The Kreutzer Sonata

A striking jacket…

One of my finds was a novella by Tolstoy, The Kreutzer Sonata published as one of Penguin’s Great Loves series of twenty examples of ‘the most seductive, inspiring and surprising writing on love in all its infinite variety.’ The book, originally written in 1889 apparently drew on Tolstoy’s own marriage (1862) to Sofya Andreyevna, which by all accounts was a rather stormy relationship. The introduction states that ‘together they had thirteen children’. The writer fails to point out that the brunt of that would have been borne (pun intended) by poor Sofya. Sadly, of the thirteen children that she bore, only eight survived to adulthood.

In The Kreutzer Sonata, Tolstoy sets out his case against marriage and carnal love, with the story of a marriage that went disastrously wrong. The narrator of the sad tale is a train passenger called Pozdnyshev, who begins to relate the story of his life and marriage to a fellow passenger, after a disagreement between the travellers about love, marriage and divorce. I won’t go into too much detail about the plot, for those who haven’t read the book. Suffice to say that it isn’t a very cheerful read, as the main character can see no justification for marriage, or indeed any sexual relationship between men and women, as the result of his experiences with women. Pozdnyshev’s theory is that it is impossible to maintain a long-term relationship and that love and attraction does not last:

But when, as is most often the case, the husband and wife accept the external obligation to live together all their lives and have, by the second month, come to loathe the sight of each other, want to get divorced and yet go on living together, it usually ends in that terrible hell that drives them to drink, makes them shoot themselves, kill and poison each other.

If that was Tolstoy’s view, based on his own experience, then you can see why Sofya was not impressed that he chose to use that material in his book. But to be fair to Tolstoy, he seems to be saying, through his tormented fictional character, that marriage was not particularly good for women either, in particular so-called love matches. He goes as far as to compare the process whereby young women were taught to use their arts and finery to attract to a husband as immoral, saying that ‘As a rule we may say that while short-term prostitutes are generally looked down upon, long-term prostitutes are treated with respect’. Pozdnyshev goes on to say that ‘a woman is like a slave in a market or a piece of bait for a trap’. He rails against the idea of choice in a match, rather than the old-fashioned way of a matchmaker making a bargain. He maintains that it was fairer to both parties that way; less degrading than the prospective brides’ mothers parading them before men to take their pick.

Pozdnyshev then goes on to explain to his companion that the problems stem from women being so dominant. His fellow traveller is sceptical and asks how this can be so, when men have ‘all the rights and privileges’. Pozdnyshev puts forward his theory that this is to do with voting and has nothing to do with sexual rights, which is where the real issue, as he see it, lies.

No, it has to do with the fact that in sexual relations, she’s not the man’s equal. She doesn’t have the right to avail herself of the man or abstain from him, according to her desire, to select the man she wants rather than be the one who’s selected…And, in order to compensate for this, she acts on the man’s sensuality, so that he’s only formally the one who chooses… And once she has mastered this technique, she abuses it and acquires a terrible power over men.

And what do the wicked woman do to facilitate their seduction and domination of men? Well briefly, they go shopping. They are consumers of luxury goods, ‘keeping nine tenths of the human race in servitude, doing hard labour’ and have ‘turned themselves into such effective instruments for acting on [men’s] senses that [the men] can’t even speak to them with equanimity.’ So, in case you missed something there, what Tolstoy, through his mouthpiece Pozdnyshev, appears to be saying is that men are such poor weak creatures that they are unable to resist women’s lures. In other words, it’s all the fault of those pesky women using their fancy frocks (not to mention flesh) to get what they cannot get by legal and above-board means.

As you can probably imagine, the narrator’s marriage did not end well, but I won’t go into details and give away the ending. In The Epilogue to The Kreutzer Sonata (1890), Tolstoy explained his view on carnal love and marriage thus:

Let us stop believing that carnal love is high and noble and understand that any end worth our pursuit — in service of humanity, our homeland, science, art, let alone God — any end, so long as we may count it worth our pursuit, is not attained by joining ourselves to the objects of our carnal love in marriage or outside it; that, in fact, infatuation and conjunction with the object of our carnal love (whatever the authors of romances and love poems claim to the contrary) will never help our worthwhile pursuits but only hinder them.

I cannot help thinking that it was a pity he didn’t discover this view of carnal love before he caused his wife to endure childbirth thirteen times. It was rather late to get to be so high-minded about carnality.

After my Russian period, I’m not sure where I’m heading for my next post, but I will promise to try to stick to the TBR Pile…



The Enchanted Wanderer: Adventures Aplenty

The Enchanted Wanderer

Simple and Elegant…

After becoming very sidetracked on a previous post on Nikolai Leskov, I am going to stick to my original intention of discussing The Enchanted Wanderer (Melville House, 2012) which I finished quite a while ago. The novella was a quick read as it fair rattled along with the adventures and comic miss-adventures of the protagonist Ivan Severyanych, the wanderer of the title. Ian Dreiblatt translated Leskov’s novella for this edition; first published in a serialised form in Russkiy Mir in 1873. The style of the translation gives the language a very contemporary tone, so the work has a freshness that belies its age. Being unable to read in the original Russian, I think I can safely assume that Dreiblatt has captured Leskov’s voice, as the characters leap from the page in every scene.

The story is told from the Ivan’s perspective as he relates various hair-raising episodes from his life story to fellow passengers aboard a boat sailing across Lake Ladoga. Ivan joins the boat at a place called Konevets and at first he is unregarded by the travellers. However, once he enters the general conversation they wonder how they could possibly have failed to notice him:

He was, for one thing, enormously tall, with darkish skin, an openness in his expression, and thick, curly hair the color of lead, a graying mane that poured forth in a terribly strange way. He was dressed in a short cassock, with the wide leather belt of a monk, and, in black cotton, a high ecclesiastical hat…Our new passenger, a man we would soon be fascinated by, seemed at least fifty; and from the looks of him, he was in every sense a bogatyr, and at that s humble, kindly Russian bogatyr…It seemed he would be at home not traipsing around in a cassock but rather sitting on the “dappled steed” of an adventure story…

Three Bogatyrs

Adventures await…

This quotation neatly encapsulates the basis of the plot of The Enchanted Wanderer, where we hear about all of Severyanych’s adventures (on various steeds) that lead to his present life in a monastery. I’ve put in an illustration from Wikipedia to give an idea of what our character might have looked like. A bogatyr (plural bogatyri) was a sort of hero or knight errant in epic folk stories (byliny) from Russian history. Some of the stories featured historical characters while some were purely mythological. There is an interesting article on Russiapedia if you want to know more about the bogatyri. Ilya Muromets, one of the bogatyri depicted in this painting (middle) is referenced in the description of Severyanych.  The text specifically mentions a painting of Muromets by Vasily Vereschagin, but as I can’t locate an image of that I’ve included this one by  Viktor Vasnetsov (1898) to give you an idea.

Meanwhile, our bogatyr Severyanych began his life as a serf on a Count’s estate in the Orlovsky region, where his father was one of the Count’s coachmen. The boy grew up with horses and developed an affinity with them, having a particular admiration for the wild horses from steppes who hated being broken for training. The young Ivan’s adventures really began one night, after a misguided prank that day had brought about the death of an old monk from a nearby monastery. The monk later appeared to Ivan in a dream saying, “you did me in without a chance at repentance!” Ivan isn’t particularly apologetic, saying that he didn’t mean to do it and anyway it was too late to do anything about it. During the conversation the monk reminds Ivan that he was his mother’s prayer-son (conceived after much prayer and long-awaited) and tells him that he is also a promised son (promised to God). A disbelieving Ivan asks for a sign that this message truly came from his dead mother.

“The sign,” he answers, “is that you’ll live all your life on the very brink of death, and never actually manage to die, until the day appointed you finally dawns, and then you’ll remember the promise of your mother and become a monk.”

“Wonderful,” I reply. “I’ll await that day”.

A clearly sceptical Ivan has a second encounter with the dead monk during a nap the following day. A short while later there was a near fatal carriage accident. Our hero is flung down a hillside and only survives by landing on a lump of clay that then slides to the bottom. That is just the beginning of his brushes with violent death. Ivan Severyanych goes on to wander Russia and to experience many adventures in which he comes very near to death on numerous occasions just as the monk foretold. At various times he was a Tatar slave, horse thief and a knight-errant. He even had an interesting encounter with the devil (I’ll leave you to guess who won that contest).

At the close of the wanderer’s tales, the reader is left to speculate on whether Ivan will take up arms again…

After reading this novella, I would like to read more from Leskov, but I also think that the Melville House editions of novellas from European and American literature are worth exploring. Apparently some of these appear in book form for the first time.

If anyone has any recommendations from the series, do let me know!

Picture Credit – Wikipedia (with thanks)




Leskov and Shostakovich on The Landing

Following on from the Landing Book Shelves foray into Russian literature, with Tolstoy and Pasternak, we have Nikolai Leskov (1831-1895) with The Enchanted Wanderer (first serialised in Russkiy Mir, St Petersburg, 1873) which was translated by Ian Dreiblatt. Technically this isn’t by any stretch of the imagination a Landing book, since I only bought it this year and it has sat on my bedside table more or less ever since. I have been reading it over the last week or so in between a couple of the inevitable library finds (I must do a library books blog post soon with a few ‘recommends’).

I had been browsing in the Rathfarnham Map and Bookshop but I was about to leave empty handed when this smart Melville House edition (2012) of the Leskov caught my eye. Melville House is another of those publishers that has had the smart idea of publishing lesser known classics (Hesperus  and Persephone are also publishers of forgotten classics) and in particular Melville specialises in novellas. The blurb on the back jacket says that many of the titles published have never been seen in book form before. I’m already lusting after more books from the publishing list, but they will have to join the mental book queue.

The Enchanted Wanderer

Simple and Elegant…

I hadn’t heard of Leskov before, but when I read the back jacket for some biographical details, I let out a small cry of delight. At this point you should be warned that I am about to digress somewhat from the topic of The Enchanted Wanderer. The reason for that unseemly public outburst was my discovering that Leskov had written a novella called Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (first published in 1865). The significance of that piece of information is that it provoked in me a burst of nostalgia. I went to see the operatic adaptation of Lady Macbeth by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) on an Art College trip to London with my sister several years ago. The production was an English National Opera piece at the Coliseum. Our night at the opera was the final item in a packed day of sightseeing. I remember being in the bar of the coliseum feeling tired, footsore and too scruffy for the wonderful surroundings. Strangely enough, I don’t recall that anyone else batted an eyelid even though everyone seemed much smarter than we were.

I have been trying to pin down the date of the London trip because unusually for me, I don’t have a programme saved. As far as I can tell from my friend Google, it was the spring of 1987 though I don’t know the exact date as I’m not sure how long the  opera ran. This was to be my first opera and a dramatic start to opera going it proved to be indeed. Our seats were up the Gods, for the princely sum of £5 if my memory serves me correctly. It still amazes me that you could go to a production of such quality for so little cost at that time and of course, in such a fabulous building.

Leskov’s book ticks all the dramatic boxes for passion, murder and jealousy and it was turned into a four act opera with some changes in the action. I’ll just briefly set the scene so as not to spoil the plot too much. The plot of Lady Macbeth tells the story of  provincial merchant’s wife Katerina Ismailova, who is unhappily married to Zinovy Ismailov. She is Zinovy’s second wife and is  constantly berated by her father in law Boris for not producing an heir for the estate. Enter a new farmhand called Sergei who is attracted to Katerina and the plot thickens.  Set against the background of provincial life, Leskov tackles the themes of adultery, the subservient role of women and murder. Here’s a plot summary of the book if you want to know who dun what and to whom.

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

Programme from 2001 revival

Shostakovich’s opera was written in 1932 and first performed in 1934, but fell foul of Stalin in 1936 and disappeared from the public eye until the 1960s. I discovered from an article in the Guardian from 2004 that the sex and violence in the opera didn’t go down too well with the party leadership, though Lady M had been a great success with audiences in Moscow and St Petersburg. When it first re-surfaced, the opera was produced in a bowdlerised form but later staging of the opera returned to the original version. Here’s a review that I dug up from The Spectator of 5 June 1987:

No problems whatsoever with David Pountney’s shattering production of Shostakovich’s second opera. The tragedy is that it should have been his last: Stalin’s notorious denunciation of 1936 effectively silenced a 27-year-old opera composer of genius. For this reason if no other, Pountney’s updating the work to the 1930s and setting it in an abattoir is an act of neat gallows-humour revenge. Brimming with pole-axing coups de theatre, brilliantly conducted by Mark Elder and graced with a central performance by Josephine Barstow [Katerina]that is remarkable even by that singing actress’s own Himalayan standards, this is without doubt the best show in the West End, and to miss it would be sheer insanity. Oh, and it was absolutely ready on the first night.

I remember that the whole production, from the music to the singing, to the spectacular set design absolutely overwhelmed me. It probably wouldn’t have been the opera that anyone would recommend as beginner’s choice, but for me it was a brilliant way to start. You were picked up by the scruff of the neck and flung in at the deep end. And it was sung in English, which helped considerably. I think it was also the first time that I heard Willard White (Boris) sing and though I can’t claim to be an operatic expert, even I can tell that he had (and probably still does have) a wonderful voice and a charismatic stage presence.

We might have been high up in the theatre, but the opening bars of the music made an immediate impact on us. You should have seen weary students (and me), preparing to settle down in the comfortable seats and recover from the day’s exertions, jerk upright at the first dramatic notes of Shostakovich’s score. This is the first time I’ve thought about that trip for years and even now I can remember the excitement and the shocking action of the plot. I don’t think it will surprise anyone too much if I mention that Katerina (Lady Macbeth) comes to a sad and sticky end, as tragedy seems to be a staple ingredient of operatic stories. I was reading about the later revival of the opera by ENO  a few years ago and I’ve included a picture of the programme as I can’t locate one from 1987. Maybe sometime I’ll get to see Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk again, but I’ll certainly look out for a copy of the book.

All this was quite a digression from The Enchanted Wanderer, so I may have to return to him in another blog post. Meanwhile, I hope you are all enjoying your summer reading. Any recommendations?

Words on the Street: Literary Dublin

It’s been a while since I featured anything of an excursionary (I think I made that word up) nature on The Landing so I’m taking the opportunity offered by last Thursday’s ‘Literature Crawl’ around Dublin for European Literature Night. This was the second time that I’d participated in the Words on the Street event and for me, as it was last year my attendance was in the guise of a book club outing. Last year we managed to tick of three events as we didn’t make it into town very early. This year however, we were planning to go for broke and be ready to start at 6.30pm with the first reading and not give up until the last one at 9pm.

The devil was in the decision-making: about which readings we were to attend, strongly influenced by which buildings we wanted to see inside and which reader we wanted to hear. It was a tricky balancing act indeed, because it is physically impossible to hear all of the readings (eleven) within the evening unless you run very fast and only stay for half a reading anyway which would be pointless. I’d have to admit that I was unfamiliar with any of the authors/works except for Jon McGregor so I was willing to have a go at any of them in the interests of literary discoveries.

For my part also, one given was that I wanted to hear Bryan Murray who was such a good reader last year and secondly, I wanted to see inside Buswells Hotel. One of our party vetoed Joe Duffy, so we agreed to part ways for one event as the building (a usually inaccessible part of the National Gallery) won out over any other considerations for the remainder of us.

Therefore, these were our final tally in route order. Where possible I’ve added in publication details below if anyone wants to follow anything up.

Even the Dogs Jon McGregor (UK, in the National Library, read by Jon McGregor)
Bloomsbury, 20111

I’d meant to read Jon McGregor at some stage but I’ve not yet got around to him. It was nice to have a reading by the author himself and to start off our literary crawl in one of my favourite buildings added to the pleasure of the evening. McGregor planned his reading so that he would read the first chapter at the first session and so on. An intriguing first chapter, sad, spooky, bleak yet not without human warmth.

At Livia’s Bar Pierre J Mejlak (Malta, in Buswells Hotel, read by Aengus MacGrianna)

I loved this short story but I don’t think much of Mejlak’s work has yet been translated into English. I found the short story published online and another piece on the author’s website which is worth a read too.

Nothing Ever Matters José Ovejero (Spain, No 5 South Leinster St, the National Gallery, read by Joe Duffy)

Apparently the author specified which extract was to be read at the event, which was as far as I know the only time this was the case, unless it just wasn’t made obvious by other readers. There seems to be a mistake in the title given in the brochure, as the book I came up with on Google was Nothing Ever Happens (Hispabooks, 2013). This novel seems especially intriguing as the chapter read (Claudio) seems to be part way into the novel, which neatly throws up questions yet gives very little away.

Ceasarion Tommy Wieringa (Netherlands, St Ann’s Church, read by Bryan Murray)

As ever, Bryan Murray brought the novel alive with his enthusiasm and obvious love of literature and reading. This is one I would definitely like to get hold of; it depicts the relationship between a mother and son who have been abandoned by the boy’s father. The tensions between one very absent parent and one very present parent are the focal point of the story.

The Prophets of Eternal Fjord Kim Leine (Denmark, the Mansion House, read by Phelim Drew)
Gyldendal, 2012

This seemed to be a very sombre historical novel, literally dark in the sense of being set in Greenland where the winters are very long, but also one full of dark passions and cultural and religious clashes. Phelim Drew seemed suitably sombre in his presentation of the piece.

Love Virtually Daniel Glattauer (Austria, Hodges Figgis Bookshop, read by Maria Doyle Kennedy)
Quercus Publishing, 2012

This was a great one to finish with as it was amusing and witty, promising a modern style of romance via email rather than letters.

I enjoyed all of the readings as an introduction to new reading avenues and I hope to follow up some of the leads. Last year I slipped up on those good intentions, so this year I’ve made a point of tracking down some publishing information while the event is still fresh in my mind. It looks as if some of the books will be easier to get hold of than others, though I haven’t checked everywhere yet. Hodges Figgis certainly had stock of Love Virtually, but I can’t remember which others were available on the night.

I’d be interested to hear from anyone who attended the Dublin readings that we didn’t choose. Ideally I’d have gone to all of them! Drop me a line below if you can recommend any of the others or if you have been to any of the readings in other cities. It would great to hear about them…

Books and Grief: Talking to Ourselves by Andrés Neuman

A recent addition to the Landing Bookshelves has been Andrés Neuman’s Talking to Ourselves (courtesy of the publishers, Pushkin Press). It has, I admit jumped the queue over longer residents of the TBR Pile but I hope you’ll let that pass. I became acquainted with Neuman’s work a couple of years ago when I read Traveller of the Century. This was Neuman’s first novel to be translated into English and I was delighted to discover that it has been voted onto this year’s IMPAC short list. If you haven’t come across it yet then skim back to last year’s post on Neuman’s book. He also did a brilliant Q and A for The Landing.

Talking to Ourselves

An emotional landscape…

Talking to Ourselves is a spare and compact novel; quite a contrast to the previous book’s Enlightenment wanderings, but it describes a journey nonetheless. Or rather, it describes the emotional and spiritual journeys of the protagonists as well as a physical one. Three people alternately narrate Talking to Ourselves: Mario, his wife Elena and their ten-year-old son Lito. Mario is terminally ill and his wife has agreed that he can take Lito on a road trip in a truck (called Pedro) to create a special father-son memory. Lito is thrilled to be going on the trip and does not realise that his father is so ill. He thinks that Mario has just had a virus infection, as Mario has been careful to keep his illness hidden from his son. Whether that was the right thing to do or not is a question that Mario cannot answer.

Neuman’s powerful book tackles the difficult topics of loss, grief, loneliness and aging. This sounds depressing, but it’s not; moving and thought provoking are nearer the mark. Communication, sex and books are the weapons that the adults try to use to reclaim life and self from sadness and loss. Lito’s joyful thoughts at being on the road trip provide a sharp contrast to his parents’ concerns. Watching as someone you love suffers and changes is hard for the carer to deal with, and Elena struggles with her feelings. She has always been able to find solace and answers in reading. The book is peppered with quotations from the eclectic range of writers that she explores and Neuman has included a list of the authors cited at the end of the novel. This could feel very forced and clunky, a self-help manual for grief, but in Neuman’s skilled hands this technique works well.

At times, I had to stop reading Ourselves because of the intensity of the plot, so even though it’s only a short novel (156 pages) it took longer to read than I expected. Life can throw harrowing things at us that simply we don’t want to or feel able to face. This novel describes a couple trying to find ways of facing the one thing that any parent of a young child dreads. How do you deal with grief and the way illness affects everyone? How does this affect the moral compass of the healthy person? And is there a viable future? I don’t want to reveal too much of the plot so I’m just going to give a snippet from each of the protagonists to give a flavour of the novel.

Here is Lito just before his adventure with his father and Pedro begins,

I ask Dad when we’re leaving. Right now, he says. Right now! I can’t believe it. I run up to my room. I open and close drawers. I drop my clothes on the floor. Mum helps me pack my backpack. This is going to be awesome.’ Lito sees the trip as a huge excitement and relishes the chance to miss out eating salads in favour of junk food.

Elena is anxious about the trip but has no choice about it, knowing how important it is to Mario,

If Mario accepted the limits of his strength, we would have told all our friends the truth. He prefers us to be secretive. Discreet, he calls it. A patient’s rights go unquestioned. No one talks about the rights of the carer. Another person’s illness makes us ill. And I’m in that truck with them, even though I’ve stayed at home.’

As I said above Mario has refused to publicly acknowledge his illness which has ramifications for both Elena and Lito:

‘I’ll explain, bah, can I explain this?, you’re at your grandparents’ and you don’t know why, we’ve sent you there until the end of the holidays, I’m meant to be travelling, we talk every day, I try to sound cheerful, am I deceiving you, son? yes, I’m deceiving you, am I doing the right thing?, I’ve no idea, so let’s assume I am’.

I hope that I’ve managed to convey at least a small sense of the power and scope of this beautifully written and challenging novel. The translators have played no small part in this achievement: Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia who also translated Traveller of the Century have again done an excellent job. As someone whose ‘O’ level Spanish is very rusty indeed I’m constantly amazed at the skill translators apply to original texts, making the resulting words flow as if they were in the author’s native language.

Fingers crossed for Traveller of the Century in the IMPAC contest (one of five translated novels on the shortlist). I’ll be back with another Landing Bookshelves selection soon but meanwhile, drop me a line if you have any IMPAC recommendations.

Credits: Thanks again to Pushkin Press for a copy of the novel.

Boris Pasternak: Doctor Zhivago

As I mentioned previously I’m continuing with my Russian theme by reading Doctor Zhivago (Boris Pasternak) which I had for Christmas (it seems ages ago now!) In keeping with my usual mode of practice, the good doctor has had to give way to a couple of other reads, including Nancy Mitford, Andrés Neuman and Kader Abdolah but I do keep returning to him after straying.

Doctor Zhivago

My Christmas Present…

Finally, I have reached the home straight in Doctor Zhivago, the penultimate chapter, at which point the revolution has the country in its tenacious grip. Life is ruled by committees and many, many regulations which it is not safe to ignore. Yuri Zhivago, now living once more in Moscow has seen his life change immeasurably by war and revolution. He has suffered hunger, violence and fear as well as experiencing great passion, as he became caught up in his nation’s struggle to throw off centuries of Tsarist rule. Given that Putin‘s Russia is so much in the news lately it has proved to be an appropriate time to read about the course of events that would eventually lead to the present political landscape.

As usual in my posts, I am trying to avoid plot spoilers but in this case, I think it is highly likely that many of you will have at least seen the film version (possibly more than once) so the broad outline of the plot will already be familiar. To many people I’m sure, Omar Sharif will always be Yuri and Julie Christie, Lara (Larissa) no matter how many times they may read the book. Apart from ‘Lara’s Theme’ and Sharif’s melting eyes my abiding memories of the film are the ambiguous personalities of Strelnikov (Lara’s husband Antipov) and Yevgraf (Yuri’s half brother) played by Tom Courtney and Alec Guinness respectively. And lots and lots of snow covering the Russian landscape against which Yuri’s wife Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin) appears luxuriously swathed in furs.

The strap line on the cover of my edition of the novel declares that Doctor Zhivago is ‘One of the greatest love stories ever told’ but there is much more to the book than that. The novel spans a period of intense upheaval in Russian history, as experienced by Yuri Zhivago, his family and friends. There is a huge cast of characters apart from those I’ve mentioned above, who participate in the momentous events described in the book. Yuri encounters people from different factions during the course of the book, some of whom he meets more than once during his various ordeals. Sometimes it seems to stretch credibility that so many coincidences of meeting seem to occur to Yuri, but overall I didn’t find that this detracted from the novel. Rather it created a sense of life not being lived in a neatly linear way; links between people who are not always apparent on the surface that affect our lives.

Doctor Zhivago: First Edition

Italian First Edition

The plot teems with life and death and it gives the reader a fascinating insight to the terrible realities of the struggle between the Whites and the Bolsheviks after the carnage of World War I. Pasternak was writing from a position of uncertain safety since he had fallen foul of Stalin’s regime to the extent that his book could not be published in his own country. The manuscript was eventually smuggled to Italy for publication. The translators of my edition, Max Hayward and Manya Harari (1958) pay tribute to Pasternak’s poetic prose style fearing that they haven’t done justice to his use of language.

Here is a passage from early on in the novel when Yuri’s wife Tonya has just given birth to their first child:

Raised higher, closer to the ceiling than is usual with ordinary mortals, Tonya lay exhausted in the cloud of her spent pain. To Yuri she seemed like a barque lying at rest in the middle of a harbour after putting in and being unloaded, a barque which plied between an unknown country and the continent of life across the waters of death with a cargo of new immigrant souls. One such soul had just landed, and the ship now lay at anchor, resting in the lightness of her empty flanks. The whole of her was resting, her strained masts and hull, and her memory washed clean of the image of the other shore, the crossing and the landing. 

I think the translators certainly did justice to one of the most moving passages on childbirth that I have ever read. Having said that, my grammar checker insists that the first sentence is a fragment and needs revising…proof if it is needed, that it’s not always wise to listen to machines…

I’ll be finishing Doctor Zhivago in a day or so (provided that I can pass the ‘Quick Pick’ shelf in the library without looking) and I will need to make a decision about the next Landing Book Shelves read.

More on that soon but meanwhile do drop me a line below or on Twitter if you have any challenging suggestions…

When Omar Met Julie: Doctor Zhivago on Film

I’m still reading Doctor Zhivago, having been side tracked by a couple of other books along the way. As I was getting further into the book, I realised that even though it is years since I last saw David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago, I still see Omar Sharif and Julie Christie in my mind’s eye as I read.

Doctor Zhivago

My Christmas Present…

That’s my excuse for this quick post featuring a lovely sequence of clips from the film. I hope you enjoy it; I’m just off to read a little more of ‘One of the greatest love stories ever told’.

I’ll post up more on Doctor Zhivago soon.

Credit: Uploaded to YouTube on 17 Dec 2009 by IluvKenji (with thanks)

Musings on Tolstoy’s Women

War and Peace, first edition

First edition, 1869

Now that I’ve finished my mammoth Tolstoy reading challenge, I’ve been trying to come up with an angle for a blog post on War and Peace without plot spoiling for any new readers. I was fortunate enough to begin Tolstoy’s opus with only a hazy idea of the plot and the knowledge that the background was Napoleon’s 1812 campaign. I studiously avoided discovering a synopsis of the novel, wishing to discover the intricacies for myself.

My search for a blog theme proved tricky, as I am sure you can imagine, working with such a long novel full of plot twists and turns. In the end, I have come down to the idea of looking at Tolstoy’s female characters, if I can do so without giving too much vital information away. The novel has a long cast list that includes several important female characters who are involved in the main threads of the drama. The women are members of the small group of families that the story follows during the years leading up to 1812 and the fall of Moscow. Here is a snap shot of some of Tolstoy’s women, as we meet them in Part I:

I think I will have to begin with Natasha (Natalie) Rostov as her part in the story is so crucial. The members of the Rostov family as a whole are very likeable but Natasha seems to be the bright, vivacious heart of the household. At the beginning of the novel, she is still a young girl who is not yet ‘out’ whose close companion is her cousin Sonja who lives as a sister with the family. The two girls are very close friends despite (or perhaps because of) their differing personalities. We first meet Natasha on her and her mother’s fête day, which was celebrated with a huge party attended by anyone and everyone. You get a glimpse of the daughter’s possible future in Tolstoy’s description of the elder Natasha as ‘evidently worn out with child-bearing – she was the mother of a dozen children. Her languid movements and slow speech due to her frail health gave her an air of dignity which inspired respect’.

All this is still a long way off for young Natasha who at this stage is still a child who ‘with her black eyes and wide mouth was not pretty but she was full of life’ and still enjoying childish games. Still apparently not much more than a child (and yet already with child) was Lisa Meinen, married to Prince Bolkonsky. Her first appearance is at a small party given by Anna Pavlovna who is one of the Empress Marie’s maids of honour. Lisa hardly seems to be a woman at all, but a child in grown-up costume. Everyone refers to her as the ‘little princess’ and ‘enjoyed seeing this lovely young creature so full of life and gaiety, soon to become a mother and bearing her burden so lightly’. The only person who seems not to be enamoured of the little princess is her husband, ‘the face of his pretty little wife was apparently the one that bored him most. With a grimace that distorted his handsome countenance he turned away from her’. I won’t say any more about their relationship in case I give too much away.

Prince Bolkonsky’s sister Marie is mentioned early on in the novel, during Anna Pavlovna’s reception as a possible bride for Prince Vasili’s son Anatole. He’s costing his father a fortune so a suitable heiress is required to plug the hole in the family finances. Princess Marie is devoted to her eccentric, tyrannical father and to her religious duties. Tolstoy mentions Marie’s ‘beautiful eyes’ several times but she is not beautiful or lively in the mould of Natasha or Lisa. She has a ‘heavy tread’ and a ‘thin, sickly face’ which appeared beautiful when her eyes shone with tears or emotion.

In complete contrast is Prince Vasili’s daughter Hélène who is very beautiful and fully aware of her charms, ‘she even appeared a little apologetic for her unquestionable, all too conquering beauty. She seemed to wish but to be able to tone down its effect’. Hélène is described by Tolstoy as being ‘statuesque’ which is a clear contrast to the delicate girl/woman figures of Natasha and Lisa. At this early stage of the story all we can glean about Prince Vasili’s daughter is that she has great beauty and a wonderful figure which she is not shy about displaying. She is a blank canvas compared to the other women, whose personalities we can glimpse soon after meeting them.  

I’ll leave my introductions to some of Tolstoy’s women at that, in the hope that if you have never tackled War and Peace, you do decide to at some point in the future.  As I mentioned before, I am continuing a Russian theme with Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago which I will post about soon.   

How is your New Year reading going?


Doctor Zhivago: More Russian Literature

Doctor Zhivago

My Christmas Present…

This reading year is beginning briskly with Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago (Vintage Books) which is a new resident on the Landing Book Shelves. Pasternak’s epic novel was a Christmas present from He Who Put The Shelves Up to enable me to continue my Russian reading period after finishing War and Peace. I just managed to finish the latter on the cusp of the New Year and I can still feel a modest glow of success at that achievement. Now that I’ve finally read War and Peace I would like to go on to read more of Tolstoy’s work, so perhaps that might be a possibility for later this year.

I haven’t yet set any aims for this reading year but my broad plan will be to continue to tackle long neglected novels (and perhaps auto/biographies too). I was interested to come across a similar challenge on Twitter where writer Lynn Shepherd is inviting people to join her in reading Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa beginning tomorrow. A mammoth literary task if ever there was one (see @Lynn_Shepherd for more information and to join in).

I hope to tie up War and Peace with one more blog post (if I can manage to write something without plot spoiling) and I will give an update on the Doctor Zhivago progress as soon as possible. I’m toying with a couple more ideas for future reads as well, so watch this space!

Meanwhile why not drop me a line below to let everyone know about your 2014 reading challenges. Happy New Reading Year to one and all!

More on the War and Peace Challenge

This short War and Peace post is a diversion from the actual text of the novel, being a clip from the 1956 film version of Tolstoy’s novel. I’ve never seen a screen version of War and Peace so recently I trawled  YouTube to investigate what adaptations had been made. Imagine the delight of a Audrey Hepburn fan on finding that the future the star of My Fair Lady (1964) once played the part of Natasha Rostov. I’m not sure that she was right for the role (possibly an unfair observation given that I’ve neither finished the book nor yet seen the film) but in the snatches that I’ve looked at she’s never less than as delightful as usual.

The clip below is taken from the scene depicting her first ball and her first dance with Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, which is the part I had got up to reading last night:

Having read that scene last night, I’d say that the filmed version doesn’t really capture Natasha’s experience of the ball or her emotions on dancing with Andrei; very Hollywood-ish. Neither am I convinced by Mel Ferrer as Andrei, though perhaps he was cast in the part as he was Hepburn’s husband at the time.

Meanwhile I am loving the novel, though I have broken it up with another couple of library reads. I’ll do a more detailed post next time.

Now all I want for Christmas is….

YouTube credits: uploaded on 17/5/12 (Movieclips)

War and Peace was directed by King Vidor and produced by Carlo Ponti