I'm about the embark on War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, one of the greatest of all books. I have been put off by the length, by the fact that I didn't think I would understand it, by all kinds of prejudices which I cannot explain. I thought it would be dull. There now.
My cousin read it last year and I have never heard anybody say a) that they finished it or b) that they enjoyed it and she is not the sort of woman who would piss you about for form's sake so I duly bought a copy and put it away. Coward! Or maybe just what my favourite psychologist says is procrastination and sometimes procrastination takes you to a better place to begin something.
This afternoon I sat down in the summerhouse and began looking at it. I don't know why I thought I wouldn't like it. I love Victorian novelists, Elizabeth Gaskell, Anthony Trollope. I adore Edith Wharton, I'm gaining on Henry James. There was something so fascinating about their books. Their plots are big and wide and complex and so are their characters. Best of all women feature largely. I don't know about Dickens I think I had him thrown at me at school and therefore don't care for him but that doesn't seem fair. I will give him another shot. Yes, some of his heroines were clots but that was the way some things worked at that time and he does character building like nobody else.Writers are of their time.
My cousin told me that I had to get a good translation, this was the key to success and I think I have. Also I have done some reading and now know a great deal about the man himself, his problems and his failures and his triumphs.
There is great argument about whether it's a novel and about the kind of language which he uses. Apparently in translation, which has many options, a lot of the repetition which he used is scrubbed out or changed. We are taught not to use repetition. The funny thing about it is that last night I restarted my current working effort and the first page is full of repetition, as I meant it to be, it's all about mood and atmosphere.
Tolstoy works on many levels. For a start he writes in Russian, French and German. Then he is actually a historical novelist whereas most people of the nineteenth century seem to write about their own times but he chose the Napoleonic wars. Or it chose him. I'm never quite sure how that kind of thing works.
So it was a new kind of book in that he weaves in and out of the story, he talks about all sorts of stuff, they call it authorial intrusion, I love to use it but generally it's not done. I like that he does it and I look forward to all the methods he makes use of. There are no rules, only some people would like to make them. I remember reading Smilia's Feeling for Snow and it's a mess of a book and blindingly brilliant. I always loved it, all prose and poetry and ideas, weaving in and out all over the place and that's really all that matters. If you are caught up the ideas, then the writer has a successful book be it novel or no.
Tolstoy's parents died when he was a small boy and obviously he needed a good kick up the arse when he was young and lost the family house, a country estate I think, playing cards. I would have clipped his lugs all round the house but of course if I'd been there as his mother he wouldn't have owned the house and couldn't have lost it because I would have sorted it out so that he couldn't. He became a soldier and finally at thirty five ( which is when most men grasp the idea ) he married and settled down and spent five years writing this book. That's what writers need, a place to be, somebody who loves them, the space which becomes vacant that you write into when you have peace. So it may have been war but Tolstoy was at peace and I'm looking forward to sitting in my summer house over the next few weeks getting to know the joys of this man's prose and poetry. I'm sure he speaks my language.
By the way the title is the translation, literally, of kapli kapali The bit goes
'Drops dripped. Quiet talk went on. Horses neighed and scuffled. Someone snored.'
Isn't that beautiful?