Inner War….and Peace…

Time. There’s never enough of it. But, for too long now, I’ve very much needed it to slow down – so, once the end-of-term mayhem had drawn to a close, I made myself draw up my paddle, stopped travelling in ever maddening circles, and during the summer holidays, allowed myself to go with the slower flow that ebbs, often unseen, around the worries and stresses. There, in that place, is to be found the small, the essential, the detailed; all those mind-space openers that let in the larger picture and allow you to actually get somewhere.

Somehow, that more relaxed frame of mind opens up more time; unfolds it from previously hidden corners, and makes room for the savouring of small, important moments with the people we love. It pushes out and ignores those warring inner demands that so often distract and break in and shrink time to an awful paralysis. We can’t do everything – so we might as well just clear a space and let ourselves breathe.

Now, of course, with the arrival of autumn, with all its get-back-to-normal routines, the paddle is once more twitching with the turbulent pull of conflicting currents. But alongside that, back in the slow flow, I’m making a further investment in Time by embarking on a literary journey. It’s a momentous one, and a voyage that I can already feel tugging my mental sails out to a wide and satisfying ocean…

On the day the children went back to school, I lingered by my bookshelves, devoting some quiet moments to that delicious task of choosing my next read. When my mind is distracted, my thoughts scattered, the choice on my shelves can be perplexing; there are so many unread volumes and re-reads demanding attention. But, that day, the pull towards War and Peace was so strong, so insistent I knew that, for me, this was “Its Time.”

I took down that hefty tome; a treasure saved up for that “Perfect Moment” when life would not be too busy, my mind and attention not too fractured by inner tugs of war. But War and Peace is not a novel for that “Perfect Moment” (which, in truth, I know will never come). It’s a novel for Life; in all its variety and strife and happening and complexity. That insistent pull towards (at last!) beginning the novel was a liberating invitation to follow – come what may. So, ignoring the twitching paddle, I stepped into the flow, and started to read…

Picture of Penguin Classics edition of War and Peace

I’m now three hundred or so pages into Anthony Briggs’s (Penguin Classics) translation of Tolstoy’s masterpiece; deep in its heart beats, detail, scope and moment – and in the wide breathing space for the essential that this novel – and all great literature – gives us. A real getting somewhere.

Hopefully though, during that voyage, I’ll be able to pull a few rafts alongside the main ship and fill them up with blog posts about my slow-flow summer – a summer of shooting stars, curious seals, leaping dolphins, bookshops and Shakespeare…

It’s going to be a bit of a dodge around the months and across Britain – from June to the present, from Northumberland to Wales, from red squirrels to red kites…and, in truth, I’m beginning to panic at the thought of all that catching up…

But…no, I won’t succumb…out damn’d paddle! Let’s go with the flow!


4 thoughts on “Inner War….and Peace…

  1. Hello Melanie, good to see you back, as it were. (Of course, I realise you haven’t been away, but since my sole contact with you is via this blog, it seems as if you have.) And it’s good to read that you made yourself some time and space for a summer sojourn. Unfortunately, our summer months were rather fraught for various reasons, but we’ve come through, and are none the worse for it all.

    But what a coincidence that you’re reading “War and Peace”! As you may remember from the old BBC Books Board, it’s a book that virtually obsesses me. And that, for a group read on that board, I had posted detailed synopses for each part. Now, only a couple of days ago, I received an e-mail from LizzieSiddal (formerly of the BBC books board: she has also been known to use the screen name Lancastrian Nomad) asking me if I still had those synopses, and, if I did, if I’d mind putting them up on my own blog, as she was now involved in another internet group read of that novel. Flattered beyond words that my notes are remembered after so long, I readily agreed, and am now in the process of correcting the various careless errors (my proofreading is even worse than my typing!), and posting them, part by part, on my own blog. I hope to have them all up there within the next few days.

    I discovered “War and Peace” when I was 13, having been enthralled by the BBC dramatisation featuring Antony Hopkins as Pierre. That summer of 1973, I remember, I devoured that book, and I return to it (and to its sister novel, Anna Karenina) at fairly regular intervals. I instantly became a devotee of the 19th century Russians, and greedily took in any 19th century Russian work I could get hold of – other works by Tolstoy (I actually have memories of saving up my pennies in a tin box so I could buy my own copy of “Anna Karenina”), by Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, Chekhov. And even lesser-known writers – Leskov, Goncharov, Saltykov-Schedrin (now, there’s a name to conjure with!), and so on. And, of course, Dostoyevsky. I have very ambivalent feelings about Dostoyevsky these days: there are elements that strike me as extraordinarily powerful, but there are also other elements that make me merely scratch my head in perplexity. But back then, I was utterly overwhelmed, and absorbed it all uncritically. I still remember reading “The Brothers Karamazov” when I was 15 – and I couldn’t tear myself away from it. On Christmas Day, 1975, we had, I remember, some guests, but after the Christmas dinner (and the obligatory Christmas Top of the Pops), I remember making some excuse to go to my room (I had eaten too much, need a lie-down … that sort of thing: some excuse was needed, otherwise retiring to my room when we had guests would have been considered too rude … at any rate, I wasn’t above lying!) to read a few more chapters of Dostoyevsky. As I said, I couldn’t tear myself away.

    So you can imagine my delight when, a few days ago, our daughter (who will be 15 I a week or so) told me she fancied reading “The Brothers Karamazov” herself – having, no doubt, become heartily tired of hearing me bang on about it endlessly. I decided on the spot to abandon whatever plans I had for my reading over the next few months, and to read “The Brothers Karamazov” myself at the same time as her, so we could talk about it together.

    Over the years, Tolstoy has grown in my estimation: he ranks with Dickens as my favourite novelist. Dostoyevsky, on the other hand, leaves me puzzled much of the time, although I don’t doubt his greatness, and can still feel the immense power of his works. And I know also the part his novels played in developing my literary perceptions, in opening doors to new regions of the imagination.

    I will report on progress on “The Brothers Karamazov” once I get started. In the meantime, I’d be delighted to hear (read, I mean…) your impressions of “War and Peace”.

    Best regards, Himadri

    • Hello Himadri – so great to “see” you again! Thank you so much for your lovely reply. I’m really sorry to hear you had such a fraught time over the summer – and am relieved to hear you’ve all managed to come through it and to find your feet again. Such fraught times do tend to leave us reverberating with the aftershocks – and, my goodness, finding some sort of equilibrium afterwards is very much needed. In such times, great literature always feels like that central place on the see-saw, where I can return to find a sense of balance, perspective and focus. I can’t imagine life without that really – the books I love have been there as both milestones of possibility and rocks of focus all my life. It’s lovely and so interesting to hear about your very first encounters with War and Peace – how it has accompanied you through your life since you were thirteen! That makes me feel like a very late starter with this novel! But, funnily enough, it feels very much the ‘right’ time for me and War and Peace – though I know that any time would be a right time really. It’s one of those novels you can read at any stage of life and you will find it fits perfectly to where you are at that time, always finding something new or pertinent to the moment and gaining new insights, often finding new empathies and sympathies and gaining understanding with each re-read as your experience grows.

      So interesting too to read about your changing relationship with Dostoyevsky; an example of that different kind of journey we can have alongside the books of our lives. How wonderful that your daughter is embarking on her own journey into The Brothers Karamazov – and that you will be sharing that journey with her. More rich milestones to discovery – for you both! I have yet to read Dostoyevsky (so that’s a new milestone ahead for me!) I look forward to reading about your latest journey in his world! My daughter is currently going through a wonderful flowering of a passion for Shakespeare – I can’t tell you how much that warms my heart. But then I know you’ll understand perfectly how I feel about that!

      Himadri, it’s also so heart warming to read your comment – as always, your passion for War and Peace just sings off the screen! I’ve long known how much you love Tolstoy’s work and, in fact, I thought of you as I took down War and Peace from my shelves. Yes – what an amazing coincidence that you should be in the process of posting up your synopses on your blog. Very timely! And what a coincidence that Lizzie Siddal should be doing an internet W & P group read now! I think I joined the Books Board at the tail end of your War and Peace group read, and so was too late to take part. But, ah…those wonderful group reads…I have such fond, fond memories of them – the voyages through the works of Henry James – and that wonderful revisit to Bleak House, led by Lizzie (such a joy to read and discuss any Dickens – and especially such a brilliant jewel by a top, top favourite author).

      I don’t know why exactly it’s taken me so long to get round to War and Peace. I read Anna Karenina when I was a teenager and it has always remained up there amongst those top favourites of mine. But again, I like to put it down to Fate and the right time – especially with all these coincidences abounding right now! I do admit I was daunted by the sheer length of the novel and those pressures of time. But now I’m reading it, that concern seems so out of the window! It’s a novel with so much flow and charm and grip, when I do get the chance to open its pages, I’m so living its world I’m racing along – but at the same time, am very comforted by the fact that there’s so much more of it left to read – as I don’t want it to end!

      Thanks again for dropping by and commenting, Himadri. See you over at Argumentative Old Git soon (I’ve spied loads of great posts there I’m looking forward to catching up with).

      Best regards,

  2. Hello Melanie,

    Well, the War & peace synopses are all up on my blog now ( Reading through them all as I was correcting the various errors made me want to go back to the book again – but no, it’s “The Brothers Karamazov” for now.

    It’s strange how our literary perspectives develop. Part of it is certainly to do with our individual natures: we all respond to certain things more readily than we do with others; but a great part of it is also what we first came into contact with: these become our formative influences, and everything we encounter afterwards is seen through the filter of what we first came to know and love. There are a great many paths through literary forests, and one cannot tread them all, nor even love them all equally. Amongst other things, I wish I had encountered George Eliot earlier: I was in my mid-thirties by the time I first got round to reading “Middlemarch. And will I ever read through the untranslated edition of “The Canterbury Tales”, or of “Troilus and Creseyde”? Or “The Faerie Queene”? Who knows…

    You must be absolutely delighted that your daughter is showing a passion for Shakespeare. It is important, I think, at least to try to pass one some of our own passions on to our children. Inevitably, children are likely to go through a phase of rebellion when they reject their parents’ values: this usually happens in the teenage years, and is really only to be expected. But if they know what’s there, then there’s every chance that they may return to it – just as I, in my middle age, returned to the Bengali poetry that used to be so dear to my father. At any rate, I doubt your daughter will find a better guide to Shakespeare than yourself.

    All the best for now, Himadri

    • Many thanks, Himadri – what a great resource your synopses are! So wonderfully clear and apposite. I’ve managed to grab some time (it’s half term here this week and spare moments are a bit thin on the ground!) to read through one or two – and I’m already finding them really useful for looking back on the unfolding pattern of the novel, placing various moments and gathering my thoughts on what I’ve read so far. All helpful in focussing reflections on all the ideas War and Peace contains – and the reactions it has already profoundly stirred in me…

      There is such an earthed, direct simplicity to Tolstoy’s style. A deceptive simplicity which, in itself, creates a quiet power and immediacy of connection to the hugeness that lies behind it. This is always present in the novel, but often there are special moments which slow to a deep, moving beauty – and reach out for a truth as if it were tangible in our hands. Those moments have just knocked me for six! I’m in awe at how Tolstoy manages to capture those truths with such a light, luminous touch…

      When I get the chance, I’ll add some comments about this in more detail on the relevant W & P posts on your blog.

      Yes, what a great thing it is to constantly explore those vast ‘literary forests’ …Where to go next? Luckily, so many connections between paths just seem to create themselves, leading us on all sorts of journeys – planned and unexpected. That formative aspect of what we read when we’re young is a wonderfully rich compost, isn’t it. Mine was certainly a very eclectic mix – a magical mystery tour through all sorts of bookish terrain; making for a growing up with a simultaneously disparate and complementary group of wonderful companions – and all sorts of literary alchemy along the way!

      All the best, Melanie

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