Reading the classics – Russian literature

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has galvanised most of the rest of the world in a way that one suspects Vladimir Putin did not expect. Economic sanctions have been imposed, Ukraine is being supplied with large scale weaponry to help it defend itself and organisations everywhere are questioning the participation of Russians in sport and the arts. Wimbledon will not be welcoming Russian and Belarussian participants this year. The Royal Opera House cancelled performances by the Bolshoi ballet scheduled for the summer. I read a news article this week about how Ukrainian citizens have been pulling down statues of Russian historical figures and renaming streets named after them, making their own views about Russian culture pretty clear. Days before Russia invaded Ukraine, I had just started to read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. After 24th February, I asked myself whether I should be setting the book aside.

Fyodor Dostoevsky (or is it Dostoyevsky?) 1821-1881

Dostoevsky’s work pre-dates modern Russian history by some margin: he was born in 1821 in Moscow. He travelled widely in Europe and was for some time addicted to gambling, running up significant debts as a consequence. He died of a pulmonary haemorrhage in St Petersburg in 1881 aged 59. He is undoubtedly one of the greats of world literature and was writing at the time of what is considered to be the golden age of Russian literature; he was a contemporary (or near-contemporary) of the likes of Gogol, Pushkin, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Chekhov. Dostoevsky is perhaps one of the greatest novelists ever and Crime and Punishment (first published 1865-66) is perhaps one of the greatest novels ever. That surely makes it a must-read whatever the geopolitical situation.

Dostoevsky has always been celebrated in Russia although his own politics are not easily defined. He was sentenced to penal servitude in Siberia at one point in his early life, for speaking out against the Tsar. This got him a sentence of four years, whereas Raskolnikov, the central character in Crime and Punishment , gets a mere eight years for a brutal double murder! Dostoyevsky was a Christian and decried the decline of ‘true faith’ in Europe in the nineteenth century in favour of secular constitutions.

My edition – with the old-fashioned spelling!

Raskolnikov manages to flee undetected, and the blame for the crime is pinned on a decorator working in the building at the time (he confesses!). But Raskolnikov is unable to live with his culpability. I use this term deliberately because it is clear that what our perpetrator feels is somewhat short of guilt, and certainly not remorse. Large parts of this novel are extended internal debates Raskolnikov has with himself, justifying his actions, but also fearing capture. He is paranoid about being caught by the wily police investigator Porfiry Petrovich. He becomes gravely ill (somatic sickness triggered by his mental torture) and is cared for by his loyal friend Razumikhin, as well as his long-suffering mother and sister.

Raskolnikov is not a likeable character and the devotion of his friend, mother and sister seem misplaced. The book is littered with other unlikeable characters, also of dubious moral fibre, from Dunya’s cold-hearted fiance Luzhin, to the drunk Marmeladov, who spends all his money at the tavern while his wife and children starve, to the malevolent Svidrigailov who lusts after Dunya and tries to blackmail Raskolnikov after overhearing him confess to the saintly Sonya (step-daughter of Marmeladov). Raskolnikov wants us to see his crime as merely on a spectrum of immorality; all men are bad, and he is not really that much worse.

The novel is profound and interesting and examines the state of mind of a particular type of criminal in a particular setting. A highly self-absorbed and entitled young man who cites poverty as the main reason for his actions. It so happens that I have also just finished reading Notes on an Execution by Danya Kukafka, a contemporary novel which also explores the mind of a killer. The central character there, a damaged young man who never really recovers from feelings of abandonment by his mother at a young age, also philosophises on his actions and invites us to consider how much worse he really is than others. Look out for my review of that shortly.

So, yes, we should still be reading, watching and listening to the giants of Russian culture because these are rooted in a history and reflect a people that is entirely separate from the present regime in Russia. The likes of Dostoevsky were established as great long before the present Russian leader came along and will remain so long after he is gone.

I will be reading Ukrainian classic Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov next. Waterstones is donating the proceeds of all sales of this book to Oxfam’s Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal.

Reading the classics – “Far From the Madding Crowd” by Thomas Hardy

One of the great joys of my life has been to have had the privilege to spend a solid three years of my life engaging with the classics of English literature (University of London, 1990). I have a particular passion for nineteenth and early twentieth century literature and one of my favourites is Thomas Hardy. I read all of his major (and many of his minor) works. I was very young when I read them though and had had nothing like the life experience I have now – of falling in and out of love, getting married, having children, dealing with deaths, dark times, joyful times and the like. Hardy is therefore a particularly interesting author to come back to later in life, when you have been through all those ups and downs of life.

Far From the Madding Crowd

I was delighted when my book club decided we’d read Far From the Madding Crowd. Although it is not my “favourite” Hardy novel, it definitely makes my top five. My favourite is Jude the Obscure, or at least it used to, but perhaps my feelings would be different now, closely followed by Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which I studied at school (a ‘first love’ if you like). I adore the Roman Polanski film adaptation from 1980, starring Nastassja Kinski which is so loyal to the book.

Bathsheba Everdene is one of English literature’s iconic female characters. Young, spirited, independent and ambitious, Hardy puts her in a position of power (running a business, a thriving farm) which would have been rare for women at the time. Hardy also allows his female characters to feel lust, passion and to follow through on their desires. They are even allowed to have sex! Poor, unfortunate Fanny Robin, pregnant out of wedlock by Sergeant Troy, dies penniless in childbirth. Hardy might even be considered an early feminist writer.

I experienced Far From the Madding Crowd on audio this time, a 2020 release narrated by Olivia Vinall, which was brilliant. It takes a particular skill to get the voices of the opposite sex right and the narrator achieves this extremely well, conveying very successfully the variations in character between Bathsheba’s suitors, Gabriel Oak, Farmer Boldwood and Sergeant Troy. I also loved her narration of the rural scenes with the farmworkers which could have been patronising, but were not.

This book is pure joy and so many of Hardy’s passages are simply breathtaking. I frequently found myself bookmarking chapters on the audio so that when I got home I could look up the printed version and immerse myself all over again.

Dorset
Puddletown in Dorset, renamed Weatherbury in Far from the Madding Crowd

In my book club we also watched the most recent film version, from 2015 starring Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts and Michael Sheen. It was beautifully shot, wonderful to look at (because of Hardy, Dorset is my favourite English county); Wessex is well and truly captured. For me, however, it had a couple of fundamental flaws; firstly, it is simply too short! At a little under two hours it cannot deal effectively with all the themes explored in the book and so it is distilled down mainly to the slow-burning love story of Bathsheba and Gabriel. Neither is there sufficient time to truly justify the transition of its main protagonists. Secondly, Carey Mulligan, much as I love her as an actor, is, for me, just too old for the role. By my reckoning she would have been about ten years older than Bathsheba and I think she just comes across as too ‘experienced’, particularly at the beginning.

I have found a great blog from 2017 comparing the different film and television adaptations by Jennifer Rose Writes which seems to favour the original 1967 version starring Julie Christie. At three hours in length it might address at least one of my complaints about the 2015 film. It goes to show how audiences’ tastes and tolerances have changed. So, I am off to watch that.

The classics are classics for a reason – they bear multiple re-readings and it has been such a pleasure to come back to Hardy after so many years. I am resolved to make this a more regular pursuit. Next up, Crime and Punishment, I think.

The art of re-reading – “To the Lighthouse” by Virginia Woolf

I’m not a big re-reader; I often feel overwhelmed by the amount of books that I still desire to read so the thought of going back to something I’ve already ticked off the list can feel like a waste of time! I still haven’t quite accepted that I probably don’t have enough years left in my life to get through all the books I will want to read (perhaps not even the books in my TBR pile!). The joy of reading, though, is not about who can read the most, who has the most impressive library or can quote most extensively from their bookish knowledge. It is about the individual and the solitary pleasure of getting lost in a story. And you can do that in the same book many times over, if it’s good enough and if you love it enough. Re-reading gives a pleasure all of its own.

To The Lighthouse imgI had that very experience recently with my book club when we decided to read To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. Some of us had read it before (though years earlier) others had not read it at all. But even those of us who had read it before could not remember very much about it! I read it when I was studying for my English degree 30 years ago; I would probably have got through most of Virginia Woolf’s books in a very short space of time, because that was what my degree entailed – reading lots and lots of books very quickly! I always remembered that To The Lighthouse was my favourite, but I could not honestly have told you what happens in it, except that the journey to the eponymous lighthouse was about something desired more than something fulfilled.

Coming to it again, therefore, was a perfect pleasure and I am so glad we chose it. I read it of course, through totally different eyes. I was in my early twenties when I read it first and now I am…somewhat older! I am a mother of three children and so I saw aspects of the novel that I simply could not have understood fully before. By happy coincidence, the current lockdown gave me the opportunity to read it in three long sittings, which this book definitely deserves. I became totally absorbed in the life of the Ramsay household, the inner world of the characters thrown uneasily together in the Skye summer house and the quest for something unattainable.

The other difference was that when I read it all those years ago, I was the student and the reading would have been for a different purpose – to write an essay, spot the references or the autobiographical aspects. This time I read it just for itself.

Re-reading is definitely something I would like to do more of. One of the opportunities this period of lockdown offers is a suspension of all normal routines, time proceeds differently and I feel less boxed-in to my usual routines. I feel we have stepped off the treadmill. We will be desperate to get back on it soon enough, no doubt, especially as the economy teeters, but until then my next re-read is going to be Ulysses. I first read it on a lazy week’s holiday in Spain about twenty years ago (pre-children!) – I think it deserves my time again now!

Are you a re-reader or do you tend mainly to read new titles, like me?

 

Book review – “Lord of the Flies” by William Golding

When I announced that this book was May’s choice for my Facebook reading challenge (theme, a 20th century classic), there were mixed feelings – it seems a few of our participants had studied it at school for their ‘O’ level English Literature (predecessor to the GCSE for anyone young enough not to know!). Some were delighted…others less so! I did not study this at school, but I read it at University (I did an English degree). My childhood home was not one filled with books, though I spent a great deal of time at my local library, so when I went to University I had a lot of catching up to do on many of the classics. Golding’s book is one of those and is widely considered to be one of the all-time great novels.

2019-06-12 15.24.56
My lovely 1965 edition of Lord of the Flies is older than me and has a cover price of three shillings and sixpence!

Lord of the Flies was Golding’s first novel, published in 1954. I doubt many people could name any of his other works (I couldn’t!), although he won the Booker Prize in 1980 for his novel Rites of Passage, and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1983. He died in 1993 at the age of 81. Lord of the Flies has been adapted three times for the big screen, and several times for stage and radio.

The basic plot is that a group of boys (thought to number about thirty, but it’s not entirely clear) are marooned on a Pacific island following a wartime evacuation attempt that ends in a plane crash. There are no adult survivors and the boys, ranging in age from perhaps nine to thirteen years, must learn quickly to survive. Three main characters emerge: Ralph and Jack are the two alpha-males of the group, but have very different instincts about the priorities, and Piggy, an overweight, severely near-sighted boy, probably of lower class than Ralph and Jack, who proves to be the most thoughtful, sensible and self-aware but who lacks the leadership skills to wield any power.

Initially, the boys attempt to organise, with Ralph at the helm. His primary concern is that they should get rescued and stay alive and safe until then. He meets resistance in the form of Jack, who is less keen on the rules and disciplines that Ralph wants to impose. His priorities are “fun” and hunting animals so that they can eat meat. As the days and weeks pass morale drops, particularly among the younger boys, many of whom are clearly terrified. They fear the darkness and the heavy forest on the island and what may be lurking within it – they imagine a terrible beast. Order begins to break down and powerful instincts surface. There is a terrible power struggle between Jack and Ralph which intensifies as the novel progresses. Factions form around the two leaders and the behaviours become increasingly reckless. Simon, one of the other older boys, and a sensitive soul, is killed in a case of mistaken identity, the now savage and adrenalin-fuelled group around Jack believing in his night-time approach to the camp, that he is in fact the much-feared “beast” they imagine stalks them.

Simon’s death at the hands of those who were once his schoolmates, unleashes further savagery, like the genie is out of the bottle. There is also, however, a kind of denial; it seems only Piggy recognises and is able to articulate the danger they are in – from themselves! It seems inevitable that Piggy should also die, brutally; Roger crashes a boulder onto him during a fight between Ralph and Jack in which Piggy is trying to intervene. Jack’s group would have killed Ralph too had it not been for the timely arrival of a rescue ship.

Although it was written in the early 1950s, this is very much a post-war book for me in which the author is reflecting on the base levels human beings can reach. If you simply scratch the surface of society you will find some instincts most of us would rather not admit to. A modern reading of the novel might also see the hazards of excessive masculinity and how lust for power can easily corrupt. You can also look at how easy it is for followers to forget their own moral codes and normal standards of behaviour when seduced by charismatic or persuasive leadership. The younger boys are unable to face the reality of their situation, stranded on a remote island, with an unknown chance of rescue, and the picture of excitement that Jack offers, playing at hunting, escapism from their problems, leads them to follow him down a dangerous path.

Whilst re-reading this book, I couldn’t help thinking about the current political turmoil we are in, both in the UK and globally. Some social norms seem to me to be breaking down. And when it came to the Jack/Ralph power struggle the Conservative party leadership contest came to mind! The only thing I couldn’t decide – who in our current crop of politicians is Piggy?!

A must-read for anyone wanting to gain a serious understanding of English literature.

Did you read Lord of the Flies as a teenager – can you remember what you thought of it?

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Facebook Reading Challenge – May’s book

The months are passing at a rapid rate and I can’t believe it is already time to consider a new book for my Facebook Reading Challenge. Last month the theme was travel writing and I chose Colin Thubron’s To A Mountain in TibetI have to confess that, almost a week into the new month, I still have not finished it. Although I am enjoying it, it is a very slow read. Something about the way it is written makes my reading pace reduce to the author’s speed of ascent up the mountain! I wish I could say look out for the review next week but I have had to set it to one side to speed-read my book club book, which I had forgotten all about…

lord of the flies img

It will get finished, of course, and I posted a video on the Facebook group’s page last week announcing this month’s book which is William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. A few people replied to say they had done it for ‘O’ level – I am sure they are of a similar age to me, but it was obviously not my year, as I had forgotten that it’s a favourite set text for 16 year-olds. Most people seemed happy to be reading it again though. You can see things in a completely different way when you come back to a book, particularly after a number of years and a number of life changes. My recent re-read of Perfume (the March choice for the Reading Challenge) gave me an insight into that.

 

So, if you care to join us for the challenge this month, hop on over to the group’s Facebook page and request to join, or else just read along and let me know your thoughts when I post a review in early June.

Happy reading!

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Book Review: “Madame Bovary” by Gustave Flaubert

My Facebook Reading Challenge 2018 is well underway and March’s theme was a classic. I chose Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert’s 1857 classic, because it seemed to fit well with a lot of the women’s issues around and being discussed at the moment, particularly gender equality and sexual exploitation. It is fair to say that it had a mixed reception among the readers on the Facebook group!

2018-02-22 14.12.54I had read this book previously, but many years ago as an undergraduate, so whilst I had remembered the basic story, I had forgotten much of the detail. I had forgotten for example just how brilliant the writing is and how very like Jane Austen Flaubert can be in his use of irony. By all accounts, Flaubert was a perfectionist and spent years on this book; it is certainly masterful and for me the writing was sublime. I had also forgotten how unlikeable all the characters are! Even Emma, our supposed “heroine”, is at times unpleasant, childish, selfish, superficial and self-obsessed. When I discussed it with my husband (who speaks fluent French and read it in the original) he was surprised that I did not find Charles Bovary, Emma’s husband, sympathetic. Interesting that he felt affection for the long-suffering, betrayed husband who loved his wife to the death, despite her many faults, whereas I found him ineffectual and basically unable to connect with his wife on any level, and that was part of the problem in their marriage.

I don’t think even Flaubert liked his characters and I think it was the intention of the author that we stand with him and examine the people he puts before us, with all their flaws. I believe he wants us also to dig a little deeper and examine the French provincial society that gave rise to Emma. As a young woman she lives a dull and uninteresting life with her widowed father on a farm, until the day she marries Charles, a physician in a neighbouring town, and goes to live a dull and uninteresting life with him. Passed from one man’s home to the next. Emma would not have had expectations, but she was an intelligent woman and the kind of life she was forced to lead did not fulfil her deeper needs. She is a woman of deep passions, but there is no outlet for them, apart from the romantic novels she devours. Certainly, Charles does not really do it for her! “Charles’s conversation was as flat as any pavement.”

Flaubert hints that Emma’s lack of fulfilment may be dangerous when he observes, after she and Charles were invited to an aristocratic ball, where she glimpses how the other half live and begins to fantasise:

“This life of hers was as cold as an attic that looks north; and boredom, quiet as the spider, was spinning its web in the shadowy places of her heart.”

What a sentence! Emma is naïve and inexperienced, however. Her life has been limited and she sees events in the most superficial of ways:

“She confused in her desire, sensual luxury with true joy, elegance of manners with delicacy of sentiment.”

Flaubert doesn’t expect us to like Emma very much, but I think he wants us to see her as a product of a time and a place, not as wilful and malicious.

Seduced by romantic fantasy, Emma takes lovers, both of whom are equally selfish and unpleasant. Whilst she is clearly a willing participant in her adultery, there is no doubt that both Leon and Rodolphe exploit Emma. When Emma’s reckless behaviour leads her to run up unsustainable debts, the town’s notary, from whom she has been borrowing money, also exploits her. When he requests sexual favours in return for his continued discretion we can see how deeply lost Emma’s situation is and how as a woman she has almost no power or autonomy. Her response to him, is when we begin to see for the first time something more admirable in her spirit:

“You are taking insolent advantage of my distress, monsieur. I may be in a pitiful state, but I am not up for sale!”

Parts of the book are heavy going, but it is in Part Three that we see the tragic coming-together of events, the closing-in on Emma of all the consequences of her misguided actions, her falsehoods, and the tremendous dislike she accrued. She is not a nice woman – she betrayed her husband, who did not understand her, but loved her in his own way, rejected her daughter and treated those about her with contempt. She was the architect of her own downfall, but she was also a victim of heartless men, of social norms and conventions that failed women like her and gave them no outlet.

She is a difficult heroine for us, but one who makes us think, for sure. Recommended because it’s just one of those books you have to read!

Do you find it hard to connect with the classics? What is your favourite?

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