Saturday, 8 November 2014

Reasons to Read Anna Karenina, Part 1: The Authenticity of Levin

I shared some thoughts on the introduction to Rosamund Bartlett's translation of Anna Karenina at the start of October, happy to have found a new edition of Tolstoy's classic novel. War and Peace has always seemed to win more of my attention, but I think that's largely due to the diversity of translations available and the rereads I've enjoyed. As a result, I'm so glad there's a new, exciting and high-quality translation of Anna Karenina available as an alternative to the standard Pevear & Volokhonsky found in most bookshops.

I began the book impressed by the introduction, and I'm enjoying it more and more as it progresses. Although it was quite difficult to get used to, I'm appreciating Bartlett's dedication to the original Russian. It's not always pretty and it's often repetitive, but it's accurate, and Bartlett somehow manages to convey a wonderful sense of beauty at the same time. I'll write more about this as I get on with my reading.

Now that I'm in the midst of the novel, I'd like to share a series of posts - focused on the Bartlett translation - encouraging you to give it a go too. This week, let's celebrate one of the most-loved characters of the novel: Konstantin Levin.

Domnhall Gleeson as Konstantin Levin in Joe Wright's adaptation of Anna Karenina

What's so special about Levin?

1. He's innately good, as opposed to so many others in the novel

Levin strives to achieve worthy goals and be a good person, and on the whole he succeeds. He's an idealised figure for Tolstoy, as he becomes for many readers of Anna Karenina, and he's a wonderful character to watch develop.

Hypocrisy in whatever guise can deceive the cleverest and most perceptive person, but the dullest of children will recognise it, however artfully it may be concealed, and be repelled. Whatever Levin's faults, there was not a shred of hypocrisy in him, and so the children displayed to him the same friendliness they found reflected in their mother's face.

2. Yet he's not at all perfect

Levin's story of transformation is a central part of the plot, and we see him progress from an anxious, awkward and confused young man to a happy and settled husband and father. The first part of this story is perhaps the most interesting, and we realise that Levin, just like all of us, has flaws. As one example, we can consider his inner dilemma about how to deal with his troubled brother:

A battle was going on in his heart between the desire to forget now about his unfortunate brother and the recognition that this would be wrong.

2. He feels anxious and self-conscious, although we realise he has no reason to

Levin, like Pierre in War and Peace alongside Tolstoy himself, experiences nerves like the rest of us. In the early stages of the novel, we see him trying to cultivate calm in front of the beautiful and kindhearted Kitty Scherbatsky:

He walked along the path towards the skating-rink, saying to himself: ‘You mustn’t be nervous, you must calm down. What’s the matter with you? Be quiet, stupid!’ he told his heart. But the more he tried to calm down, the more breathless he became.

However, it's not just love that evokes anxiety and self-consciousness in the character:

‘Yes, there is something loathsome and repellent about me,’ thought Levin as he left the Shcherbatskys and set off on foot to see his brother. ‘And I don’t fit in with other people. Pride, they say. No, I don’t have any pride. If I did, I wouldn’t have put myself in such a position.’

3. Tolstoy shows us how he struggles in society

Levin is most at home in the countryside, mindfully turning the hay or roaming his estate with his hunting dog. City life, however, brings out a frantic and unsettled side to Levin:

Whenever he arrived in Moscow, Levin was always agitated, frantic, slightly awkward, and annoyed by this awkwardness and, more often than not, came with some completely new and unexpected way of looking at things.

4. He sees the good in others

Levin isn't just good in himself, he also has a positive outlook that allows him to appreciate the good in others. When Stiva laments that Levin has "everything ahead of [him]" while he feels hopeless, Levin responds, "Surely you don’t have everything behind you?" Levin is a good friend and quick to find a positive instead of a point to criticise: something I know I should remember.

This even extends to Vronsky, Levin's rival standing in the way of his affection for Kitty:

There are people who, when meeting their victorious rival in whatever arena it might be, are immediately ready to turn their back on all that is good about him and see only bad things; and then there are people who, on the contrary, take pains to locate in this victorious rival the qualities with which he defeated them, and who, with an aching heart, look only for good things about him. Levin belonged to the latter category.

Can you relate to Levin and feel inspired by his transformation, as I do? Alternatively, does his character frustrate you slightly?

To all fellow fans of Anna Karenina, what do you love most about the novel: character, theme, or otherwise?

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Saturday, 1 November 2014

Family Life and Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

I wanted you to have an extraordinary life.

- Rosemary's mother, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Often when I find myself in a reading slump, reading too many academic, heavy books is to blame. When it comes to my favourite authors (ahem, Tolstoy), reading is still a joy, but when it comes to books I need to read for some reason or another, I often end up struggling (the Spanish plays from the 1800s I'm reading for university come to mind). The remedy? An exciting novel I can immerse myself in for a few days.

After I kept seeing the bright yellow cover of Karen Joy Fowler's (Man Booker shortlisted) novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, I wanted to see if this was the book for me to be reading. Although it took me a few weeks to start, when I did, it didn't take long to finish, and it successfully got me back into reading again - for fun.

However, rather surprisingly, the novel was nothing like I thought it would be. I picked up the book because I'd been seeing it everywhere, and I like to give a few novels selected for The Man Booker longlist and shortlist a go. I didn't know that the author wrote The Jane Austen Book Club, or that she often wrote science fiction or fantasy.

I'd worked out that the novel was about sibling rivalry - an exciting prospect - from a few glances at the back cover, but I had no idea about the book's central theme. I didn't even give the epigraph from Franz Kafka's "A Report for an Academy" a second thought (although I'll admit I haven't read the short story!) Here's the summary I'd read:

As a child, Rosemary used to talk all the time. So much so that her parents used to tell her to start in the middle if she wanted to tell a story. Now Rosemary has just started college and she barely talks at all. And she definitely doesn’t talk about her family. So we're not going to tell you too much either: you'll have to find out for yourself what it is that makes her unhappy family unlike any other. Rosemary is now an only child, but she used to have a sister the same age as her, and an older brother. Both are now gone - vanished from her life. But there's something unique about Rosemary's sister, Fern. So now she's telling her story; a looping narrative that begins towards the end, and then goes back to the beginning. Twice.

Now, if at this stage you are planning to read the novel, and have not read any detailed reviews (as I had not), I'd recommend you approach it blindly. Pick up the book when you have a few hours of uninterrupted reading time, and see what you think of it. You may be put off slightly by the revelation that arises perhaps a third of the way through the book (I must check the accuracy of this), or you might be intrigued.

For me it was a mixture of both. The novel quickly became something I could relate to (haven't most of us with siblings experienced rivalry at some point?), and I could see some of my own awkwardness yet love for learning in the protagonist, Rosemary. I was keen for this to develop further, but the revelation put a bit of a stop to it.

However, the plot turn did make for very interesting reading. I was grappling to understand the implications on the wider plot, which Rosemary in fact decides to start "at the middle", and my reading pace must have at least doubled at this point. How could the novel possibly end? Regardless of the unexpected big reveal, the central theme I was expected remained: family.

There are countless relationships and friendships at work in this novel, and none remain static. The oft-quoted first lines from Anna Karenina (more on Bartlett's new translation next week) that "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" comes to mind here, and Tolstoy surfaces at various stages in the novel. Keep a look out for these! However, it's a very individual, yet relatable, depiction of family life. Rosemary struggles to find her place in her family, but does reach a sense of clarity, identity and purpose in the novel's closing pages.
Read it and have a think about your own life and ties to others.

That's all I'm going to say about We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. Give it a go, allow Rosemary to tell her story in the way she chooses, and keep your mind open. If I could only give one reason to read this book, this quote would be it:

One day I found a note he'd left for me inside The Fellowship of the Ring. He knew I reread that trilogy often; he knew that the day would come when I'd need the consolation of the Shire, which was as much like Bloomington, Indiana, as any place else in the world.

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Saturday, 25 October 2014

Winter Reading: 9 Books to Keep Warm With in the Coming Months

What makes good winter reading? For me it's all to do with what goes with hot drinks, warm covers and a comfy sofa. Uplifting fiction is good, but I don't choose the same feel-good books I'd go for in summer. I look for real characters who face difficulties, yet show a true love for life instead of disillusionment. I want something well-written and beautifully crafted, and I don't mind if it takes me slightly longer to read.

In an article for The Guardian back in 2011, Alison Flood wrote about the booksellers Waterstones asking authors, "What's your favourite fireside read, the book you go back to every winter?" Ali Smith chose Tove Jansson's The Summer Book ("a piece of light: what better to keep you warm through the darker months?"), Jonathan Coe selected Sherlock Holmes - one of my own choices in this article - while Jacqueline Wilson chose Jane Eyre as a winter classic.

Here are my choices. What do you look for in winter reading material?

Is it too early for this? Let's say we're planning ahead.

9 Fireside Reads for Winter, Best Enjoyed with Hot Chocolate

1. We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

I've just started reading this novel, and the allure of its similarities to my own life and character have stopped me from putting it down and prioritising my academic reading (as I should). The novel's first lines place it "in the winter of 1996", so I thought it deserved a place in this article. Let's see if I change my mind. Have you read this Booker nominee yet?

2. The Secret History by Donna Tartt

The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.

Reading these opening lines are enough to make me firmly consider a reread. Is that allowed considering I only read it in June? The Goldfinch is also a perfectly grandiose monument of a novel for wintertime.

3. Lists of Note by Shaun Usher

This beauty of a book will be the first item on any Christmas list of mine. A sequel of sorts to Letters of Note, this is a superb book that celebrates the humble list. Flick through it and you'll find a shopping list written by two 9th-century Tibetan monks, Galileo's list of parts needed to build his telescope, and 29-year-old Marilyn Monroe's inspirational set of New Year's resolutions. The perfect Christmas gift (although can I wait that long?)

4. Dubliners by James Joyce

The final words of "The Dead", the last short story in Dubliners, is enough to make my winter reading worthwhile. Simply magical stuff, and I'm so glad my current studies of Joyce has revitalised my love for his writing. I don't want to give away the quotation, I'll just say - as I have before - that it's worth getting to.

5. The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials, #1) by Philip Pullman

My reading of His Dark Materials as a child was very much like my Harry Potter reading experience: magical, warming, and otherworldly. I always seem to come across writing on the philosophy and wider meaning of the series, and I'd love to see how I react to Pullman's writing as an adult. With its polar bears and snow leopards, I think I'd choose winter for this.

6. The House of Silk: A Sherlock Holmes Novel by Anthony Horowitz

I'm so excited to read more of Sir Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories this winter. I think Holmes and Watson are the perfect companions for a warm reading day inside from the cold, and the books provide just the right amout of mental stimulation. I'm also looking forward to reading the Anthony Horowitz sequels, with Moriarty - the book following House of Silk - also released earlier this week.

7. A Game of Thrones by George R.R.Martin

Going beyond the wall isn't really suited for summer, and I'm looking forward to continuing with the series after a break of several months. I tend to read novels fixed in the present and ordinary, so an occasional escape from this is often welcome. And after all, "winter is coming" (I couldn't resist). I'm also quite keen to give the graphic novel a try.

8. The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

One of the most heartwarming books I've read, this memoir is sure to leave an imprint and top-up your to-read list. If you haven't yet read it, I'd say that this winter - when most of us have a bit more time to immerse ourselves in a book - is a wonderful time to do so.

9. The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith

When I think back to The Silkworm, sequel to The Cuckoo's Calling, I remember protagonist Cormoran Strike struggling to travel around London with one amputated leg, a crutch, and very icy pavements. I seem to associate snow with The Cuckoo's Calling too - if you haven't read the series, why not give it a go as temperatures fall this year? I'm looking forward to a few detective novels in the next few months.

What books are you adding to your to-read list this winter?

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Saturday, 18 October 2014

5 Pieces of Advice for Reading, Understanding & Enjoying James Joyce

I'm currently studying a modern Irish literature module, and I'm enjoying every moment of it. The last two weeks have been spent studying W.B. Yeats (on Thursday I submitted a critical analysis on "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death"), but this week I progressed to James Joyce. I've never read Joyce in an academic setting before, and I thought it could go one of two ways: it could help me to enjoy Joyce's writing more, or it could simply make it less fun. I'm pleased to say it was the latter.

The selected book was A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a book I devoured as a teenager. In our seminar spent discussing the book, however, I realised that not all fellow-students were as keen on Joyce's writing. We discussed our first impressions of reading Joyce, and the class was divided: while half of us couldn't get enough of Joyce's groundbreaking style, at least as many people couldn't get into it at all.

The class soon developed into what the lecturer neatly termed a "Joyce self-help session", and we agreed upon five main ideas to make James Joyce more accessible to read. If you're curious, read on!

James Joyce with Sylvia Beach at Shakespeare & Co Paris, 1920.

1. Start small

Some of Joyce's finest writing can be found in Dubliners, his short story collection, and it's the least daring of his books. Immerse yourself in the world of Dublin and savour the final lines of "The Dead". Enjoying James Joyce doesn't mean battling through Finnegans Wake.

2. Get an audiobook

Joyce is wonderful to listen to, and you could say his books are better heard than read. Get an audiobook - the free LibriVox recording of Portrait is great - and let the words flow over you.

3. Don't worry too much about details (or understanding everything)

One of my fellow students suggested that there are two ways to read Joyce: understanding all the little details and intricacies below the surface, or allowing yourself a 'superficial' reading that doesn't question too much. I've only really done the latter so far in my Joyce journey, and I think it's helped me to gain a really good basic understanding of each book I've read (and enjoyed, too).

4. Joyce goes well with whisky

My lecturer recently admitted that one of her best experiences reading Joyce happened when she was in bed with fever...and a bottle of whisky. If you enjoy a nightcap, combine it with Joyce's writing and you won't find yourself preoccupied with the little details, that's for sure.

5. Develop a lifelong relationship

I started reading Joyce a few years ago, and I'm so enjoying adding layers to my reading as I get older. When I first read Portrait, I could relate to Stephen's shyness during his school years. On my recent reading, however, I've been drawn to his search for meaning and creativity. It's exciting to think what my interpretations will be like in years to come.

My advice for reading Joyce is similar to that for reading Tolstoy, although Joyce's writing comes with its characteristic modernist style. It's easy to feel put off by this, and Joyce isn't for everyone, but I'm hoping these ideas will provide guidance for those who wish to give his books a go.

Have you read Joyce before? Is it on your literary bucket list?

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Friday, 10 October 2014

Initial Thoughts on Rosamund Bartlett's Translation of Anna Karenina

I don't give Anna Karenina enough attention here on Tolstoy Therapy. In fact, I've never given the novel it's own, dedicated post. Now that Rosamund Bartlett, author of my most-loved Tolstoy biography, has translated the novel, this will certainly change.

In fact, the one translation I've read of Anna Karenina was the Pevear and Volokhonsky. I wasn't overwhelmed by their translation of the novel, but considering my opinion of their War and Peace, I think it's time I try something new.

Bartlett's translation provides the perfect opportunity. Published by Oxford University Press, the book is currently available as hardback and ebook (I'm reading the latter). I'm planning to provide you with a few articles on my opinion of the translation itself, alongside ways in which we can apply Anna Karenina to our own lives. These will be posted as I read the book over the coming weeks.

An organism like a bubble will emerge out of infinite time, infinite matter, and infinite space, and that bubble will last for a while and burst, and that bubble is me.

- Levin in Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, from the Bartlett translation

Let's talk about the introduction

To say the least, the introduction is extensive, which is what I was expecting from the author (as a biographer of both Tolstoy and Chekhov). For some readers its detail and length might seem overwhelming - it took me several train journeys to finish - but I think there's nothing wrong with skipping an introduction, or returning to it after finishing the book.

Bartlett covers the historical and political context of the novel, alongside Tolstoy's growth as writer and thinker. She writes with beautiful astuteness to illustrate Anna Karenina in its own time, as is the case here:

'Everything was confusion in the Oblonsky's house', we read in the opening lines of the novel. Everything was also confusion in Russia. It is thus understandable why, at an age of such social and political upheaval, why some of Tolstoy's more progressive readers were nonplussed by the idea of a novel about an aristocratic woman who has an affair with an army officer. It seemed out of date to them, and their author out of kilter with his age. But of course Anna Karenina is very much more than a society novel. 

Rather than simply stating facts and biographical details, Bartlett explains what these really mean for the novel. She situates the publication of Anna Karenina in a time and place which we can actually imagine and compare to modern society.

Bartlett goes on to consider Tolstoy's path to creating the novel as we know it today. In January 1872, Tolstoy attended the autopsy of a young woman he knew called Anna Pirogova. Bartlett writes: "Spurned by her lover, she had thrown herself under a goods-train at Yasenki, the railway station close to Yasnaya Polyana which had opened only five years earlier."

The following year, Tolstoy read an article by Alexandre Dumas (fils) which responded to a recent controversial trial in which a husband was given a light prison sentence for murdering his unfaithful estranged wife. These factors - alongside an unfinished sketch for a story by Pushkin with an immediate narrative style catching Tolstoy's eye - led to a draft of the novel's opening first finding itself on paper.

For new and existing readers alike, Bartlett's introduction does much to illuminate Tolstoy's shaping of Anna Karenina and our modern reading. The introduction also makes a neat defence of her translation decisions, which I'm curious to see on display in the novel itself (there's nothing too surprising, but we'll cover this later). So far, so good.

Have you read Anna Karenina? How does a British translation with a comprehensive introduction sound to you?

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Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Reading W.B. Yeats's "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death" as a Meditation on Life

Today I'm sharing with you something that's a little different. I've just started a university module on Modern Irish Literature, and this week's focus is on W.B. Yeats. While I was tempted to write a little about "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" to help us to envisage relaxing settings, I decided to embrace the unpredictable and contemplate another poem that caught my eye.

Let's give it a quick read:

An Irish Airman Foresees His Death (1919)

I know that I shall meet my fate,
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan's poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

A gloomy or calming poem?

I was hesitant to write about this poem at first, largely because I thought you might find it gloomy, perhaps even depressing. However, there's something that's making me think otherwise. Upon reading the poem there's a meditative sense of giving way to fate, and I felt this gave the experience a calming and pleasant element. Perhaps this stems from the nature of flying in the beautiful realm "somewhere among the clouds above", or maybe from the more direct line which reminds me of a Japanese haiku or Buddhist mantra: "in balance with this life, this death".

Considering 2014's centenary while reading Yeats

It's a sad poem for me primarily in its injustice: the persona - based on Yeats's good friend Robert Gregory - shouldn't have to be in this situation, especially fighting for England rather than his native Ireland. We shall all "meet [our] fate", but having to "foresee" it - whether through patriotic duty, medical evidence or some subconscious inkling - can never be easy.

I think "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death" helps me cultivate gratitude in that I - and the wider modern world - are unlikely to be forced to fight those we do not hate, and guard those we do not love. It also feels particularly fitting to read this poem in light of the 2014 centenary of the First World War, giving special thought to those not necessarily doing their patriotic duty, as in the case of this Irish airman.

Let's look up at the sky

Finally there's the sublime nature of the sky above us. I know I often paraphrase or directly quote Andrey's observations in War and Peace on the triviality of anxiety compared to the sky, but I think dwelling on it is a great way to put things into perspective. Perhaps contemplating this also gives us greater insight into the mind of Yeats's pilot at such a difficult time too, alongside Yeats' own difficulties in coming to terms with the loss of his friend.

How would you read this poem? Do you find it sad, moving, or calming in some sense, as I do?

“Behind all seen things lies something vaster; everything is but a path, a portal or a window opening on something other than itself. ”

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Wind, Sand and Stars

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Friday, 26 September 2014

Feel-Good Fiction: The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion as a Mood-Boosting Sequel

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion swiftly became one of my favourite books.get out of a rut and acted a welcome antidote to homesickness when I was living in Barcelona. I also included it in my mood-boosting and feel-good books list for the summer.
Last year it helped me

Now that the book's sequel, The Rosie Effect, is available on the shelves of all good bookshops (at least here in the UK), a follow-up review is very much required.

Could it ever be as good as The Rosie Project?  

I think expecting the sequel to be as good as the original is a bit too demanding in this case. I would certainly choose The Rosie Project as the better book, but The Rosie Effect doesn't let the author down. It also reminded me why precisely why I loved the characters. Don Tillman is a marvellous creation, and surely the best professor of genetics in literature.

What goes on

At we enter the book he's now married to Rosie Jarman, 'the world's most perfect woman', and he's soon to discover she's pregnant with his child. However, a very real question arises: can someone who struggles socially be a good partner and parent?

The book progresses from this point in all sorts of wonderful directions. We experience Don's feelings of heartbreak (in Don's own way, of course) as Rosie moves away from him, and we hope for their reconciliation. As to be expected, the book isn't without it's humour. There's the Bluefin Tuna Incident, the Playground Incident, and the Antenatal Uproar. You'll have to find out for yourself what these entail.

“I thought you were happy about having a baby."

I was happy in the way that I would be happy if the captain of an aircraft in which I was travelling announced that he had succeeded in restarting one engine after both had failed. Pleased that I would now probably survive, but shocked that the situation had arisen in the first place, and expecting a thorough investigation into the circumstances.

Don Tillman in The Rosie Effect

A long-awaited (and very much required) feel-good book

For me, the wonder of The Rosie Project was in meeting Don and Rosie and hearing Graeme Simsion's superb storytelling ability for the first time. As the sequel, however, The Rosie Effect was very welcome reading. The book made me realise that I was stressed, and I did need time to wind down, and it provided the perfect solution. It's hard to beat the feeling of knowing you have a great novel to look forward to after a day of working hard. 

If you're in need of a mood-boosting or relaxing book, pick up The Rosie Effect and try reading it for what it is: a heartwarming and uplifting story, rather than a sequel which needs to surpass the original.

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