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. Last year it helped me 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.

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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Tuesday, 23 September 2014

The Tolstoy Therapy Calendar of Wisdom: Quotes and Sayings to Nourish the Soul

I'd like to thank all of you who contributed such wonderful quotes for the giveaway at the start of this month, and I'll be using this post as a round-up of the contributions I most enjoyed.

Some of the quotations which you shared with me would certainly be worthy of a place in Tolstoy's own A Calendar of Wisdom, so I've decided to create the blog's own version. I hope you enjoy the choices as much as I have!

Tolstoy The Last Station
Christopher Plummer as Tolstoy in The Last Station.

A Selection of Your Quotes

To find mindfulness, as chosen by Paige:

"I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.'” - A Man Without a Country, Kurt Vonnegut

To get to know ourselves, as chosen by Syed

" I sit on a man's back, choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by all possible means except by getting off his back. " - Writings on Civil Disobedience and Nonviolence, Leo Tolstoy

On finding your way, as chosen by Adrienne

"You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself, any direction you choose." - Dr Seuss
Quotes to learn by heart to nourish the soul
Which quotations and sayings help you to live well?


To find joy, as chosen by Camilla:

All this time
The Sun never says
To the Earth:
“You owe me.”

What happens
With a love like that.
It lights the

- Hafiz

For self-improvement, as chosen by Felicia

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” - Leo Tolstoy

Facing the unknown, as chosen by Natalie

"Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former." - Albert Einstein

Facing low-mood and despair, as chosen by Alexandra

"Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart. The really great men, I think, have great sadness on earth." - Fyodor Dostoevsky

Tolstoy in his study
Tolstoy in his study by Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky, 1908

To help make the world a better place, as chosen by John

"History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it." - Winston Churchill

On authenticity, as chosen by Arjun

"Don’t be afraid of talking nonsense- only don't fail to pay attention to it." - Wittgenstein

On living well, as chosen by Praveen

"There is no greatness, where there is no simplicity, goodness and truth." - Leo Tolstoy

Creating our Calendar of Wisdom

Do you have a small notebook of quotes, a few snippets learned by heart, or even a published anthology which you make use of during difficult times? I think we should all start working on one, and the great choices above should help get us started.

Like more of the same? Subscribe to the Tolstoy Therapy Newsletter and receive a round-up of the week's articles every Sunday to enjoy with your coffee. Click here to subscribe or take a look at an example copy here.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Celebrating Tolstoy's 186th Birthday with a Giveaway of A Calendar of Wisdom

A portrait of Leo Tolstoy in his study by Vasily Meshkov, 1910.

Today marks the 186th anniversary of Leo Tolstoy's birth, September 9th 1828, and I felt it was only right that Tolstoy Therapy celebrates the occasion.

I was overwhelmed by the wonderful comments I received for the blog's two year birthday giveaway (I should compile your comments in a post!) and I thought something similar could work here.

The Tolstoy-related giveaway on offer is a copy of A Calendar of Wisdom, Tolstoy's collection of quotes and 'daily thoughts to nourish the soul', which was compiled over fifteen years towards the later years of his life. It's a superb collection of quotes on all manner of topics, and I know I've still got a lot to learn from it.

I wrote an article for Huffington Post Books about the book yesterday - entitled A Calendar of Wisdom: Tolstoy's Little-Known Collection of Quotes to Nourish the Soul - and remembered how great it truly is. A Calendar of Wisdom is also not as well-known as Tolstoy's other books, meaning there's perhaps less chance of you having it in your libraries!

To enter, simply share your favourite quote - it could be anything, or by anyone - in the comments box below. Whether it's philosophical, literary, or something entirely different, if it means something to you I'd love to hear it. The last giveaway was random (lucky you, Alexandra!), but this time I'll choose my favourite.

Good luck to you all! I'll be choosing a winner on Monday 15th September.

Today, why not read one or two of my top ten posts on Tolstoy?

Have a great day, and I look forward to reading your chosen quote!

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Wednesday, 3 September 2014

If You Don't Know Where to Go in Life, Try Reading War and Peace

I write a lot about Pierre Bezukhov, one of the main character's in Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace. I've suggested how he can help us to appreciate life's simple pleasures and even overcome anxiety, as a character which so many first-time readers of the Russian masterpiece find themselves relating to.

In this quick post (which I'm compiling during a break from my back-to-university work), I'll share an early section of the book which I hope some of you will find wisdom in.

How Pierre and Andrei discuss low self-esteem and a lack of direction in War and Peace

The discussion starts with Andrei asking Pierre if he's made up his mind about his career path: "Have you made your mind up? Are you going to be a cavalryman or a diplomat?" The way in which Pierre responds can't help but resound with me:

"You won't find it hard to believe I still don't know. I don't fancy either of those jobs."

Is this familiar to you too? Next Andrei and Pierre both lament the state of their lives, and Pierre contemplates the absurdity that Andrei - that friend who seems to have it all - feels the same way he does:

'It seems odd,' said Pierre, 'that you, you consider yourself a failure and your life ruined. You've got your whole life in front of you, everything. And you...'

He did not say what about you, but his tone showed how much he admired his friend, and how much he was expecting from him in the future.

Andrei counters this by simply saying, "I'm yesterday's man', and then requests that the conversation go back to Pierre.

'Why, what is there to say about me?' said Pierre, his mouth broadening in an easy-going, happy smile. 'What am I? I am a bastard.' And he suddenly blushed to the roots of his hair. Clearly, it cost him a great effort to say this. 'No name, no fortune... And really, when all's said and done...' But he didn't say really what. 'Anyway, I'm free for the time being and I'm doing all right. It's just that I've no idea what to get going on. I wanted to talk things over with you seriously.'
How many of us really know what to get going on, or what direction to choose in life? I certainly have no idea: the more I get asked what I want to do after university, the less idea I seem to have.

Here's Andrei's advice for Pierre:

You'll be all right. Choose anything, it won't make any difference. You'll always be all right, but there is one thing - stop knocking about with the Kuragins and leading their kind of life. It doesn't suit you, all that riotous living, debauchery...

As Pierre hears this, he appears "as though a happy thought had suddenly struck him", and realises that this is what he's been thinking for some time: "with this kind of life I can't make any decisions, or think anything through". Whether he succeeds in doing so at this moment is a different story, but at this point he realises that things have to change.

What Pierre can teach us about finding direction in life

Reading War and Peace takes you along with Pierre on his journey away from drunken mindlessness and tying bears to policemen (yes, really) towards a sense of purpose. It's not without a few bumps on the way, but it's wonderfully authentic.

Whether you agree or disagree with Pierre's decisions or Andrei's advice, I think that simply by considering our own dreams and opinions we've made a great start. Whether it's a start on making a decision or realising that we simply don't have to, I'd say that either options are positive.

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