Saturday, 13 December 2014

"Head and shoulders above the others": What James Joyce Thought of Leo Tolstoy

Stephen Longstreet, Elliot Paul and James Joyce, 1927

James Joyce wrote to his brother, Stanislaus, in September 1905 at the age of 23:

As for Tolstoy I disagree with you altogether. Tolstoy is a magnificent writer. He is never dull, never stupid, never tired, never pedantic, never theatrical! He is head and shoulders over the others. I don't take him very seriously as a Christian saint. I think he has a very genuine spiritual nature but I suspect that he speaks the very best Russian with a St Petersburg accent and remembers the Christian name of his great-great-father [...] 
He goes on to add, in a rather wonderful defence of Tolstoy,
A writer in the Illustrated London News sneers at Tolstoy for not understanding WAR. 'Poor dear man!' he says. Now, damn it, I'm rather good-tempered but this is a little bit too much. Did you ever hear such impudence? Do they think the author of Resurrection and Anna Karénin is a fool? Does this impudent, dishonourable journalist think he is the equal of Tolstoy, physically, intellectually, artistically or morally? The thing is absurd. But when you think of it, it's cursedly annoying also. Perhaps that journalist will undertake to revise Tolstoy more fully - novels, stories, plays and all.

This letter is quoted in the brilliant James Joyce by Richard Ellman (1983, p209-10), the go-to biography of Joyce. The book is exceptionally long at 887 pages in paperback, but it's incredibly well-researched and I'd recommend it to anyone keen to know more about Joyce.

It also has a superb intertextual level - as in the letter about Tolstoy above - and does much to honour the favourite authors and books of Joyce. In a well-written biography, I always see this as a great addition.

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Saturday, 6 December 2014

Retreating into a Book for Bibliotherapy: 8 of the Best Retreats in Fiction

I'm convinced that when we read about characters retreating into settings that allow them to recuperate and relax, we undergo a similar process. Here are a few of my favourite literary retreats - they might just help you too. 

1. The Pyrenees mountains in The South by Colm Tóibín

Calm, quiet days in the Pyrenees. The sharp chill of winter yielding to the subtle movements of spring. The foresters were at work in the hills above the village. She watched the elaborate ritual of felling a tree, the long preparations, the shouting, the resting periods.

2. The haymaking fields in Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Not understanding what it was, or where it came from, in the middle of his work he suddenly experienced a pleasant sensation of coldness on his hot, sweaty shoulders. He looked up at the sky while the scythes were being whetted. A low, heavy cloud had blown over, and large drops of rain were falling. Some peasants went to put their kaftans on, while others, like Levin, just shook their shoulders gleefully at being so pleasantly refreshed.

3. Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling

He missed Hogwarts so much it was like having a constant stomachache. He missed the castle, with its secret passageways and ghosts, his classes, … the mail arriving by owl, eating banquets in the Great Hall, sleeping in his four-poster bed in the tower dormitory, visiting the gamekeeper, Hagrid, in his cabin next to the Forbidden Forest in the grounds, and especially, Quidditch, the most popular sport in the wizarding world
- Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

4. The library in Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

“The library was like a second home. Or maybe more like a real home, more than the place I lived in. By going every day I got to know all the lady librarians who worked there. They knew my name and always said hi. I was painfully shy, though, and could barely reply.”

5. Antarctica in Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

“All you need to know about Antarctica is it’s three horizontal stripes. On the bottom, there’s the stripe for the water, which is anywhere from black to dark gray. And on top of that, there’s a stripe for the land, which is usually black or white. Then there’s a stripe for the sky, which is some kind of gray or blue.” 

6. Miss Honey's house in Matilda by Roald Dahl

“There aren’t many funny bits in Mr Tolkien either,’ Matilda said.
‘Do you think that all children’s books ought to have funny bits in them?’ Miss Honey asked.
‘I do,’ Matilda said. ‘Children are not so serious as grown-ups and love to laugh.”

7. The Italian Riviera in The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

“That evening was the evening of the full moon. The garden was an enchanted place where all the flowers seemed white. The lilies, the daphnes, the orange-blossom, the white stocks, the white pinks, the white roses - you could see these as plainly as in the daytime; but the coloured flowers existed only as fragrance.”

8. Rivendell in The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

“Elrond's house was perfect, whether you liked food or sleep or story-telling or singing (or reading), or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all. Merely to be there was a cure for weariness. ... Evil things did not come into the secret valley of Rivendell.”

What's your favourite retreat in fiction, and when was the last time you escaped to it? I think finding such a place is the ideal way to engage with a bit of bibliotherapy!

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Friday, 28 November 2014

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín: A Novel About Transforming Ourselves That's Inspired by Austen

Colm Tóibín is a writer I know a fair bit about yet have never properly read. Until now, that is (one of the great benefits of taught literature modules being that you must read writers you'd otherwise skate around).

When researching my blog article about novels set in Barcelona before moving there, Tóibín was right at the top of every Goodreads list or Guardian top-ten article. His non-fiction guide to Barcelona, Homage to Barcelona, is a book that I've meant to read (much like Orwell's Homage to Catalonia that the title nods to) but never got round to, despite some encouraging flicking through pages and browsing contents.

Perhaps this explains why I didn't make the link between the Tóibín who celebrates Catalan culture, and the Irish-born Tóibín who plays an integral part in my Irish literature studies. These two sides of the author seemed to be so different - such unlikely parallels in a way - yet finally drawing a line between the two has been fascinating. Reading Brooklyn (Tóibín's 2009 novel) was a wonderful experience to kick this off, and I'm enjoying all there is to learn about the author's multi-faceted, complex body of work.

But more about Brooklyn.

Brooklyn: A Novel About Transformation

The novel centres on Eilis Lacey, a young woman living in small-town Ireland in the 1950s - a space in history where opportunities were few, particularly for women. Eilis is quiet and completely lacks all assertion, particularly when standing against Rose: her confident, fashionable and sociable sister. However, with the help of an Irish priest from Brooklyn, Eilis is the one to make the transatlantic journey to America, not Rose. What follows is a beautiful story of self-transformation, the complexities of romance, and the realities of homesickness.

If you're often reserved and a little shy, or you struggle escaping your comfort zone, you will probably see something of yourself in Eilis. She is frustratingly passive at times, and all readers are likely to shout at her to just do something at one stage or another, but there's something very relatable about her. Having been accustomed to living in the shadow of her confident sister, Eilis's relocation to Brooklyn changes everything. She becomes the centre of attention (albeit a very foreign one), and after a period of homesickness and displacement, she starts to shape her own identity.

Eilis takes up an evening class in accounting, and retreats to her books at the end of the day. She also meets Tony, a loveable Italian who distances her character even further from the 'old Eilis'. However, her family ties pull her back to Ireland and we're left to see if her life in Brooklyn - and her new identity - can sustain itself. The plot is directly influenced by Tóibín's own time living in Barcelona during his twenties - a direct parallel with my own life that must have coloured my reading of Brooklyn in more ways than one.

Pride and Prejudice of the 1950s?

In the early stages of the novel, we come across a scene that alerts the intertextual senses of every keen reader. Eilis is at an evening dance, standing with a female friend, and they approach two men. George is warm and friendly, but his friend, Jim, is decidedly not: he is rude, dismisses her offer to dance, and creates a lasting impression as a character to avoid. That is, if you haven't read Pride and Prejudice. This is a Mr Darcy figure if ever there was one.

Connections to Pride and Prejudice can be picked up on throughout the book, although it's worth considering if Eilis really fits the bill as an Elizabeth Bennett figure. I'd like to think so, but it just doesn't seem like a comfortable fit. Do, however, look out for the Lady Catherine de Bourgh and the Bennett sisters.

Deciding to read more Tóibín: The South and The Master

Perhaps my newfound interest in Tóibín's writing will be confined to Brooklyn, although it won't hurt to read a few of his other novels before I make up my mind.

I'm currently reading The South (Tóibín's first novel that's set in Barcelona), which doesn't quite seem to have the same magic, but I haven't given up just yet. The Master - a fictionalised biography of sorts of Henry James - seems fascinating. Surely one of the most rewarding elements of reading is coming across a new author and delving into their body of work.

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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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