Monday, 30 July 2012

War and Peace: Thoughts on Volume III

I've finished reading Volume III, so here are a few of my thoughts on the last four hundred odd pages of War and Peace.

The Emperor Napoleon in His Study
at the Tuileries, by Jacques-Louis
 David, 1812
(Nasty) Napoleon
Napoleon's crossing of the Niemen isn't a pleasant scene. Polish uhlans are keen to impress the emperor, and are "proud to swim on and drown in the river under the eyes of that man sitting on the log who wasn't even watching what they were doing". Tolstoy presents here a leader disconnected from the people, keen solely for individual - and almost fascist - recognition. War is a nasty business both on and off the battlefield as a result of leaders, attitudes and enmity. Here's Pierres take on war:

"Pierre was greatly affected by the curious idea that all of those thousands of men, alive and kicking, young and old, who were staring at his hat with such easy amusement, twenty thousand were inexorably destined to be wounded or killed, maybe men he had seen with his own eyes."

Andrey: Changes in Personality
I don't like what Andrey becomes after his engagement to Natasha goes pear-shaped - he seems to me rude and spiteful. However, when he returns to consciousness after being hit by a shell in battle, his personality is transformed. His troubled nature is reset as he discovers an innocent "happiness beyond materialism [...] known only to the soul, the happiness of loving". His spirit is unspoilt by negative experience, like that of a baby, but I do wonder how long this can last. Also, now that Natasha and Andrey's love appears reignited, what about Pierre?!

Pierre: Another Personality in Flux
Pierre tests his self-discipline by not visiting Natasha, despite obvious affection. What is more, he  becomes haunted by the number 666, and for some reason gets it into his head that he must murder Napoleon. This seems so out of character; a sentiment that Tolstoy quickly adds to. Pierre saves the Frenchman Captain Rambelle's life, who insists that he must be French himself. Is Tolstoy suggesting that Pierre is no man to kill Napoleon? In fact, his saving of a child from fire and his defence of an Armenian woman implies that he is not destined to kill anybody. When Pierre is arrested, I think that he seems so "suspicious" merely because he's so incredibly out of place. Through use of irony, the good-natured Pierre is arrested while lunatics are released into the streets of Moscow.

Women: Both Good and Bad
Another character I'm fond of is Princess Marya, who yearns to help the starving peasants on her estate. She also dedicates her time to nursing her rather difficult father. However, the peasants decline her offer outrightly, refusing to leave Bogucharovo, and Prince Bolkonsky dies after sweetening up slightly. She's an unfortunate woman, yes, but there is one perk to all her hardship: she meets and falls in love with Nikolay Rostov. Love is a new concept to Marya, and she thoroughly deserves it (alongside a bit of time to herself!) However, at this point in the novel it remains quite an uncertain and unexpected match.

Natasha is another woman striving to do good. She invites wounded men into the household, and sacrifices personal possessions to allow them to travel in their carriages on moving day. On the other hand, Hélène seems more promiscuous than usual. Not only is she unsatisfied with her husband, but she wants two other men at once. For all her beauty, I don't think that she's a character to be admired in any way.

You may be interested in the following links:

Reading Tolstoy's War and Peace
War and Peace: Volume I
War and Peace: Volume II
War and Peace: Volume IV
War and Peace: Epilogue

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Reading the Book of "Simple Pleasures" in Light of Tolstoy's Pierre

On a recent literary spree in town, I picked up a little hardcover book entitled Simple Pleasures: Little Things That Make Life Worth Living (collated by the National Trust). As I had an armful of books already I didn't buy it there and then, but I did later order it on Amazon. I'm glad that I did.

It's one of those books that you can flick through at ease, not bound by having to read it chronologically. This is largely because it consists of chapters around three pages long, each written by a different contributor on the particular simple pleasure that they enjoy.

This book got me thinking about the simple pleasures that I enjoy - after a short time I realised that there was quite a hefty list. There's chocolate, of course, alongside beautiful books, good company, and the natural surroundings around my home. I'll go back to this certainly expansive list in a future post, I think, but now I'd like to mention a quote which I encountered shortly after beginning this book, during my re-reading of War and Peace.

The quote below is an example of writing that inspires me with complete awe. To me, it speaks of a "simple pleasure" in that it doesn't have to be purchased, yet it's an incredibly complex "pleasure" in it's rarity and dependence on complete psychological takeover by the sublime.

If that makes sense. It's a very long quote, but I couldn't find anywhere I wished to cut it down. I only wish that I could speak Russian.
From Wikipedia
"As he drove into the Arbat a vast firmament of darkness and stars opened out before Pierre's eyes. And there in the middle, high above Prechistensky Boulevard, amidst a scattering of stars on every side but catching the eye through its closeness to the earth, its pure white light and the long uplift of its tale, shone the comet, the huge, brilliant comet of 1812, that popular harbinger of untold horrors and the end of the world. But this bright comet with its long, shiny tail held no fears for Pierre. Quite the reverse: Pierre's eyes glittered with tears of rapture as he gazed up at this radiant star, which must have traced its parabola through infinite space at speeds unimaginable and now suddenly seemed to have picked its spot in the black sky and impaled itself like an arrow piercing the earth, and stuck there, with its strong upthrusting tail and its brilliant display of whiteness amidst the infinity of scintillating stars. This heavenly body seemed perfectly attuned to Pierre's newly melted heart, as it gathered reassurance and blossomed into new life."

Literature in the 2012 Olympic Ceremony

After all the premature doubts surrounding the Olympic Opening Ceremony - whether it will be anywhere as good as Beijing, whether it will be an international embarrassment - I was pleasantly surprised with it. The English countryside theme really seemed to work, and a lot of our national history was appreciated. The moment of remembrance was thoughtful, but Danny Boyle also worked hard to include comedy and energy in the ceremony. The Queen sketch took everybody in my house by surprise; my brother was convinced that it couldn't have been the real Queen speaking to Daniel Craig (that is not what one does), but then he thought that it most definitely must have been her parachuting out of the helicopter. Ah, the logic of young male minds.

I wasn't sure if Mr Bean was confined to British humour, but the commentator thankfully validated that he also made people laugh outside of our rather eccentric isle. The music was exclusively British, but songs were chosen that everyone knew (or at least should know!) I didn't like the modern technology elements as much as the early countryside/development part, but it was still enjoyable.

What I enjoyed most - quite typically considering my bookish nature - was the reference to literature both subtly and explicitly. I think the earliest inclusion was Blake's Jerusalem, a poem (probably most often called a song) connected tightly to the minds of Britons during the Industrial Revolution. Here are the first two verses in which the contrast between "pleasant pastures" and "Satanic Mills" is made, something Boyle successfully replicated in the performance:

And did those feet in ancient time.
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Then there was the Shakespeare to make all of the book nerds jump out of their seats. Here is the section of Taliban's dream recited by Kenneth Branaugh, as taken from The Tempest:

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.

At this moment, China had nothing on us. How can you compete with Shakespeare? The performance went on to link Peter Pan with the NHS, aided by a mass of children and nurses. J.K. Rowling reciting a passage from the children's novel was probably one of my favourite parts of the production: it was so thoughtfully done.

The atmosphere changed tone with the entrance of a 100-foot tall Voldermort among other literary villains - if I were a child I would have been terrified! However, Mary Poppins came to the rescue, and this hopefully saved the younger audience from nightmares.

All in all, I thought it was fantastic. The New York Times have called it a "dizzying" production that was "weirdly British", but that seems like a success to me. We never could have toned down an Olympic ceremony in order to avoid seeming a little odd.

Friday, 27 July 2012

War and Peace: Thoughts on Volume II

Here's the next post on my War and Peace progress. If you're interested in Russian literature, I really recommend that you check out the blog Lizok's Bookshelf. She has written quite a lot on War and Peace, and I particularly like this comment of hers:
"Russian high school students read Война и мир (War and Peace) in the tenth grade, and many people joke that the girls read Peace and the boys read War."
In the past I have thought about this a lot. Unfortunately, I certainly prefer the "peace" over the "war", although during this re-read I am enjoying the war parts more than before. What I love best about this book is Tolstoy's intricate portrayal of characters, their relations and their progression, but I do admit that taking the "war" out of War and Peace wouldn't make it the same masterpiece by any means. Some of my favourite passages are intertwined into the battle scenes, and therefore I couldn't skip those parts of the book.

Volume II opens with a return to "peace", and we witness Natasha's first proper ball. She's bursting with youthful radiance, and all the pervy old guys immediately love her. Tolstoy successfully thought from a female perspective when he created Natasha's disappointment at not being picked to dance - every female reader cannot help but feel for her.

I've found that Tolstoy uses subtle suggestions in his writing to imply how relationships will inevitably progress. For instance, Natasha's insecurity in the Bolkonsky household causes the reader to question her supposedly secure match with Andrey. Shortly afterwards, Anatole Kuragin appears. He's a nasty character, there's no denying that. However, I can understand Natasha's attraction to him as a young girl unaware of his intentions (unfortunately from personal experience!) You cannot help but laugh when Anatole pairs up with the equally reptilian Dolokhov in his masterplan to abduct her.

Despite my earlier defence of the "war" in War and Peace, I don't like the hunting element of Volume II at all, I'm afraid to say. I don't like hunting itself, as I come from a farming family who are fed up of snobby hunters using land without permission and making a mess. But anyway, I don't find the writing too exciting either; although I could never say that Tolstoy bores me. I do think that it picks up when the party returns to "Uncle's" and we meet the housekeeper Anisya. She brings them cherry vodka and rye cakes made with buttermilk alongside her strong, vibrant character. It's a welcome relief from the hunting, for me, and shows a fantastically traditional side of Russia.

Then there's the dancing that follows, which is interesting to think about. Natasha comes from a respectable family, yet she immediately takes to the peasant dance. There's a Guardian article that touches upon this, linked here, which lists one reason for her dancing as being the French Invasion of Russia, otherwise known as the Patriotic War of 1812. It was a turning point in the Napoleonic Wars, and the French and allied invasion forces were severely weakened alongside Napoleon's reputation. As a result of the invasion and the patriotic fervour of the serfs, the "Two Russias" - the peasant and the aristocatic - became much more of a unity. Therefore, Natasha was of a generation more in touch with the peasantry at that time, and henceforth her dancing was too.

I read Volume II quite quickly, and found it increasingly hard to put down. I'll let you know how I get on with Volume III!

You may be interested in:

Reading Tolstoy's War and Peace
War and Peace: Volume I
War and Peace: Volume III
War and Peace: Volume IV
War and Peace: Epilogue

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy: Thoughts on Volume I

I'm so glad that I'm re-reading War and Peace. Yes, it's really (really) long at 1358 pages, but it's also so moving. I'll write a little summary of my thoughts on Volume I here, so if you're reading it and haven't got that far yet, or are planning to read it, I apologise for any spoilers.

The book begins with a party - well, a soirée to be more elegant- of Anna Pavlovna's, in which we are introduced to Pierre. He must be my favourite character, right from the beginning (despite the policeman and bear fiasco). He tries so hard to be valued in the hierarchical society, and yet just appears naive most the time. However, he really develops as a character in the opening volume, and I particularly enjoy the passages surrounding his introduction to freemasonry. For instance, the mason says to him:

"'Look with a spiritual eye into thine inner being, and ask thyself whether thou art content with thyself. What hast thou achieved relying on intellect alone? What art thou? My dear sir, you are a young man, you are wealthy and well educated. What have you done with the blessings vouchsafed you? Are you satisfied with yourself and your life?'
'No, I loathe my life,' said Pierre with a frown."

I admit to underlining this section, and many other bits around it. Pierre is the perfect character to introduce Tolstoy's philosophising of the big questions in life; he seems so purely good and innocent, despite his early debauchery, gambling and gluttony (how is that possible?). More of Tolstoy's genius is incorporated into the book when Pierre talks with Prince Andrey shortly after his religious realisation. Tolstoy counters Pierre's new ideas about religion by using Andrey to introduce common doubts and dismissals, as in this passage:

"What's right and what's wrong is is something we can't decide. People keep making mistakes and they always will, especially when it comes to right and wrong."

Andrey seems to be the owner of most of the book's finest phrases, including his declaration that, "Yes! It's all vanity, it's all an illusion, everything except that infinite sky." Now that's some food for thought, alongside a reason to look out of the window.

But anyway, it's as if Tolstoy wrote Pierre and Andrey's dialogues to make up his own mind on religion, albeit in an incredibly beautiful way. Pierre constantly seeks to better himself and even keeps a journal on self-improvement, just like Tolstoy did himself. Tolstoy was also consumed by thoughts of death throughout his life, and his nihilism bridging from reading Schopenhauer early in life may have influenced the inclusion of Count Bezukhov's death shortly into the novel.

On other characters, I can't help feeling sorry for Princess Marya Bolkonsky; she's constantly reminded of her ugliness and is subject to her father's rather ridiculous timetables (although I can't help but admire him from an ocd-inspired standpoint). Another thing is that everyone seems to hate Boris, although as of yet I'm not entirely convinced that he deserves it. I'll make up my own mind more thoroughly as the story develops. Hélène I cannot bear - she seems dragged straight from the most superficial and conceited realm of modern celebrity life and placed back two hundred years ago in Russia. It's a great example of how relevant War and Peace still is, alongside its avid gamblers, drinking games, and rich fathers bailing out their children.

I'm rather hesitant about calling War and Peace merely "a story", although Tolstoy himself dismissed it as a novel, poem and historical chronicle. Perhaps "War and Peace" is all it should ever be - those words have come to immediately connote fame, beauty, and perhaps most of all, length over the years. I'll let you know how I get on with Volume II!

War and Peace: Volume II
War and Peace: Volume III
War and Peace: Volume IV
War and Peace: Epilogue

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

3 Days Until The Olympics!

As I am writing this, there are three days, six hours, and forty-three minutes until the opening ceremony of  the London 2012 Olympics - I cannot wait. My family loves all things athletics, and are completely obsessed by the Games, although, quite typically, we didn't get any tickets. Even more typical is that a lot of people we know who don't like sport did get tickets. I guess we'll get the better view on television though! I'm most excited about watching Adam Gemili, a recent addition to athletics after being stolen from football, Bolt versus Blake (and his other main contenders), and the lovely Jess Ennis. I also hope that I get into the other sports too - hello, beach volleyball!

The weather is sweltering here (by my English standards), just an hour from London. I decided this morning that it would be a lazy day of lounging around reading in a maxi-dress, and that has been a very accurate foreshadowing. I did read a bit of War and Peace outside - armed with spf 50 - but then decided to retreat inside. My hair colour and skin tone don't think too highly of the sun's rays, so that was probably safest. Apparently English trains don't either: I read an article just now by The Guardian about how trains to Stratford (home of the Olympic stadium) aren't running or are affected by delays and speed restrictions. How typically British!

Monday, 23 July 2012

Reading Tolstoy's War and Peace and Where to Start with Tolstoy

Tolstoy's notes from the ninth draft of War and
Peace, 1864. It is also an example of what his
poor wife had to decipher!
I first tackled the mighty War and Peace in 2009, I believe. I asked for it as a Christmas present, which made everyone think I was rather mad. It took me a while to read, mostly because I had a massive break from it and read other books at the same time, but I did really enjoy it. There's so much to learn from it - it covers almost everything there is to know about life, in fact.

If anyone is curious, my translation is by Anthony Briggs and is published by Penguin Classics.

Anyway, I've decided to read it again this summer, and therefore I can report my progress and thoughts of it on this blog. I once read that Andrew Marr reads it every Autumn or something like that (I cannot find the source) and think that it would be nice for me to enjoy annually. I imagine that you understand and interpret so much more each time that you read it. I will be reading other books at the same time, but I'd largely like to concentrate on War and Peace itself.

I'd encourage anyone who hasn't read it to do so, or perhaps follow this ladder of Tolstoy's works to build up gradually to War and Peace:

Tolstoy's short stories - I'd recommend a collection that includes The Death of Ivan Ilyich, a short tale that narrates the agony of a man coming to term with his own mortality.

A Confession - Tolstoy's attempt to answer the great philosophical questions during what may be called his mid-life existential crisis.

The Kreutzer Sonata - A beautiful novella that can be seen to mirror elements of Tolstoy's own life, centred on the themes of adultery and morality. Here is my post on it.

Anna Karenina - This novel is perhaps as famous and loved as War and Peace, if not more so. In my opinion, War and Peace best portrays the essential nature of human life, while Anna Karenina conveys its inner turmoil. I'll probably change my mind on that distinction later. Regardless, both are must reads.

War and Peace

I realise that that list doesn't include his complete works, and is rather a brief overview. Also, I don't necessarily think that everyone needs that much preparation before reading War and Peace, although the aforementioned texts are incredible pieces of literature.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Philosophy Snippet: Disraeli on Suffering

"Seeing much, suffering much, and studying much are the three pillars of learning." Benjamin Disraeli
Disraeli was British Prime Minister 1874-1880, playing an integral role in the creation of the modern Conservative party. He also dabbled a bit with literature, and is the owner of a great many quotes, including the one above.

I've had struggles in the past, but this quote helps me realise that everything negative has benefited me immensely. Some people I know have had a very safe upbringing, and as a result constantly create problems for themselves. Life isn't intended to be simple, clearly. I've also gained so much through all the reading that I've done, and intend to retain my bookishness. However, I do believe I need to work on the "seeing much" pillar. My agoraphobic tendencies make it challenging!

A Review of A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch

First published 1961, my edition 1964
“To lose somebody is to lose not only their person but all those modes and manifestations into which their person has flowed outwards; so that in losing a beloved one may find so many things, pictures, poems, melodies, places lost too: Dante, Avignon, a song of Shakespeare's, the Cornish sea.”
The quote from A Severed Head above is lovely, and it shows how great a writer Murdoch was. However, I had no idea that this novel would be so... odd. And open. This was my first novel by Iris Murdoch, and I bought it on impulse from a bookseller near me at university, as it was an old Penguin edition featured in my collection of Penguin's postcards. I really should have read the blurb, which includes the following description:

"[a] sombre, and often symbolic handling of adultery, incest, castration, sexual confusion, violence, and suicide".

The novel really does include all of those things, I'm afraid to say.  I won't give anything away, as someone reading this may wish to read it, but there are a lot of affairs - an insane amount of affairs. The incest element to the story is rather creepy, and I'm not sure what prompted Murdoch to include it. However, I guess Ian McEwan was a lot braver than her with The Cement Garden, for instance. I imagine both readers wanted to shock, or to question notions of morality. But Murdoch was writing in the sixties - if I found the text shocking, what did her contemporary audience think? I've done some research and found out that she was a philsopher who questioned political and social questions of good and evil, sexual relationships, morality, and the power of the unconscious - all concepts that this novel largely explores.

Candaules, King of Lydia, Shews his Wife by Stealth to Gyges,
 One of his Ministers, As She Goes to Bed by William Etty.
I did think that the novel was generally written well. I always enjoy intertextuality in novels, and therefore appreciated Murdoch's references to Dante, historical works and mythology. I'm sure there are a lot more specific examples, but after flicking through the book once more I appear to be blind to them all. Regardless, I best liked the reference to the mythical story of Gyges and Candaules (from The Histories of Herodotus) in the closing pages of the novel.

In this tale, Candaules boasts of his wife's beauty to his friend, Gyges, and wants him to see her naked. He conceals Gyges in their bedroom, but Candaules's wife realises that he is there. Then later, because he had seen her, she approaches him and forces him to kill Candaules and become king himself. It's all very dramatic, in typical Greek style, but matches the story quite well in some aspects (but not all). I hope that's not a spoiler. Read it for yourself and find out!

3.5 stars

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Che's Poetry (3): The Black Heralds - César Vallejo

Here's another poem from Che Guevara's Cuaderno Verde, written by César Vallejo (1892-1938). Vallejo was Peruvian, and was called by Thomas Merton "the greatest universal poet since Dante". Pretty strong words. The first line of The Black Heralds is also one of the most recalled in Spanish poetry. Che used this poem to open his collection, and so I imagine that he liked the opening phrase too. Yet in my opinion, the English "I don't know" doesn't work as well as the original Spanish "no lo sé". Here is the original Spanish, if you're interested. Apologies if my translation is a bit iffy at times!

The passage "dark furrows/in the fiercest of faces" seems
particularly applicable here, no offence César.

The Black Heralds (Los Heraldos Negros)

There are such powerful blows in life... I don’t know!
Blows seemingly from God's hatred; as if, facing them,
the undertow of everything suffered
is welled up in our souls... I don’t know!

They are few; but they exist . . . They open dark furrows
in the fiercest of faces and the strongest of loins.
Perhaps they are the colts of barbaric Attilas;
or the black heralds sent to us by Death.

They are the deep falls of the Christs of the soul,
of some adored faith blasphemed by Destiny.
Those bloodstained blows are the crackling of
bread burning us by the oven door.

And the man... he is poor... poor! He turns his eyes, as
when a slap on the shoulder summons us;
he turns his crazed eyes, and all of life's experiences
well up, like a pool of guilt, in his gaze.

There are such powerful blows in life... I don’t know!

Che Guevara's Cuaderno Verde
Che's Poetry (2): The Grandfather - Nicolás Guillén
Che's Poetry (4) I Don't Know Why You Think - Nicolás Guillén

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Family Books - Puffin Editions

My grandmother is extremely protective over her possessions, in particular those from the past with sentimental value. Therefore, I am unsure how my Dad managed to extract a series of Puffin children's books from the family home (pictured left). I'm glad he did, though, as they're marvellous (I'm not sure how I feel about using that word). I was flicking through them today - very gently as they seem to be falling apart - and looking at the annotations at the front. I love it when people write in books; it adds so much character and a real personal essence. I do it all the time, although I'm not sure if my notes will be particularly interesting to read in the future. Generally I just scribble exclamation marks or smiley/sad faces, depending on my thoughts towards the writing. 

I've included a few photos in this post of some of the books for anyone who is interested. Most are from 1950-70 I think, and belonged to my Dad and his siblings. The majority of the books belong to my aunt, who sadly died some time ago. It's quite strange to be reading the books of a family member I never met, with her address written in the front (she must have been sensible and very protective over her reading material, like me.) I'm sure she'd be glad that her books haven't been sold or binned. 
It would be so much nicer if children had books more like these nowadays - the modern alternatives are so garish, Disney-esque and either fuchsia or blue. I'll have to write a post about my own childhood books at some point, although I'm not sure if that would bore the people who bother to read this half to death. It will be Winnie The Pooh and sheep themed. 

Sleeping Beauty

I particularly love the photo below, of my uncle's copy of The Story of Football. He is still a crazed Tottenham supporter, and so it's quite funny looking at the circling he made in this book, alongside the validation of his name and his favourite team. Some of my own books have similar annotations in a felt-pen that my mother definitely wouldn't have approved of. However, they will be the books that I'll look after best, for certain.
The Story of Football

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Favourite Words: "Muse"

Polyhymnia, the Muse of sacred poetry.
"Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns: driven time and again off course, once he had plundered: the hallowed heights of Troy."
The quotation above - the opening lines of The Odyssey - is one of my favourites ever written. It's so magical and timeless, and speaks across generations and oceans. Moreover, it contains one of my favourite words: muse. I'm not sure why I love this word so much, in all honesty. But like the passage from The Odyssey that I've mentioned, it holds such broad and universal connotations.

Here are two OED definitions of the word:
Each of the nine goddesses regarded as presiding over and inspiring learning and the arts, esp. poetry and music.
Chiefly poet. Usu. with the. The inspiration of poetry or song, invoked as if being the only Muse.

I love the thought of processes - particularly creative ones - being influenced by goddesses. That when I begin writing, the inspiration that comes to me is from a higher presence. Ok, maybe I can't quite believe in it, but it's such a beautiful concept. It must be one of my favourite ideas in literature and classics.

Twyla Tharp, one of America's greatest choreographers and author of The Creative Habit, appears to share my passion for the word. In The Creative Habit, Tharp advocates learning the names of the nine muses. She writes,
"Remembering the muses is no shortcut to creative bliss, though it will make crossword puzzles easier and classicists smile. And perhaps this nod in their direction will cause them to visit you when you need their help."

Here is the list:
Calliope - Epic poetry
Clio - History
Erato - Love poetry and lyric poetry
Euterpe - Music
Melpomene - Tragedy
Polyhymnia - Sacred song
Terpsichore - Dance and choral song
Thalia - Comedy
Urania - Astronomy

In case you do wish to learn the muses, a mnemonic with the first letter of each is as follows: Can clear, earnest effort make proper things add up? 

Monday, 16 July 2012

The Therapeutic Value of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

I love Aurelius's Stoic philosophy. Meditations is pretty much the first self-help book ever written, and to my eyes it is better than those around today. For me it's like a resource, to refer back to and dwell upon regularly. It mainly covers death, the universe as one entity, the importance of the present, and the necessity of a simple and well-intentioned life. If you often worry about the past or future, about death or self-control, you should really read this.

The book is a collection of short to medium statements that jump around in topic, as written by a guy who was not only a Stoic philosopher, but also a Roman Emperor (living AD121-180). His recorded thoughts weren't intended for publication, and therefore there's something very personal about Meditations. It's a bit CBT-esque, recording your thoughts in a journal, and Jules Evans has written a lot of interesting information on the bridge from ancient philosophy to modern CBT. I'd really recommend his book Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations, which I mentioned in this post.

Below are some passages from Meditations that I particularly enjoy, although the list is by no means conclusive.

On the fear of being judged:
"Say to yourself first thing in the morning: today I shall meet people who are meddling, ungrateful, aggressive, treacherous, malicious, unsocial. All of this has afflicted them through their ignorance of true good and evil. But I have seen that the nature of good is what is right, and the nature of evil what is wrong; and I have reflected that the nature of the offender himself is akin to my own - not a kinship of blood or seed, but a sharing in the same mind, the same fragment of divinity. Therefore I cannot be harmed by any of them, as none will infect me with their wrong."
I think that this photo conveys "mental calm" quite well,
although water has always made me rather stressed.
Hopefully others will find it calming.
On the importance of mental calm:
"No retreat offers someone more quiet and relaxation than into his own mind, especially if he can dip into thoughts there which put him at immediate and complete ease: and by ease I simply mean a well-ordered life. So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself." 
On the powerful influence of judgement on your wellbeing:
"Remove the judgement, and you have removed the thought "I am hurt": remove the thought "I am hurt", and the hurt itself is removed."
On the brevity of life:
"No, you do not have thousands of years to live. Urgency is on you. While you live, while you can, become good."
On the fear of death: 
"On death. Either dispersal, if we are atoms: or, if we are a unity, extinction or a change of home."

5 Stars

Friday, 13 July 2012

Journal Writing

In a way, this blog is an extension of the journal I've written since I was about ten years old. I was given my first journal for a birthday by my grandparents, and I've got through far too many since. My Dad too has written a diary from a young age, and without fail writes in it every day. He records the weather, comments on his flock of sheep, and mentions anything that has happened on the particular day. Often he proves his diligence by telling us what the weather was like precisely five years ago.

I love to write - it's always been very cathartic for me. At first I wrote in my diary about things that I'd done, then during my early teens I poured out my emotions onto countless pages. Then for a while I only seemed to write when I had a problem that needed solving. Now, however, I write more about my plans for the next few days, and things I'd like to achieve. That suits me at the moment. It's really important for me to unload everything spinning around in my head onto paper; it's like mental tidying up. Otherwise things get too much, and I find it hard to concentrate and become easily angry (my poor boyfriend).

These days, I think journal writing is become increasingly less common. That's a shame, really. However, perhaps the rise of blogs makes up for the decrease. More people than ever publish their thoughts, emotions and opinions online to share, and this is something I favour completely.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

A Movie About Tolstoy's Life: The Last Station (2009)

This evening I finally watched The Last Station, a film about Tolstoy's life. I actually really enjoyed it, although I wasn't sure about the rather harsh portrayal of his wife. I'm glad it was mentioned that she copied out War and Peace seven times - that's quite a secure show of dedication. Sofya really was treated unfairly by her husband most of the time. I'd hate to have strangers living in my home, and I couldn't deal with my husband dressing in what were effectively pyjamas.

Helen Mirren plays Sofya, which I thought was a good casting. Christopher Plummer plays Tolstoy, and James McAvoy plays his assistant, Valentin Bulgakov. The plot is structured largely around McAvoy's role, which I found worked quite well. It provides an entrance into Tolstoy family life at Yasnaya Polyana, and shows Valentin's view of the family developing from a stranger's perspective. Both Mirren and Plummer were nominated for Oscars and Golden Globes for their performances.

This is not a film about why Tolstoy was a great writer, or how he came to his beliefs. In fact, it only focuses on the last few years of his life. Also, there are probably more scenes with boobs than those that mention his writing, which may be controversial. It's a tale of husband and wife, which I think is best suited for the cinema. For me, the ending is the film's strongest part. If you don't know Tolstoy's life story then I won't go into detail, but it's depicted as so heartbreaking.

It's probably a film best watched if you've read some works by Tolstoy or know a bit about him, as inside references are quite common. Nonetheless, if you're new to the author then this will influence you to visit the scary, much-dodged "T" section of the classics aisle in Waterstones. Enjoy.

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

- Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

A Guide to Learning Languages When You're Shy

I study Spanish at university, and have also learnt some Italian and Catalan. However, due to the struggles I've had with social anxiety, this hasn't been - and still isn't - easy. I enjoy reading books and news articles in foreign languages, alongside watching films and listening to music or the radio. Also, I can easily improve my grammar without too much trouble. It's the speaking that I struggle with.

I find it incredibly hard even to speak in English, and so speaking in foreign languages really is problematic. At university I have to do debates in Spanish, and also give a lot of presentations. For these types of things I usually take a beta-blocker to minimise my physical symptoms, although that isn't ideal for me by any means. I've had a lot of horrible moments where my anxiety has got the better of me, but I've also found that speaking in front of others is getting easier with practice.

This summer I'm going to try and develop my confidence in speaking foreign languages a bit. Below is a list of a few things that I've either found beneficial or am planning to try:

  1. Live Mocha - I first came across this website last year, I think. It allows you to do the usual types of exercises, but the handy thing is that you can have native speakers mark your work and leave feedback. For instance, you can do a pronunciation exercise - you record yourself reading a text - submit it, then understand where you need to improve through the comments that you receive.. 
  2. Find a speaking partner that you can speak to easily. On the website I've just mentioned, you can also send messages to native speakers of the language you're learning. You can make use of this to ask if they're interested in speaking on Skype for language learning purposes (they can speak in English for ten minutes, then you in Spanish for ten minutes, etc.) I'm a bit nervous about this idea, as 99% of messages that you receive about speaking on Skype are from guys who have other intentions. If I'm brave enough to give this a go I'll write how it goes. 
  3. Think in your chosen language. This is quite difficult, but it helps you to see the flaws in your grammar and vocabulary. It's hard to go straight into foreign language stream of consciousness, so here are some ideas of things to do mentally or aloud: describe your surroundings, describe how you're feeling, describe your plans, describe what you've done today. 
  4. Write a journal in your chosen language. This is another way to find words and phrases you often use in English but don't know how to translate. It also probably means that the people you live with can't be nosy and read it. 
  5. If you're abroad surrounded by people that you don't know, try to pretend you're confident. Easier said than done, I know. But if you think that you can give it a go, definitely try it. No one knows your past or how you are normally, and so you can be whoever you want. 
  6. If you're really shy, work on the things that don't make you nervous for now. Like I mentioned earlier in the post, get your grammar and vocabulary to a high standard. You may not be ready for full-on conversations with locals just yet, but that doesn't mean you can't enjoy other things about the language. Don't be put off by your shyness, and instead concentrate on literature,  film, art, and other aspects of the culture that interest you. Too much emphasis is placed on the speaking part of language learning. 

I'm quite nervous about returning to university in October for my second year, as I realise that a lot of the people on my course have spent the summer abroad working or on holiday. I don't like being left behind, and I worry far too much about being judged (I need to work on that). However, I think that if I do the things I've listed above, I'll do fine.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Che's Poetry (2): The Grandfather - Nicolás Guillén

Here's one poem from Che Guevara's "Cuaderno Verde", as mentioned in my previous post. Nicolás Guillén was a Cuban poet, and studied law at the University of Havana before working as a typographer and journalist. He was also a political activist, which perhaps is a reason why Guevara included his poems in his notebook.

My apologies for the copious punctuation - it's the same in the original, so I can't really get rid of it. It's also quite strange and jumpy, but if you've read much Spanish poetry you'll probably be used to that.

Guillén, 1942
The Grandfather

This angelic woman with Northern eyes,
who lives attentive to the rhythm of her European blood,
is unaware that in the depths of that rhythm
a black man beats the hard heads of deep drums.

Under the severe line of her sharp nose,
her mouth traces a short line in a fine stroke,
and no crow dirties the untrodden snow
of her flesh, that shines tremulous and bare.

Oh, my lady! Look at your mysterious veins;
row in the live waters that flow inside of you,
and see passing by lilies, nelumbiums, lotuses and roses;

and, troubled, you will see next to the fresh bank
the sweet dark shadow of the grandfather who fled,
the one who curled forever your yellow hair.

Che Guevara's "Cuaderno Verde"

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Che Guevara's "Cuaderno Verde" (Green Notebook) and León Felipe

When Che Guevara was shot by the CIA in 1967, he was found with few possessions in a little backpack. There were twelve rolls of film, maps drawn with coloured pencils, a portable radio that hadn't worked for some time, a pair of diaries and a green notebook. The latter item, Guevara's "Cuaderno Verde", contained a series of poems that I'll base this post on.

Guevara was always a fan of poetry, particularly as a solitary child who took refuge in literature and nature. According to various biographers, his family home contained more than three thousand books. Pretty handy. This collection introduced him to writers from Jules Verne to Freud, and especially the poets Neruda, Keats, García Lorca, Machado and Whitman. His parents were also committed socialists, and he was heavily influenced by the tales of injustice and oppression that visitors told about their time during the Spanish Civil War. Guevara went on to study Medicine at the University of Buenos Aires.

However, obviously Guevara didn't spend his life as a doctor. I won't go through all the details, as they're quite well known. After meeting Castro, the rest is pretty much history. However, until his death he retained his passion for literature. He wrote regularly, including a record of his journeys through South America, The Motorcycle Diaries, and later the Bolivian Diary. Guevara also wrote poetry, but he seemed to soon realise that he preferred reading that of others.

For forty years his Cuaderno Verde was kept away from the public eye. It was analysed by agents, who were convinced that a secret code or battle plan was hidden within. However, in the end they saw it for what it was: hand-written passages from sixty-nine poems by four poets. These were Pablo Neruda, Nicolás Guillén, César Vallejo and León Felipe. The latter I've already posted about, as one of my favourite poets. The fact that he carried this Cuaderno is quite magical, really. You don't really expect a guerrilla fighter to carry around poetry, particularly when most of them are love poems. However, I have a little book of my favourite passages from poems, and I guess it would also keep me (more) sane in difficult situations. You can tell so much about a person by reading their favourite poems. Reading Che's notebook has a definite sense of nostalgia and privacy about it, and I'd certainly recommend it (I think it's only been published in Spanish, however!)

Soon I'll post some of the Cuaderno Verde poems. It can be a little translation project!

Memorising Poetry
Che's Poetry (2): The Grandfather - Nicolás Guillén

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Wimbledon Excitement

I love Wimbledon. This year I have even printed off the draw so that I can fill in the progress. Needless to say, everyone has bullied me for it. I used to be good at tennis when I was little, but gave up when I won my first big tournament. I hated attention then, and still do now! I still love watching tennis though.

I wanted Sharapova and Nadal to win, so it's clear that I should never start gambling. I'm not sure who I'll support now that they're out. In the women's, probably Radwanskwa (I always worry about saying her name wrong). Murray is playing in the men's semi-finals tomorrow, but I find him so deathly boring both on and off the court. He's playing Tsonga, who is a lot more lovely and charismatic. Therefore it's likely that I'll support the Frenchman, probably like most of my family!

It's good to have something to spend far too long watching for two weeks. I'm sure it will be a similar situation when the Olympics starts. As you can probably tell, my family is rather obsessed by sport. 

Depression and Tennyson's Mariana

Here's the link to my commentary on the Tennyson poem mentioned in Skyfall!

It's a lovely day outside today, but I've decided to write about one of the most depressing poems I've ever read. However, it is my favourite, and it's by Lord Alfred Tennyson (a bit of a legend).

It's called Mariana, and I studied it for an English exam a while back. Whenever it was mentioned I got just that little bit too excited, which looking back is slightly embarrassing. To be honest, I still get excited by it. It sounds amazing read aloud, and so here is a YouTube reading by a guy with a rather scary voice if you fancy it. Alternatively, you can just click here to read the poem.

Anyway, the poem is about an incredibly isolated woman named Mariana, who is suffering from lost love. She spends her days lamenting her lost connection with society, and in the end can only foresee consolation in death. It's interesting for me to read, as I've had trouble with what may or may not have been agoraphobia, and also social anxiety. Mariana is a bit of an extreme case, but still.

The poem is set in a landscape of decay, beginning as so:

With blackest moss the flower-plots
Were thickly crusted, one and all:

The rusted nails fell from the knots
That held the pear to the gable-wall. 

It's intentionally very dreary, but written with such pathos and linguistic beauty. Mariana lives surrounded by complete ruin and desolation, which makes any difficult situation that I've been through seem considerably better. Tennyson wrote this poem at the age of only twenty-one, shortly after the death of his good friend Hallam, which explains his preoccupation with death at the end of each stanza:

She only said, ‘My life is dreary,
He cometh not,’ she said;
She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary,
Tennyson had his amazing hair to be
positive about, for instance. 
I would that I were dead!’

I imagine that a lot of people have felt like this before -that nothing will ever improve or change, and so death would be the simple answer. I'm hoping that this thought only lasts a second, as it really is just the voice of utmost depression talking. Hope does exist, but in this poem only the narrator, and not Mariana, notices it:

She could not look on the sweet heaven,
Either at morn or eventide.

If you're feeling down, try and look for the positive things around you (they are there). Here are some ideas: your family, friends, health, home, possessions (to an extent), memories, ambitions and dreams. Perhaps if Mariana had been awake during the day and left the "lonely moated grange" once in a while, her life wouldn't be so rubbish. I need to listen to my own advice and leave the house more. Also, that guy that Mariana pines over clearly wasn't worth the trouble. She's a bit of a Miss Havisham, really, and that can never be a good thing.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Tolstoy's 'Rules of Life', Perfectionism and Constant Self-Improvement

Leo Tolstoy after a life of 'rules'
Tolstoy aged 79 in 1908
Last month I wrote a post about being inspired by literature, mentioning Tolstoy's perfectionist tendencies that are very alike my own. I'll talk more about his perfectionism and 'Rules of Life' here, and in particular write about his "Journal of Daily Activities" (mentioned in Rosamund Bartlett's biography of Tolstoy).

Tolstoy began this journal at the age of eighteen, in 1847, and would set out exactly how many hours to dedicate to study, leisure and meals, leaving space to comment later on his performance.

Some days he kept to his regime and rules, but on others he did "nothing", "almost nothing", did things "badly", "read Gogol" or "overslept". Tolstoy also started compiling rules that would help him develop his willpower, which I thought I'd write about here.

Tolstoy's 'Rules of Life' included:

  • Wake at five o'clock
  • Go to bed no later than ten o'clock
  • Two hours permissible for sleeping during the day
  • Eat moderately
  • Avoid sweet foods
  • Walk for an hour every day
  • Carry out everything he prescribed for himself
  • Visit a brothel only twice a month
  • Love those to whom he could be of service
  • Disregard all public opinion not based on reason
  • Love those to whom he could be of service
  • Only do one thing at a time
  • Disallow flights of imagination unless necessary

The list gradually expanded, and the following rules were added:

  • Never to show emotion
  • Stop caring about other people's opinion of himself
  • Do good things inconspicuously
  • Keep away from women
  • Suppress lust by working hard
  • Help those less fortunate

Tolstoy was certainly quite self-absorbed at this point of his life, and it is moreover questionable whether he succeeded in following his rules. Some of those listed I don't agree with, such as keeping away from women and hindering his (very talented) imagination. Others are amusing to say the least, such as his attempt to keep away from brothels. I'll note here that Leo was first introduced to brothels at the age of fourteen by his brothers, and went on to have thirteen children with his wife. No matter how hard he tried, he just didn't seem destined for successful celibacy. 

Regardless, as a perfectionist I can certainly relate to the process of setting rules for himself. Do you have your own rules for life? If so, do you manage to carry them out over the long-term?

Monday, 2 July 2012

The Etymologicon - David Forsyth

I'm going to start working at my local bookshop soon, which is a big step forward! I'll have to get myself a reward of some sort. I spoke to the owner today, and he asked me about my plans for after uni and if I enjoyed my first year. That was kind of him. He also said that he thought I'd be good at recommending books to customers, which boosted my confidence.

I started reading The Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth yesterday. It's been around for ages, and I'm glad I've finally picked it up. It is described as "A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language", which I think sums it up pretty well. Forsyth explains the origins and development of words and idioms in a linked, "circular" manner that reminds me slightly of Dave's "Tedious Link" on Radio 1 (although less tedious). It's filled with QI-esque knowledge to annoy your friends and family, and explains a lot of things I often ponder over (why is the petrol company Shell called that?)

From describing the criminal who became a leading contributor to the OED, to explaining how Joseph-Ignace Guillotin was actually against the death penalty, Forsyth really has done his research. He began by writing The Inky Fool blog, which then developed into this book. I need to give his blog a proper read, but it'll probably take up hours of my time. Worthwhile hours, however.

As I study language (I'm doing an English and Spanish degree), it really is interesting to learn about where English words come from in conjunction with other European languages. I've never really done much etymology, but Forsyth has certainly made me want to look into it.

Here's a quote:
"When Caxton built his printing press in the fifteenth century, he set it to use sheepskin and not paper. When paper was finally introduced it was manufactured to fit the existing printing presses, and that's the reason that both the text you're reading and the book that contains it are dependent on sheep. Of course, you may be reading this on your e-book reader, but as those have been designed to mimic the size of normal books, you're still at the mercy of the sheep"
It's rather typical of me to quote this passage, as a farmer's daughter. In other news, socialising is on my agenda this evening, surprisingly. I'm seeing old friends that I haven't seen for a while, and I'm not sure if it'll be a friendly meeting or rather awkward. I'll see how it goes.