Charlotte Reads Classics

Slowly, slowly, she sipped a sentence.

Tag: Leo Tolstoy

Yes, The Greatest Book Ever Written

I’ve been lazy with keeping this up to date over the last week, but all shall be remedied soon. I haven’t forgotten my aforementioned post about Parade’s End and I’ve got one to write about The Casual Vacancy too (really good but really grim). But Anna Karenina takes writing precedent as MY FAVOURITE EVER BOOK.

I was intrigued as to whether re-reading would change my opinion, but absolutely not. If anything, I love this (now really quite battered) book even more now. The main reason why – it is about life. All of life, a cross-section of society and every bit as relevant as it was in 1877. What an astounding writer to have written something so universal, so human, that Charlotte (mid-twenties, English, twentieth/twenty-first century) would recognise the internal dialogue of a character dreamt up by Leo (late forties, Russian, nineteenth century).

Contrary to the title, I don’t like Anna and Vronsky and their mad, passionate affair. For me, this book is all about Kitty, Levin and the quest for happiness. Through them, Tolstoy gets to shout about his brand of morality. Getting to the heart of it, I think Tolstoy is really saying that happiness and being good are linked, and that to achieve both you mustn’t neglect your spiritual side. The very end of the book is similar to the style of War and Peace, as they both conclude with a very obvious message from the author. On this particular reading of Anna Karenina I enjoyed this part, although it was something I struggled with the first time. Tolstoy became an incredibly religious man in the last years of his life and perhaps put his own revelations and thoughts into Levin’s moment of spiritual awakening:

My life now, my whole life, regardless of all that may happen to me, every minute of it, is not only meaningless, as it was before, but has the unquestionable meaning of the good which is in my power to put into it!

I read that part sitting on the Metro on my way to work on Monday morning. The sun was shining but the air was crisp and cold like winter. I sat amongst people reading newspapers, playing with their phones, listening to music or just staring into space but I felt as if I was completely separate. I read the last few sentences, closed the book and felt so happy and uplifted – such is the power of Tolstoy and his beautiful words.

There is just so much to Anna Karenina that I think every time you read it you could focus on something different. I haven’t even mentioned the glittering Petersburg social life, the muzhiks, the excellent character that is Stepan Arkadyich, the role of women as wives and mothers, Anna’s position as a fallen women, Russian divorce laws, politics, reform and revolution… I suppose that is the basis of its great appeal – there really is something to suit everyone. I am so pleased that I decided to read this again, if I could pick only one book to read for the rest of my life it would be this one. I will definitely revisit Anna Karenina every few years; the first time I read it was in 2008 – so perhaps we’ll meet again in 2015.

What Anna Karenina Made Me Do Next

I am going to make a bold claim. I have an all time, number one favourite book. My top ten, top five books change all the time, but first place never does. Anna Karenina is my favourite book because I think it is the best book ever written.

This claim is particularly bold because of the following confession: I have only read it once. Several years ago.

Having been to see the new film earlier this week I have been thinking about how much I love it and how I really should read it again.

Russian literature is something I have not got a lot of experience of, yet all the Russian classics I have read I have really enjoyed. So, after reading this article  about the top five books Russian writers on the Penguin Classics website, I have decided that next year I shall read something by each writer. The top five Penguin choose are:

  • Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol
  • The Devils by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  • A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov
  • The Steppe and Other Stories by Anton Chekhov
  • The Gift by Vladimir Nabokov

I reckon this should get me off to a good start in finding more Russian books and authors I’d like to try. I’ve studied The Cherry Orchard by Chekhov and have absolutely no memory of it at all, so that doesn’t count. I’ve read Lolita but would love to read another Nabokov too. I’m pretty sure Crime and Punishment is on my Classics Club list because I have my dad’s old copy floating around somewhere so that will take care of Dostoyevsky and after that – we’ll see.

I am putting this goal off until next year because I am determined to read the following by the end of the year:

  • Anna Karenina because my favourite book deserves more than one reading.
  • Clarissa because it needs my full attention and wasn’t supposed to take a year to read!
  • Martin Chuzzlewit because I want to read this with o.

I am confident about having three definite good books to see the year out with. If I get time I’d love to read Les Miserables, but I think I’d struggle to read so many huge books in what now seems like not much time! Plus, I do need to leave some time free for some wintery books when the weather changes.

Here’s to favourites and spending time reacquainting yourself with them.

The Greatest Literary Achievement of All Time

War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy

Reading War and Peace was very challenging, but ultimately an enjoyable experience. As with Anna Karenina, the characters are excellently developed with darkness and light. Tolstoy is fantastic at characterisation: everyone ends up a long way from where they started, and he is one of the few writers who can authentically age his creations.

Not surprisingly I preferred the ‘peace’ parts (i.e. those set in the social circles of St. Petersburg or Moscow as opposed to the battlefield) but I did find the battles more interesting than I thought I would. I do struggle picturing battle scenes, for these I tried to imagine Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe style skirmishes, which was probably not amazingly accurate. Reading about Napoleon from a Russian perspective was illuminating, but I thought the ending of the book was disappointing because it got so bogged down in the philosophy of history (if there is such a thing!) and felt a little bit like it was the author’s attempt to show off how smart he undeniably was.

I would recommend reading War and Peace because ultimately it is not as difficult or as boring as it is made out to be: its just really really long. And the novel has to be so long to encapsulate what I think makes Tolstoy AMAZING: the story is all in the detail. So much of the book is reading about trivial, tiny, thoughts and feelings, but it is these small moments that make up life.

When it comes to events in history, so called ‘great men’ are nothing but labels attached to events; like real labels they have the least possible connection with events themselves. Every action they perform, which they take to be self-determined and independent, is in a historical sense quite the opposite, it is inter-connected with the whole course of history, and predetermined from eternity.
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

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 earth, its pure white light and the long uplift of its tail, shone the comet, the huge, brilliant comet of 1812, that popular harbringer of untold horrors and the end of the world … 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.
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

War and Peace: Volume II, Part III

Prince Andrey falls in love with Natasha, in what must be the weirdest and unlikely pairing ever, but they are forced to wait a year before they marry because his father disapproves. Pierre is back with his wife and becoming heavily involved in the ideology of the freemasons.

War and Peace: Volume II, Part IV

At the Rostov’s over christmas:

  • Nikolay returns on leave due to family’s slow deterioration of funds
  • After a hunting party he sees the happiness of the lower classes who choose Russian values over western ones, are self sufficient and find simple pleasures, compared to the aristocracy who are all about money and extravagance.
  • Natasha is depressed waiting for Prince Andrey to come back from being abroad- they have no contact over the time they must wait before marrying.
  • The Countess tries to set up a marriage between Nikolay and Julie Kuragin (wealthy heiress) to ensure a financial future for the family.
  • Nikolay comes to realise his love for Sonya (again?!) and vows to be with her once he has finished in the army, despite the family’s lack of permission.
  • The Rostov’s move to moscow because of money… generally everyone is unhappy in this section.

War and Peace: Volume II, Part V

The Bolkonsky’s follow suit and move to Moscow. The old price is becoming senile and argues with Marya about her staying with him. 

Julie Kuragin ends up marrying Boris; a loveless match made for prospects (him) and because of fear of age (her).

Natasha and Andrey: She meets his family which goes badly. Whilst attending an opera she meets Anatole Kuragin – total playboy, generally quite horrible. After meeting three times he convinces her to run away and elope despite the fact that he is secretly already married. Pierre has to sort it all out, as discreetly as possible, whilst the shame and scandal means Natasha loses both her fiance and the man she was going to elope with. Basically it was all set up in a way that nothing good could ever come of it, also Natasha is an idiot.

The whole world is split in two for me now: one half is her, and it’s all happiness, hope and light; the other is not her, and it’s all misery and darkness…
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

War and Peace: Volume II, Part I

Nothing more, nothing less, love is the best? This is turning out to be a little bit like a soap.

Nikoláy and Sonya: He loves her, he loves her not. No wait, he does love her, especially now she’s essentially said that she wants him to have his freedom and that she’ll wait forever.

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Pierre and Hélene: She’s cheating on him, he finds out, challenges the lover to a duel, shoots him, assumes he’s dead… although he actually recovers.

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Natásha and Denisov: He proposes, she says no. I’m not too sure about her character, she seems very childish for a sixteen year old. And pretty irritating.

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Andréy and Lize: Hooray! Andréy turns out to be alive! Unfortunately, he returns home just in time for his wife to die in childbirth.