Social distancing and reading


War & PeaceWith every responsible, mature adult practicing social distancing and self-isolation these days, it means spending lots of time at home, alone or within the small family unit. Trying for some, but it’s the perfect time to catch up on your reading, to explore new authors, to discover the contentment of a comfortable chair, a cup of tea, and a novel. The social-distancing period can become not just a burden, but a great opportunity for immersing yourself in books.

But with so many choices, what should I read, you ask. Blogger/editor Sara Reggiani, writing from Italy in Life in Quarantine, asked, plaintively,

Stay home, read a book! yells everyone, but how am I to know which book I need amidst this din of suggestions that often seem like just another attempt to impose one’s own identity and tastes onto someone else?

A sentiment I don’t agree with: to me, every book suggestion is an opportunity to discover a new author, a new subject, a new way of expression. I do not want to impose my tastes on anyone, but I do have some suggestions, one in particular. The nature of our current solitude offers new possibilities to tackle some longer, more demanding works.

Let me digress a moment. For decades, I’ve collected books (let’s not call it hoarding, as if these were rolls of toilet paper) and put them aside to read “when I retired” as I kept telling myself. But when I actually retired, some years ago — only semi-retired, however — I found I had very little extra time on my hands, what with socializing, gardening, housework, dog and cat care, shopping, some freelance work, committee activities, writing, playing music, coffee with friends, online gaming, and so on.

Back in the 1970s and ’80s, I was heavily influenced in my reading by friends who discovered authors and titles sooner, then introduced me to them. That’s how I got to know (and read) Dostoyevsky, Marquez, Dickens, Bulgakov, Silverberg, Dumas, Machiavelli, and many others. But sometimes after I started to read them, I got distracted by other books, so they returned to the shelf for that imaginary, later period.

Today, with the socializing aspect of my life severely pared down, I can, at last, get to some of those books. My first recommendation is on that list. I’ll have more to discuss in later posts, but first…

War and Peace. What better way to spend your days than immersed in a grand, sprawling story about the Russian nobility at the height of its glory?

First, there are several translations available, some quite recent, and I recommend you look for a newer one rather than choose an older one. In bookstores you’ll often see inexpensive classic novels (three for $10 I recently found). These are often reprints of older publications, now in the public domain. For English-writers, these are fine, but for translations, they can often prove fusty and stiff. For War and Peace, this might be a translation from the late 19th or early 20th century.

My first attempt at reading it was the Rosemary Edmunds’ version, originally published in 1957 (I suspect mine was the revised 1978 edition in a Penguin paperback; still on my shelf, albeit somewhat yellowed and brittle these days). I got a few chapters into it before I gave up. Put back on the shelf for the retirement reading, and more or less forgotten. Other books occupied my attention. Now I’m older, a tad more patient, and ready.

War and Peace is a challenge for many reasons, not least of all its length and large character count, but with my new (Briggs) translation in hand, I am already more than a third of the way through its 1,350-plus pages and eager to read more every day. Since many of the chapters are short (two to four pages), it’s easy to read this book in small bites.

War and Peace, I found, has a lot in common with that popular TV series, Downton Abbey. Perhaps it will prove easier for others to read after watching that series, too. There are many differences, of course, not least of all because one was meant to beread, and the other seen. But let’s not dwell on them, and instead focus on the similarities.

First, both open at the start of a great war and carry on past it into the years of upheaval that followed both conflicts.  Those wars set the stage for many localized events, personalities and politics. Tolstoy opens before the 1805 campaign against Napoleon (Austerlitz is central to the story), and carries on through Napoleon’s eventually unsuccessful invasion of Russia, in  1812, and into 1820. Downtown Abbey opens in 1912, before World War I, and carries on through into the 1920s (I believe the final movie is set in ’27). War and combat is described in more detail in Tolstoy’s novel than you see in D.A. (hence the War in War and Peace...), but there are heroes and cowards who emerge from the conflicts; social changes and political conflicts arise in both.

Both are about great (rich, noble, royal, entitled) families and their intertwined activities and relationships. There’s opulence in the stories and images of bygone days, of imperial splendor, of excess and richness.  There are balls and grand dinners, princes, family feuds, drawing room discussions that split friends and families, and, in Tolstoy, duels.

Both have a large cast of characters (each has roughly 20 main characters, plus numerous secondary) to keep track of. The way they interact, engage with one another, and the relationships develop makes both easier to see and appreciate them after a bit of familiarity or reading. A handful of chapters into W&P or a couple of episodes of D.A. and you know most of the main characters. Many editions of W&P provide a brief guide to the characters for handy reference in case you forget. The challenge for English readers may be more in the unfamiliar names of the Russian characters (and Tolstoy’s habit of using both the character’s title and name interchangeable), but you get used to them quickly.

I often think about characters in novels using a musical metaphor: chords and musical scores. There are the major characters (chords) around whom the score (story) revolves, and they set the tone or the key. There are the seventh chords who bring discord, energy, challenge, and adventure. The minors bring passion, sadness, empathy, romance, sympathy. Major sevenths sit between these two, and are intermediaries between the sevenths and majors. There are diminished and ninth characters who are in the orbit of the majors, and complement them to move the score along.  But I digress.

Both stories are about class, status, money, and class struggle. The  downstairs characters in D.A. are more liberated, vocal, and independent as they emerge from Edwardian strictures into the post-war freedoms, but they are still in a visibly lower class who know their places and serve the elite. In W&P the lower classes are generally what we call in role-playing games, NPCs (non-player characters)  — onstage as colour, but seldom part of the plot — Tolstoy still includes descriptions of them, often in rather disparaging comments, but no really active roles.

In the early 19th century, peasants in Russia were serfs; basically slaves, but the move to liberate them was beginning, and a source of great conflict among the nobility, as Tolstoy relates. There were also conflicts over reform in the army and government;  the French victories in Europe had set in motion a liberal wave in Russia that wanted to adapt French policies and modernize — which was resisted, of course, by the conservatives.

In the post-WW I era, women got the vote, class structures crumbled, Ireland was in revolt, unions grew stronger, the rise of Communism imposed new political challenges, and technologies like the car, telephone, and radio emerged to create new freedoms and communications. So both tales are set in a time of turbulence and change, and in both there are central characters trying to maintain the older lifestyles and power bases in the face of these changes.

As such, both stories also make it somewhat easier to appreciate the upheavals against class, hereditary positions, and the rise of merit-based practices.  The disparity between rich and everyone else is perhaps more pronounced in Tolstoy, and the lower classes never get the voice they do in D.A., but the social situations are similar. 

Both are stories about love, life, passion, jealousy, family, money, sex, and power: perennial human needs, and wants. That’s why they captivate us. Tolstoy’s characters exhibit jealousy, lust, betrayal, infidelity, faith, anger, cowardice, optimism, and all the rest of the behaviours you’ll find in D.A. and pretty much every modern novel.

Both are sometimes like long,  meandering soap operas that appear to lose focus and even the storyline, but even then both still subtly develop the characters. You feel invested in them and the outcomes.

D.A. was a grand tale that portrayed its characters with the same loving, deep detail Tolstoy loved to dabble in for his characters. There’s a feeling in both of being part of a great panorama, greater than just the players onstage.

Both are the results of the genius of a single author, which, of course, also helped create some of the often-commented flaws in each. Julian Fellowes has his own “jump the shark” moments in D.A. (some parts of S2 come to mind) as viewers have noted. Didn’t deter the audience, though. Tolstoy is prone to make comments about issues and people, and insert his philosophy at times, which can sometimes distract, but not excessively so, despite what some reviewers have whinged.

And think, too, of being able to say with pride that you had read the book which has long been the metaphor for the very long novel — although it’s not really that long. It’s in the same ballpark as the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Clavell’s Shogun, King’s The Stand, Seth’s A Suitable Boy, Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo, Nadas’ Parallel Lives, Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy, Rand’s dreary, pretentious Atlas Shrugged, and many others. It’s much a bit more than half the word count of the collected Harry Potter novels and about a half of the words in Proust’s massive À la recherche du temps perdu (spoiler alert: I mean to write about Rowling and Proust after this…).

And as an added bonus, once you’re read it, you can then watch the BBC eight-part series made from it in 2016, and know what they left out and changed for TV (and if you’re keen to see an alternate, Russian version, find a copy of Sergei Bondarchuk’s 1967 version, released to DVD in 1999). But not before you read the book, please.

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