War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy

Pierre Bezukhov, Natasha Rostov and Andrei Bolkonsky in the BBC production of War and Peace

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. It’s the size of a small loaf of bread. It’s a cultural icon. But is it any good?

I had promised a very old friend to read War and Peace, and so I did. All of it. It was hard work in places I have to say, but a bit like removing all the grains of sand from a beach, if you stick at it, and do a bit every day, you can get there in the end.

Tolstoy’s War and Peace is generally considered to be the best Russian novel, possibly the best novel, ever written. That’s interesting considering Tolstoy himself said it was not really a novel at all. I agree with him. War and Peace is very much Russian but not really a novel. It contains multiple genres.

It tells the story of three well to do Russian families set against the background of the Napoleonic wars. It begins about 1805, and has an epilogue that finishes round about 1820.

Tolstoy’s story consists of sections about life at home, in Russia, Moscow, St Petersburg or in the Russian countryside.  These seem to be completely fictional, and are written in the style of a novel. They alternate with sections set on the battlefield or in the army camp. These are more like fictionalised accounts of historical events  – today’s equivalent might be a drama documentary.

Pierre Bezukhov is possibly the most interesting of the main characters. He is a foolish and fairly simple young man whose life is changed when he inherits a large estate. He becomes the victim of goldiggers. and is tricked into an unsuitable marriage, which he does not have the gumption or resolution to resist. His wife is a dissolute character who cuckolds him and spends his cash. Paul is a bit of a dreamer. Looking for a philosophy to follow, he drifts into masonry, then finds himself at the battle of Borodino, and subsequently wanders round Moscow during the French occupation.

Two families, the Bolkonskys and the Rostovs, are part of the Russian nobility. Each suffers bereavement as a result of the war. I won’t go into too many details here. Put simply, the Rostovs suffer from a profligate father, and the Bolkonsky men from pride, bad temper and snobbery. Andrei Bolkonsky’s first wife dies in childbirth, and later he becomes engaged to the beautiful Natasha Rostov. But they are both flawed characters and this leads to tragedy.

These elements of the book, set in peace, are interesting. Tolstoy is writing about the corruption and foolishness of the Russian upper classes. The characters are rounded, and the plot arises naturally from their interactions and personalities. The character of Pierre is a bit odd in this respect. His story is mostly separate and quite tangential to the soap opera of family relationships explored through the Bolkonskys and the Rostovs.

The sections in the war are to some extent completely separate, though the men from both families are involved in the fighting and at times the political manoeuvring that surrounds it. Tolstoy goes into immense detail about the battles, especially the Battle of Borodino, and apparently spent days wandering around the battlefield getting the geographical and historical facts right. In these sections he also makes use of historical documents, at times quoting from or paraphrasing them.

The focus is really on a patriotic vision of Russia. Kutuzov, the general at Borodino, is a major figure. Tolstoy contrasts the romantic idea of war promoted by literature, and embodied in the patriotic fervour of the upper classes, with Kutuzov, a plain speaking down to earth commander who almost accidentally stumbles on the realisation that only the way to defeat Napoleon is never to fight him.

The scale of War and Peace is vast, and it’s probably true to say that the real subject of the novel is Russia itself. Tolstoy shows us both the emperor and the peasant. In the epilogue especially he presents us with an idealised version of Russia, showing peasant and noble working in moral harmony. Above all, this reminded me of the section of Lord of the Rings set in Hobbiton which offers a similarly idealised view of England! Tosh, really.

Tolstoy has a lot to say for himself, especially about the nature of history. He opposes the theory that great men determine events, and this is of course significant considering much of the book is about the impact of Napoleon on history. The second part of the epilogue deals with this theory, and Tolstoy shares the idea with us liberally throughout the rest of the book too. I would have hated to go on a long train journey with him across the steppes. Let’s just leave that there.

War and Peace is a novel, in the sense that Tolstoy deals with many literary themes – love, marriage, death, greed and chivalry amongst others. But I would have preferred to read a shorter book with a clearer focus on these main characters and their flawed and tragic lives.

Aristotle valued the unities of time place and action, which he saw as essential to creating a coherent work of art with a dramatic impact. Of course Shakespeare played fast and loose with these rules as well as Tolstoy. But a Shakespeare play is only three or four hours long. It took me six months on and off to read W and P and much of the drama was lost in Tolstoy’s self indulgent philosophising.

That’s a shame, as he can really write well. The death scene of Andrei is especially moving and I would have preferred the novel to end around that point, where the story of Pierre also reaches a dramatic moment. Instead the book goes on. Pierre’s wife rather conveniently dies, leaving him free to find a happier ending in the Hobbity version of Russia that the book concludes with.



Birdcage Walk – Helen Dunmore (and why Brexiteers aren’t really thick)

The Royal York Crescent, Clifton

I picked up Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore because it is set in Bristol, and concerns the building of one of the crescents in the beautiful suburb of Clifton, close to where I live. It is also set in the period of the French revolution, a current interest.

We live in counter-revolutionary times, and Brexit is a counter revolutionary force just like the British armies that fought for the crowned heads of Europe in the Napoleonic Wars.  Brexit is an attempt by the new establishment – the oligarchs and billionaires – to circumscribe the freedom of the people, and drive back the democratic gains achieved in the seventy years of quiet revolution since WW2.

The NHS, the environment, safety regulations, workers’s rights, and the political freedoms of minorities and foreigners are all threatened by this counter revolution disguised as a popular uprising. Do not think that the Tory government and its wealthy backers want anything more than the complete freedom to allow business to profit without moral constraint. They enclosed farmland, and protected landowners by raising the price of corn in those days. Now, free of the EU, they will cut wages and abolish safety regulations, cut business taxes, and starve the NHS.

But for Helen Dunmore, the political issues turn out to be quite tangential to the focus of her novel Birdcage Walk. It’s a historical novel set in revolutionary times, but the characters are only remotely involved in, and affected by, the politics of the time. The narrator’s mother is an associate of Thomas Paine, who wrote The Rights of Man. She has contacts in Paris, and hears of the events of the French revolution from eyewitnesses who contradict the mainstream news in The Times. But these are brief episodes in the novel, used to add colour, rather than its main focus.

The heroine  marries a builder whose livelihood may be destroyed because the French revolution has damaged business confidence. He has every right, by his own terms, to be mad as a snake with his wife’s mother and her colleagues, who foment revolution with their pamphlets and meetings. Yet in the novel their paths never cross. There is no dramatic confrontation, not even any discussion or dialogue. This was a disappointment to me.

But I suppose I’m due to review the book that Helen Dunmore wrote, not the one I wished she had written. By her own measures Dunmore is quite successful. She does use the details of everyday life to evoke something of life at the time, and does present an interesting mystery in a clear historical context.

The conceit of the new crescent in Bristol, begun but never finished, clearly embodies the way politics can impact on ordinary people, on ordinary life. It also provides a realistic setting and context for the novel.

But the real story of Birdcage Walk is not political. It’s about a murder, hinted at in the first chapter, and slowly revealed to the narrator and reader as the story unfolds. So the reader knows part of the truth, and wants to learn more. And the reader watches the narrator, who is potentially the next victim, discover the whole truth.

The voice of the narrator is simple and clear. The writer uses subject verb object sentences without embellishment in a way that’s meant to represent the simple intelligence of the protagonist. It makes the book very easy to read, and allows the story to lead the reader on, but it’s not very challenging, and this voice limits the writer to a pretty straightforward narrative account.

It is so simple it could even be read by Brexiteers. Sorry that was a joke! Bad taste I know. Brexiteers aren’t really stupid. They are as intelligent as the rest of us. They just don’t read the right papers. Their opinions are formed by The Sun, The Daily Mail, The Daily Express, The Times and The Telegraph. Newspapers that are part of the problem because they are owned by the tax evading billionaires who are behind Brexit, and want to get us out of the EU before new tax legislation, to be introduced in 2019, forces them to declare income that they have hidden in tax havens till now.

Oh, and Brexiteers watch BBC News, which failed in its duty to hold politicians to account during the referendum, and continues to do so, both with Brexit and with climate change.

No, what really holds the Brexiteers back now is pride, and blind optimism. Or blind faith in jolly Johnson, in the Maybot, in wily old disgraced former Foreign Secretary Mr Fox, in daft old Davies the sugar freak, and in the rest of the lying cheating Tory party, seeking the Best Brexit for Britain without the foggiest idea of what it means, or even whether it’ll mean there’s any food on the supermarket shelves – and not really caring.

Long live the revolution – just not their revolution.

Sharpe’s Eagle – Bernard Cornwell


Sean Bean as Richard Sharpe in the TV series

Sharpe’s Eagle was the first of Bernard Cornwell’s series of novels about Richard Sharpe, the fictional British rifleman active in Wellington’s army in Europe and India.

Sharpe’s Eagle tells the story of the period surrounding the Battle of Talavera, beginning with the army’s advance from Portugal, and culminating, despite victory in the Spanish battle, with Wellington’s retreat to Portugal.

The novel contains two or three key battle scenes, which as far as I can tell are portrayed with due reference to the actual historical facts, describing weapons, tactics and the actual strategies used by Wellington and the French, and that alone made the book interesting. In fact Cornwell claims never to have written about a battle without first visiting the site. This must have afforded him some interesting tax deductible holidays!

The burden of the novel is not actually about the struggle with the French though. It’s a novel about male heroism, and definitions of male identity, as well as a novel about British society and its interminable and damnable class divisions.

Sharpe is a down to earth working class hero with no fancy ways, and it’s hard to think of him without being reminded of Sean Bean’s portrayal: pure Sheffield working class, and a blunt northerner who calls a spade a bloody shovel. In fact I could hear Bean’s voice clearly in the dialogue at times. Cornwell himself comments on Bean’s eminent suitability for the role, and no doubt the producers of Game of Thrones identified this northern integrity and honesty when casting him so successfully as Ned Stark.

Sharpe has come up through the ranks, making officer thanks to his own experience and ability, in an army where it was usual to purchase a commission, and this places him as a working class hero amongst a bunch of namby-pamby southern types who couldn’t take the skin off a custard, never mind lead an army into battle. We observe their shallow and futile management of the troops, and their cruel and selfish behaviour almost through Sharpe’s eyes, though it’s a third person narrator. Meanwhile Sharpe’s friends are men that toil, Scots and Irish often, honest and trustworthy yeoman types.

The anti-English element of this is interesting. It’s a common literary trope for the English to be mean and cowardly, interested in personal gain and full of treachery, and is an issue I mentioned in my recent review of Pride and PrejudiceIn Sharpe’s Eagle it’s accentuated by the mistreatment of Josefina by the wealthy English officers, and Sharpe’s rather more noble romantic entanglement with her.

In the end of course justice is done, and Sharpe survives to fight on in the next instalment. This was my first Sharpe novel, and I found it an easy read with entertaining aspects, but really, as I suppose is widely accepted, it’s just a tale of derring-do, a Boys’ Own Paper story.

As a footnote, although this was the first Sharpe novel written, it is not the first in the chronological story of his life. It’s clear from reading the novel that Cornwell already had ideas about how the earlier part of Sharpe’s life would lead to this moment, though I suppose these embellishments may have been added at a later date to subsequent editions of the book.

The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry


The Essex Serpent comes with hearty recommendations from a variety of sources, and has been named a Sunday Times number one bestseller. I have to say I am becoming increasingly sceptical of that accolade. Perhaps it’s the readership of The Times? After all they are stupid enough to buy the paper and imbibe the flawed and warped neoliberal philosophies of its owner, why should they show any more discernment when it comes to their reading of fiction?

The Essex Serpent is a modern novel written in Victorian style, and is typical of the genre in many ways. There are the traditional preoccupations of the novelist, and the usual modern twists: for example a major character suffers from Asperger’s or some form of autism: since The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night this has become regular trope.

More broadly, the romance is presented in Victorian style, but is modern in content and theme, and includes lesbian affairs.  It can be compared to The French Lieutenants’ Woman in seeing Victorian concerns through modern eyes, though it lacks that novel’s playfulness with narrative structure, and its philosophical depth.

There are many issues which allow the writer to draw implicit contrasts between modern and Victorian beliefs, always with the intention of preferring the modern. It seems very modern that the protagonist is a woman, and a feminist, who is freed from domestic servitude and violence on the death of her husband. She is also a geologist with an interest in fossils – hence the Essex serpent. The parallels with Fowles’ novel are clear here,  as are the opportunities to draw a contrast between the validity of modern science, and the failings of Victorian religion.

The protagonist’s love for an Essex vicar is at the heart of the novel, and again the links with Charles in TFLW are obvious, though there is not the same extended drama, or should I say melodrama, attached to the denouement of the relationship. There are other aspects that develop the contrast between the modern and the Victorian: so there is the superstition of the locals about the nature of the Essex serpent and the recent deaths on the river, and the focus throughout on medicine, science and social policy – a minor character is a ground breaking surgeon, another suffers from consumption, a third is an MP and another becomes involved with public housing, acknowledging the need for slum clearance, and implicitly the progress that was made at that time in public health. There are some interesting aspects to this, but it seems like there’s been assiduous use of a checklist entitled Social and Scientific Progress during the planning of the novel.

There are some interesting characters in the book, and the children especially bring variety to the story. There is also a sustained use of the colour blue related to the consumptive, who hallucinates in a fevered way and seems to be some kind of symbol of true love and friendship, though I found this quite hard to understand. Knowing she will die, she forgives her husband’s love for his new woman, and is able to relate to the autistic boy, becoming in the process some kind of visionary or prophet. Perhaps I’ve got this wrong. But it didn’t do much for me.

I have to say after a very slow start the plot did pick up speed and I was able to enjoy the second half of the novel much more than the first, but it is a pastiche of a Victorian novel and so does demonstrate many of those qualities of formal language and slow plot development that make that era difficult for a modern reader.


The Revenant – Michael Punke


The Revenant is the book that inspired the film, as it says on the cover of my version.  I take that as an interesting comment, not having seen the film.  It probably means there’s a rough but limited connection, though the story is very simple and straightforward tale of revenge and derring-do!

The Revenant tells the story of one Hugh Glass, a tracker working for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company in 1823.  He is in the headwaters of the Missouri river, in wild and undiscovered land, hunting for food, as his party moves northwards and autumn draws on.  He is attacked by a grizzly bear protecting its cubs, and brutally scarred and hurt.  He manages to fire off his single shot rifle as the bear attacks.  It dies, but not before leaving Glass’s life hanging by a thread.

As the company need to press on to their next destination, Glass is left in the hands of two fellow trappers, an older gambler called Fitzgerald, and a younger boy, new to the wilds and fresh from an apprenticeship in Fort Atkinson.  They are offered a reward of $70 for staying behind, and manage two days before leaving Glass to his fate, stealing his knife and gun as they abandon him to a painful death. But Glass is made of sterner stuff.  He crawls back to civilisation, and sets out to hunt them down and dispense justice.

The book is essentially the story of Glass’s life in the year following the attack,  and includes all kinds of adventures and exploits, from canoeing down rivers to crawling across the wide expanses of the prairies.  After the grizzly attack he can only crawl, but happens on a snake, inert as it is swallowing a mammal, and kills and eats it.  He is helped by some Indians and attacked by others.  He gets a job on a new expedition to search for furs in the west, meeting French trappers with loose morals, and fighting alongside them against even more Indians.  But this job is just a ploy to facilitate the vengeance Glass is seeking.

There are flashbacks too – Punke provides quite an interesting back story to Glass, though this is largely invented by the author, whilst the actual revenge narrative is supposedly based on a true story.  Nevertheless these sections do offer some insights into life at the time, and especially into the economic and social aspects of American history.

Punke does give the reader quite a real sense of what it was like to live in the wilds and anyone interested in survival skills would find plenty in this book to like.  There is good description, not all of it bloody, and a real sense of the beauty and power of nature.  There are some insights into the different Indian tribes encountered, though I’m not sure how reliable this information is.  The whole tenor of the book is realistic, though the backstory, in which Glass is first sailor, then pirate, then taken in by an Indian tribe and taught survival skills is a bit Just William for me.

All in all this is an adventure story and should be treated as such.  Punke takes little or no time to examine the moral implications of the events, such as the original abandonment of Glass, or his search for revenge.  It’s more The Spanish Tragedy than Hamlet, but enjoyable nevertheless.

Lieutenant – Kate Grenville

Kate Grenville’s Lieutenant is based on a true story about the first British colony in New South Wales.

The story begins in Portsmouth with the character of Daniel Rooke, and the history of his childhood. Grenville presents a thoughtful and interesting account of this unusual young man. The character has elements we might recognise as autism – an ease with manipulating numbers and some difficulty in human communications.  In a way this is a trope that has become common nowadays: this book was published in 2008 – five years after the quite seminal Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night which I guess influenced it in some way.

Grenville uses small details to build up a picture of Rooke, so that the story is never forced.  Despite some difficulties at school, he succeeds in all kinds of ways academically, developing an interest in astronomy and navigation and finally heading off to Australia in the first party of colonisers.  In Australia Rooke sets up his observatory on an isolated spot overlooking the first colony. He has been asked to monitor the predicted arrival of a comet in the southern hemisphere, and proceeds to do that.

We gain insights into life in the colony, the hardships and the harsh discipline, and this last is shown through the shocked eyes of the aborigines who are appalled at the cruel and brutal treatment meted out to offenders.

Grenville develops a number of characters who will play a part in the novel’s denouement and again these are all introduced and portrayed with the simplest of touches, with convincing details and a real sense of their human nature and frailty. Rooke befriends a young native girl and begins to learn her language. Somehow she reaches past his communication difficulties and they become very close.  I did find this point stretched my credulity a little!

Inevitably there is a moment of crisis and conflict between the British and the natives, who are deemed to have transgressed against the laws of the colony. Rooke is instructed to take part in an expedition to punish the offenders.  He is not happy but sets out nevertheless, intimidated by the brutal discipline enforced on traitors and dissenters by the British.  Realising the extent of the brutality envisaged by the British governor, Rooke is shocked and horrified.  He makes a decision that will change his life forever.

I really enjoyed this book. The ending was powerful and moving. Grenville never lectures and you aren’t forced to think about the implications of this story; she never invites you to, never in any way intrudes.  But close the book and sit back, and pretty soon all kinds of issues come to the surface.

Maybe a different writer would have made more of these themes, drawn them out further through a series of images and symbols.  Grenville doesn’t do that, limiting herself instead to a kind of restricted viewpoint – telling the story through Rooke’s eyes.  Nevertheless it’s a book with a powerful message about colonisation and human values, about friendship and loyalty.

The Guardian – Review

Cloudsplitter – Russell Banks

Harper’s Ferry

Cloudsplitter is the fictional autobiography of Owen Brown, son of the anti-slavery hero John Brown, who is famous for his assault on Harper’s Ferry munitions factory.  This raid was one of the factors that contributed to the start of the American Civil War.

As an English reader this book presents some difficulties.  Issues and events that are perhaps common knowledge in the USA are little known here, and whilst I knew the famous song about Brown’s body, I knew little else about the life and impact of John Brown before starting this book.  This despite a visit to Gettysburg in 2014, and a tour of the battlefield and museum, and despite watching Ken Burns’ documentary on the Civil War.  In both these the role of John Brown is explored, but Cloudsplitter goes much further.  Banks begins by explaining that it is a work of fiction, but that doesn’t help as much as it should: I imagine most well informed Americans would have more idea than I did about exactly where fiction took over from fact.

Cloudsplitter offers a comprehensive life story told by Owen Brown from his vantage point in California years after the war.  By this point in reality Brown was something of a hero, and Owen’s death was accompanied by some public ceremony.  Nevertheless in the novel we see an Owen Brown racked by guilt and a sense of failure – physically crippled by a fall as a child, and emotionally crippled by his upbringing and experiences.

Banks tells the story of Owen’s early life, of course focusing on his father and his father’s role in supporting and running the Underground Railroad – a safe escape route for runaway slaves – and in promoting abolitionist views.  We travel to Boston and hear Emerson speak.  We travel to Europe where John Brown tours Waterloo, considering the reasons that Napoleon lost the battle.  We hear of the strong Christian ethic in the Brown household, and of Brown’s use of the Bible as military textbook! We meet Brown’s family and the colleagues who help him in Ohio and North Elba and at Harper’s Ferry itself.

Owen gives what seems a fairly objective view of John Brown.  He is clearly under the influence of his father, whilst unable to share his father’s faith, and we see how Owen reconciles himself to his father’s radical approach to the abolition of slavery.  In the end Owen sees himself as the one who pushes his father over into violence in the Battle of Osawatomie. Perhaps here is where the fiction most clearly differs from the fact: at least in Wiki there is no mention of Owen’s role, and the implication is that it was the defence of the town, and the death of his son Frederick that prompted John Brown to resort to violence.

Banks gives several examples of Owen’s own weaknesses – his sexual guilt after an incident with a prostitute, his sexual jealousy for a black partner’s wife, his own acknowledged racism.  In the end he observes the incident at Harper’s Ferry from the opposite bank of the river, where he has been asked to look after the rifles put aside for the uprising slaves.  Finally he escapes to California.

I found this book quite hard work.  It’s told with what seems the authentic voice of a nineteenth century American, imbued with formal vocabulary and laced with Biblical references and language.  That in itself is quite hard going.  The character of Owen himself is really quite depressing.  He is racked with guilt, sees himself as a failure, is emotionally and physically crippled.  At times I just wanted the book to finish.  And it’s over 700 pages long!

Towards the end the tension did build.  The Harper’s Ferry incident was dramatic and exciting.  Other sections were interesting too: I could believe in this character. By blaming Owen, the book also makes quite a good fist of explaining why someone with the strong biblical beliefs of John Brown could bring himself to adopt such violent measures.

Would I recommend it?  Not really.  You’d need stamina and determination, it’s quite depressing and dark, and in the end I’m not sure what I learnt.