05 July 2018

The Wrong Books

I have a DVD set of the 1972 BBC production of War and Peace starring Anthony Hopkins as Pierre, and I asked my husband if he'd like to watch it sometime.  He declined: "I'm not up for Tolstoy."  And what he meant by "Tolstoy" was War and Peace.  He'd tried to read it, decades ago, and stalled out pretty quickly, which I think happens to a lot of people.  A lot of people complain about its length, and at over 1,200 pages, it's long enough to complain about.  But then, Outlander is half that length, and then you've still got 7 more hefty books to go in that series.

But I think that reading War and Peace is a classic example of the wrong book.  I think one of the reasons why people avoid "great literature" is that
(1) they're told that it's great,
(2) there's this illusion that great = dull / hard to understand / heavy (ie., depressing), and
(3) they're started off with the wrong book.

L.N.Tolstoy Prokudin-Gorsky.jpgSo, with Tolstoy, start with Anna Karenina, and make sure it's the old Constance Garnett translation:  Anna, about to go into the major midlife crisis in literature, her cheerfully cheating brother Stepan, her pompous irritating husband Karenin, her soon to be lover Vronsky (a/k/a the man who isn't worth it), future soccer mom Kitty, bewildered Levin (only a few jokes away from being played by Seth Rogen), Countess Lydia (think Texas cheerleader mom), and other classic characters all presented with wit, verve,  heartbreak, and amazing insight. As the British poet and critic Matthew Arnold said, "A novel by Tolstoy is not a work of art but a piece of life."

George Eliot.  Forget Silas Marner, (ESPECIALLY in schools).  Start the kids off with Adam Bede, with its amazing portrait of Hetty Sorrel, whose beauty is "like that of kittens, or very small downy ducks making gentle rippling noises with their soft bills, or babies just beginning to toddle and to engage in conscious mischief—a beauty with which you can never be angry."
No one knows, no one can believe, that such an obviously childlike, innocent young thing like Hetty could be an egoist of the highest caliber.  And from that comes all the rest.
(NOTE:  My major problem with every production of Adam Bede is that the actresses cast as Hetty have been, so far, always sophisticated 20-somethings so that you can't get the essentially transgressive tragedy of Hetty:  it's the fact that she looks like a child that turns her seducer on.) 
Or Dostoevsky.  Don't start with Crime and Punishment.  Unless you're a huge Cormac McCarthy fan.

Start with The Brother's Karamazov, which is about one of the most dysfunctional families on the planet.  The Karamazovs are led by Fyodor, an absolute horror as a man and a father, whose constant womanizing and drunkenness never stand in the way of trying to ruin his sons' lives.  Dmitri's a sensualist, Ivan's an atheist, Alyosha's a novice monk, and Smerdyakov is illegitimate.  One of them kills Fyodor, and while we all say good riddance, the question is who and why and how...  Incredible writing, and even the saints are human.

Speaking of who killed Fyodor, what about mysteries?

Which Sherlock Holmes story should you try to start someone off with?  First off, a heresy:  I think the novels are inferior to the short stories.  The Hound of the Baskervilles, frankly, has too much padding for me, and as for A Study in Scarlet...

Me, I'd start someone off with The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which contains "A Scandal In Bohemia", "The Speckled Band," "The Copper Beeches," and "The Red Headed League", among others.  The collection ranges from hilarious to deadly serious, and are what hooked me as a child.  After you read that collection, chances are you'll read all the rest.  I did.

Which Agatha Christie?  Personally, my favorite is Nemesis, which always seemed to have less mechanical plot (although the plot is very good) and more atmosphere.
"Miss Marple remembered saying to her nephew, who was standing her this Shakespearean treat, "You know, Raymond, my dear, if I were ever producing this splendid play I would make the three witches quite different. I would have them three ordinary, normal old women. Old Scottish women. They wouldn't dance or caper. They would look at each other rather slyly and you would feel a sort of menace just behind the ordinariness of them."  — Nemesis
And then Miss Marple looks around to the three Bradbury-Scott girls...

Dashiell Hammett:  The Maltese Falcon, of course, but Red Harvest is fast and furious.
Ellis Peters:  An Excellent Mystery (my favorite of the Cadfael Chronicles)
E. X. Ferrars:  Frog in the Throat 
Josephine Tey:  The Daughter of Time, with a special shout-out to Miss Pym Disposes
Rex Stout:  Death of a Doxy  
Dennis Lehane:  Mystic River 
Liza Cody:  Rift  

Oh, and if you want to try some poetry, try Robert Browning's The Ring and the Book - written in 1868-69, about a real-life Italian murder trial of 1698. Count Guido Franceschini, impoverished nobleman, despite professing his innocence, has been found guilty of the murders of his young wife Pompilia and her parents. They were all stabbed; he's admitted he suspected Pompilia of having an affair with a young cleric, Giuseppe Caponsacchi.  Each canto is a monologue from the point of view of a different character, including Count Guido and Pompilia on her death bed.  Multiple viewpoints, multiple voices, multiple excuses:  What's the truth?  Read it and decide for yourself.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning

Speaking of the Brownings, here's a story for you.  Elizabeth Barrett, of course, was a well known poet in Victorian times, perhaps the best known poetess.  Her father - a Jamaican plantation owner who'd made his money off slaves and sugar - raised his family in England.  He was a family dictator, micro-managing his children's lives, and disinheriting each and every one of them as they married.  Elizabeth and Robert's courtship had to be done mostly by letter and only occasional meetings, because Edward Barrett would never have approved it.  In fact, when the 40 year old Elizabeth married Robert Browning in 1846, she literally had to escape while Daddy was out.  It worked, and they were married and moved to Italy.  

There have been some theories about Mr. Barrett's possessiveness:
(1) There was African blood (from Jamaican slaves) in the family tree, and Mr. Barrett didn't want it perpetuated.
"For the love of God,
"Yes, for the love of God."
(2) He was simply a control freak, who wanted to keep his children under his control forever, and almost succeeded entirely.  He certainly seemed determined to keep Elizabeth confined as an invalid for her entire life.  
(3) The Barretts of Wimpole Street flat-out said that he wanted Elizabeth, and perhaps her sister, to be more ( ahem ) than a daughter to him...

BTW: Edgar Allan Poe greatly admired Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poetry. Poe reviewed her work in the January 1845 issue of the Broadway Journal, saying that "her poetic inspiration is the highest — we can conceive of nothing more august. Her sense of Art is pure in itself." In return, she praised The Raven, and Poe dedicated his 1845 collection The Raven and Other Poems to her, referring to her as "the noblest of her sex". 

I think that Edgar Allan Poe would have cheerfully made Mr. Barrett the object of my favorite Poe story, The Cask of Amontillado.  Who knows?  Maybe he did.  

Read the classics - it will take you to places you never thought you'd go.  Just make sure to start off with the right book.  


  1. Such a good and thoughtful post here, Eve! I'd read Anna Karenina four times before I tried (and failed) my first time with War and Peace--though eventually did read that too, on second try.

    I read and appreciated Crime & Punishment in school--so much that I tried to read Brothers K as well, but then just gave up (Grand Inquisitor!) and never went back. So interesting how the reverse held there for me.

    It's been years since I've read Nemesis, but remember enjoying. My wife and I read another Miss Marple (They Do It With Mirrors) and it felt lackluster. Need to check that one out instead.

    Enjoyed the post!

  2. Thanks, Art! The "right book" is a matter of personal taste, of course - just like music. And thank God there's a lot of variety. I love "Anna Karenina", obviously, and "Brothers K" BTW, I'd say, skip the Grand Inquisitor if you can't stand it, and get back to the action - and there's a lot of action. Fyodor... I'm surprised someone isn't/hasn't made a Netflix series out of it yet, because there's an envelope-pushing character, even today!

  3. Fun post, Eve, and I agree with many of your selections. I've never made it through War and Peace, and I loathe Silas Marner, but not as much as I hate Middlemarch.

    The Brothers Karamazov is one of my favorite novels, and I don't mind Crime & Punishment. I'm a little surprised you left Conrad off your list, though. I adore Lord Jim, which is much more teachable than Heart of Darkness, the usual classroom choice.

    I agree with most of your crime suggestions, except that I think any Lehane except Shutter Island (which never did it for me) before Live by Night is great. No Sherlock Holmes story published after The Hound of the Baskervilles is worth reading, though. The Valley of Fear recycles the clunky flashback structure that didn't work in Study in Scarlet, and the last two volumes of short stories are unanimously embarrassing.

    Absolutely, DON'T tell someone a book is a classic or great. Reading a book is like getting to know a person. You start slowly. If you get to a second and third date, you'll both enjoy it more, but there are no guarantees.

    (Thank you for leaving Dickens off the list. He's so wonderfully approachable, especially is later work, like Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend)

  4. Fascinating. I haven't read most of the non-mysteries, although I enjoyed both Doestoevsky books.

  5. Excellent suggestions. You might really enjoy Laura Thompson's new biography of Christie which makes a good case for her abilities as a writer.

  6. Eve -

    This is terrific (and terrifically entertaining).

    I'm personally fond of SLEEPING MURDER, even though I'm generally lukewarm on Christie. I agree absolutely about Doyle and Holmes, start with "The Red-Headed League," and you might get a clue what all the fuss is about (Doyle's two historicals, SIR NIGEL and THE WHITE COMPANY, are better novels than the Holmes books).

    Steve: Conrad? I'd suggest "The Secret Sharer" or THE DUELLISTS, for pacing and word count, and then maybe LORD JIM. Kipling and Stephen Crane are two other guys whose short fiction is better than the long ones. By the same token, if you don't know Lehane, and aren't ready to commit, try his novella THE DROP. I agree wholeheartedly about OUR MUTUAL FRIEND.

    The hard fact is that you can't convince somebody to like something they simply can't warm up to. You can convey your own enthusiasm, but you're not going to talk 'em into it. Who doesn't love Lowell George and Little Feat? You know who you are, you barstids.

  7. PS -

    There's a terrific Russian version of WAR AND PEACE, directed by Sergei Bondarchuk, released as three or four separate features (it runs about 7 hours total) in 1967 or thereabouts. I saw the first two parts in Berlin, at the time. Spectacular, but of course bewildering until you get used to the size of the canvas. The set-piece Battle of Borodino is both enormous and coherent - with a cast, literally, of thousands, you can still figure what the heck's going on, which is no small thing. I'm pretty sure it's available on DVD, and worth the investment.

  8. I know exactly what you mean, Eve, and I've occasionally been put off by books by their sheer, er, volume. That goes for some modern books, too, including at least one by a favorite author. I'd pick it up, read a few pages, put it down.

    I know of only two people who've read The Silmarillion, although one enjoyed it immensely. Even Tolkien's own publisher didn't read it.

    Friends recommended two different trilogies I couldn't wade through. Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast Trilogy wreaked havoc with my ADD. The first trilogy (of a trilogy trilogy) Stephen R. Donaldson's Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever depressed the hell out of me.

    My introduction to Russian literature was relatively gentle. First came a short story, depressing, but that was the point of the story. Then I picked up Turgenev and found that pleasurable.

  9. Six or seven years ago, Umberto Eco announced he was rewriting his famous book The Name of the Rose to make it more "accessible". I thought the original was fine, but apparently others weren't satisfied. I don't know if he completed the project.

  10. David - I agree about "The Duelists" for a starter Conrad. And I'll try to find the Bondarchuk War & Peace!
    Leigh - I've read the Gormenghast trilogy, but I was younger then and thought I had more time... Still, I have to admit it's a unique universe, and we can always use more of those. I agree with you about the Thomas Covenant series.
    Janice - I'm on the waiting list at the library for the Christie biography.
    Steve - I should have put Conrad on the list; and I agree that Heart of Darkness is the last one to start with. You have to have had a few illusions of your own shattered before you can appreciate how dark the world can get.
    Thanks all, and glad to be back!


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