Always Wanted To Read An Epic Novel? Now's Your Chance
Lockdown is a great opportunity to dive into the books you’ve always shrunk from, says Ben Lawrence
It has been my life’s mission to read Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
I really should have done so decades ago, in my late teens or early twenties when week upon week stretched out in front of me and my most important decision was whether I’d spend the money earned from my holiday job on a leather jacket or a new bike.
While I had dived fearlessly into other literary tomes — Bleak House, Ulysses, Tolstoy’s own Anna Karenina — this 1865 masterwork set during the French Invasion of Russia felt too daunting, its characters too many and rumours of its meandering philosophical discourse in later sections off-putting.
Now, however, with the various distractions of life, and in particular life in London, on indefinite hold, it’s the perfect time to achieve a goal that has been left unfulfilled for a quarter of a century.
I own the Oxford World Classics edition (a gift in return for reading a poem at a friend’s wedding), the definitive translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude (themselves friends of Tolstoy’s) which first appeared in 1923. It is 1,308 pages long, an overwhelming amount which I would normally shy away from, but by setting a target of reading 100 pages a day, it feels manageable and oddly exciting.
I make notes (the glossary of characters, maps and dates of major historical events are incredibly helpful) and draw lines under passages that I feel to be important, that I might come back to. This approach is not for everyone — some may feel it is closer to studying than enjoyment — but my life under lockdown has roused in me a need for self-improvement which I never normally have time for.
The art of reading has been lost in recent years, and this is bound up with the pervasive binge-watching culture where people are as likely to score intellectual brownie points off friends and neighbours by boasting about having watched all of Game of Thrones or Mad Men, than by crowing about the virtues of Strangers and Brothers, CP Snow’s 11-volume cycle of novels about science, academia and the corridors of power.
Want to impress by showing off the fact that the complete A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell sits on your bookcase? Pah, that’s nothing compared to owning all seven series of The West Wing on DVD.
But the fact is that the rise of boxset snobbery ignores the very particular joys of reading. This has been highlighted by Alan Jacobs’s excellent book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, which advises against the puritanical message that reading should be good for you whereas, in fact, you should read for pleasure, and without shame — even if it’s a lowbrow delight.
Jacobs advises dipping in to various works indiscriminately as a way of unlocking the past pleasures you experienced as a child.
While that is a commendably unelitist approach, I can’t help feeling that now is the time to actually take on the doorstoppers you would never normally have the time to indulge in. When I am done with Tolstoy, there are plenty of other formidable-looking volumes glowering at me from my bedside table.
Henry Handel Richardson’s Maurice Guest, a realist novel about a doomed love affair in Leipzig in the early 1900s, is one. And then there is David Kynaston’s forbidding-looking but much raved about series of non-fiction works concerning post-war Britain, which no doubt provide a sobering parallel to our current experiences.
A big beast of a book is particularly satisfying, not least for the smugness value which it brings, but also because it is more likely to draw you completely and utterly into another world. Non-fiction is always going to be educative, of course, but fiction can have a similar effect.
By reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch, I gained an understanding of the very particular striations of the class structure of a 19th century provincial town, and the processes of its political system, without having actually studied the period.
But perhaps the most important effect of reading is its psychological effect. I remember reading of a man involved in a terrible train crash in South America in the 1940s who, while waiting for days to be rescued, simply opened his suitcase full of books and slowly but surely got through them all.
When in the deepest slough of despond, the 19th-century philosopher John Stuart Mill claimed he was saved by the poetry of Wordsworth. He wrote: “What made Wordsworth’s poems a medicine for my state of mind, was that they expressed, not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling, under the excitement of beauty. They seemed to be the very culture of the feelings, which I was in quest of.”
I am hoping that my own immersion in War and Peace will reap psychological benefits. So far, I am caught up in the epic sweep of the story and the funny little details that Tolstoy is so fond of. I am impressed that Count Rostov has a splendid collection of Turkish pipes to show off to his guests and wish I had the same.
But seriously, there is something in Tolstoy’s genius, in the way he lets you into the private worlds of his characters, which allows you to reflect on your own sense of self (something one is acutely aware of at the moment). As one of those people who always imagines himself as one of the characters of a novel when reading it, I have swiftly realised that, tragically, I am far closer to the socially awkward Pierre than the dashing Andrei. In fact, an exchange between the two men early on made me realise this.
Like Pierre, I am a chronic overthinker and tend to respect, or perhaps even envy, those who are not even though, deep down, I have a sort of pride in it. As Tolstoy wrote: “And if Pierre was often struck by Andrei’s lack of capacity for philosophical meditation... he even regarded even this not as a defect but a sign of strength.”
In her excellent book The Anna Karenina Fix: Life Lessons From Russian Literature, Viv Groskop memorably describes the novelist as “Oprah Winfrey with a beard”, and in the final chapter claims that War and Peace is a novel not to be daunted by, and one which can appropriated by the reader in any way that he or she desires.
Groskop summarises its life lessons thus: “Enjoy every sunrise and sunset; know who your friends are; beware the folly of youth; have faith in your own future; be kind and humble.”
All of these (with the exception of the folly and youth bit) seem pertinent to me now, although perhaps not as much as the lesson — offered by Groskop — that can be gleaned from Pierre (one of the central characters), when he takes an eternity to eat a salty baked potato.
As well as all those more abstract messages that Tolstoy espouses, the simple one that you should put salt on your potato and eat it in a leisurely fashion as if it is a special treat, is the most profound. So tuck in, and enjoy. The same is true of reading.
5 EPIC WORKS YOU MUST READ...
It by Stephen King
If you are robust of disposition, this tale of Pennywise the dancing clown, and his pursuit of seven children, is a marvellous, sometimes shocking, tale of adolescent horror.
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
The ultimate bildungsroman (and Dickens’s most autobiographical work), this is populated by some of literature’s most vivid characters.
A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
Seth’s family saga set in post-partition India owes much to Dickens in its scale, and, like the work of his 19th-century forebear, deploys satire as a way of exploring society.
Underworld by Don de Lillo
If you manage to get past the interminable baseball game at the beginning, this is a thrilling, multifaceted novel about late-20th-century America.
Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West
West is generally best-known for such fictional works as The Return of the Soldier, but this travel book, a study of Balkan history and ethnography, is a rigorous yet exhilarating experience....
5 WORKS TO AVOID
Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford
This story of the English gentry in the early 20th century is maddeningly impenetrable. Whole incidents occur without you having realised.
Finnegans Wake by James Joyce
The author claimed that he could justify every line, yet the book’s opacity means that it’s incredibly hard to agree.
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
Bleak, cynical, weirdly juvenile, Rand’s extraordinary dystopian piece of incontinence beggars belief.
Clarissa by Samuel Richardson
Yes, it is hugely influential, but this mammoth epistolary work about a young woman’s quest for virtue is also, unquestionably, a slog.
Mission Earth by L Ron Hubbard
The Scientologist’s novel, published in 10 volumes, is a tedious tale of an alien race that comes to Earth. Presumably this has pride of place on Tom Cruise’s bookshelf, though what he makes of the narrative techniques is unclear.
— The Daily Telegraph