September 2021 | Books & Links

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The Island of Missing Trees – Elif Shafak

I managed to get myself on the reservation list for this just after the library listed a copy as ‘on order’, so I didn’t get stuck in the reservations queue for once! The Island of Missing Trees is set in Cyrpus in the 1970s, and London in the 2010s, and tells the story of a Cypriot family – Greek and Turkish teenagers who fall in love during the summer of 1974 – and their daughter, trying to piece together the family history in the aftermath of her mother’s death. It’s a story about trees, roots, and grief, and it’s beautifully written. Told in Shafak’s typical alternating chapters, from the perspectives of humans and also a fig tree, grown from a cutting taken from Cyprus before the family relocated to the UK, and buried for winter in a North London garden. I really loved this and highly recommend picking up a copy if you get the chance.

War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy

In August I picked up War and Peace on a whim when visiting my library. The translation they had in stock in my usual branch was the Pevear and Volokhonsky published by Vintage. I didn’t like it. I found the translation really clunky, with the Russian translated to English, but the French – and a lot of the dialogue in W&P is in French in the first half of the book as the Russian aristocracy spoke French to one another rather than Russian – left in place, and translated via footnotes. This made for lots of jumping back and forth from the top of the page to the bottom, with tiny text, and it was just an unpleasant reading experience. I read the first chapter of P&V’s translation and knew that I wouldn’t see the book through at that rate. It was just too much of an endurance, and I have pledged to myself never to force myself through novels that I don’t enjoy, just for the sake of saying that I’ve read them. I don’t peak bag in hill fog when I’m hiking in the mountains, and nor do I force myself through the classics just for the sake of saying I’ve read them. I’m happy to admit that I haven’t finished many of the nineteenth century English classics, because I just DGAF about the characters and storylines to see them through! English literature lessons at school put me off English classics, and I usually stick to Russian and East European classics these days, and mostly those set in the twentieth century.

Curious to see if it was just the translation of W&P I was taking issue with rather than the novel itself, I went in search of information and opinions on the various English translations that are available and came across this blog post by Lucy of ‘Tolstoy Therapy’ recommending the Briggs translation and commending it for how well it flows. Intrigued, I did a catalogue search at the library and, finding it in stock, reserved a copy of the Briggs translation which was then brought over from one of the suburban branches of Birmingham’s library system to my branch in the city centre. I love the reservations system!

As soon as I started reading the Briggs translation, I felt so relieved that I’d made the switch. Unlike the P&V translation, reading the Briggs translation of War and Peace doesn’t feel like an endurance challenge. The chapters are short, the writing is beautiful, and I found myself putting away 50 to 100 pages a night with little to no trouble. I actively looked forward to picking up War and Peace each night, and this is all due to finding a modern translation that flows well. Translation preferences are personal, and you can read more about that here, but for me the Briggs translation of War and Peace is a perfect match.

The opening section of War and Peace made me think of the scenes in Wes Anderson’s ‘Grand Budapest Hotel’ where the family of Madame D are gathered for the reading of her will and the carving up of her estate; an old count is on his deathbed, and everyone who knows him – however tenuously – has congregated at his estate for the distribution of the inheritance. There’s a wonderful scene where a copy of the will is removed from beneath the count’s pillow whilst the last rites are performed, sealing the fate of Pierre, one of the main characters in the book.

The narrative of War and Peace oscillates between grand estates, ballrooms, and the battlefield, and I must admit that I found some of the battle scenes a bit tedious and tended towards skim reading the endless pages about cannonballs and troop inspections, and then reading the chapter summaries at the back of the book to make sure I hadn’t missed anything pertinent to the plot or concerning a main character. War and Peace contains much commentary on the horrors of war, the incompetence of many of those in high office, and the disillusionment of previously patriotic young officers who experienced loss, injury, or death on the battlefield. I think at times though, that the war sections were a little bit too long whilst other sections were too short, for example the death of the little princess in childbirth. Perhaps this is understandable, given that Tolstoy would have had direct experience on the battlefield but childbirth was something that wealthy men such as him, in positions of power and privilege, were largely sheltered from, shielded as they were in separate wings of large estates and waited on hand and foot by a large body of house staff.

I love the way the seasons and physical landscapes are described in War and Peace, as well as grief and despair. There’s a scene in part three of volume two where Andrey is struggling with his grief following the death of his young wife and feels an affinity to an old gnarled oak tree that I particularly love:

In the spring of 1809 Prince Andrey set off to visit the Ryazan estates, which now belonged to his son, with him a trustee. Warmed by the spring sunshine, he drove along in his carriage, glancing at the first shoots of grass, the first leaves on the birch-trees and the first spring clouds looking fluffy and white as they floated through the bright blue sky. His mind was blank as he looked out on both sides, a picture of cheery unconcern. They went over the crossing where he and Pierre had had their conversation a year before. They drove through a muddy village, past threshing floors and green winter crops, down and over a bridge still packed with snow, back uphill along a clay road and gouged into hollows by the rain, past strips of stubble and a few bushes turning green, and then at last they drove into a wood with birch-trees on either side of the road. In the wood there was no wind and it was almost hot. The birches stood there with no sign of movement, spangled with their sticky green leaves, while lilac-coloured flowers and the first shoots of new green grass pushed up and peeped out from under last year’s leaves. A scattering of baby firs stood out as coarse evergreens among the birches – a nasty reminder of winter. The horses neighed as they entered the forest, visibly perspiring.

Page 454, Penguin Classics 2016 // Briggs Translation

Andrey’s servant, Pyotr, said something to the coachman. He agreed, but his sympathy didn’t seem to satisfy Pyotr, who turned on his box to face his master. ‘Nice day, sir!’ he said with a respectful smile. ‘You what?’ ‘It’s nice, isn’t it, sir?’ ‘What is he talking about?… Oh, he must mean spring,’ thought Prince Andrey, glancing around. ‘That’s it. Everything’s turning green… as early as this! The birch-trees, the wild cherries… even the alders are just on the turn. But not the oak, no sign there. Look, there’s one.’ There at the side of the roadside stood an oak-tree. It must have been ten times older than the birch-trees that made up the wood, ten times as thick and twice the height of any of them. That tree was enormous – it would have taken two men to join hands round its girth – with branches broken off it ages ago and its old, cracked bark all scarred and broken. There it stood among the beaming birches, with its great gnarled hands and fingers sprawling out awkwardly and unevenly, a truculent, sneering monster. He alone refused to submit to the charms of spring; he would not countenance either springtime or sunshine.

Page 455, Penguin Classics 2016 // Briggs Translation

Reading War and Peace in the 2020s is a strange experience. Written over 150 years ago, Tolstoy’s philosophical musings on the nature of humanity, love, grief, conflict, and politics are just as relevant to today’s world as they were when they were written. When Tolstoy writes about the Battle of Borodino and the way history is shaped by an entangled web of people, ideas, egos, and events rather than one single person or event, it makes me think of the politics, geopolitics and challenges of our contemporary societies, from the rise of the far right and populism to the way the pandemic has played out.

Mostly, I just love the way Tolstoy depicts grief, loss, and that sense of being ill at ease in the world. I love the intimacy of the salon scenes and the fallibility of all his central characters; nobody is spared, not even loyal, devoted, always left behind Sonya. The only thing I wasn’t too keen on was the sections that blend fiction and non-fiction, with fictional accounts of real life figures including Napolean and several prominent military figures. This may well be because I’m not interested in the military in the sense of strategy or social hierarchies, but War and Peace is concerned most of all with civilian life, interspersed with the battles of the Napoleonic Wars.

At the time of writing I still have a tiny chunk of the book left before I am finished, but since I have been documenting my thoughts on it in this month’s books’ post as I read the book, I thought I would just include it in September’s list rather than roll it over to October. I’ll update this post if I have any additional thoughts I want to include.