Category Archives: Classics

Wrapping Up War & Peace 2013

During my absence I failed to participate fully in the event Amy and I organised to celebrate reading War and Peace in 2013. I felt I should at least give you the answers to the questions posted in Amy’s wrap-up post for this Read Along, given how much time I spent with the book last year I would feel bad about not writing up my final thoughts in the end.


1) When did you finish?
I finished reading War and Peace on the third of November. So yeah, it has been a while! By that time I had been busy catching up with my reading for October, and once I had finished that I felt I might as well try and read through what was left of the rest of the book. I still feel that although dividing the book up into chunks of 100 pages each month made it seem more doable, at the same time I think I might have been less confused and perhaps a little more interested in parts of the book if I had read more of it at once.

2) What surprised you most about reading War & Peace?
I know this must sound silly, given that War and Peace is about, well.. a lot of war.. but I was not prepared for the long battle scenes. Or at least, I was not aware beforehand of how much my mind would wander when reading about battle scenes. I really struggled with those parts, particularly during the first half of the book.

3) Who was your favorite character and did that change during the course of reading?
I think more than anything, I liked the female characters. This might simply show my own prejudice, or the fact that I failed to connect to the masculinity of the male characters (even if Tolstoy undermined the ideal in lots of places). Strengthening my sympathy for the women, particularly the younger generation of Natasha, Sonya, and Marya, was definitely some of Tolstoy’s characters ideas about women (ugh!). As for the women, I had been told to expect to really love Natasha, but I think I felt for Marya more, in the end.

4) Do you feel like a better historian after Tolstoy’s lectures? ;)
Hahaha, do I really need answer this? His lectures were definitely the parts I struggled with most in the second half of the book. I tried to engage with some of it, and I could even agree with some of the sentiments he expressed, but his general philosophy just did not sit right with me. Then again, this is 21st-century Iris speaking, who was rolling her eyes at some of the dated (read: 19th-century, as in, the time during which Tolstoy wrote the book) ideas. I hardly think that is fair on my part. And yet.. it just felt so repetitive, and hardly necessary most of the time.

5) Is there anything you would have changed about the book?
The lectures. That is not to say that I do not appreciate what Tolstoy was trying to do. Or that I think he did not accomplish it. I just think that at times I would’ve liked the story to speak for itself more, with a little less of the explanatory philosophy chapters in between. I think that might have made his sentiments about war, about glorified masculinity that will lead to unmistakable disappointment, about the unfairness of politics that has old men deciding on the fates of masses of younger men more powerful, somehow? They are definitely there, and I think these might be the things I remember most strongly about War and Peace apart from the storylines of the three younger women, I just think I would have appreciated the book as a whole better if there had been less repetition of his central idea in philosophical language.

6) What did you like best about it?
The ideas articulated through stories (see above). Moreover, I enjoyed the family scenes much better than I would have expected. The lives and fates of the different main characters were intriguing and very well-shaped. I felt sympathy for many of the characters, and often felt deeply for their fates. More so than I would have expected 1/4th into the book.

7) What did you like least about it?
The second epilogue! The historical philosophy. And some of the sentiments on women that were occasionally expressed by some of the characters.

8) What advice would you give someone who is planning to read War & Peace in 2014?
Definitely give yourself the time to read the book. Dividing it up in sizeable chunks might work wonders. At the same time, I would not recommend reading 100 pages in one day, setting the book aside for a month, and then repeating the exercise. The book and its storyline are too intricate for that, and I will guarantee that you will have forgotten some of the names or developments. Personally, I seemed to get into the story only after a chapter or 3-4 each time I began reading again. Give yourself time to enjoy the reading. And if you do not enjoy it, perhaps stop reading altogether and try again at some other time in life, or just accept that this might not be the book for you. (although I feel that had I taken that advice, I might not be writing this post right now. And I am not even sure if I would’ve felt that I had missed out on the book as a whole.. But on some of the characters, some of the scenes? Yes, I would miss those).

9) Did you reward yourself when you finished?
No! I feel I ought to though. Is there any reward you would recommend?

War and Peace Check-In #11


Can you imagine? I am writing this post early as it is the third of November and I already finished this month’s section. What can I say? I think the fact that we are getting close to the end finally hit me and I just wanted to read until the finish.

But before I share my thoughts about this section, let me please remind you that you are all very welcome to join our War & Peace Carnival at the end of December, to celebrate having finished reading War & Peace this year, somewhere in the past, or just wanting to join us in celebrating. You can find more information here. Also, you can find the Mr Linky for this month over at Amy’s blog.

I grinned when I found Tolstoy mentioned Russian historians in this month’s sections, after wondering why he seemed to single out French ones in the reading for October.

I still want to argue with parts of Tolstoy’s philosophy of history, and yet, for the first time I found myself actually liking one of the paragraphs he wrote on the topic:

‘This whole strange, now incomprehensible contradiction between facts and historical descriptions comes only from the fact that the historians who wrote about this event wrote the history of the beautiful feelings and words of various generals, and not the history of the events themselves.

They find very interesting the words of Miloradovich, the decorations received by this or that general, and their own speculations; and the question of those fifty thousand men left in hospitals and graves does not even interest them, because it is not subject to their study.” (p. 1074)

For me, as a historian, this is a true and important reminder, particularly in light of some movements within the discipline who again seem to be calling for a study of only those “great” and “relevant” figures in historical processes. Alas, I still don’t think I can agree exactly with what Tolstoy provides as a solution (as if histories of the masses were simple and easy truths, as if this would not lead to its own kind of mythmaking – maybe?). I keep having all these questions I wish to pose to him, however much I like his critique and anger in places. As such, I find myself agreeing with his critique quite often, but less so with his counterclaims.

I also found it surprising to see Tolstoy turn more decidedly in favour of religion in this part again – or at least, with religiously inspired principles. I think we have seen that he disagrees with fanatic religion (as per how he seems to define it): Marya’s overly pious pondering in a large part of the book, Pierre’s adventure with free masons. But now, he’s calling, in another critique of historians, for a Christian judgement of right and wrong when talking about greatness, which I found really interesting (and his critique of historians there was very funny too).

C’est grand!” say the historians, and then there is no longer any good or bad, but there is  “grand” and “not grand.” Grand is good, not grand is bad. Grand, to their minds, is the property of some sort of special animals known as heroes. And Napoleon, in his warm fur coat, clearing off for home from his perishing men, who are not only comrades, but (in his opinion)  people he has brought there, feels que c’est grand, and his soul is at peace.


And it never enters anyone’s head that the recognition of a greatness not measurable by the measure of good and bad is only a recognition of one’s own insignificance and immeasurable littleness.

For us, with the measures of good and bad given us by Christ, nothing is immeasurable. And there is no greatess where there is no simplicity, goodness, and truth.” (p. 1070-1071)

Turning to the stories of the people, I was so sad that Petya died. And then to see the family fall apart over that (even if Natasha’s mother got on my nerves a little).

As for the couples, I am quite glad that it seems Natasha and Pierre and Marya and Nikolai will end up together. And yet, the distinction drawn between intelligent women and real women? Ugh.

Despite all my frustrations and questions posed to this month’s section, though, I quite enjoyed reading it.

Now we just have the epilogues left!

The Squire by Enid Bagnold

The Squire - Enid Bagnold

The Squire – Enid Bagnold
Persephone Books, October 2013

First published in 1938
Review copy from the publisher
Buy: Amazon | Bookdepository *

In The Squire Enid Bagnold tells the story of a woman’s pregnancy, from the period just before childbirth until the few weeks afterwards. From the cocoon of her home, which she does not leave during those weeks, the squire – as the woman in question is referred to throughout the novel – ruminates about childbirth, her family, and the women she meets during her everyday life.

As Anne Sebba notes in her preface to the novel, childbirth used to be a taboo subject, and Enid Bagnold was (one of) the first novelist to tackle the actual event in a novel. It is interesting to think of the novel in this context: the newness of the subject being described in public at that time versus the familiarity to us now. What remains then, is on the one hand a novel that feels dated: the setting, the seclusion of childbirth, the servants. On the other hand, the novel seems to evoke a certain timelessness. In the squire’s pondering on home life — despite the lack of servants nowadays — some things still ring true. And while childbirth does not mean utter seclusion anymore, I imagine it to have a private quality that is evoked by the setting here still.

What worked best for me in The Squire was the interchange of this, what I am going to call liminal, feeling that the birth seems to evoke – its secludedness and its relief of other duties translated into a time for contemplation on wider meaning –, while simultaneously managing to evoke the manner in which life moves on — the pondering on things on the to-do list, the necessity of finding a new cook now that the old one has quit –. There is a certain feel to the book, difficult to capture in words perhaps, that is at once very wide in its scope, while also being very minimal, in essence capturing only a few weeks in the life of one woman.

There are other things to contemplate of course. What to think, for example, of the squire’s ideas about women? Bagnold has the squire recognise her friend Caroline, who is pursued by men, as a younger self who now, in later years, is relieved of the duties of catering to men. The squire calls herself a wumon, or a ‘female male’. Subsequently, she identifies the midwife as a different category too, being virgin and matronly. I found myself both intrigued by this calling into question of gender essentialism and the matriarchal power of ‘the squire’ (captured in her title itself), and at the same time, combined with the class relations that are naturally part of a book about a wealthy-enough woman in the 1930s, its reinscription of gender norms. Consider this a footnote then, as I only took note and have no conclusive thoughts to articulate.

The Squire was a comfortable and interesting read for me, but failed to have a very large impact. I do wonder if this might be different if I were to reread it in case I ever have children of my own. I can imagine it might be. Right now, my interest was mostly caught in terms of cultural history — then, I assume a more personal abilty to relate might follow.

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War and Peace Check-In #10


It is the first of November and according to our schedule, we have passed a thousand pages!

I have very little to add to Amy’s clever observations for this month. Be sure to check out her post! She also has the Mr Linky, in case you are still reading with us.

I’ll basically be reiterating her thoughts in my own words below:

I was sad that Prince Andrei died. I would have loved for him and Natasha to have a happy ending. However, I knew it was coming since I was stupid enough to check out the characters on wikipedia in.. February, I think? And I quickly learned that he would die. And yet, given his previous almost-death experience, I was still hoping that wikipedia had gotten it wrong. Anyway, I did really appreciate Tolstoy’s description of how Natasha and Andrei reconciled, and I found the last days of Andrei really interesting – his detachment versus the feelings and needs of the people near him.

As for the other couple. As much as I want Marya and Rostov to be happy together, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for Sonya too. I find it really interesting that two of the women I feel most sympathy for, Marya and Sonya, end up having to share a love interest (Not to say I don’t feel sympathy for Natasha – but I feel Sonya and Marya are more similar). It also makes me a little sad. I love for characters I like to end up happy. But I can see how Tolstoy did not exactly have that, or my feelings, in mind when he wrote this book.

As for Tolstoy’s prime message about history, can I just state that I have grown quite tired of it? On the one hand, I do appreciate his ideas and I can see how his vision would’ve been quite different from those of historians of his time.. But, as Amy said, I feel it jars with the story somehow. For all his statements, I wish it could have been embedded within the story a little better. Now it just feels a little out-of-place.

What I did think funny is how he seems most bitter about the French historians, who glorify Napoleon, and then continues to talk in the ‘we’ form, as in ‘we Russians’ in some pages. I wonder how Tolstoy’s vision compares to other Russian historians of his time? Are they in the same business of glorifying powerful individuals, which he seems to reject (and I suspect they would’ve been)? If so, it is quite interesting that he singles out the French historians in particular here, even if for a few pages – in the context of a book about a French-Russian war. Hehee.

I have to admit, I am quite keen to finally finish this book. I have started on part III of Volume Four already. I’m quite curious how Tolstoy will tie up all the families’ lives (which admittedly is what interests me most). I know that the Epilogues are generally held to be quite slow and repetitive reading, so I’m not looking forward to December’s installment, but November? Yes, I am curious.

I wonder how I’ll feel about this book when I’m finally done reading. I think it is save to say that, for now, it hasn’t been the best reading experience yet – although it certainly has not been the worst either. I wonder if I’ll be more appreciative once I’m done?

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

My Cousin Rachel - Daphne du MaurierMy Cousin Rachel – Daphne du Maurier
Virago Modern Classics, 2003

Originally published in 1951
Buy: Amazon | Bookdepository *

Daphne du Maurier appears to be the queen of setting the mood for a book in just a few pages. And then she draws you in and won’t let go until the very end. At least, these are my conclusions after reading her Rebecca last year and finishing My Cousin Rachel a few days ago.

In My Cousin Rachel narrator Philip grows up under the care of his bachelor cousin Ambrose in a household solely run by men. During his customary travels through Italy undertaken under instruction of his doctor to avoid the English cold, Ambrose meets a woman called Rachel and ends up marrying her. Instead of returning home during spring as Ambrose usually does, he stays on in Italy in his wife’s villa. When Ambrose writes a letter to Philip that seems to suggest he distrusts his wife and is feeling ill, Philip follows his cousin to Italy. Once in Italy, Philip is met with the news of his cousin’s death. He returns to England the heir of his cousin’s estate. Soon, he is visited by his cousin’s wife, Rachel. But can she be trusted?

My Cousin Rachel is an unsettling story about the background to Ambrose’s death, Philip’s obsession with his cousin Rachel, and Rachel’s person and motives. It is incredibly engaging, beautifully written, and has a psychological mysterious ring to it that I think fits RIP season perfectly. Towards the end, some elements became a little predictable, but as this is not a story that needs to be read for the mystery itself, but more for how the characters respond to it and the way Du Maurier develops those scenes – I am not complaining.

Moreover, as Sally Beauman suggests in her introduction, there is a really interesting underlying theme of gender to this book. In the relationship between Philip and Rachel, mirrored by scenes between Ambrose and Rachel, we see different modes of power between the characters. Constantly, Philip aims to (re)establish his male dominance, and his appropriation of Rachel seems to know no bounds. At the same time, Rachel, by negotiating and breaking free from her traditional gender constraints at times, is able to gain other forms of power and becomes unsettling to her environment (and at times the reader, who comes to know Rachel through Philip’s narration after all, making the reader almost complicit to the social norms by exploring that theme). As a reader, I never quite knew where my allegiance lay and I might change thought three times within a few sentences, but that is exactly what makes this story so intriguing. Both Rachel and Philip can be read as victims, while both of them might also be conceived of as perpetrators.

My Cousin Rachel counts towards as much as three challenges for me. I read it as my pick for the Classics Club Spin, but it was also on the list for RIPVIII and is my 1951 entry for A Century of Books.

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