In high school English class, we learnt about the idea of a “classic” novel, and discussed what made something a “classic”. One characteristic that might not have stood out for me back then, but certainly stands out for me now, is the notion of “timelessness” — that a novel becomes a classic because it is timeless in its themes, ideas and moral messages.
Part of me thinks that it was probably a bit pointless for the teachers to discuss timelessness with teenagers. I mean, we weren’t daft, but we were young, and as much as we probably believed we knew everything about the world, there was undoubtedly a lot that we didn’t know the half of. Besides, even back then, there was a quick succession of crazes and fads and fashions — there’s not much appreciation of “timelessness” when one day everyone’s watching this show, and playing this game, and then next month these things are barely a memory.
Even so, I’d like to think that I had some grasp of this idea of “timelessness”. In high school, I began reading a lot of “classics”, particularly Charles Dickens. It was also during high school that I discovered I really like Jane Austen’s writing. To my younger self, these books were classics because they were beautifully written, the stories and characters were exquisitely constructed, and they were simply captivating. Then there is all the usual stuff about love and friendship and family — the things that people throughout history have always valued.
I finished reading War and Peace on Tuesday (that’s more or less an entire year spent reading it). I then spent Tuesday night and the greater part of Wednesday alternately wondering how I was going to blog about it, and procrastinating from thinking about how to blog about it.
I typed out some notes and ideas on Tuesday that I could use as a starting point, or perhaps form into some sort of outline. But the more I thought about it on Wednesday, the more I felt like there was no real point in writing anything about something for which so much has already been written.
Yet, at the same time, I felt like there was so much that I wanted to write about.
Usually when I finish reading a book, and I’m considering how much I liked it, I ask myself if I’d read it again. If a book has a profound impact on me, I’ll say with certainty that I want to reread it one day. (Whether or not I actually get around to rereading it is another matter altogether.)
There are a lot of books that I want to reread, but I never reread a book immediately after finishing it. At most, I might flick back through the book to revisit certain parts, but I know I must move on to another book before restarting the journey. The idea is to leave enough time between readings to allow some forgetting of events so that it can be experienced anew.
When I read Anna Karenina, the character that stood out the most to me, and that had the most impact, apart from Anna Karenina herself, was Konstantin Dmitrich Levin. I think all of the characters were constructed and explored really well, but Levin in particular was given a lot of depth.
One of the main things I remember about Levin, even several years after reading the novel, is how, despite being a well-off landowner, Levin yearned for a simple life of honest labour. There is one part of the book where he helps his muzhiks with the harvest, wielding a scythe alongside them in his fields. To him, it was satisfying work, but not only in the physical sense of “a good day’s work”, but also in a psychological or spiritual sense.
I’ve heard that Levin was the character that Tolstoy most identified with, or that was most closely modelled on his own thoughts and beliefs. In War and Peace the equivalent most Tolstoy-esque character is Pierre Bezukhov. It is not surprising then, that this yearning for a simple and honest life is also experienced by Pierre.
[Warning: spoilers ahead. Please note, also, that I haven’t quite finished War and Peace yet, so please don’t spoil the ending for me.]
This morning on the news, there was an interview with a small business owner. The news I watch is fairly objective and informative, but they seem to really like doing these random interviews with random people. Usually I see these at the start of lockdowns in different cities around the country.
There was one time they interviewed a celebrant to ask her about how many weddings had to be postponed because of lockdowns. Another interview I saw was with a winery owner who talked about the impact of reduced tourism on his business. The other day they spoke with a bakery worker who was willing to give up his savings in order to help save the business.
In these interviews, the interviewer asks the usual questions about how the people are dealing with the situation, whether they had been able to receive government support, what their outlook for the future is like, and so on. I sort of get the feeling that these are just fluff pieces to break up the dreary headlines.
Last week I finished reading The Outsider by Albert Camus. It’s quite a short novel (technically a novella?) but it took me a while to finish because I was reading it only occasionally when taking a break from War and Peace, or when I needed to take a book with me somewhere, and obviously W&P is too big to lug around (and I never got around to getting an e-book version of it).
I don’t often go for short books like this one — possibly because when I was a kid and progressed to longer chapter books, I formed in my mind the notion of the “ideal” size of a book, and constantly wanted to flex my reading muscles by tackling longer and longer novels. Possibly also I’ve had some bad experiences with novellas that left me feeling like it was a bit pointless. Contrary to popular opinion, I didn’t enjoy Catcher in the Rye at all, and I only have a vague memory of reading other novellas because I guess they just weren’t all that memorable.
But I’ve had The Outsider recommended to me a few times before, so I had to give it a go. Having finished it, I completely understand why people think this is the kind of story that I would like — it’s very thought-provoking, and is written in a very unique way, unlike anything else I’d read before.