War and Peace, Tolstoy and toenails

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Finishing War and Peace feels like finishing the London Marathon, with fewer toenails lost along the way. When I told a friend I was reading the notoriously long and dreary book, his response was simply: “Why on earth would you do that?” It’s a question I hadn’t asked myself until I got a few hundred pages in and found myself slobbering half-asleep on the Tube rather than flying through the chapters.

I’m a completist. I never cast novels aside if they begin badly, or skip pages, or read the synopsis online. If I’m moaning about a poor film in the first 10 minutes, you can bank on me complaining about it when the credits roll. So ever since the book was bought from Eastbourne’s finest shop, Camilla’s, it has been sitting on the shelf waiting for me to complete it. Plus, I’ve read and re-read Anna Karenina – how could the same guy who wrote such a lyrical story really be dull and repetitive? 

Since beginning the book (or books – I have a more manageable edition split into three) it has been noteworthy how often it is used as a comparison in daily life. On consecutive days a travel itinerary was described as “looking like War and Peace”, then a friend complained their coursework was “longer than War and Peace”. Even the story of The Ashes was “positively Tolstoyian” said the paper. It’s been weighing on my mind, and my bag, for weeks now. 

As you canter through the first 50 pages, you can accept the preliminary scene setting, the dusting off of themes and the introduction of a grand cast of characters. After you trudge to the 400 page mark and no progress has been made, it is a little harder to take. Tolstoy paces his writing with his plot, dallying as the counts and princes count their principals in St Petersburg and Moscow, squelching through the quagmire of endless strategic outposts on the battlefield and dithering over endless domestic disputes. It’s enough to make you give up, wondering whether the war part or the peace part is the most soul-sapping. 

Soon though (well, not soon, after many bloody hours), you come to realise the characters are wondering the same thing. They are as lost in the book as you are, and keep you intrigued over whether or not any of you will make it to the end. It’s a cast of millions and you’re soon one of them. Political intrigues jostle with love matches, cads with gentlemen and foreign foes with local villains.

The book it most invites comparison to is Moby Dick. Both can accurately be described as epic in both length and scale, while they focus upon the minutiae of individual lives and subjects seemingly narrow in scope. However, they both contemplate religion, class, poverty, love, life and death with boundless ingenuity and vitality.

What sets Tolstoy’s Napoleonic tale apart though is its scale. I knew very little about these wars and less about the times before reading. I discovered the Russian aristocracy spoke French, more about the Freemasons than I’d garnered from that Simpsons episode and why the author thought Napoleon more of an inconsequence in the wars his name bears than a conquerer.

The vivid descriptions of military manoeuvres and domestic dalliances are brought to life slowly – more Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy than Game of Thrones in the immediacy of action. Each time you feel the narrative is flowing rapidly, new distractions, introductions and sidesteps are taken. But he gains your ear and your trust. There’s a lot of preaching in the book, against the inaccuracy of history and the folly of man, but you feel Tolstoy deserves his say by this point. By the time you reach the grand epilogues, you care as much for the myriad of characters whose loose ends are so neatly tied up as  the writer’s thoughts on the nature of war and the power of history. 

The book probably says it all, but you are too numb to take most of it in. It probably needs another read, but I’ll give it another 50 years or so.

Mr Norris Changes Trains

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Sometimes it is hard not to judge a book by its cover. That is just what I did when picking up Christopher Isherwood’s book Mr Norris Changes Trains. The luxurious sleeve, together with the author’s reputation as the writer of A Single Man, was enough to buy it. But there is also has a hint of the ridiculous, something entirely in keeping with its contents. 

Based loosely upon Isherwood’s own experiences and exploits in the Weimar Republic as the Nazis steadily rose to power, it focuses upon the character of Arthur Norris, an importer/exporter of delightful contradictions. He is a gentleman, a swindler, a masochist, a communist, a master of deception forever fooling himself. His behaviour is observed through the impeccable vacuum of narrator William Bradshaw (Isherwood’s middle names).

Isherwood reduces Bradshaw’s character to that of helpless but not hapless onlooker, slipping into the background to allow Norris sufficient space to flourish in this most intriguing of settings. Through a series of lightly played scenarios, the combination of sexual freedom and political intrigue in Berlin is deftly explored. Hackneyed commies and closeted government officials give rise to plenty of comedic set ups, which Isherwood delights in exploring for comic effect. Boozy nights out are sketched with Cabaret grotesques and light-hearted capers. Much is made of Norris’ distinctive bedroom tastes and silly wig. 

His politics are given even lighter shadings. While he speaks at communist meetings and often pops abroad to do Party work, the severity of the situation is never addressed. Communists appear a little bloodied and brown shirts begin appearing more regularly.  However, the backdrop of Germany’s wider upheaval is played with the same wry smirk as Mr Norris’ own mysterious travails. Isherwood walks a tightrope between reportage and yarn, leaving the reader feeling the meatier material got cut. Bradshaw himself appears asexual and, though he dabbles with translation for the communists, apolitical. 

More menacing than the Nazis is an unsavoury character named Schmidt, formerly in Norris’ employ. He blackmails Norris into taking one risk too many – but even his threat is dismissed in comic fashion by the landlady. Tension and danger are never properly established, so appreciation of the extremity of the situation is sadly lacking. The book started life as part of a wider, more substantial novel to be called The Lost. Mr Norris was torn from that narrative and placed solo; that move leaves him as the punchline of a joke only Isherwood knows.

There are wryly observed asides aplenty; bawdy scenes in which to revel in Isherwood’s stylish prose. But you feel he is always holding out on you. Like its protagonist, Mr Norris Changes Trains is ever the charmer, but falls short of really delivering. Mind the gaps.

Ladybird’s Olympic legacy

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While we dissect how wonderful London 2012 was from the chilly vantage point of January, there are no doubt many publishers licking their chapped lips. To accompany the multitudes of promotional, commemorative collections hastily slug on the shelves are the blockbuster autobiographies of the all-conquering athletes. Jess Ennis, Bradley Wiggins, Ben Ainslie and Tom Daley are among those quick out of the blocks to share their stories, filling many a stocking. None of them are likely to rival their sporting triumphs in their lists of achievements.

But are these hastily cobbled books really a bad thing? Not everybody gets into reading by devouring Tolkien, hiding a torch under their duvet to finish the last chapter of Harry Potter or cuddling up to The Gruffalo. Sometimes a decidedly shoddy book can have a huge impact, such as the one discovered in my parents’ loft last month when retrieving the Christmas decorations.

It was 1996. A mobile library pulled up outside my primary school. I climbed its three steps casually and entered the van with little anticipation of what treasure I would find within.

It wasn’t even a story, let alone a novel. Just 53 pages long. Ladybird’s Olympic 96 book, complete with a “fantastic foldout of Atlanta”. Fantastic indeed. Inside I learned, in one paragraph, of the genius of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics. I discovered that Atlanta is the state capital of Georgia. I found out the yachting events would be held at the Yachting Marina, which seemed very apt. WHATIZIT, the exquisitely named official mascot of the 1996 Olympic Games, was eager to supply all manner of juicy information.

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Further inside were single pages devoted to each Olympic sport, with descriptions of the discipline and its leading lights, plus – crucially – space within which to name the winner of each event. I filled them in with religious fervour. I recorded Yelena Nicolayeva’s victory in the 10 kilometre walk; I jotted down Balasz Kiss’s hammer win for Hungary; my pen was on the verge of running out as L Flessel triumphed in the individual foil fencing.

Aged nine, my parents didn’t allow me to watch most of these events take place live and even yours truly may have flagged during the weightlifting qualification rounds. Many of the winners’ names were furiously scribbled via Teletext. The long names of Ukraine’s medalling gymnasts proved too fast for my hand, resulting in several laps around the information retrieval service’s infuriating scrolling system.

Nevertheless, judiciously jotting the Olympic results down left an impression greater than the heroics of the standout athletes in Atlantic – even Michael Johnson achieving the 200m/400m double. The book ingrained a passion for sports stats that has since thrived in football, cricket and baseball, as well as a love of books. The next time the mobile library came around, I checked out The Hobbit, amongst others and was soon well on the way to filling my first bookshelves.

You could look up who won all of those 1996 Olympic medals on Wikipedia in about eight seconds now. But tracing their names with my finger in the old Ladybird hardback, their glories come to life far more vividly than on a laptop screen. There will be many legacies of London 2012. Let’s hope one of them, by hook or by crook or by terrible Tom Daley memoir, is somebody getting into books.

The longest day of the year – Gatz

“Do you always watch for the longest day of the year and then miss it?” Not when it is spent in the company of Gatz.

As someone who has often pondered how much of his life is spent “seeking, a little wistfully, for the dramatic turbulence of some irrecoverable football game”, The Great Gatsby was a formative text. From it’s sprawling summation of an age to its pinpoint characterisation, it is simultaneously concise and all-encompassing, a blueprint for that mythical beast: the Great American Novel.

So how could New York’s Elevator Repair Service theatre group dare to capture – not just catalogue but encapsulate – its entire text in the course of a play? By making it last all damn day. Gatz, which is running for another week at the Noel Coward Theatre in the West End, featured every word of The Great Gatsby. And not a syllable was wasted.

Those present had shunned the lure of Great British Heroic Failure with Andy Murray to take their seats in early afternoon, and were eager to understand how a plain office setting could be transformed into the shimmering world of West Egg. A few IT mishaps to get everyone onside only softened the tastebuds for the meat of the novel. Soon a bored white collar man became transfixed by the book he disinterestedly discovered, and within hours he was metamorphosed into its protagonist.

The slide from harddrives to highballs was so subtly done you had time to move with it. This was a deliciously intelligent production, weaving in peripheral characters in lighter moments while acutely positioning the duality of the modern world with the inner existence of the novel. It was not without problems though (its incomprehensible length aside).

As Baz Luhrmann will discover with his upcoming Gatsby film, fighting the preconceptions of an audience that is overwhelmingly familiar with the source text is tough. Although nobody acted completely as Fitzgerald’s characters – they inhabit them while remaining office staff, which did lend itself to light relief occasionally - Jim Fletcher as Jim Gatz didn’t have the quiet, muscular charisma my mind’s eye saw in Gatsby. Tom Buchanan was too coarse to be rounded. Some lines floundered, others stole too much limelight. My neck ached.

But Scott Shepherd became Nick, the narrator and vague moral compass of the piece. His performance was as much endurance as flair, but he was so engrossed in his part that you couldn’t help follow him into the shallows of excess and snippets of insight Fitzgerald knitted so long ago. Each time he announced a break (there were three) the leap into present consciousness was palpable. It was as complete a display of acting as I’ve witnessed in the flesh.

The ending at times felt like “a single green light, minute and faraway” itself, not least when Gatsby’s doddering dad spent a wistful half-hour tittering onstage. With the time reaching 10.30, the first real signs of seat-shifting impatience set in on the balcony. But most were engrossed enough to be carried to the ending’s sad triumph.

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Afterwards, on the Piccadilly Line with a carriage full of Rihanna-wannabes wasted and wet from Wireless Festival, Gatz already felt far away. But it is going to linger, in rich half-sleeps and exaggerated recollections, as a thing of beauty worthy of its weighty inspiration.