The first two are obvious: War and Peace and Middlemarch. All novels create places and people; those two create whole worlds. To both I return repeatedly. In Tolstoy’s case it was some time before I bothered with War, because the love stories were more important to the teenager I was then, and even in my twenties I rather sheepishly edged back into Peace about halfway through. Not until much later did I see how wonderful the War part of the book is. Now the only parts I skip are the few passages in which Tolstoy pontificates. The more one knows about his life the clearer it is that in many ways he was maddening, and there are tiny chinks in the book through which this can be glimpsed; but the miracle is that in War and Peace his genius prevailed over his human failings.I had the opposite experience reading War and Peace as a teenager: I had imagined of course that the drawing-room/love chapters would be what would enthrall me, but really I was completely captivated by the war sequences and considerably less interested in the home front (really this makes sense given how mentally involved I was with historical fiction along the lines of Mary Renault, Robert Graves, Gore Vidal etc.). It is probably a failing of readerly sentiment, but I still don't see how any novel-reader could possibly prefer Anna Karenina to War and Peace - in fact one reason I love Clarissa so much is that really it is much more like War and Peace avant la lettre than like any novel of adultery! I should try and write something sometime about Austen and Tolstoy, it is a counter-intuitive but compelling pairing....
Thursday, September 04, 2014
Diana Athill on the books that made her (all four of these are important for me too):