More about big books and writer’s block

Yes, I did buy a Kindle, and yes, I’ve finally got round to downloading a couple of big books and have started reading the first one. No less than War and Peace, by Tolstoy. One I avoided in my youth. Each night I pick up my Kindle when I’m in bed, and turn it on, and it obligingly opens at the page where I left off last night. But I’m not deeply immersed in it yet. I’ve read several chapters introducing lots of Russian aristocrats who seem to be endlessly holding soirees, quarrelling, entertaining visitors, discussing wills and inheritance and eligible suitors for daughters, with a background conversation about the 1812 invasion of Russia by the French under Napoleon. Each night I turn it off wondering where on earth it’s going, this great rambling microcosm, and feeling little or no empathy with any of the characters. Tolstoy has not worked his magic on me yet in this book. Anna Karenina is one of my favourite ever books; so far I am disappointed with this one. Yet it’s supposed to be his greatest work. Though he himself said it was not a novel. I wonder what it is then? Perhaps it’s not helped by the materiality of the Kindle, which is like a modern metamorphosis of a stone tablet, one that you can transform by touching its side; but I can’t just leaf through it, as I would if it were a book in print, and get some idea of what’s to come, to keep me going through this jungle of names and ego-struggles. Frankly, my dear, so far I don’t give a damn about any of them!

Which is not true of the other big book I am reading, in tandem, and in paper. The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, by Henry Handel Richardson, in a Text Classic edition which cost me all of $12. Once I got through the early pages, which set the scene in the early years of the gold rush at Ballarat, I became engrossed. This book does not come into bed with me. It sits on my dining table, and I read a few pages each time I sit down to eat ( a bit like the hero, Richard, who is far more of a bookworm than me, and sits at meals with a book on his knee, avoiding conversation with his wife’s young brothers, to whom he condescends. And in the early stages of his first medical practice in Ballarat, he forgets about canvassing for patients, and loses himself in studies of the new evolutionary science, and works through his bible, making notes in fine script in the margins—you can’t do this with a KIndle either!—and reinterpreting the Old and New testaments in the light of the most recent theories). Mahony’s inner world of thought, which he does not share with his “little wife”, Polly, and his relations with the world he lives in, are superbly conveyed in a narrative that shifts fluently between indirect discourse (his thoughts and observations), action and dialogue.

Which is a good lesson for me, in my new writing venture, to write my mother’s story. I hope that my reading of The Fortunes will help me to see how to frame the world my mother lived in, that I shared in part, through her vision. I’m finding that some parts flow, and others are bloody hard. And I’ve decided to write the parts I have energy for, rather than trying to write a connected narrative. Because when I try to write connectedly, I often write woodenly (is that a word?)  I can put the pieces together later and forge the links … perhaps!

I’d love to know how Richardson wrote. I don’t know if she kept a memoir or a journal of her writing life. Does anyone know?



Filed under standing on the shoulders of giants

11 responses to “More about big books and writer’s block

  1. Rowena E

    Hang in there with War and Peace. After a while you become immersed in the fates of the huge cast of characters. I don’t know which version you downloaded, but if there’s not a table of contents with a cast list, it’s easy to do a search when there’s a character you’ve forgotten. The first mention usually defines him or her. You can make notes or highlight bits, but is a different experience from doing so in a paper book, and I don’t find it as convenient.

  2. Thanks, Rowena. good to know there’s someone out there who has made sense of it! I’m a lazy reader, and unless I”m deeply engaged in a book, I don’t like having to look up characters. I don’t want to have to do a search. But I haven’t bothered to learn how to do that either. I am lazy about technology. I tend to just keep reading and hope it will sink in. But then again, I have read and studied The Tale of Genji, which I think is as long as War and Peace, if not longer. It too has many characters, whose names change according to their status at court and who is addressing them. But the translation I’ve read has a list of characters and their ages and positions at the beginning of each chapter. It would be good if someone did this for War and Peace!

  3. The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney is one of my favourite books. I too find looking for an agent exhausting. I haven’t done it for a few years but will be back in the fray again shortly. Wish me luck.
    BTW did you know that if you put a share button on your posts people can retweet them?

  4. Oops! Sorry the buttons finally came up after I finished the above comment.

  5. You’ve got me there. I don’t twitter, and I rarely use Facebook; I’m a bit of a dinosaur in some ways. I like real conversations, but I have found that blogging has filled a gap, and I’ve even made a couple of real friends through it. I think it’s a great outlet for writers, as writing can be very lonely. But the best experience for me has been joining/starting real groups—book groups, writing groups, and also, this year, building on last year’s experience, I’ll be doing a series of workshops with a friend/writer/teacher of writing. The world of publishing is, as I’ve commented before, a hierarchical one, whereas the informal world of writers and readers is democratic and liberating. The more meaningful connections we can make, the better!

  6. I have yet to finish War and Peace. Started it twice but both times gave up because time got in the way … and trying to remember all the characters felt daunting. Having read Anna Karenina since, I suspect I would cotton on to the characters sooner next time around. I was enjoying it but it was just slow going.

    • Yes, I agree. I’m a lazy reader so I trust that the writer will help me remember who the characters are, and if he or she doesn’t, I tend to abandon the book. In this case, perhaps because it’s a Kindle, I just turn it on for about 10 minutes and read 2 lor 3 chapters; a few of the characters are starting to sink in (I’m up to Book 3) but many of them are just names still. I think if it were a real book (there’s my prejudice) and not an electronic one, I’d have abandoned it by now.

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