I was heading out the door to collect Marvel Girl and Miss Malaprop from school this afternoon when I casually slung my handbag over my shoulder and nearly put my back out. Now, I will admit that this particular accessory is known in our household as “The Bottomless Bag”, not only because it holds a great deal of stuff, but also because it seems to possess an uncanny propensity to cause said stuff (most commonly keys) to evade my grasp whenever I am scrabbling around the bottom of said bag.
Today, however, I already had those elusive keys in my hand — my handbag was just heavy, and perplexingly so. What on earth could I possibly have stowed in my tote?
It was at this point that I remembered that I, quite literally, had a copy of War and Peace in The Bottomless Bag.
Having a book in my handbag is not an uncommon state of affairs for me — in fact, I suspect that not having a book in my handbag, not to mention a notepad and several pens, would be much more unusual. But today, I had completely forgotten that sometime this morning I had waltzed happily (though perhaps a little lopsidedly) out of the local bookstore with a copy of Tolstoy’s classic tale in my bag. Yes, the Thrifty Fictionista had struck again…
For those of you as yet unacquainted with my alter-ego, the Thrifty Fictionista is prone to prowling through bookstores, aiming to get as much book for her buck as possible. At one point last year, the Thrifty Fictionista staked out Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 trilogy. Earlier this year, she successfully ensnared Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety. And today, obviously, she tracked down War and Peace, which being out of copyright and running to well over 1,200 pages definitely meets the Thrifty Fictionista’s usual criteria
for her prey: lots of book for not so many bucks.
To be completely honest, I — having given up referring to myself in the third person a lá Jaqen H’ghar in the last paragraph — did not actually track the book down all by myself this morning. I engaged the assistance of an obliging young bookshop employee who was all too happy to point me in the direction of the hallowed shelves where the classics reside and then, to my delight, knew exactly which translation I was referring to — the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volkhonsky one, of course — when I asked specifically for War and Peace. Could it be that the Thrifty Fictionista had found a kindred spirit, a fellow hunter of bargain-priced quality books? A simple flip of the volume to check the price tag (watch your wrist, there, it’s a hefty tome) and I was rewarded with a knowing smile. Yes. A kindred spirit, indeed.
As it turned out, my new best friend was also in the process of reading War and Peace. I didn’t ask him where he was up to — the book took Tolstoy six years to write (and, some would say, takes just about as long to read), but his slightly bleary eyes revealed that he had been at it for some time, while the determined jut of his jaw indicated his intention to finish. It was my turn, it seemed, for a knowing smile.
The first time I read War and Peace I borrowed my father’s copy, which was conveniently housed in three battered blue volumes he had bought as a boy. I’ve always enjoyed Tolstoy’s work, particularly after studying Russian history at university, and still count Anna Karenina among my favourite novels of all time. But having just watched the sparkling new BBC adaptation of War and Peace, which was written by Andrew Davies (who was also responsible for that TV version of Pride and Prejudice, not to mention House of Cards and Vanity Fair, among many others), I wanted to read the book again — particularly now that the screen production has provided me with faces to associate with the many (hard to remember and harder to pronounce) names in the book.
Davies’ adaptation shrinks Tolstoy’s story down to just over six hours of television, but I don’t believe that the end result to be at all reductive. The screen is filled with the broad sweep of the novel and of Russia itself, and is populated by an impeccably costumed cast. Paul Dano is admirable as Count Pierre Bezukov, James Norton suitably haughty as Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, and Lily James utterly exquisite as the young Countess, Natalya Rostova.
For my money, however, it is in the supporting cast that the stars really begin to shine. Brian Cox is superb as gruff old General Kutuzov, who has seen it all before (with his one remaining eye) and knows his best ally against Napoleon is Russia’s winter rather than her troops. But the stand out, in my view, is Tom Burke’s brilliant take on the career soldier, Fedya Dolokhov, a man who makes his own luck and takes exactly what he wants — this man’s wife, that man’s money, even the food off his friend’s plate. He’s a troublemaker (to put it mildly), a dangerous and destructive force played with impulsive energy, passion and panache by Burke.
I’ve already started re-reading Tolstoy’s epic tale of love and loss, of War and Peace — I couldn’t stop myself — and I am thoroughly enjoying placing the characters in the sets and contexts so beautifully supplied by the BBC adaptation. I love that the book itself is as big as a house brick, and that I might well have put my back out had I not taken it out of The Bottomless Bag before school pick up, but that within its pages and in between the battles and bombardments there are subtleties and nuances and snippets of conversation conveying the overriding delicacy of thought that is so characteristic of Tolstoy. There is an insistence that we look at ourselves, and at our choices throughout life, and that we recognise within ourselves the power to forgive, to love, and to be happy.
Well, that’s the one thing we are interested in here — until the Thrifty Fictionista strikes again…