Listening to War and Peace on New Year’s Day

Listening to War and Peace on New Year’s Day

I woke up this New Year’s Day morning and didn’t really feel like getting up. The night before had been a late one, natch, and the outside world was both cold and wet. My phone was out of power, so Facebook and Twitter were out. I had a book handy, but that was too much effort. So I put on the radio and reached for the headphones. I didn’t want to disturb the sleeping dogs on the bed, after all. Or the sleeping Graeme, come to that. But the radio was strange. None of the normal programmes were on. The radio world had become War and Peace.


Funny how these things work out. A bare three weeks ago, I read War and Peace for the first time since I was a teenager. (*Disclaimer: I didn’t actually read all of it in the run up to Christmas. I caught up with the plot via Wikipedia and some very comprehensive Goodreads reviews, and then leafed through the pages to flesh it out.) (**Disclaimer #2: I didn’t really read it the first time either. I read ‘Peace‘ but skipped a lot of the ‘War‘…). Anyway, listening to the saga unreel over the day on the always necessary Radio 4 has been a good deal of a treat, especially with all of the multi-syllabic names and relationships still fresh in my mind.

Why was I reading/rereading/skipping around it in the first place? In the run-up to Christmas I’d been working on the last few edits of my debut novel, The Summer of Secrets. Early on in the story, Helen and Victoria get to talking about books:

Victoria bit the head off a green baby and impaled the body on a twig. She reached out a hand and picked up the book from where Helen had dropped it on the grass.


‘Are you enjoying this?’ She put on a voice of exaggerated drama. ‘“A stirring tale of passion and betrayal, sweeping from the courts of the French kings to the conquest of the New World”. Sounds like total crap to me.’ Without waiting for an answer, she flopped back onto the grass, and seemed to be addressing the top of the tree. ‘I’ve got a reading list for the summer. All the books people complain about.’


‘All of them?’ Helen wished she could bite the words back. They echoed back in her head. Why did she have to sound so sceptical? Victoria didn’t seem to mind, though. She tossed another jelly baby into the air, catching it neatly in her mouth, and held the bag out.


‘It was in the paper. I’ll give it to you too, and we can share the books. I’ve only just started, so you haven’t got loads to catch up on.’

The book list is only a minor thread in the narrative, but it’s one I enjoyed. I read a lot as a teenager. I had books secreted in every room of the house so that I didn’t ever run the risk of spending a second of my time book-less. I was constantly in trouble for reading under the desk, reading when I should have been washing up, going to sleep, talking. By the time I was taking my O levels my grandmother, who lived next door to us, had developed Alzheimer’s and a kind neighbour offered me the use of her house so that I could revise undisturbed. I spent the time working my way through her collection of Georgette Heyer and Agatha Christie novels. I was indiscriminate in my choices, picking up whatever came to hand and, at some point, came across War and Peace, hoovering my way through without being troubled by analysis or homework or the work’s place in the literary canon.

I can’t now recall at what point my characters picked up books, but it was at an early stage and they hung on to them through all of the subsequent rewrites. The first book on Victoria’s list that Helen tackles is Ulysses, something my friend Joanna identified as the best book to take travelling. Her theory was that, with hours to fill on buses and beaches and so on, you’d be forced to keep going in the absence of anything easier. Helen doesn’t manage to finish it, but she gets caught up in the sweeping landscape of War and Peace, with the betrayals and love affairs and family dynamics which throw their reflection, I came to realise, in the world of her particular summer.

What I was trying to do in The Summer of Secrets was recreate the act of reading as a sixteen year old. As I listened to the radio today, with another 28 years of life and reading behind me, I worried that I was hearing new aspects, picking up on nuances I’d failed to express in Helen’s experience of the book. I was angry with Tolstoy’s view of women, frustrated by the characters’ choices and Tolstoy’s methods of narrating them, and much less bored by the battle scenes. I had to remind myself that I wasn’t writing a dissertation. I also had to remember that I wasn’t reframing War and Peace in a new context, but using it as a tiny thread in what is a very different novel. Helen isn’t analysing a great work, she’s reading a book. So I stopped trying to be clever and just relaxed into the experience of the whole of War and Peace as it unfolded in my bedroom and kitchen and living room. It was a good way to spend New Year’s Day, by the way. You should try it.


The Summer of Secrets will be published by Transworld in August this year. Yes, THIS YEAR now! 🙂



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