Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Doyle, Camus, and Tolstoy

Hello! I hope you are all healthy and safe. I’ve been reading a lot and going for walks in the amazing weather. Here are a few books I read when I wasn’t walking:

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, by Roddy Doyle

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“—What are fish-fingers made of? – Fish. – What kind of fish? – All kinds. – Cod, said my ma. – White fish. –Why do they—  —No more questions till you’re finished. That was my da. – Everything on the plate, he said. – Then you can ask your questions.”

There are interesting books where nothing happens, then there are books where nothing interesting happens. I found Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha to be the second type of book. It’s about a 10-year-old kid named Patrick (“Paddy”) Clarke who lives in Ireland in the 1960s. He has a younger brother named Sinbad, a group of friends, and parents who fight. He makes fun of his brother, plays with his friends, and tries to figure out how to get his parents to stop fighting. That’s basically the book.

Doyle is great at getting inside the head of a 10-year-old kid, but I kept waiting for the story to start. Yes, something kind of happens in the last few pages, but by then it’s too late to care. Even if you do care, the incident is mentioned too briefly for you to have enough time to care about it. That made for a very confusing ending.

Since there doesn’t seem to be much of a story, you could probably rearrange most of the scenes in the book any which way without substantially changing your reading experience.

Also, the book’s meant to be very funny. For some reason I wasn’t able to laugh much during it. So overall, the book had terrific stylistic merits, but didn’t really seem to have much of a meaningful story. Maybe I’m missing something, though. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this slice-of-life.


Notebooks 1951-1959, by Albert Camus

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“August 8, 1957. Cordes. For the first time, after reading Crime and Punishment, absolute doubt about my vocation. I seriously consider the possibility of giving up [….] Am I this creator? I believed it. More precisely, I believed that I could be it. Today I doubt it, and the temptation is strong to reject this incessant effort which renders me unhappy in happiness itself […] Am I capable of what I dream? If I am not capable of it, what good is it to dream? [….] October 17. Nobel. Strange feeling of overwhelming pressure and melancholy.”

Albert Camus kept these notebooks from 1951 to his death in 1959. The notebooks could be seen as a slice-of-life (like Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha). Somehow, real-life was much more interesting than the fictional rendition of it.

In these notebooks, there were a lot of thoughts and philosophizing. Camus also wrote of books he read, of ideas he had for books, and of a trip he took to Greece. Most of it was done in a very detached way, like you’d expect from someone like Camus.

Then I reached the part that I quoted above, and everything changed.

Let me explain. The first entry is straightforward enough—Camus doubts his abilities as a writer. A mere two months later, he wrote the second entry, about how he won the Nobel Prize in Literature. That’s cool in itself, but what makes it so interesting is his melancholic reaction. Apparently, he even had panic attacks about it for a long time afterwards.

So, I used to think that if Camus could write sentences like, “Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know” in The Stranger, he had to have been a very detached person. Reading these notebooks revealed a whole new side to him. It was a surprisingly flawed and insecure side, and that revelation of hidden depths was what made this book so fascinating for me.

War and Peace Part 1, by Leo Tolstoy

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“Prince Andrei looked at [Pierre] with kindly eyes. But even so his friendly and affectionate glance expressed an awareness of his own superiority. ‘You are dear to me, especially because, in the whole of our high society, you are the only person who is alive. You’re fortunate. Choose whatever you like, it doesn’t matter. You will always fit in anywhere, but just one thing: stop going to see those Kuragins, leading that kind of life. It doesn’t suit you at all: all this bingeing and playing the hussar, and all the rest of it.’”

So I went to the library and took out the only copy of War and Peace they had. I figured I might as well take it out now in case the library closes again. Then I won’t have to return it, and I could have forever to read the whole thing. So that’s what I did.

However, the War and Peace I took out was not the classic version but the “Original Version”—the first complete draft. It’s supposed to be pretty similar to the “canonical” version, though. I’ve never read the “canonical” version, even though I tried to do so when I was much younger. In any case, I’ll try to review one part of War and Peace every week or so (there are 7 parts in total), and I’ll try not to spoil it in the process. (Other parts: 2 3 4 5 6 7)

What to say about the first part? Well, Napoleon is invading everywhere, and the Russians are going to war with him. We’re introduced to the main characters—Pierre, Andrei, Natasha, and so on. Andrei is a youngish prince who’s going to war. Pierre is a youngish illegitimate son who’s Andrei’s friend. He’s not going to war. Natasha’s a 13-year-old girl who prefers older men. Obviously she’s not going to war. In terms of plot, it’s a decent one. Some surprising developments happen, other characters are introduced, more surprises happen, and then they go to war.

When I first tried to read the book, I thought it very stodgy and boring. This time, I’m surprised to see that’s not the case. Maybe it’s this translation (Andrew Bromfield), or maybe Tolstoy was never stodgy to begin with. I mean, who would have thought War and Peace could be funny? The book also makes interesting observations about people and their contradictions, like Andrei being affectionate towards Pierre while secretly reveling in his own superiority.

On the whole, Part 1 doesn’t feel much like a draft. Yes, there are a few characters who sometimes go on rants about their backstory for no reason other than that Tolstoy wanted you to know. Yes, some scenes don’t feel as “sharp” as they probably were intended to be. None of that makes Part 1 any less enjoyable, though.

I hope you all have a nice week. Maybe take some walks if you are able to do so safely. If you’ve read the “canonical” version War and Peace, how does it compare with this version so far?


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