50 Books to Read Before You Die

words to inspire before you expire

Tag: Affair

Birdsong

Hello again, class.

World War I and World War II are often lumped together as a collective global stain of history. They are so linked that WWII is usually seen as an extension of WWI, and it’s hard to talk about one without the other. It’s easy to forget that at the time, WWI was its own devastating conflict, worse than anything that had come before it and unimaginably tragic on its own.

That seems to be the driving motive behind author Sebastian Faulks’ novel Birdsong. In lumping together both World Wars, the identity of the first Great War gets lost in the past—Birdsong is about bringing that past to the forefront, lending focus to the social and cultural atmosphere at the time of WWI. The story is in its own way about uncovering history, using it to guide our present and plan our future while appreciating it for what it is, regardless of what happens next.


Poster for the stage adaptation of Birdsong (2010)

Faulks wouldn’t be able to accomplish this without a supportive story, and good characters to populate it. It’s safe to say that Stephen Wraysford is Birdsong‘s main character—he is a man with a complicated upbringing coupled with a melodramatic love affair in his early 20s, who is thrust into the Great War. His relationships with other men in the war help to humanize the conflict, though with all the violence he sees, he is always questioning humanity and its destiny. He seems fairly determined to hide his past, though he isn’t ashamed of it, and his love affair plays an important role in his future.

Fast-forward to the 1970s, where we meet a woman who is presumably his granddaughter—Elizabeth Benson, who shares some of the responsibility as main character. This 38-year old woman, having an affair of her own, is contemplating her place in life and decides to unearth her ancestral history. The novel jumps back and forth between Stephen’s perspective and Elizabeth’s, merging both points of view to appropriately assess the events of the war.


Author Sebastian Faulks

Birdsong is historical fiction—not a dramatization of real events. A based-on-a-true-story approach might have worked just as well for the sake of realism, but Faulks isn’t interested in detailing who did what where. He created fictional characters to fill them with the spirit of the people involved. Birdsong is a human drama, not a war epic or a nonfiction account—those things would be about the war itself, which is just another conflict in our history. Birdsong instead tells a story about individuals, who bear the weight of a larger catastrophe and question their place in it all.

If it were boiled down to one thing, Birdsong is a story about the best and worst of human nature. Stephen constantly asks himself how far the people in this war are willing to go, and nothing he sees lets him rest easy. But humanity has its moments of redemption in the way individuals treat each other: the way soldiers treat fellow soldiers, the way Stephen treats those he loves, and the way Elizabeth is able to find love amidst the war of her past. Humanity can be a cannibalistic hunger, a vain and selfish ambition that threatens its own existence, but it can also be warm and compassionate, full of love and hope. Birdsong makes the list for portraying humanity at its ugliest and at its most beautiful.


I liked reading Birdsong a lot, which has maybe contributed to my distaste for the next book on the list—a novel by Martin Amis called Money: A Suicide Note. I know why it made the list, but all the same I haven’t enjoyed it at all . . . but I’m getting ahead of myself. More on that next time.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

Anna Karenina

Hello again, class.

The first thing you notice about Anna Karenina is how long it is. Hopefully, the second thing you notice is how short the chapters are—all of them, two or three pages a pop. It’s really easy to read a chapter a day, and most chapters pick up in the exact spot where you left off last—that’s why, for the past 15 books I’ve written about for this blog, I’ve been reading Anna Karenina on the side. It’s hardly made a dent in my time, even though it took several months to read.

I’ve heard that Anna Karenina is the best novel ever written. Though my vote for that spot is still Ulysses, I can see why Tolstoy’s novel is preferable—Anna Karenina uses a large cast of characters and their diverse inner thoughts to tell the kind of story you can’t look away from, where passion leads to terrible decisions and societal systems punish everyone, without regard to right or wrong. For that, Anna Karenina makes the list of books to read before you die.


Actress Greta Garbo as Anna in one of the several movie adaptations of Anna Karenina.

The novel follows two major stories that intersect and branch out from each other. One story is focused on Anna, a married woman who falls in love with another man and begins an affair, setting in motion the events of the novel. The other story focuses on the landowner Konstantin Levin and his relationship and eventual marriage with the noble Katerina (Kitty). It’s almost like reading two different novels, except for the moments when one story affects the other.

In Anna’s story, her life falls apart almost immediately—once she meets Alexis Vronsky, the man who becomes her lover, her marriage collapses like wet paper. Her attachments to her extended family, her love for her son, her standing in Russian society . . . all are kindling for the fire that consumes her life. Levin’s story is more traditional—he pines for Kitty, learns to live without her, happily regains his relationship with her, and, once married to her, begins the life expected of a husband. But the subtleties of his story reveal contradictions ingrained in marital expectations.

If the entire novel could be boiled down into one thought, that’s it: Anna Karenina is about the flaws of marriage, and in other systems that society puts so much importance on. More than anything, Tolstoy seems determined to point out how complicated and convoluted the ideas and expectations of marriage are, and to condemn it as part of the problem.


Author Leo Tolstoy

The novel is praised for realism, but be warned: I don’t mean present day realism, I mean 1800’s realism (which means that Tolstoy doesn’t linger on the gory details, but they’re still there). Anna Karenina has that same quality that Modernism abides by—the need to break down traditions and widely held values for the sake of shifty truths. Tolstoy does this in a way that shows off every character and their uniquely flawed perspectives, warts and all. No one character has a complete picture of the events, so it’s up to the reader to decide what the truth is, despite any one character’s beliefs or morals.

Tolstoy’s determination makes Anna Karenina challenging and important. It doesn’t hold back anything—that’s the kind of realism it brands itself with, which works to the novel’s credit.


Next up, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. Of what I’ve read so far, there could be several comparisons between the protagonist Esther and Tolstoy’s Anna—I can’t share more detail without spoiling either novel, but suffice it to say that mental illness in women is misrepresented in most literature, and that what Tolstoy didn’t get right in Anna Karenina is sure to be corrected by Plath’s personal experience. I don’t look forward to a happy ending with The Bell Jar. And that’s okay.

Until next time,

Prof. Jeffrey

“The Karenins, husband and wife, continued living in the same house, met every day, but were complete strangers to one another. Alexey Alexandrovitch made it a rule to see his wife every day, so that the servants might have no grounds for suppositions, but avoided dining at home. Vronsky was never at Alexey Alexandrovitch’s house, but Anna saw him away from home, and her husband was aware of it.”

—from Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy