We've been getting a lot of advice recently on books that might help us get through the long isolated hours of being cooped up in our cabins during the corona curfew.
I was too busy having breakfast after my long coastal trek to and from early Mass last week (before the church lockdown) to take in Ryan Tubridy's recommendations, but the list that the novelist John Banville provided on Brendan O'Connor's Saturday edition of RTE's Weekend on One stopped me in my tracks. This was mainly because Banville prefaced his choice of titles with the suggestion that readers avoid trivia and go for meatier books of substance - a sentiment I agreed with, despite recalling that one man's meat is another man's poison.
Among his picklist, Tolstoy's War and Peace stood out for me. Having read the novel twice over my lifetime, I agree that it is one of the most absorbing marathon reads of all time, leaving us with an abiding memory of the insanity of war and the importance of neighbourly love. I enjoyed Anna Karenina also, even though I was aware that it was written primarily as a moral antidote to Flaubert's Madam Bovary. But that was Tolstoy's way - imparting didactic messages in what, for him, were merely soap opera tales of Russian and European life in his time.
Something that most readers may not be aware of is that Tolstoy rated all of his own novels at the lower end of the scale of literature, placing a couple of his short stories above them. The kind of works he himself was in awe of were Bible stories like Moses's account of Joseph's banishment into Egypt by his jealous brothers, and Matthew's account of Christ's Sermon on the Mount, which Tolstoy rated as the acme of all writing. What might seem ironic to us who baulk at the sheer size of Tolstoy's novels is that one of the reasons he loved biblical writings (apart from the message imparted) was their conciseness.
In a prose work I myself completed recently on the literary and musical culture of our time, Modern Heresies, I dedicate the penultimate chapter to my favourite Tolstoy book: What is Art? Because of its radical views, it isn't widely known in literary circles today. The first time I read it (and I've read it many times), I was so shocked by the severity of Tolstoy's criticism not only of many of the literary and artistic giants of his time, but of revered artists and writers of centuries that preceded him also. Dante gets it in the neck for his parody of hell in The Divine Comedy; Shakespeare is pilloried for the melodramatics in some of his plays; Wagner's complete works are vilified for being overbearing, long-winded and unmusical; Beethoven's 9th Symphony's Ode to Joy is dismissed for being far from joyous; and the entire modernist movement that spread like a virus from Paris before and after the French Revolution is reviled for the nonsense it unleashed in the arts worldwide.
Tolstoy doesn't ask us to agree with his particular judgment of specific writers and artists, but he does encourage us to think for ourselves about the culture we are born into. And the fact that he includes most of his own works in his firing line ameliorates, for me at any rate, some of his exaggerated denouncements of artists I myself revere.
Dante's Divine Comedy sits on a small shelf unit by my bed along with George Herbert's The Temple, the plays of Shakespeare, TS Eliot's Complete Poems, works by Wordsworth and collections by Larkin, Frost, Browning and many other poets. On the shelf above them range volumes by St Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, St Catherine of Siena, Julian of Norwich, Pascal, Seneca, Montaigne and Kierkegaard. While pride of place on the top shelf goes to a very crumpled and tattered copy of The King James Bible, which is crowned with an even more frayed paperback copy of The Imitation of Christ by Thomas A Kempis (a book I never stop reading).
I think it was Oscar Wilde who explained that the reason he didn't read contemporary literature was because he preferred to allow time separate the wheat from the chaff or the gold from the silt. Most of the books I read now are old and dog-eared, but I'm still always on the hunt for modern writers of value, as there is nothing quite like discovering a living author when she or he has something fresh and vital to impart.
Johnny Duhan's autobiography 'The Voyage' and other works of his can be purchased at good book shops and via johnnyduhan.com