‘All happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion.’ This, the opening sentence of ANNA KARENINA, is one of the most famous in literature. But would it be better like this: ‘All happy families are alike: each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’? I’ve decided that it would, which is why I am reading the recent highly acclaimed translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky for Penguin Classics instead of Rosemary Edmonds’ 1954 translation in my old Penguin edition.
I read the novel when I was a very young woman and re-read it, too. I agreed with William Faulkner. When he was asked to name the three best novels ever, he replied, ANNA KARENINA, ANNA KARENINA, ANNA KARENINA.’ Mind you, I hadn’t read Proust then.
I’ve been meaning to reread ANNA KARENINA for a while. But at well over 800 pages it is a commitment. I suggested it to my reading group and we decided to have it an optional extra which we could spread over a year.
When I picked it up a fortnight ago I put it down after a few pages. It seemed a bit stiff and old-fashioned. I wondered if the translation was to blame. This was a question that never occurred to me when I first read it. Maybe I am more sensitive to language and more detached than I was when I first read it, devouring it for the story, living almost every moment, not knowing what would happen next.
I ordered the new translation, and now I am completely gripped. What a daring writer Tolstoy is. What writer nowadays would delay the entrance of the main characte until page sixty? And yet how important those introductory chapters are, how well they establish the themes of the novel, how absorbing they are.
I am well over half way through and it is as brilliant as I remembered (though some of Levin’s thoughts and discussions on Russian politics and agricultural economy are as dull as I remembered, too).
That’s for now. I’ll let you know what I think when I’ve finished it.
Martin Edwards is one of my favourite contemporary crime-writers. His first series featured the lawyer, Harry Devlin, and were set in Liverpool. There’s a second series set in the Lake District and the fourth of those, THE SERPENT POOL, has just come out in paperback. I loved the previous one, THE ARSENIC LABYRINTH (great titles!). Martin has gone from strength to strength in recent years and I’m looking forward to reading the new one. I’ve been meaning to ask him to do a guest blog for a while. One of his strengths as a writer is his sense of place, and here he writes about what draws him to the Lake District:
Martin Edwards writes, ‘Books burn in the opening scene of my fourth and latest Lake District Mystery, The Serpent Pool, just issued in paperback in the UK. And the man who owns the books, an avid collector called George Saffell, watches bound and helpless as the flames race towards him.
It is a dark opening to a novel set in a beautiful part of the world. The Lake District’s landscape is fascinating at any time, and the main action of The Serpent Pool takes place at the start of a new year, in the cold days of early January, when fog descends from the fell slopes, and the forecasters warn of avalanches. Researching the real-life scenes of the fictional events of my book was enthralling (at least for me – my teenage children would prefer me to research a series set on the world’s sunniest beaches…)
Few areas anywhere that are as small as England’s Lake District (it is roughly thirty miles across) can boast such a rich literary tradition. William Wordsworth was the most famous of the Lake Poets, but Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey still have admirers. Among novelists, Hugh Walpole (whose few crime novels are well worth a look, incidentally), Melvyn Bragg and nowadays Sarah Hall, have all used the landscape of the Lakes to great effect. As an essayist, Thomas De Quincey (who lived in Dove Cottage, former home of the Wordswoths) is beyond compare.
De Quincey’s dark shadow falls over The Serpent Pool. Apart from ‘Confessions of an English Opium-Eater’, a masterpiece of hallucinatory writing, he was most famous for ‘On Murder, Considered as one of the Fine Arts’, and this inspires Daniel Kind, to study his work while writing a book about the history of murder. In so doing, Daniel encounters a range of characters with something to hide, including the secret behind the violent death of George Saffell. I hadn’t read De Quincey before working on this novel, and I came to admire his writing, even if I remain deeply unconvinced about the benefits of opium to the creative process.
While Daniel focuses on De Quincey, Detective Chief Inspector Hannah Scarlett, who heads the Cold Case Review Team, investigates the unexplained death, six years ago, of a woman called Bethany Friend, who was drowned in an isolated patch of water known as the Serpent Pool. Hannah’s relationship with rare book dealer Marc Amos is on the skids, and as the winter weather worsens, the tension builds to a climax at the Serpent Pool. There Hannah comes to learn the truth. And when I wrote the final scene, I couldn’t help remembering that famous remark of Sherlock Holmes in ‘The Copper Beeches’:
‘It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.’
I can only hope the Lake District tourist authorities forgive me for introducing murder and mayhem into this most gorgeous of locations!’
I can heartily recommend this fabulous Argentinian thriller, which is so much more than a thriller. It’s a story too of middle-aged love, deeply romantic, and a meditation on justice. It’s one of the most gripping films I’ve seen for ages. Having read so many crime novels and seen so many thrillers and film noir, I don’t often have my breath taken away by the twists and turns of the plot, but I did here. And more than that it’s the kind of film which you find yourself thinking about long after it’s finished.
While I am on the subject of DVDs we have finally reached the end of the sixth and last series of HOMICIDE. It had gone off the boil somewhat, but was still very watchable. I was sad to see it end and to say goodbye to the characters. It struck me that watching box sets is a very different experience from watching the programmes when they were first aired. When you see one episode a week and there is only one series a year you are closer to real time. In fact the series was spread over six years and six years passed in the world of Homicide. There are advantages to both.
Now there is a HOMICIDE shaped gap in our evenings and suggestions of a crime series to replace it would be very welcome. Maybe we’ll try THE WIRE again. Meanwhile we are absorbed by the Danish crime series, THE KILLING, which is showing on Saturday evenings spread over ten weeks.