a site by John Cobley

a coppice gate


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Roy Jacobsen's Unseen: Book Review

Review of Jacobsen's 2013 novel Useen

  It took most of his writing career before Roy Jacobsen decided to make use of his early experience of growing up on a small remote Norwegian Island. Maybe this was fortunate because his experience of writing 12 novels has enabled him to write a brilliant novel. Unseen (2013) recounts the struggle to survive on a tiny fictional island situated somewhere south of Lofoten off the northern coast of Norway. In 53 chapters it follows the life of the Barroy family—“God’s silent children on a small island in the sea,” as the local mainland pastor calls them—over the early years of the twentieth century. This life necessarily focuses on survival through fishing, basic agricultural, trading and occasional employment away from home. 

Doctor Zhivago: The Russian Countryside after the Revolution

Extract from Doctor Zhivago describing the Russian countryside after the Revolution

Yury completed the last stage of his journey to Moscow by train, having done the first and far longer part on foot.            The condition of the villages he passed through was no better than what he had seen in Siberia and the Urals during his escape from the Forest Brotherhood. Back then he had been traveling in winter; now at the end of summer, the dry, warm autumn weather made things much easier.            Half the villages he passed through were deserted, as if there had been an enemy invasion. Fields were abandoned unharvested. Such were the consequence of war, a civil war, in fact.

Doctor Zhivago: Mme Guishar’s Suicide Attempt

Two extracts from Doctor Zhivago showing when Yury saw Lara and Komarovsky for the first time

Mme Guishar’s Suicide Attempt   When still teenagers, Yury and Misha are taken on a doctor’s visit to a rundown hotel. While there Yury sees Lara and Komarovsky for the first time. (Part 2) Inside the room a kerosene lamp, which normally hung above the dining room table, had been taken out of its holder and moved to the other part of the room behind a wooden partition that stank of bedbugs.There was a sleeping nook there, separated from the main part of the room and from strangers’ eyes by a dusty folding curtain. In the commotion they had forgotten to lower it. The lamp was on a bench in the nook.

Doctor Zhivago: Yury Fires on the Whites

Extract showing how Yury fires on the enemy

This passage in Part 15 describes how Yury Zhivago participated in a battle, how he came to fire on the White enemy. In order to focus on Yury’s atypical action, some parts of this passage have been omitted. They were close now, and getting closer. The doctor could see them clearly, even their faces. They were youths and young men from the non-military strata of metropolitan society as well as older men mobilized from the reserves. But the young ones set the tone—first-year university students and high-school boys who had recently volunteered. The doctor didn’t know any of them, but half of them seemed perfectly normal and reminded him of his former schoolmates. They could well be their younger brothers. Others he could have once met at the theatre or in crowds on the street. Their attractive and expressive faces seemed to belong to people of his own kind.

Doctor Zhivago: From Yury's Notebook

Translated extracts from Doctor Zhivago with comments

These notes were written during Zhivago’s first sojourn at Varykino (Part 9). They discuss creativity, art and the difficulty of writing during revolutionary times. I am assuming that Zhivago is expressing Pasternak’s ideas. 1In this extract he connects hard physical work with creativity but goes on to put these thoughts in the context of “our accidentally chaotic situation.”  What happiness it is to work from dawn to dusk for yourself and your family, to erect a shelter, to till the soil for food, and like Robinson Crusoe to create your own world, imitating the Creator when he made the universe and, following your own mother, bringing yourself again and again into the world!

Doctor Zhivago: Portrait of a Revolutionary Fanatic

Excerpt from Doctor Zhivago with introduction

In this extract Pasternak explains how a fundamentally good man can become the most zealous of revolutionaries. In the early parts of the novel, Pasha Antipov is portrayed as a passionate but good young man, a good enough man for the heroine of the novel to marry. Years later Yury Zhivago is arrested and brought before this man who is now, as a Red Army general, terrorizing the people with extreme revolutionary fanaticism. However, Pasha Antipov, now know as Strelnikov, treats Zhivago courteously after he realizes that the doctor had been wrongly wrongly arrested.

Tolstoy's Writing in War & Peace Part 5

Analysis of an excerpt from War & Peace

After being wounded at Borodino and then miraculously reunited with the Rostov family, Prince Andrei lies on his deathbed in a rural cottage. Tolstoy uses the situation to express some basic views on life though Andrei’s meandering mind. And he conveys these views by quoting Andrei’s thoughts (yellow highlight). These thoughts are conveyed in 255 words, about 1/5th of this excerpt.  Perhaps to make Andrei’s thoughts easier to absorb, Tolstoy divides the 255 words into two sections. This division is achieved by having Andrei distracted by sounds (green highlight) after considering his first topic (happiness). First to distract him is a voice that seems to be speaking gibberish--“Ee pitti-pitti-pitti.” The source of this voice is seen as some kind of edifice of  “thin needles and kindling.” Then there are crickets chirping, someone outside singing and shouting, cockroaches rustling and a fly hitting surfaces. So there’s a lot of sound to impose on Andrei’s delirium. After feeling oppressed by all these interruptions, Andrei returns to his serious thoughts and his second topic (love).

Tolstoy's Writing in War & Peace Part 4

Analysis of an excerpt of War & Peace

One of the main themes of War and Peace is the transformation of Pierre from a hedonist into a moral and responsible person. Part of his “education” is experiencing the battle of Borodino, where he wanders around dressed as a civilian. Tolstoy uses a dream to explain how the battle changes Pierre. This enables him to dramatize the thoughts passing through the young Count’s mind and to avoid a direct authorial explanation. For his dream, Tolstoy carefully places Pierre in a context of normality—the courtyard of an inn. This setting represents the real world as opposed to Pierre’s dream world. The courtyard is described three times (blue highlights), each time Pierre awakes from his dream. The three descriptions differ according to the time of the night, from dusk, to night-time to dawn.

Tolstoy's Writing in War & Peace Part 3

Analysis of Tolstoy's style in War and Peace

In this third of five studies of Leo Tolstoy's writing style in War and Peace I have chosen the depiction Princess Marya's mental turmoil over her dying father. As with Natasha's remorseful thoughts in the first study, Marya here also frets over her situation and her future. This excerpt is in Volume Three, Part Two, Chapter Eight.*   Marya and Her Father's DeathWar and Peace III.2.viii Tolstoy conveys the see-saw battle in her mind between wanting her father to live and wanting him to die (“Yes, I wanted it to be over.”) He also introduces a secondary dilemma arising out of her wanting him gone: Another see-saw between the fear of life without him and the desire for a life free of his cruel influence.

Tolstoy's Writing in War & Peace: Part 2

Analysis of style in War and Peace

In this second of five studies of Leo Tolstoy’s writing style in War and Peace I have chosen Tolstoy’s depiction of Natasha’s remorseful thoughts after her failed elopement. In this excerpt Natasha considers both her situation and her future. It is found in Volume Three, Part One, Chapter Seventeen.  Natasha's RemorseWar and Peace III.1.xvii Tolstoy  uses only two large paragraphs of  228 and 395 words. The first paragraph sees her considering her current position; the second looks to the future. Paragraph 1 is fundamentally negative: see the blue highlights for the negative words. There are of course many positive words like “happy,” “laughter” and “freedom,” (green highlight) but they are all used to contrast and emphasize her current disastrous condition. Throughout this paragraph there is a thus see-saw battle between the negatives and the positives; the negative aspect becomes dominant primarily by the frequent use of no/never/no. The paragraph ends with the realization that although the previous happy life  “would never return,” she still “had to live.’

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