Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Anna Que?

Well, another Tolstoy epic, another tome that doesn't quite know how to end. I should say right now that I greatly enjoyed Anna K; for the first 60% or so, I mostly loved it, and for most of the remaining 40% I was definitely engaged. But I very much preferred War and Peace, and I think it has a lot to do with a point emphasized in the foreword to the Pevear/Volkonsky edition: whereas War and Peace is sui generis, Anna K is a much more conventional 19-century novel. And since I love my Dickens and Eliot, I've now concluded that Tolstoy simply was not as well-suited to the genre.

It's strange, because I find many of the classic, romantic novelistic components of W&P--particularly the melodramatic relationship of Natasha and Prince Andrei--completely absorbing, but I'm now wondering whether I'd like them a lot less if they weren't combined with sweeping battle scenes, historiographic philosophy, and the fantastically entertaining skewering of Napoleon and "great men" more generally.

Because now that I think of it, I don't really care much about most of the characters in War & Peace; I suppose I like Pierre, and Andrei is admirable in his way, but the girls and women are not really believable, and most of the other men are just types. Similarly, in Anna K, I found Levin and (to a lesser degree) Vronsky interesting, but most of the others--including the title character--did not strike me as having meaningful interior lives. So while the plot engaged me, I rarely found it psychologically deep, except when Levin was on the scene.

And oh, that denouement! [QUASI-SPOILER FOLLOWS] The end of Book VII was just not at all meaningful to me. Sure, it was sad, but it didn't mean anything, and I think this is directly attributable to Anna K's weakness as a character. And everything that followed was just kind of blah. Similarly, I happen to like the end of W&P--you've gotta have a heart of stone not to love a 40-page essay on historiography!--but it is kind of a weird way to end that book.

Which brings me back to my intro, and also to the picture that accompanies this post, which depicts another great Russian who didn't quite know how to finish what he started.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Join the Don Quixote Reading Group

There's still plenty of time to jump in and join our group reading of Don Quixote, which is going on here. The plan is to finish the book by November 21.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

My Fated Disappointment in War and Peace, Briefly

When people found out I was reading War and Peace this summer the most common question posed was, “Is it worth it?” To which I generally shrugged, sighed and said, “Yes and no.” For those who love literature and are interested in the evolution and idea of the novel, then it probably should be read. But for most of us, with all the options of books, not to mention various entertainments and outdoor diversions available, the answer leans towards No, that it is not worth it and that life is too short to read War and Peace. You can lead a wonderful life without ever knowing the Rostovs or the Bolkonskys or even its pontificating author.

This is not to say that I feel War and Peace is a bad book per se. Tolstoy does some marvelous work dramatizing one of the most cataclysmic events in Russian history. (Who will dramatize the Russian Revolution? It seems incredible that no Russian novelist has tackled that event and transformed it into a literary epic.) Tolstoy demonstrates a thorough capacity for detail, describing the nuances of aristocratic manners and the gruff speech of common foot soldiers with persuasive savoir-faire. His characters are lively and unique and undergo profound changes, grappling with responsibilities of war and career, marriage, finances, births, and death-- in other words, life in all its glory and banality. As some critics have suggested, should the earth write a novel, it might sound like Tolstoy.

But the Earth is not perfect and neither is Tolstoy’s book for that matter. We can generally gauge the quality of a novel using three primary benchmarks: the story, the characters and the style. War and Peace suffers from many digressions into the lives of periphery characters but remains compelling due to its dramatic historical nature. The main characters, as I mentioned, are mostly sympathetic, their humanity drawn out beautifully. It’s difficult to discuss style since War and Peace is a translation (I had the Anthony Briggs edition) so while we cannot judge Tolstoy by his prose, we can nevertheless opine on his structuring of the novel and the general pool of language he has chosen to tell that story. It is here that Tolstoy astonishes me with his narrative miscalculations. The problem is the author inserting himself into the story to make declarative points that relate to his celebration of a divine force. The unfortunate consequence on the reader is having to bear the lecturing of a writer guilty of a god complex. Little is left for us to interpret on his or her own. Everything must be explained according to the way Tolstoy intended it. He violates the cardinal rule of storytelling: show, don’t tell.

In doing so, Tolstoy comes off as an insufferable dinner companion. He never hesitates to interrupt the narrative with long-winded discussions regarding the scientific basis for understanding history (an irritating device that has no place in a novel! None!) but literature, though an aesthetic branch of the arts, is understood by rules established between authors and their audience. Of course these rules are malleable (art being more lenient than science) but to disregard them is done at the writer’s peril.

As everyone knows, whether consciously or intrinsically, good storytelling makes for an irresistible yarn: the writer instills in the reader the need to know what happens. Napoleon’s invasion of Russia was an incredible event, changing the course of history. Historical narrative is drawn out in both micro and macro formats-- the lives of individual characters contrasted with the nation’s larger struggle. I found Tolstoy’s telling at the micro level engrossing. For example, on the eve of the French entering Moscow, during the collapse of public order Count Rostopchin’s justification for throwing a criminal (traitor) into the mad violence of a crowd is apropos of Tolstoy’s insight into human character, in this case, a politician’s:

“Since time began and men started killing each other, no man has ever committed such a crime against one of his fellows without comforting himself with the same idea. This idea is the ‘public good…’” (Vol. III, Part III, Ch. 25)

Could a historical novel involving George W. Bush’s faith in the Iraq War be written any different? In a thoughtful meditation on the wastefulness of armed conflict, Tolstoy, speaking through Andrei Bolkonsky in a midnight oil heart-to-heart with Pierre the night before the Battle of Borodino would destroy the young prince, suggests:

“If we didn’t have all this business of magnanimity in warfare, we would only ever go to war when there was something worth facing certain death for, as there is now.” (Vol. III, Part II, Ch. 25).

Here is Tolstoy at his very best, pensive and theoretical, but, importantly, expressing himself through his characters. His narrative problems come when he enters the scene, for example, carrying on about troop movements, particularly the fate of the French army making the catastrophic blunder of retreating on the Smolensk road, which had seen the land around it plundered and destroyed and so would not provide the needs for Napoleon’s massive army. Tolstoy wastes our time with endless dissections of this blunder, reveling in it, repeating it, and in the end, boring us with such eye-glazing assertions and unnecessary sarcasm:

“This was done by Napoleon, the man of genius. And yet to say that Napoleon destroyed his own army because he wanted to, or because he was a very stupid man, would be just as wrong as claiming that Napoleon got his troops to Moscow because he wanted to, and because he was a clever man and a great genius. In both cases his individual contribution, no stronger than the individual contribution of every common soldier, happened to coincide with the laws by which the event was being determined.” (Vol. IV, Part II, Ch. 8)

This paragraph propels two important theories of Tolstoy’s. First, that historians put too much weight on single individuals (personalities) guiding history-- in doing so, they fail to cite the billions of contingencies that determine world events (which are God’s doing). Secondly, it’s another opportunity for Tolstoy to criticize Napoleon. Sometimes it feels he wrote the book for the purpose of excoriating Napoleon to a general reading public. Throughout the novel but especially in the epilogue, Tolstoy goes out of his way to downplay his achievements, arguing that Napoleon was simply an egotistical, arrogant opportunist at the right place and the right time.

This is the book’s greatest failure: not his antipathy for Napoleon-- Tolstoy is entitled to his likes and dislikes-- but that his arguments overwhelm the storytelling in pompous cant. According to biographers, Tolstoy turned to literature as a young writer after being disenchanted with history. In his second epilogue, he spends more than 40 pages (in technical, colorless, dull language) disparaging the work of historians on the premise that they are unable to differentiate the actions on mankind, whether it be free will or motivations built from necessity. What he seems to suggest, dramatically in Napoleon’s retreat and the marriages of Pierre and Natasha and Nikolay and Marie is that they were predestined by a supernatural force. It was all meant to be:

“And just as the indefinable essence of the force that moves the heavenly bodies, the indefinable essence that drives heat, electricity, chemical affinity or the life force, forms the content of astronomy, physics, chemistry, botany, zoology and so on, the essence of the force of free will forms the subject matter of history.” (Epilogue, Part II, Ch. 10).

A decade before Tolstoy composed his thoughts on this subject, Charles Darwin had published his Origin of Species, whose arguments of evolution refute Biblical infallibility. Probably, its evidence threatened Tolstoy’s vision of the world. Obliquely referencing Darwin’s thesis, he argues that,

“in the frog, the rabbit and the monkey we can observe nothing but muscular and nervous activity, whereas in man we have muscular and nervous activity plus consciousness.” (Epilogue, Part II, Ch. 8)

But this confuses me. What is the importance of consciousness if everything is divinely predetermined? Is it so we can recognize and celebrate God? And why are we even getting into this? On abstract terms rather than through the prism of the characters’ actions or dreams? Imagine John Steinbeck ending The Grapes of Wrath not with that lovely and tragic scene of the Joads’ pregnant daughter sharing her breast milk with an emaciated stranger but the novelist spending thirty pages examining the causal effects of the Great Depression and the merits of the New Deal. I’d love to read Steinbeck’s views on politics, but preferably in a chapbook or a magazine interview format.

In the epilogue Tolstoy ignores the Rostovs and Bolkonskys, only bothering to mention Napoleon (for one last drubbing) in his final descent into didacticism. Beyond whether or not Tolstoy is persuasive in his argument is besides the point. The best storytelling weaves philosophy into its narrative without resorting to pedantic posturing. I found Tolstoy’s voice irritating, his arguments confusing, his language obfuscating. Not to mention hypocritical. After lambasting historians for telling us how to interpret events, he goes and instructs us himself. The nerve of great minds!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Final Days

Hopefully some of you are still checking this site. And hopefully some of you are into the final few pages of the book. (I know a bunch of you have already finished the book.) I'll try to do a few final posts this weekend, discussing the book, its themes, its weaknesses, etc. I'd encourage my fellow bloggers to throw up a few final posts as well if they have the time or inclination.

For those of you who are interested, we'll move onto DON QUIXOTE in September. I'll create a new blog for that book sometime soon. If you want to get a headstart, we'll be reading the Edith Grossman translation that came out a few years ago.

Good luck with the final week of WAR & PEACE.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The End is Near

So just two more weeks left to finish the book. As we pull into this final stretch, I'd be curious to hear how you all felt about the book. Was it worth the effort? Did it live up to its reputation as one of the greatest books ever written? Was it a tremendous waste of time? Do you think you'll ever reread it?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Russia Burning

As we've read about Moscow burning in in W&P for the past few weeks, I would be remiss if I failed to mention the record-breaking heat wave in Moscow and other parts of Russia this summer. The heat wave has caused widespread death, destruction, and misery.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Crowds (again), and Is this a good book?

In the reading over the past two weeks, I've noticed Tolstoy returning several times to descriptions and depictions of the crowd as the moving force in historical events. The crowd he depicts is a relatively mindless, primal mass -- an assemblage of individuals acting out of what they believe to be their own personal interest and motivations, but, somehow, in the crush of the crowd, acting as one, as a mob.

The scene of Count Rastopchin appeasing an angry mob by allowing it to tear apart Vereshchagin is quite focused on the peculiar dynamics of the mob:
But after the exclamation of surprise that escaped Vereshchagin, he uttered a pitiful cry of pain, and that cry was the end of him. The barrier of human feeling, strained to the utmost in holding back the crowd, instantly broke. The reproach was stifled by the menacing and wrathful roar of the crowd. Like the seventh and last wave that breaks up ships, this last irrepressible wave surged from the back rows, raced towards the front ones, knocked them down, and engulfed everything. The dragoon who had struck Vereshchagin was about to repeat his blow. Vereshchagin, with a cry of terror, ... rushed towards the people.

Some beat and tore at Vereshchagin, others at the tall fellow. An the shouts of the crushed men and of those who were trying to save the tall fellow only excited the fury of the crowd.... And for a long time, despite all the feverish haste with which the crowd tried to finish the thing they had begun, the people who beat, strangled, and tore at Vereshchagin were unable to kill him; the crowd pressed at them from all sides, with them in the middle, heaving from side to side like a single mass, and not giving them the opportunity either to finish him off or to abandon him.

The peculiar psychology of the crowd, or mob, organized to different degrees, is also seen in Nazi Germany, lynch mobs in the American South, riots in Los Angeles, Hindu-Muslim violence in India, etc. Tolstoy suggests, at various points in the book, that history is not made or determined by individual decisions, but, rather, by masses of people, acting almost without agency or the ability to determine their own course. As in the scene above, the crowd finds itself acting, almost despite itself, and not knowing why it does what it does. History, in Tolstoy's view, is created unconsciously, as masses of individual actors unwittingly do the bidding of History.

Of course, as some of you have noted, Tolstoy may not be the most convincing historian. He's a novelist, and his attempts at laying out his personal philosophy of history can sometimes feel a bit tiresome. Which raises the question: what are the peculiar merits of this book, which has been enshrined, seemingly permanently, as one of the greatest books ever written? Is it Tolstoy's depictions of historical events? His portraits of his characters? The philosophy of history he sets out? There seem to be many different things Tolstoy is seeking to accomplish in this book, and it's still not clear to me that he succeeds in all of his aims.