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.

Monday, August 2, 2010

At Jury Duty

I'm in jury duty today, but I'm working away on your Week 12 recap, and other posts.

Again, our next book will be Don Quixote. I recommend the Edith Grossman translation. I also have a copy of the book in Spanish, and will be trying to read that along with the translation. Let me know if you plan to read the book in Spanish, and if you are in interested in doing any posts in Spanish.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Our Next Book: DON QUIXOTE

Because the voting ended in a tie between Bleak House and Don Quixote, I resorted to my dog Merlin to break the tie. Last night, I set out both books at an equal distance from him. Each book had an identical dog treat on top of it. After I released Merlin, he went straight for Don Quixote. I will post pictures of the process soon.

Hopefully, those of you who voted for Bleak House or the other books will be satisfied with this scientific and democratic process. Given the voting results (and that Merlin immediately proceeded to Bleak House after finishing the treat on top of Don Quixote), we'll read Bleak House after Don Quixote. We'll start Don Quixote sometime in September.

Complaints, thoughts, rants, are all welcome in the comments below. Just don't say anything mean about my dog.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Week 11 Recap (P&V Ed. pp. 760-836)

Actually, I'm not sure if we're currently on Week 12 or Week 13. I would go check, but the computer I'm on is so old that it takes forever to go back and forth between screens. So let's say, for now, that we're in Week 12. The page target for Sunday is page 912.

Speaking of my old computer, could someone post a link to this update on the group Facebook page? (I can't do that.)

Week 11's reading focused on the fateful Battle of Borodino. This is probably the portion of the book that would most easily lend itself to modern-day action/war filmmaking, along the lines of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN or whatever. Plenty of cinematic scenes, both in wide perspective (Pierre surveying the spectacle of the battle below him), and close-up (the horrors of the army field hospital, Pierre's close-encounters with the French, etc.).

And here is the brief recap for Week 11:
763-64: Pierre watches as a crowd surrounds the procession of an icon from Borodino. General Kutuzov bows before the icon, touching the ground, demonstrating his piety. Tolstoy appears to draw a stark contrast between Kutuzov's piety and humility and Napoleon's hubris, self-indulgence, and narcissism (see below).

766: Pierre meets Kutuzov

769: Andrei, on the eve of battle, contemplates his life, and what he sees as his imminent death. "The whole of life presented itself to him as a magic lantern, into which he had long been looking through a glass and in artificial light." The "[t]hree main griefs of his life," he realizes, are "[h]is love of a woman [presumably Natasha], the death of his father, and the French invasion that had seized half of Russia." He feels certain that he will be killed in the next day's battle, "and the French will come, take me by the feet and head, and fling me into a pit, so as not to have me stink under their noses, and new conditions of life will take shape, which will become habitual for other people, and I won't know about them, and I won't be here."

771-75: Andrei is reunited with Pierre. Andrei expounds on his theory of war, his disgust with the Germans, with war, etc. This is the last time Pierre sees Andrei. "It was already dark, and Pierre could not make out what the expression on Prince Andreis' face was [as he turned to leave], whether it was angry or tender."

777-80: Napoleon is being pampered in his imperial tent, getting a rubdown and skin treatment of some sort. "The emperor . . . was finishing his toilette. Snorting and grunting, he turned now his fat back, now his hairy, fat chest under the brush with which the valet was rubbing his body. Another valet, stopping up the vial with his finger, sprayed eau de cologne over the emperor's pampered body .... [Napoleon's] face ... expressed physical pleasure: 'Allez ferme, allez toujours ....'" This image, along with the scenes of Napoleon receiving the surprise of a portrait of his son, and sitting in admiration of his son, seems intended to present the picture of Napoleon as soft and overly-pampered, no longer a fierce warrior, but self-satisfied and comfort-seeking. In contrast to Kutuzov's more spartan shows of piety, Napoleon is depicted as fattened and complacent with his success, and thus ripe for a fall.

780-85: Tolstoy offers a bizarre critique of Napoleon's battle plans, even taking issue with Napoleon's grammar: "As far as one can tell--if not from this muddled sentence ...." Tolstoy suggests that Napoleon didn't really know what he was doing at Borodino, and that he failed to put himself in a position to give necessary instructions during the course of the battle. This is one of those passages, which seem to occur more frequently as we get deeper into the book, where Tolstoy gives up any pretense of the fictional story he's created, and reverts to a historian mode, wherein he rails against received wisdom as to the historical events in the book. In these passages, Tolstoy is not so much a narrator, but instead simply a historian, or a critic of the received history or conventional historical wisdom. The next section is another of these passages, where Tolstoy again dismisses the Great Man theory of history, explains that the 'course of world events is predestined from on high ...."

(And to follow up on a point in the earlier post on Hegel and Tolstoy, the Troyat biography makes clear that Tolstoy did spend some time in school, while he was ostensibly studying law, reading, among others, Hegel. "During his second year in the Law Department Leo Tolstoy, as flighty, unstable and unconcentrated as ever, nevertheless expressed some interest in Professor Vogel's discussions on the death penalty and deigned to attend a few of Professor Meyer's lectures on the history of civil law.... Every minute he stole from the [Law] Department was spent in reading and exalting discourse: 'Gogol, Roussseau, Pushkin, Goethe's Faust, Hegel ....'" Troyat, TOLSTOY at 52. The last quotation (with the list of authors) is apparently from Tolstoy's diary at the time.)

786-87: Napoleon drinking more punch(?), bantering with others, confident of his success, explains his theory of the body: "'Notre corps est une machine a vivre, voila tout.'"

789-97: Pierre surveys "the beauty of the spectacle" of the Battle of Borodino from a hilltop. He rides up to a fateful barrow, where he is nearly killed by French fire, and grapples with a French officer.

805: Napoleon begins to get a sinking feeling as he starts receiving requests from his officers for reinforcements. He feels the impotence one feels in a dream "when a man sees a villain coming at him, and in his dream the man swings and hits the villain with terrible force, which he knows should destroy him, and he feels his arm fall strengthless and limp as a rag, and the terror of irresistible destruction takes hold of the helpless man." (I have this exact dream all the time.)

811-14: Prince Andrei is wounded by French artillery in the field. He's taken to a field hospital, where he is treated, but we know it's too late. He has one final epiphany: "Compassion, love for our brothers, for those who love us, love for those who hate us, love for our enemies -- yes, that love which God preached on earth, which Princess Marya taught me, and which I didn't understand; that's why I was sorry about life, that's what was still left for me, if I was to live. But now it's too late. I know it!" And that is the final word from Andrei. In the end, his cynicism is overcome by his final epiphany as to compassion, love for one's fellow man, etc. In the same field hospital, Anatole Kuragin wails in pain as he is shown his amputated "leg in a boot caked with blood!" (The exclamation mark is Tolstoy's.)

816: A strange fast forward to Napoleon in exile on St. Helena, reminiscing about the Battle of Borodino, and how it all went wrong for him.

821-23: Another discourse on the philosophy of history from Tolstoy, this time suggesting that historian's methodology is flawed because they look for specific causes and effects: "The first method of history consists in taking an arbitrary series of continuous events and examining it separately from others, whereas there is not and cannot be a beginning to any event, but one event always continuously follows another. The second method consists in examining the actions of one person, a king, a commander, as the sum of individual wills, whereas the sum of individual wills is never expressed in the activity of one historical person." Tolstoy suggests that history requires an operation from calculus: "Only by admitting an infinitesimal unit for observation -- a differential of history, that is, the uniform strivings of people -- and attaining to the art of integrating them (taking the sums of these infinitesimal quantities) can we hope to comprehend the laws of history."

830: After holding a war council, Kutuzov reluctantly orders a retreat, which will surrender Moscow to the French.

836: At the end of this week's reading, Helene is scheming to leave Pierre for one of two attractive suitors. To do this, she turns to the Catholic church, which she hopes will help her obtain a divorce from Pierre.
Again, page target for Sunday is 912. We are in the home stretch. Only a couple days left to vote for our next book. Right now, DON QUIXOTE is in the lead and looks like a possible winner.

Saturday, July 24, 2010


As you can see, the voting for our next book is deadlocked right now, with BLEAK HOUSE and DON QUIXOTE tied for the lead. If, at the end of the polling period, there's still a tie, we won't be drawing lots or having penalty kicks to break the tie. Instead, we will put the decision in the hands (or paws) of my dog, Merlin. I will set up both books at a distance of about five feet from him, with an identical dog treat on top of each book. I will then release Merlin, and whichever book he goes to first will be declared the winner. If possible, I will try to post video of this event.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Thoughts from a former Soviet High Schooler

From group member Misha Ratner, writing from New York:
Reading this book now has given me the twin pleasures of gaining an entirely new perspective on the classic I had studied in Soviet high school and, at the same time, the sheer joy of reading in my native tongue. And what a delicious treat is Tolstoy's writing! I had started reading the book just about three weeks ago, but have almost caught up with your pace. This has nothing to do with the fact that I'm reading "War and Peace" in Russian, per se. I don't subscribe to the notion that something, if anything, is "lost" in translating a work of prose (as opposed to poetry). That all depends on the writer, the work and the translator.

Much of the discussions on your blog deal with the philosophical, historical and other intellectual aspects of Tolstoy's work. I have had much more personal, at times even visceral, response to this book. So much of what Tolstoy writes rings true to my experience--Prince Andrei's complex relationship with his family, Pierre Bezukhov's absentminded search for the meaning of life, Nikolai Rostov's ardent enthusiasm and naiveté contrasted with Boris Drubetskoi's cold and calculating careerism--that I find myself fully emotionally engaged in all other parts of the book that have no relation to my own life--the keenly observed stories of army life and battle scenes, the detailed descriptions of Russian high society.

I am still savoring one particular episode in the book: the old oak tree Prince Andrei passes on the way to and from the Rostovs' country estate. On the way there, the tree appears to Bolkonsky as a barren giant, standing alone and untouched by the rush of spring life all around it. The tree appeals to Andrei's melancholy thoughts that his life no longer has any meaning and he should simply live out his days in isolation of his country estate. During his brief stay at Rostovs, Bolkonsky's thoughts and feelings are transformed by Natasha's beauty, innocence and infectious love of life. On the way back home, the previously barren oak tree is now teeming with signs of spring, with green shoots and growth everywhere. This is Tolstoy at his best. A turning point wrapped in a poetic sketch of nature. An apparent digression that turns into a central episode. A couple of days equaling a life's journey. All in a massive book that spans an epoch.

I also wanted to bring up Tolstoy's treatment of Jews and the ingrained nature of anti-Semitism in Russia. That is something that may not be immediately apparent to the readers in your group. Actually, Tolstoy's writing here and in other works, unlike Dostoevsky's, is not overtly anti-Semitic. Tolstoy's use of the pejorative "zid" (or kike), as opposed to "evrei" (or Jew) merely re-creates the vernacular of that era--just like, for example, Mark Twain's use of the word "nigger" faithfully reflects the vernacular of the racist South he was describing in his books. With one important difference. Twain was critical of the racism he so keenly observed; Tolstoy, if not sharing in the the prevailing anti-Semitism, certainly was never critical of it. One minor episode relatively early in War and Peace illustrates my point. Dolokhov, who by that time had been stripped of his officer rank, is addressed directly by Kutuzov during an inspection of troops in the 1805 campaign. This draws attention of a general who asks Dolokhov's commanding officer to tell him more about this unusual soldier. The officer describes Dolokhov, and here I'm paraphrasing only slightly, as "a good and brave soldier, but a little hot-headed--just recently killed a kike as we were going through Poland." Killing a man is being offered, in an offhand way, as evidence of mere hot-headedness? That may seem incredible to our modern ears. 19th Century Russians, however, regarded Jews, not even as second-class citizens, but as barely human -- when they thought about them at all.

Week 10 Recap (pp. 684-760 P&V edition)

I think I missed a recap here or there, but here's the Week 10 recap (pp. 684-760 P&V ed.) And apologies for being so out of touch: I've been having computer problems that are now partially resolved. I still can't post on Facebook with the outdated browser I'm using, so if someone could post the link for this recap on the Facebook reading group page, I'd appreciate it.

Here is a briefer than usual recap
686: Old Prince Bolkhonsky being a jerk, bullying Marya, etc.

692: Andrei sends a letter home telling his father that Bald Hills is unsafe with the French approaching.

697: All sorts of stuff about Alpatych and the serfs who work for the Bolkhonsky family.

702: Bald Hills evacuated; Andrei visits the deserted estate.

709: Napoleon marches toward Moscow, dreams of the Oriental capital.

713: Old Bolkhonsky has a stroke at the absentee estate of Bogucharovo, just as he is getting worked up about the war effort.

716: On his sickbed, Old Bolkhonsky tries to make up with Marya. Old Bolkhonsky dies.

733: Nikolai Rostov arrives at Bogucharovo and appears to fall for the grieving Marya; he begins to doubt his vow to Sonya.

740: Prince Andrei hears of Old Bolkhonsky's death.

744: Andrei's meeting witht he newly rehabilitated General Kutozov.

751: Pierre, feeling restless and useless in Moscow, goes to see the preparations for a Russian war balloon.

753: Pierre resolves to join the war effort; finds himself happy to throw away the comfortable trappings of his life of leisure in Moscow.

754: Tolstoy goes into his critic-of-historians mode, analyzing the reasons behind the Battle of Borodino, dismissing the lies and distortions of the historians, and, somewhat startlingly, providing his readers with a map.

760: Pierre arrives near the front and is greatly impressed by the labors of some muzhiks digging fortifications.
Page target for Sunday is 836.

Still here!

I am having some computer problems, but just wanted to drop a note to let you know that we are still here, and reading away. Page target is 836 for this Sunday.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Super-overdue Week 8 Recap

Great Comet of 1811, as drawn by William Henry Smyth

Week 8 was a long time ago. But I think there was a holiday, there were fireworks, there were parents visiting, and the Week 8 Recap just came out missing. But here it is, in especially abbreviated form:
-Old Prince Bolkonsky is going more senile, spending more time with Mlle. Bourienne, and being even meaner to Princess Marya. (540)

- Pierre and Rastophin discuss the possibility of resisting the French. Rastophin despairs about Russia's ability to resist the French: "French clothes, French thoughts, French feelings!" (545)

- Boris puts on an emo melancholic display, writing dark goth high-school poetry in French ("La mort est secourable ....) for Julie Kuragin, rich heiress. (549) This ends in a fair exchange of Julie's wealth for Boris's show of love. (552)

- An extended scene depicting Natasha's trip to the opera. The scene focuses on the spectacle of the audience, which appears to spend more time watching the others in the audience than watching the opera, which Natasha perceives as an absurd artificiality in which she cannot believe. "The stage consisted of flat boards in the middle, with painted pieces of cardboard on the sides representing trees, and canvas stretched over boards at the back.... One [girl], very fat, ... sat apart on a low stool with a piece of green cardboard glued to the back of it. They were all singing something." (560) In contrast to the pointless charade on the stage, Natasha is gripped by the feeling of exposing herself to the public gaze of the audience. "For a long time she had not experienced that feeling, both pleasant and unpleasant, of hundreds of eyes looking at her bare arms and neck ...." (558) She is also focused on Anatole, who is shamelessly staring at her from his seat in the audience. His sister, Helene, meddling and scheming, introduces him to Natasha; Natasha is, predictably, intoxicated by Anatole's devilish, reckless air.

- Natasha and Anatole meet again at a soiree, where they dance, and Anatole declares his love for her, and his disregard for any promise she may have made to Andrei. He seizes her later and kisses her, in a replay of his action with Mlle. Bourienne at Bald Hills. "Hot lips pressed themselves to her lips ...." (573)

- Natasha writes back to Princess Marya to tell her, "curtly", that she cannot marry Andrei. She plans with Anatole to elope with him. Anatole plans the abduction with Dolokhov and their trusty troika driver, Balaga, who seems to enjoy driving horses to death and whipping peasants. (583) Their plot is discovered (Sonya finds out and tells), and is aborted.

- Pierre confronts Anatole and nearly beats him, but settles for banishing him from Moscow, but not before giving him money and stepping back from the precipice of a duel. (593)

- Andrei returns to Moscow, learns of the affair from Pierre, and declares in short order that he is done with Natasha. (597)

- In a bizarre scene, Pierre goes to comfort Natasha and finds himself declaring that all is not lost for her and that "[i]f I were not I, but the handsomest, brightest and best man in the world, and I was free, I would go on my knees this minute and ask for your hand and your love." (599) This brings some "tears of gratitude" from Natasha. Pierre goes out into the Moscow night, which is lit up by "the bright comet of the year 1812". As he contemplates the comet, "[i]t seemed to Pierre that this star answered fully to what was in his softened and encouraged soul, now blossoming into new life."
And thus ends Volume II. All downhill from here! Hope you are all still enjoying the book. Just a few weeks left. And don't forget to vote for our next book.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Dear Fellow Blog Authors

Start posting! Just kidding. Post whenever the spirit moves you. (Maybe this week?) Again, just kidding. Sort of. Okay, no, I am kidding. But I would be excited to see posts from the other blog authors! < / gentle nudging >

I've been wrapped up with a bunch of stuff here in L.A., but have been dutifully reading along and making notes. I will post something substantive soon. I promise.

Also, voting continues in our run-off. As of the time of this posting, BLEAK HOUSE and EUROPE CENTRAL are in a tie, with DON QUIXOTE close behind. Please vote if you haven't yet.

Page 760 by Sunday. We are on the downhill part now!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010


So the voting seems to have petered out, with four books in a tie: BLEAK HOUSE, DON QUIXOTE, EUROPE CENTRAL, and THE SAVAGE DETECTIVES. So we'll have a run-off. I've reset the poll in the sidebar (look to the right of this post). Please vote there. Voting will close at the end of the month. (Let me know if you have any problems voting.)

Tolstoy, Hegel, Marx, and History

Marx and Engels, sculpture in China (photo credit

Perhaps it was inevitable that there would eventually be a post on this blog with the obnoxious title I've chosen above.

At the outset of Volume III, Tolstoy veers away from the affairs of the heart of Natasha and company and into a few pages of his philosophy of history. (603-06) Tolstoy's description of history suggests that he views history as a predestined process unfolding through the actions of the crowd and of "great men" -- actions that the actors are unaware they are helpless not to take:
Each man lives for himself, uses his freedom to achieve his personal goals, and feels with his whole being that right now he can or cannot do such-and-such an action; but as soon as he does it, this action, committed at a certain moment in time, becomes irreversible and makes itself the property of history, in which it has not a free but a predestined significance.

There are two sides to each man's life: his personal life, which is the more free the more abstract its interests, and his elemental, swarmlike life, where man inevitably fulfills the laws prescribed for him.

Man lives consciously for himself, but serves as an unconscious instrument for the achivement of historical, universally human goals. An action once committed is irrevocable, and its effect, coinciding in time with millions of actions of other people, acquires historical significance....

In historical events the so-called great men are labels that give the event a name, which, just as with labels, has the least connection of all with the event itself.

Their every action, which to them seems willed by themselves, in the historical sense is not willed, but happens in connection with the whole course of history and has been destined from before all ages.

There are a number of interesting things going on here, some of them puzzling. Tolstoy suggests that all historical actors act as part of a "swarm", unconsciously arriving at inevitable decisions and actions. What it is that impels them toward these decisions is a bit unclear. Tolstoy suggests that it is the predestined force of History. This is, of course, a bit circular and tautological: whatever ends up happening in history was what History had preordained. The theory is always proven right. How could it be proven incorrect?

Reading Tolstoy's theory of history, I was reminded of Hegel's theory of the historical process. (I will confess that I am not expert in this area.) As Hegel saw it, "it may be said of Universal History, that it is the exhibition of Spirit in the process of working out the knowledge of that which it is potentially. And as the germ bears in itself the whole nature of the tree, and the taste and form of its fruits, so do the first traces of Spirit virtually contain the whole of that History." (See Hegel, Philosophy of History)

Marx, of course, influenced by Hegel, would later adopt Hegel's theory of history and modify it, to focus on the material and economic conditions of life, and how history moved inevitably, through the dialectical process, through the rise and fall of capitalism, towards a post-capitalist society, socialism, and then, eventually, communism, etc.

All three theories of history share the characteristic of being firmly determinist. Hegel and Tolstoy suggest that the driving force is something vague and immaterial (Hegel calls it "Spirit", Tolstoy doesn't give it a name). Marx, at least, pins his theory to the real world, and ventures actual predictions. (Marx famously broke with Hegel and criticized Hegel's dialectic theory as "mystification" -- presumably precisely because Hegel's theory posited some mysterious "Spirit" (Geist) as the driving force of history.)

Neither Hegel's nor Tolstoy's theories would appear to have any specificity or any testable predictive power -- because they are totalizing and tautological. Tolstoy's theory does not appear to feature anything like the dialectical process set out in Hegel's theory.

Interestingly, Hegel's works were published in the early nineteenth century, well before Tolstoy wrote WAR & PEACE. We know that Tolstoy had a firm command of German. It is entirely possible that he had spent some time struggling with Hegel's notoriously dense and abstruse works before or during the writing of W&P. (I should probably consult my Tolstoy biography on this point.)

Monday, July 5, 2010

Welcome to the Midway Point

Congratulations: we are at the midway point. It's all downhill from here. I've noticed that the reading has started moving along at a nice clip the last week or so. I failed to post a summary last week. I'll try to do a combined summary of the last two weeks when I have a second to put that together.

Hope you are all continuing to enjoy the book. The last two weeks have been full of dog hunts, long engagements, seduction, etc. I'm guessing Napoleon and war will be returning soon. Two of our main characters, Pierre and Andrei, have been banished to the background for much of the past two weeks, as we've had hundreds of pages about Natasha and her whims. I haven't minded all that too much, but it'll be good to get back to the more interesting, mature characters, I think.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Still here!

Updates, more posts, dancing bears, etc., coming soon. Vote for our next book in the sidebar poll.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The History of Emotions

From group member Tom:
A few more thoughts on why the characters’ inner thoughts might leave you cold. I wonder if your reaction is related to historically-specific notions of feeling and emotion. I’ve been thinking about this on and off, since so much of the book deals with romantic and platonic love, the responses of soldiers to fear, and (especially with Old Prince Bolkonsky) eruptions of anger. Emotional expression is historical, of course, like any other sorts of expression, and unsurprisingly there is a historiography of the subject.

I found a few points from a 2002 article by Barbara Rosenwein that could perhaps situate the discussion. She describes Lucien Febvre’s call for a history of emotions in 1941 and the response to that call in the 1980s, led by Peter and Carol Stearns’ establishment of “emotionology.” They built on literature from the 1970s, including “the sociologist Arlie Hochschild, for example, [who] was arguing that society could and did control emotions and their expression, thatthere were ‘feeling rules,’ or ‘emotion rules’ that told people, in essence, how to feel and how to express those utterly socially mandated feelings. Hochschild argued that airline stewardesses learned at training schools not only to smile but to feel pleasant when travelers yelled at them. She called this the ‘managed heart.’” (By the way, Rosenwein doesn’t say it, but neuroscientists have argued since the 1990s at least that smiling does make you feel happier.)

According to the Stearns, it was between 1800 and 1920 that emotions began to be reined in, controlled so as to conform to evolving socialnorms. Norbert Elias (one of the Stearns’ influences) argues that this process had deep roots, dating to the 12th century, when powerful lords established courts and began to set norms of behavior, especially toward important ladies. “Only at the absolutist court of the modern state, however,” Rosenwein glosses, “did this new behavior and emotional style become obligatory and generalized.” The absolutist court, “dominated the many complex institutions of society. To participate in this all-inclusive structure, people were forced to ‘attune their conduct [including emotional expression] to that of others.’” The elaborate social etiquette of the ladies- and gentlemen-in-waiting gives us a hint about the ways emotion was to be managed in the orbit around Alexander. We can also think about young Rostov’s reaction to him and, later on, the Moscow nobility’s response to his call for a troop levy.

Rosenwein criticizes the “grand narrative” of emotions, which she summarizes thus: “the history of the West is the history of increasing emotional restraint.” As she observes, a huge historical literature examines the increasing emotional restraint of the 19th century. Countless novels (including those written at the time) and films have solidified profound repression as part of our perception of the
Victorian Age. I don’t feel equipped to judge whether War and Peace more accurately reflects the emotional norms of the 1860s, when Tolstoy was writing it, or of the period from 1805-1812. That’s an interesting question, I think.

Rosenwein sees some historians edging away from the grand narrative. There are those following some psychological literature and cast emotions as cognitive responses by subjects to evaluations of how circumstances will affect them. And there are those, like William Reddy (with whom I took a fantastic seminar, but not on emotions), who
investigate emotions through the vocabulary used to describe them, “for only as people articulate their feelings can they ‘know’ what they feel and, reflecting on their newfound knowledge, feel yet more.” (Reddy’s approach fits squarely within the historical methodology following on the so-called “linguistic turn” from the 1980s onward.)

Rosenwein herself proposes the study of “emotional communities,” which are characterized by a shared “systems of feeling: what these communities (and the individuals within them) define and assess as valuable or harmful to them; the evaluations that they make about others' emotions; the nature of the affective bonds between people that they recognize; and the modes of emotional expression that they
expect, encourage, tolerate, and deplore.” This is a pretty wide-open theory, since you can always pull a new “emotional community” out of your pocket if some source doesn’t square with the emotional norms you are outlining for a particular time or context. But we could also imagine the emotional community of Petersburg society as opposed to the emotional community of Bald Hills, say, or another country estate
with serfs and a local merchant class, etc. And in Volume III there’s a nice contrast drawn between the prevailing opinions, expression, and even emotions in the circles headed respectively by Helene and Anna Pavlovna.

Barbara H. Rosenwein, “Worrying About Emotions in History,” American
Historical Review 107, no. 3 (2002).

Vote for Our Next Book

Voting is now open for our next selection. Vote in the poll (see the sidebar to the right). Write-in votes are also welcome. Leave your write-in vote as a comment to this post. Voting closes in a month.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Week 6 Recap

St. Ives, patron saint of lawyers, Charles Bridge, Prague

As previously noted, I was struck by how much of this week's reading had to do with legal issues, legal proceedings, statutory compilations, etc. And as I mentioned earlier today, I thought Denisov's pathetic and obsessive attempts to have his petition heard held a particularly Dickensian and/or Kafkaesque flavor. Hopefully many of the lawyers involved in our summer reading group (and it's now officially summer!), enjoyed the Bleak House-type bits of this week's reading.

On to the recap:
-Pierre visits Andrei at his country estate. Pierre and Andrei debate the meaning of good and evil, love of one's neighbors, etc. Pierre blathers on about his new mission to save humanity; Andrei responds with his cynical and jaundiced worldview. Still, Pierre's talk of God and truth and virtue touch a chord with Andrei: "[H]e looked at the sky Pierre had pointed to, and for the first time since Austerlitz saw that high, eternal sky he had seen as he lay on the battlefield, and something long asleep, something that was best in him, suddenly awakened joyful and young in his soul." (389)

- Denisov, out in the field in the army with Rostov, commandeers a convoy without authority, to feed his troops. This is apparently some terrible breach of regulations, and proceedings are initiated: "Denisov spoke disdainfully of the whole affair; but Rostov knew him too well not to notice that, in his soul (concealing it from others), he was afraid of the trial and suffered over the affair, which was obviously going to have bad consequences. Every day papers of inquiry came, summonses from the court, and on the first of May, Denisov was ordered to turn over command of the squadron to the next in seniority to report to the division staff for explanations of the case of violence in the provisions commission." (401) Denisov is then wounded, and ends up in a gruesome army hospital, a place filled "by the stench of rotting flesh ...." (402) When Rostov finds Denisov, he sees that Denisov is changed, a fearful, obsessed man:
Rostov even noticed that Denisov found it unpleasant to be reminded of the regiment and generally of that other, free life that went on outside the hospital. It seemed he was trying to forget that former life and was interested only in his case with the provision officials. To Rostov's question about how the case stood, he immediately pulled from under the pillow a paper he had received from the commission and the draft of his reply to it. When he started reading his paper, he became animated and particularly drew Rostov's attention to the biting remarks in it directed at his enemies.
(405) The monomaniacal obsession, the hopeless nature of the case, the sudden animation in reading the doomed petition-- these are all classic tropes one finds in BLEAK HOUSE, and in many of Kafka's stories, such as "Before the Law". The law's delay (which is, of course, one of life's negative factors Hamlet itemized in determining whether to shuffle off the mortal coil) has two aspects: there is of course, the deadening plod of process, but there is also the dim but ever-tantalizing prospect that while the law may be slow to react, it may, one day, pick up one's petition and redress the wrongs enumerated. This is all nicely set out in the bit about Denisov's petition, which does eventually, and most improbably, reach Alexander himself, via Rostov, and then a general. The sovereign refuses to personally intervene in Denisov's case, saying, in a line that could have been lifted from "In the Penal Colony": "I cannot, General, and the reason why I cannot is that the law is stronger than I ...." (413)

- Rostov is disenchanted and confused after watching Alexander and Napoleon trade courtesies, present medals to each others' troops, seeing Alexander dismiss Denisov's petition, etc. What was the point of all the death and destruction he had witnessed, Rostov thinks? "Why, then, those torn-off arms and legs, those dead people?" (416) In a drunken fit, he goes into a Dostoevskyian rage of logical extremes and overstatement: "We're told to die -- and we die. If we're punished, it means we're guilty; it's not for us to judge. If it pleases the sovereign emperor to recognize Bonaparte as emperor and conclude an alliance with him--it means it has to be so. And if we start judging and reasoning about everything, then there'll be nothing sacred left. Next we'll be saying there's no God, no anything...." (417) These kinds of speeches always make me want to stomp out onto a field of fresh snow under a bright winter moon somewhere in Russia, drinking from a giant bottle of vodka.

- Andrei, newly filled with spirit to do good works for Russia, heads to Petersburg, where he meets Speransky, whose clarity of mind and reason attracts Andrei. Together, they begin work on a commission on military regulations. Andrei begins revising or drafting part of the civil code, drawing on the Code Napoleon and the Justiani. (433) (Footnote 9 has some interesting background.)

- A series of Dear Diary entries from Pierre, who is amazed and disbelieving that his wife Helene has somehow become a respected intellectual figure in Petersburg, holding soirees where poetry, philosophy, and literature are discussed. In his entries, Pierre reveals that he tries to read scripture with the proper mindset and tries to rouse himself out of bed at a respectable hour. Surprisingly, he doesn't seem to keep a daily log of his weight.

- Berg proposes to Vera Rostov. Vera's father, deeply in debt, hems and haws about her dowry. Berg demands at least "thirty thousand in cash" or he will call off the wedding. Desperate to save face, Count Rostov makes promises for a large dowry that he will be hard pressed to keep.

- Natasha is reunited with Boris, who knows he should not get involved, as he has bigger plans, but can't help being drawn back to Natasha. (449) Natasha's mother realizes that nothing good will come of this and puts it to an end. (452)
We're very close to midway now. I'll be posting the poll for our next book shortly. Page 532 by Sunday.

Week 6 Recap Coming Soon

A little bogged down over the weekend, but working on the Week 6 Recap. This week's reading featured a bit more Masonic jibber-jabber, and some Dickensian/Kafkaesque scenes from the Russian army hospital and Denisov's doomed petition. Update soon!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Nearing Midway: Is There Anybody Out There?

As we barrel along towards midway, a couple things that will (probably) be happening, and a couple of questions.

First, everyone still reading the book? As you can imagine, I have only a rough idea of how many people are included in that "everyone." There's no way to track it, but I'm guessing that our group is somewhere between 20-50 people. I'm not exactly sure. And I'm sure we've had some attrition by now. If you're out there, comment more often!

Second, I will be dropping off the radar for a week or so at the end of the month. But not to fear, the other blog team members will be taking control and guiding the blog through the midway point.

Third, I will be putting together a quiz for just after the midway point. I'll post it here. People will answer by leaving comments. It will be strictly closed-book, closed-internet, on the honor system. There will be a prize. Everyone will enjoy it.

Fourth, I am leaning towards doubling the pace after the midway point. 76 pages per a week is a bit of a crawl, I'm finding. Cast your vote yea or nay in a comment below.

Fifth, comment more often on the blog! Part of the relative quiet may be my fault: perhaps I don't pose enough questions in my posts, the posts tend to be recaps, etc. Comments are always appreciated, and are a good way for your blog authors to get a sense of who (if anyone) is still reading the book.

Sixth, there appears to be some interest in continuing this online group-reading project in the fall, so I'll post the sidebar poll on the blog for our next reading selection. The current suggestions are in this previous post. If you have other suggestions, leave them in a comment below.

Onwards and upwards!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Week 5 Recap

What didn't happen during this week's reading? Damn. After my complaints about long, tedious battle scenes during last week's reading, this week's reading was like something out of TMZ. Adultery! Duels! Gambling! Spurned marriage proposals! Birth! Death! Freemasonry!

Here is the recap, which I will try to keep brief this week:
- Pierre's issues this week could be summed up as "mo money, mo problems." He suspects Dolokhov is getting it on with his wife Helene. It comes as no surprise that Helene is not happy with Pierre, as their marriage was so cynically conceived. Pierre challenges Dolokhov to a duel, where, surprisingly, Pierre is unscathed, and succeeds in injuring Dolokhov, though not mortally.

- Pierre realizes Helene is a "depraved woman," recalling how when he "'asked her once whether she felt any signs of pregnancy ... she laughed scornfully and said she was not such a fool as to want to have children, and that she would not have children from me.'" (318) This leads to a very ugly scene where Pierre loses his mind, starts screaming at Helene, who is upset with Pierre for having made her into "the laughing stock of all Moscow"; during their fight Pierre "seiz[es a] marble slab from a table" and swings the slab at her. (320) Helene flees, and later, ends up taking "power of attorney for the management of all [Pierre's] estates in Great Russia, which formed the major part of his fortune ...." (Ibid.)

- Back at Bald Hills, everyone is deeply depressed, believing Andrei to have been killed in Austria. Marya is unable to tell Andrei's wife the news. Marie goes into labor, and dies in childbirth, just as Andrei arrives. (327.)

- Dolokhov recovers from his injury and starts spending time at the Rostov's, where he becomes fixated on Sonya, the cousin adopted into the Rostov family. Dolokhov proposes to Sonya, who rejects him, because she's in love with Nikolai Rostov. (333)

- Natasha enjoys herself at a soiree, where she dances with Denisov, who does some kind of crazy (Polish?) dance, impressing everyone at the soiree. (335)

- Dolokhov, jealous of Nikolai Rostov's hold over Sonya, lures Nikolai to his hotel, where Dolokhov is running a card game. Somehow, Nikolai ends the night owing Dolokhov forty-three thousand rubles. (340)

- Denisov proposes to young Natasha, but is told by her mother that she is too young. (345)

- During a trip to Petersburg, Pierre meets a Freemason, Bazdeev, who tells Pierre that his "way of thinking is a lamentable error," and gives Pierre a reference for Count Willarski in Petersburg. (352-53) In Petersburg, Willarski takes Pierre to the local Mason lodge, where Pierre goes through some bizarre, cryptic Freemason induction ceremony. (360)

- Boris sees Helene at a soiree and the two hit it off. Boris, like Helene, is a natural climber. Helene apparently sees potential, and orders him to come to see her: "Il faut absolument que vous veniez me voir ...." (366) During his stay in Petersburg, we learn, "Boris became an intimate of Countess Bezukohv's house." (368)

- Back at Bald Hills, Andrei is fully devoted to taking care of his son, while his father becomes part of the war effort, at the Emperor's behest.

- Pierre begins visiting his remaining estates, and trying to set his serfs free. His intentions are good, but he doesn't understand the details of his holdings. His steward "underst[ands] the intelligent but naive count perfectly and play[s] with him as with a toy," pretending to do Pierre's bidding while lining his own pockets.
That wasn't that brief. Things are picking up as we approach the midway point in the book. I agree with something Sean mentioned in the comments, that the characters are beginning to flesh out now that we're a significant way into the book. I'm finding myself more interested in what happens to the characters, now that I can sort of keep them straight. Also, duels, adultery, gambling, and Freemasonry are a good way to get my attention.

On to Week 6!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Better-Late-Than-Never Week 4 Recap

Okay, apologies. I got wrapped up with other things (work, Lakers-Celtics, dog, new-found tennis-playing obsession, etc.) and got way behind on putting out the Week 4 recap. So, at long last, here it is.

This week involved a lot of scenes from the battlefield in Austria. I'm sorry to say that I found much of this stuff quite boring and slow. And a lot this week's reading centered on Nikolai Rostov, whom I find to be extremely boring and uninteresting. There are endless scenes of Rostov getting aroused watching the young "frisky" Emperor Alexander, fantasizing about dying in Alexander's arms, etc. It's tedious.

The endless build-up to the actual final battle scenes was also quite tedious, I thought. We get a long scene of the war council coming up with the best-laid plans that will ensure that the Russians and Austrians will be totally wiped out by the French. Once the plan is set out, most of the meeting realizes the plan is stupid, but it's late, and it can't be changed, so why not get a good night's sleep before marching off to certain doom? "'Gentlemen, the disposition for tomorrow, for today even (because it's already past twelve), cannot be changed,' [Kutozov] said. 'You have heard it, and we will all do our duty. And there's nothing more important before a battle ...' (he paused) 'than a good night's sleep.'" (W&P at 263-64.)

The battle scenes do come alive in the end, with a good helping of blood and gore. As they beat a hasty and messy retreat (Id. at 279), the Russian troops get smacked and splattered into oblivion by French cannonballs as the Russians beat a retreat from Austerlitz. Andrei, sickened by the scene of cowardice and disorder, "seiz[es] the staff of a standard and hearing with delight the whistle of bullets, evidently aimed precisely at him," charges towards the French. And then, "[i]t seemed to him as though one of the nearest soldiers, with the full swing of a stout stick, hit him on the head. It was slightly painful and above all unpleasant, because the pain distracted him and kept him from seeing what he was looking at [on the battlefield]." (Id. at 280.) He falls onto his back and, in his daze, contemplates the sky above: "How is it I haven't seen this lofty sky before? .... Yes! everything is empty, everything is deception, except this infinite sky. There is nothing, nothing except that. But there is not even that, there is nothing except silence, tranquility." (Id. at 281.)

The Russians continue to retreat in a panic, "crowded men disfigured by the fear of death, crushing each other, dying, stepping over the dying, and killing each other, only to go a few steps and be killed themsleves just the same," while every "ten seconds, pushing through the air, a cannonball smacked or a shell exploded in the midst of this dense crowd, killing and spattering with blood those who stood near." (Id. at 289.) A general trying to command the panicked crowd is eliminated by a cannonball with a "wet smack" and falls into a "pool of blood." (Id. at 290.)

Meanwhile, Andrei is where we left him, still "bleeding profusely" and "letting out soft, pitiful, and childlike moans." (Ibid.) Who should find him and rescue him? Why, Napoleon, of course. Andrei distantly recognizes that Napoleon is standing above him and talking about him, but it does not matter to him: "He knew that it was Napoleon -- his hero -- but at that moment, Napoleon seemed to him such a small, insignificant man compared to what was now happening between his soul and this lofty, infinite sky with clouds racing across it." (Id. at 291.)

Later, in Napoleon's camp, under the care of Doctor Larrey, Andrei continues the philosophizing brought on by his injury and loss of blood
[E]verything seemed so useless and insignificant compared with that stern and majestic way of thinking called up in him by weakness from loss of blood, suffering, and the expectation of imminent death. Looking into Napoleon's eyes, Prince Andrei thought about the insignificance of grandeur, about the insignificance of life, the meaning of which no one could understand, and about the still greater insignificance of death, the meaning of which no one among the living could understand or explain.
(Id. at 293.)

It's not clear where Andrei is going with all of this, but it appears to be toward some epiphany of faith in the former cynic: "Nothing, nothing is certain, except the insignificance of everything I can comprehend and the grandeur of something incomprehensible but most important!" (Ibid.)

So Week 4's reading was a bit of a slog for much of the way, but picked up nicely with the Russian troops getting obliterated near the end of Volume I. I'm finding this week's reading to be going along at a much faster pace. (Spoiler alert: there's a duel!)

Monday, June 7, 2010

Week 4 Recap Coming Soon

Got bogged down last night after the Celtics-Lakers game. I'll try to post a quick recap of Week Four later today. In the meantime, congratulations: we are one month into this project, and a quarter of the way through the book. By July 4th, we'll be halfway through.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Creaking Bodices and Animal Feelings

As I mentioned in the recap earlier this week, Week 3's reading brought us our first glimpses of passion and sexual feeling in the book. I know, finally! I was wondering how many hundreds of pages of 19th-century Russian literature I had to turn to get to the parts that the book flips opens to. Can we get a creaking bodice? And on cue, we get the scene of Helene's deployment of her shoulders and bosom to cast a spell on Pierre as he fumbles with a snuffbox. (What is up with all the snuffboxes everywhere?)
He got up, wishing to go around, but the aunt handed him the snuffbox over Helene, behind her back. Helene leaned forward so as to make room and, smiling, glanced around. As always at soirees, she was wearing a gown in the fashion of the time, quite open in front and back. Her bust, which had always looked like marble to Pierre, was now such a short distance from him that he could involuntarily make out with his nearsighted eyes the living loveliness of her shoulders and neck, and so close to his lips that he had only to lean forward a little to touch her. He sensed the warmth of her body, the smell of her perfume, and the creaking of her corset as she breathed. He saw not her marble beauty, which made one with her gown, he saw and sensed all the loveliness of her body, which was merely covered by clothes. And once he had seen it, he could not see otherwise, as we cannot return to a once-exposed deception.
(W&P at 206.) Pierre apparently took Beyonce's advice: he liked it so he put a ring on it. (No, you cannot escape "All the Single Ladies", even here!)

At the Bald Hills estate of Prince Andrei's grumpy math-enthusiast father, bachelor Anatole's arrival sends the ladies of the house into a tizzy. Pious Marya dreams her "chiefest, strongest and most secret dream ... of earthly love" with Anatole, but reprimands herself for thinking "these devil's thoughts" and "evil imaginings ...." (Id. at 221.) Her friend Mlle Bourienne has her own fantasies, having been brought to "a high level of excitement" by the arrival of the eligible Anatole, and, unwitting (or wittingly), eliciting a similar reaction in him: "[H]e was beginning to experience for the pretty and provocative Bourienne that passionate, animal feeling which came over him with extraordinary quickness and urged him towards the most coarse and bold actions." (Id. at 227.) He takes such "coarse and bold action" by, first, playing footsie with Mlle Bourienne under the pianoforte. This is merely some foreplay for some hot, high-risk action in the winter garden:
[Marya] was walking straight ahead through the winter garden without seeing or hearing anything, when suddenly the familiar whispering of Mlle Bourienne roused her. She looked up and saw Anatole two steps away from her. Anatole, with a frightful expression on his handsome face, turned to look at Princess Marya, and for the first second did not let go of the waist of Mlle Bourienne, who did not see her.
(Id. at 231.)

We're only about a quarter of the way through the book, so we'll have to see how these relationships develop, but it's safe to say, with the none-too-subtle hints that Tolstoy has dropped about Pierre's marital decision, that Pierre was not thinking so much with his head when he decided to marry Helene. Of course, there's also the meddling and scheming of Prince Vassily and Anna Pavlovna in railroading Pierre into the decision and making it pretty much a fait accompli by the time he snaps out of his aroused stupor to figure out what's happening. But Pierre does not resist because he's driven by the same animal feeling that drives Anatole to shockingly play footsie under the pianoforte and get a little action in the winter garden. Pious, sacrificing Marya's decision as to Anatole's offer is made easier after the scene in the winter garden. She gives up her secret dream of earthly pleasure. The simplistic take is, of course, that acting on lust for these characters will turn out to be a bad thing, and that the more pious, who abjure, will be rewarded, or be shown to be correct, etc. We'll see if that stays true throughout.

This week's reading was mostly back to war scenes (and wet splashes of cannonballs wiping people out), so I was able to put away my hands-free reading stand.

Friday, June 4, 2010


I know that it might be slightly early to bring this up, given that by Sunday we'll still have about 900 pages left in our current book, but I'll go ahead and float my idea anyway. If you're enjoying this process of book-club-by-blog, I was thinking, after a short break, we could continue the project in the fall/winter with another book we could plow through together. Some ideas I've had circulating in my head for potential next books:
- BLEAK HOUSE, Dickens





- DON QUIXOTE, Cervantes






- THE NAMES, DeLillo
It would probably work best to try to pick a book most of us haven't read yet (or would be willing to reread), which may be tricky. Mull it over, and let me know if you're interested, and if you have other ideas for a next book. (Perhaps we should consider non-fiction as well?) If enough people seem interested, I'll set up a sidebar poll and we can pick our next book that way.

In the meantime, get to page 304 (or the end of Volume I) by Sunday!

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Week Three Bite-Sized Recap

Corset, 1891, Maison Léoty (French, late 19th century), Silk, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

I plan to post on one of the major themes of our reading this week -- sex -- a little later, but for now, here's a brief recap of some of the major events from pages 152 to 228:
- Andrei spends time with Bilibin, who lived, sadly, long before the advent of Twitter, for which his penchant for annoying bon mots seems particularly suited (154)

-- Andrei has dreams of glorious battlefield exploits before falling asleep, and revels in his memories of his valor

-- Andrei has a brief and pointless meeting with Emperor Franz of Austria, where "[t]he emperor spoke with such an expression as if his whole goal consisted in asking a certain number of questions. The replies to these questions, as was only too clear, were of no interest to him." (160)

-- Andrei learns that Napoleon has fooled the Austrians and is heading for Brunn. (164-65)

-- Russian General Kutozov fools French General Murat with a fake truce to buy himself time to reinforce his troops. Napoleon learns of the ruse and sends Murat a very displeased letter: "Il m'est impossible de trouver des termes pour vous exprimer mon mécontement." (171-72) (Don't most letters written in French start with this sentence?)

-- More battle scenes, which I found, frankly, to be a little confusing. All these random people! Perhaps the overwhelming number of characters and details are part of the point, to demonstrate the noise, chaos, and crush of news and words and decisions of the battlefield.

-- Andrei experiences more "great happiness" going into battle with Bagration. (185) War is apparently a form of therapy and self-expression for Andrei.

-- Fascinating scene with Nikolai Rostov after he is shot down off his horse, sees the French troops coming to get him, and can't believe his eyes: "'Who are they? Why are they running? Can it be they're running to me? Can it be? And why? To kill me? Me, whom everybody loves so?' He remembered his mother's love for him, his family's, his friends', and the enemy's intention to kill him seemed impossible." (189) This scene struck me as very true; I can imagine that if some enemy troops were coming to kill me with their bayonets, similar thoughts would run through my mind.

-- The scene shifts back to Moscow, where Prince Vassily is drawn as an unconscious, instinctive climber and schemer. (201) He is leeching off Pierre, who is now rich and overwhelmed with social duties and obligations, but is starting to believe that there is something special about him, given all the fawning attention he is receiving, something beyond his vast wealth.

-- Prince Vassily, with the help of Anna Pavlovna, arranges for Pierre to fall for his beautiful daughter Helene. At one of the soirees Pierre is forced to attend, Helene, wearing a "gown in the fashion of the time, quite open in front and back," thrusts her body into Pierre's face, and the effect on him is permanent: "he saw and sensed all the loveliness of her body, which was merely covered by clothes. And once he had seen it, he could not see otherwise ...." (206)

-- In short order, without much say from Pierre or Helene, who mostly just sit next to each other at the endless parties, Pierre is "married and settled down, ... the happy possessor of a beautiful wife and millions of roubles, in the big, newly done-over house of the counts Bezukhov in Petersburg." (214) But Tolstoy is not overly subtle in larding these scenes with Pierre's doubts about Helene, his conflicted feelings about her beauty and his own lust, and his own sense that the marriage he is being railroaded into might not be a good idea. But in the end, he's won over by what Tolstoy later refers to as "animal feelings," "silently [holding] his fiancee's hand and looking at her beautiful breast rising and falling." (Ibid.)

-- The scene then shifts to the Bald Hills estate of Nikolai Andrich Bolkonsky, where Prince Vasilly, not done with his matchmaking, has announced by letter his intention to visit with his son Anatole. (215) Grumpy old Prince Nikolai snorts and harrumphs a lot in these scenes. He's not impressed by the empty babbling of Prince Vasilly, and doesn't expect to be impressed by his son. And he's upset because he expects the point of the trip is to propose a match between Anatole and Prince Nikolai's plain daughter Marya. Prince Nikolai is, of course, loathe to let go of Marya, who is the center of his existence at Bald Hills.

-- Anatole is introduced to Marya, whose plainness is exacerbated by a poor choice of hairstyle by her sister-in-law. But Anatole, who we're told is foppish and possibly slept with his sister Helene (now Pierre's wife), is more interested in Mlle Bourienne, who nurses her own fantasy about finding "a Russian prince who would at once be able to appreciate her superiority over the plain, badly dressed, awkward Russian princesses, would fall in love with her and carry her off ...." (226) Anatole is fully aware of his effect on Mlle Bourienne, Marya, and Liza. He thinks to himself that Marya is frightfully ugly, but is intrigued by Mlle Bourienee: "he was beginning to experience for the pretty and provocative Bourienne that passionate animal feeling which came over him with extraordinary quickness and urged him towards the most coarse and bold action." (227) The suggestion is, I believe, that Anatole, in thrall to "animal feeling," had taken such "coarse and bold action" with his sister Helene, as the rumors that Pierre frets about hint at.
Okay, so the "brief" recap got a little out of hand. I'll be working on the sex-themed post shortly. Let me know if I've left out any important bits from this week's reading.

More on Page Targets and Other Editions

Welcome, new participants! The size of the group reading W&P together this summer continues to grow. We're not quite sure of the size of the group, but people keep jumping in. If you're thinking about joining, you should definitely do it. You have all summer to finish the book. And let me know if you'd like to join the blog as a co-author so you can put up scintillating posts like this one.

We've had some additional requests for guidance as to our reading schedule, as many of our participants are reading versions other than the Pevear and Volokhonsky edition to which the page targets in the sidebar here are set. (Also see the Table of Contents from the P&V edition in the sidebar.)

Here's a way to determine your reading pace, no matter which version of the book you're reading. First, we plan to finish the book by 9/1/10. So wherever you are in your particular edition, calculate how many pages you have left to finish, divide by the number of weeks left (~13), and that's how many pages per week you need to read. If you want to catch up faster, and be on schedule by the midway point (7/4/10), then calculate how many pages you have left to get to the midway point (in most editions, this is the beginning of Volume III), and divide by 5 (the number of weeks until 7/4/10).

My understanding is that the chapters and chapter parts are set up differently in different editions. To give you a sense of where we are in the P&V edition, by today, we are at the end of Volume I, Part 3, Section IV. By next Sunday, we will be at the end of Volume II, Part 1, Section 1. Drop a comment below if you have any questions.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Week Two Thoughts: War and Peace and Crowds and Power

Chinese National Revolutionary Army troops

After many scenes of dinners, polite (and slightly less polite) conversation, descriptions of desserts, etc., near the end of last week's reading, we finally got to the War side of the WAR AND PEACE equation.

I found the descriptions of the Russian army in Austria in last week's reading to be some of the most compelling of the book so far. There's an immediacy and vividness to these descriptions that jumps through the translation, and across the hundreds of years separating us from the events described.

As I mentioned on the Twitter account last week, many of the descriptions of the Russian army brought to mind Elias Canetti's masterwork, CROWDS & POWER. In that book, Canetti describes the key attributes of crowds as follows:
1. The crowd always wants to grow. There are no natural boundaries to its growth. Where such boundaries have been artificially created . . . an eruption of the crowd is always is always possible and will, in fact, happen from time to time....

2. Within the crowd there is always equality. This is absolute and indisputable and never questioned by the crowd itself. It is of fundamental importance and one might even define a crowd as a state of absolute equality. A head is a head, an arm is an arm, and differences between individual heads and arms are irrelevant. It is for the sake of this equality that people become a crowd and they tend to overlook anything which might detract from it....

3. The crowd loves density. It can never feel too dense. Nothing must stand between its parts or divide them; everything must be the crowd itself....

4. The crowd needs a direction. It is in movement and it moves towards a goal. The direction, which is common to all its members, strengthens the feeling of equality. A goal outside the individual members and common to all of them drives underground all of the private differing goals which are fatal to the crowd as such. Direction is essential for the continuing existence of the crowd. Its constant fear of disintegration means that it will accept any goal. A crowd exists so long as it has an unattained goal.
(CROWDS AND POWER [1962 Transl., Viking Press] at p. 29.)

Demonstrators in Bangkok

These attributes of the crowd that Canetti outlines are startlingly reproduced in Tolstoy's description of the Russian army pouring into Austria.
"You there, brother!" the Cossack said to a supply soldier with a cart, who was pushing through the infantrymen crowded right against his wheels and horses, "you there! As if you can't wait: look, the general needs to pass."

But the supply soldier, paying no heed to the denomination of the general, shouted at the soldiers who blocked his way:

"Hey, countrymen! keep to the left, hold up!"

But the countrymen, pressed shoulder to shoulder, catching on their bayonets and never pausing, moved across the bridge in a solid mass. Looking down over the railing, Prince Nesvitsky saw the swift, noisy, low waves of the Enns, which, merging rippling, and swirling around the pilings of the bridge, drove on one after the other. Looking at the bridge, he saw the same monotonous living waves of soldiers, shoulder braids, shakos with dustcovers, packs, bayonets, long muskets, and under the shakos faces with wide cheekbones, sunken cheeks, and carefree, weary faces, and feet moving over the sticky mud that covered the planks of the bridge. Occasionally, amidst the monotonous waves of soldiers, like a spray of white foam on the waves of the Enns, an officer pushed his way through, in a cape, with his physiognomy distinct from the soldiers'; occasionally, like a chip of wood swirled along by the river, a dismounted hussar, an orderly, or a local inhabitant was borne across the bridge by the waves of infantry; occasionally, like a log floating down the river, a company's or an officer's cart floated across the bridge, surrounded on all sides, loaded to the top, and covered with leather.
(W&P at p.139.)

In this description we see the equalizing force of the crowd, its disregard of distinction, its urge to exceed its boundaries, the density that makes the crowd what it is, and its need to continue in a shared direction. The comparison of the army procession to the Enns River also corresponds to Cannetti's description of crowd symbols, and in particular the symbol of the river: "[W]e may conclude that the river is only a limited crowd symbol and differs in this respect from fire, sea, forest or corn. It it is the symbol of a movement which is still under control, before the eruption and the discharge; it contains the threat of these rather than their actuality." (CROWDS AND POWER at p.84.)

The striking parallels continue as we get snippets of conversation from unnamed members of the passing crowd:
"Look at 'em, it's like a dam burst," the Cossack said, stopping hopelessly. "Are there many of you there?"

"One shy of a million," a merry soldier in a torn greatcoat, passing close by, said with a wink and vanished; after him came another old soldier.

"Once he" (he was the enemy) "starts peppering the bridge," the old soldier said gloomily, addressing his comrade, "you'll forget about scratching yourself."

And the soldier passed by. After him came another soldier on a cart.

"Where the devil did you stuff those foot cloths?" said an orderly, running behind the cart and rummaging in the back.

And this one passed by with the cart.

After him came some merry and apparently tipsy soldiers.

"He just gave it to him, the dear fellow, right in the teeth with his musket butt . . ." one soldier in a high-tucked greatcoat said joyfully, swinging his arm widely.

"That's it, the sweet taste of ham," replied another with a guffaw.

And they passed by, so that Nesvitsky never learned who got it in the teeth and what the ham referred to.
(W&P at p. 140.)

In these snatches of dialogue, and in the refrain of "and this one passed," Tolstoy draws a picture of an endless river of soldiers pouring by, "like a dam burst," the various exclamations and observations of the mass not attributable to any individual in particular, but simply to the crowd. Similarly, the crowd collectively ogles the German women who cross their path: "The eyes of all the soldiers turned to the women, and as the cart went by, moving step by step, all the soldiers' remarks were addressed only to these two women. All the soldiers' faces bore virtually one and the same smile of indecent thoughts about the women." (Ibid.) In the density of the crowd, where the individual is submerged in the mass, responsibility is dissolved, and the crowd often acts together on its basest instincts.

What is the point of all of this? There is certainly something at work here, in the contrast between the intimacies of the drawing room and the torrent of undifferentiated humanity marching toward battle.

The contrast seems to be one between the individuals who inhabit and react to history and the masses of (mostly) organized crowds who do the work of shaping history. The book has alluded to the power of individuals to shape history, especially Napoleon, but Tolstoy also takes care to show us the profane masses tramping through the mud in their disintegrating boots, who provide the force to shape the course of history. War is about numbers, force, losses; as Canetti notes, it is ultimately about crowds of the living and crowds of the dead. The victor is the side that produces a larger crowd of the dead among the enemy.

This is a book largely about a handful of privileged individuals, but it is also a book about the assembled masses that have been pitted against one another in bids to control territory, populations, and the future. As Don DeLillo noted in a different context, "the future belongs to crowds." We'll see how this theme plays out through the rest of the book. Perhaps there's an argument to be made about the role of the crowd in the French Revolution, versus the attempt to control the power of the crowd made by Napoleon, in proclaiming himself Emperor? The French Revolution and Napoleon's reaction to it are the foundational points for this novel. And sitting where we do in history, we have a sense of how the power of the crowd played out in Russia over time.

Bolshevik (1920), by Boris Mikhailovich Kustodiyev

Monday, May 24, 2010

Week Two Super-Fast Recap

I'll post a more extensive Week Two Thoughts item later today, but here is the super-fast recap of things that happened in our Week-Two reading:
- Old Count Bezukhov dies, after a final meeting with Pierre, where Pierre seems confused and detached, and the Count simply moans, points, and then rolls over and fills his bedpan; there's some bickering about his will, Pierre ends up inheriting a massive fortune;

- Scene moves to the Bald Hills estate of Prince Nikolai Andreevich, Andrei's grumpy father; we meet Prince Nikolai, who spends his days in his 19th century mancave, gardening, making snuff boxes, and giving Andrei's sister, Princess Marya, math anxiety;

- Andrei and his pregnant wife Marie arrive in Bald Hills, where Andrei plans to leave Marie as he heads off for some alone time with his bros in Austria; Andrei's dad makes fun of Napoleon and has problems showing affection to his son; religious Marya gives Andrei an icon to protect him as he prepares to head off to the war;

- The scene shifts to Austria, where the Russian troops are occupying Braunau and preparing to meet the French army; we meet a lot of additional characters about whom I haven't decided whether I should care enough to learn their names;

- Nikolai Rostov is friendly to the locals, speaks some German, gets in trouble with a superior he catches stealing someone's money, and generally demonstrates that he's an innocent soul in a dirty world; and

- We get a few excellent scenes of the Russian troops streaming through Austria, ogling some locals, suggestively offering them apples, and wearing out their crappy boots; we see them massing on a hill facing the opposing French troops; the weather seems very nice, and everyone seems merry and thrilled, even as -- especially because? -- French cannonballs begin to fly overhead, not (yet) killing anyone (important).
The Week Two Thoughts item I'll be posting later will focus largely on the last few pages of this week's reading, and on the book's first depictions of war. And did I miss anything big in the comically truncated summary above?

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Reading Music

I asked a friend, who is knowledgeable about music (and who is currently too busy to participate in this project), for some suggestions for music to read WAR AND PEACE to. His response:
Prokofiev wrote a whole opera based on the book, you know? .... [Y]our [other] obvious starting points are Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, which commemorates the Battle of Borodino, which features in the book. Then there is if course Beethoven's Eroica Symphony, which he originally dedicated to Napoleon, but which dedication he later withdrew in disgust when Napoleon crowned himself emperor (much like one of the characters in W&P becomes disillusioned with his former hero [Napoleon]).
I can add that, according to Wikipedia, the song "The Gates of Delirium", by Yes, from the album Relayer, was apparently inspired by W&P.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Early Reviews

Tolstoy in 1868, when WAR AND PEACE was released in Russia

Apparently, many of WAR AND PEACE's early readers were not impressed with its opening pages:
Publication of the first part of the book (Chapters I to XXVIII) began in February 1865, and at first even the most indulgent readers were disappointed by the slowness with which the story moved, the plethora of detail, the author's digressions and excessive use of conversation in French. His friend Botkin could scarcely hide his disappointment: "This is only a preface, the background of a picture to come," he said. Borisov told Turgenev, "I think Fet was not impressed by it." And Turgenev, whose verdict Tolstoy was impatiently awaiting, told Borisov in reply, "The thing is positively bad, boring and a failure. . . . All those little details so cleverly noted and presented in baroque style, those psychological remarks which the author digs out of his heroes' armpits and other dark places in the name of verisimilitude -- all that is paltry and trivial, against the broad historical background of a novel. . . . One feels so strongly the writer's lack of imagination and naivete! . . . And who are these young ladies? Some kind of affected Cinderellas . . . ."
(TOLSTOY, by Henri Troyat (1965), p. 295.)

Of course, after the entire six-volume bound edition had come out, after the critics had a chance to complete the entire novel, and after it had become a massive best-seller in Russia, the reception of the book changed entirely. Turgenev, who had been so withering in his criticism of the opening of the book, wrote to his friend Borisov in 1868: "There are passages in it that will live as long as the Russian language." (Id. at 315.)

By the way, I picked up the biography, TOLSTOY, by Henri Troyat, today at the library. Troyat was born in Russia to an Armenian family; they left Russia for France, where Troyat became a successful novelist and biographer, writing acclaimed biographies of Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy. Troyat put a tremendous amount of effort into compiling his massive, 773-page biography of Tolstoy -- perhaps in an effort to live up to the effort and discipline Tolstoy himself put into his own masterwork, which, Troyat explains, was originally to be titled THE YEAR 1805:
Tolstoy spent the entire winter of 1863-64 familiarizing himself with the period he wanted to recreate in his book. His father-in-law sent him original source material from Moscow. He himself bought up, pell-mell, an assortment of books on the Napoleonic wars: Mikhailovsky-Danilevsky, Bogdganovich, Zhikarev, Glinka, Davidov Liprandi, Korf, the Documents historiques sur le sejour des Francais a Moscou, en 1812, the Souvenirs de campagne d'un artilleur, the Correspondance diplomatique of Joseph de Maistre, Marmont's Memoirs, Thiers' Histoire du Consulat et de l'Empire, etc. "You can't imagine the difficulties of this preparatory work, plowing the field I shall have to sow," he wrote to Fet toward the end of 1864. "Studying, thinking over everything that might happen to the future heroes of a very big book, devising millions of schemes of all varieties and selecting the millionth part of them, it's terribly hard work."
(Id. at 290.)

While immersing -- perhaps burying -- himself in historical documents and sources, Tolstoy found himself at times struggling to see the forest for the trees and to keep sight of the ultimate purpose of all of this research:
[H]e took advantage of his stay in Moscow to continue his search for source material, pawing through bookshops, borrowing books from Professors Eshevsky and Popov, hounding the Rumyantsev Museum library, obtaining, by special favor, important documents from the palace archives, questioning old people on their reminiscences of 1812. The wealth of material both delighted and alarmed him. He was afraid of drowning under the ocean of detail. He was continually forced to tear himself from historical data and return to his characters. "Napoleon, Alexander, Kutuzov and Talleyrand are not the heroes of my book," he said. "I shall write the story of people living in the most privileged circumstances, with no fear of poverty or constraint, fee people, people who have none of the flaws that are necessary to make a mark on history."
(Id. at 292.)

Troyat's account of Tolstoy's struggle to not get lost in the thicket of historical details he was accumulating reminded me of my own experience in the first few sections of W&P -- of feeling the balance between the particular and the universal that Tolstoy manages. Tolstoy took great pains to vividly recreate a time that was accessible only as history to him in the 1860's. At the same time, the characters he drew, for all of their historical trappings, were ones meant to be universal, to remain recognizable and sympathetic, through the vicissitudes of time. And it is because Tolstoy accomplished this balance with such art and skill that we are all reading this book here in 2010.