Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Crib Notes

Your moderators (Welcome, MJ!) were very pleased to stumble across the New York Times' Reading Room blog, where the NYT and a panel of contributors blogged a month-long read of WAR AND PEACE back in October 2007, just after the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation that we are currently reading came out.

The format of the NYT blog seems like a good jumping off point: the moderator would post, every few days, questions prompted by the reading. Here are Sam Tanenhaus' initial questions on the book's opening sequences:
My first question comes from the essay Tolstoy wrote in defense of “War and Peace” — yes, the book met with criticism upon its publication in 1869. Readers didn’t know what to make of it. It read in some places like a history text or battlefield manual, in others like The Odyssey or The Aeneid. Tolstoy explains: “‘War and Peace’ is not a novel, still less an epic poem, still less a historical chronicle.” He then differentiates between the work of the historian and that of the artist and says historical accounts require heroes while for the artist “there cannot and should not be heroes, but there should be people.”

My first questions to the group: (1) Isn’t “War and Peace” in fact all these things — a novel, a poem, and a historical chronicle? Has Tolstoy really separated so neatly the functions of the artist from those of the historian? Does his invented world really seem devoid of heroes?

(2) One of the overarching themes in the novel — it amounts to a theory of history — is that human design is continually frustrated by events, which are too huge, complex and random for us to make sense of, let alone control. But don’t the events in Volume 1 — Pierre’s sudden inheritance and his horrific marriage, Napoleon’s precision-tuned military victories, and many more — unfold with a kind of inevitability, which in turn implies there is some deeply rational order to the universe?
Reading Room Blog

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