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.