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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Napoleon - Crazy or What?

I'm with my brother-in-aw, Jay Stone, a history teacher, and I asked him, last night, what's Napoleon doing? Why the hell is he invading Russia? The Russians of course see him as a monomaniacal aggressor, but there has to be more to it. Of course there is, and Jay gave me a quick seminar on the Napoleonic Wars. My take on this - at least 3 aspects to Napoleon and why he invaded Russia. First, yes, he was a monomaniac with delusions, nearly fulfilled, of ruling half the world, expanding the French empire, being recognized as the greatest general and ruler since Alexander. Second, the mission of bringing modern government and liberal ideas across Europe. Breaking down the authority of the churches and nobility, empowering the "middle classes," bringing freedom to the dispossessed (e.g., the Jews, the serfs in Russia), creating les cariers ouverts aux talents. You can see parallels to this rationale in modern times (e.g., Vietnam, Iraq). But it does account for his success in establishing governments in some of the countries he conquers and for the hostility on the part of the nobility and the church. Third, a posssibly bogus attempt to defend his borders against nations that (he believes) are supported by England. Again, maybe some validity here (England certainly would not have liked any movement that would disempower the nobility and the church). It's also an agrument that powerful countries often make to rationalize their own expansionism (e.g., Nazi Germany, the domino theory). Jay also showed me an amazing foldout diagram that tracked the size of Napoleon's army during the invasion and retreat - from 400k at the start to about 100k on reacing Moscow and down to only about 10k on the return to France! The dminishing of his army during the march east is not clear in War and Peace - they seem to be growing in power (at least that's how the Russians envison them). Jay points out that the invasion during the height of summer depleted the strength of the Army and left them short of supplies. Hard to believe that 400k could be supported over such a long supply line during any circumstances or conditions.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Anticipating the Attack

Better, scarier than the battle scenes is the set of chapters in which the characters anticipate the invasion of the French army. The idiotic and cruel Prince Volkonsky cannot comprehend the information he's receiving. He insists that the French will be stopped at the Polish border, when in fact that are well inside of Russia and about 40 miles from his estate. Part of it's his pride and ill temper, bossing everyone around, thinking he knows it all (just because he's wealthy, a prince). Part, we also learn, is his senility - he seems to be thinking of some previous war (not sure which, Franco-Prussian?) in which he served. With about a thousand contradictory and confusing orders, he sends a servant off to the nearest city to the west, Smolensk, where the servant (Apotokych?) finds a city in near-panic (except for innkeeper, who beats his wife when she wants to flee). You can hear the cannons and the gunfire off in the distance, and everyone's packing belongings onto carts and heading west, just ahead of the invading army. Hopeless, really. Some destruction and pillaging going on, so that the French will find fewer supplies - but the people are pretty much conceding the people to the French. Meanwhile, the generals wrote to the governor of the province that the Russian armies will defend the city to the last man. Already a lie, as the armies couldn't hold the French and maybe didn't even try to do so. It shows that the words of the leaders are meaningless, pointless - a facade, just like so much of their lives, the endless balls and operas and clubs and duels over points of honor, while the French are invading and people all around them, the serfs, are suffering and dying. This is the darkest part of the book.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

African Love Poetry

Received in the mail some books from old friend Frank Chipasula, Malawian poet and scholar, now happily enjoying an endowed professorship at Southern Illinois University. Frank and I met when I interviewed him many years ago, when he was a grad student at Brown and I was books editor at the Providence Journal. I reviewed his anthology When My Brothers Come Home - very nice book. We didn't stay in touch, but Frank called me when his new anthology, Bending the Bow, an anthology (the first) of African love poetry, came out from SIU Press. They send me a copy, and I've been poking around in it. I really recommend it to anyone interested in world literature, especially poetry. Many of these poems have never been available, definitely not in a single handsome edition. Frank also send me a few chapbooks from his own new press, Brown Turtle, which specializes in African poetry in translation. Haven't had a chance to read these yet, but they're very handsome books and worth checking out.

Here's a link to info about Bending the Bow:
And here's a link to info about Brown Turtle Press (Slow but determined!):

Monday, December 28, 2009

Wow, you're reading War and Peace?

Believe me, it's not such a big deal. This book is easy to read, except for two obvious problems: the size and the names. There's nothing you can do about the size, and by that I mean both the commitment (you'll be reading this for a long time, so take your shoes off) and the actual physical weight and bulk of the book (two pillows on lap to bolster it). As noted earlier, I wish Vintage had ponied up and published it in two volumes. That said, I wonder if it would be better to read it in installments over time, as it was (I think) published. That was a good way to read, as the many great 19th-century novels will testify! Reading a massive book like this - a little like listening today to a two-disc CD in one play. Music isn't meant to be heard that way any more. Everyone now downloads, mixes, shuffles, and listens to songs one by one in random or selected order. I think maybe the great 19th-C novels were conceived of as works to be read over time, interspersed with other readings and other living - rather than straight through, this is what I'm reading now. Trying that might help (though I'm not doing so). As to the names, the list of characters at the front helps, but it's clear that any American reader will have trouble, for at least 200 pp. I definitely recommend bookmarking that page. These issues aside, the book is amazingly easy to read and follow and enjoy. As I read it, it's as if an alternate life is taking shape, unfolding, alongside (and within) my own life and consciousness. What more could we expect of a writer, of a book?

Sunday, December 27, 2009


Everyone in War and Peace ends up with, or I guess I should say starts off with, the wrong spouse/partner. Natasha just can't see the obvious, that she's meant to be with Pierre. But of course she's too young and too late. Some very difficulty scenes, some of the most emotional in the book, in the first section of volume 3, as Natasha slowly recovers from her depression and anorexia, starts to believe that she is not a bad person and that Andrei may forgive her for dumping and humiliating him. At church, she believes that everyone is watching her and talking about her, and she's right. Pierre, at the same time, begins to understand his vision of peace and harmony in the universe, and it's really about Natasha - he feels beloved. But he knows it can't be and will only cause her even greater heartbreak and distress - so he vows to cut off visits to the Rostovs. Does this sound melodramatic? It is, but then again - it isn't, because it's always set off against the background of war, and fear. The French are invading, the tsar pleads with the Moscow nobility to sacrifice all, tears in everyone's eyes, the nobles (including Pierre and Count Rostov) agree - the nobles give up thousands of peasants, let's see how it changes their lives if at all - and Rostov gives up his youngest child, Petya. And we see what's really going on in the war, scenes of boisterous flirtation (the doctor's young wife) and bravery in battle, Nikolai Rostov, who also has one of those moments of insight in which he realizes there would have been no point in killing the French soldier he captured, it's as if, in his moment of greatest bravery, he perceives the absurdity of war. Not sure where this will lead him, probably noplace good.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Prince Andrei's Great Insight

Everyone's getting ready for war, and it's a spooky feeling because we know the outcome won't be good. They're all thinking about heroism and genious and reputation, and we know they'll be slogging through the mud and snow - and dying, starving. Andrei has a glimpse of this, another one of these Tolstoyan moments of revelation. He watches the generals argue about tactics and strategy - the German sure he's right (Pfeul?), the Russian, the Swede, the traitorous Frenchman, each with his own opinion. Andrei realizes that they cannot all be right, that the whole thing is absurd, they're arguing like scholars or theoreticians, and it will all turn on chance or more accurately on some event or condition than none could anticipate - and they will each analyze afterward and explain with his theory would have saved the day, had the commander only followed it. Andrei decides to join the fighting forces - a fateful decision. Rostov, elsewhere, gets ready to fight - but it's absurd, too, - gaiety, as they decide which pub to go to to wait out the storm. They have no idea what's facing them. Foreshadowing? Not really, it's actually the absence of foreshadowing that makes these chapters so effective. Tolstoy stays within the boundaries of his characters' perceptions.

Friday, December 25, 2009

James v. Forster - The Showdown

Yesterday read an essay (review?) re Forster, which pointed out that Forster loved War and Peace (obviously) and that James thought is was a sprawling mass (mess?) of a novel. Also, obviously. And which writer was correct? Which of them had to better sense of what qualities make up a great novel? Which had a better sense of what qualities make up a great life? (Same thing?) Much as I admire James and have loved some of his work - I would say especially the novellas, which he probably considered to be short stories - look at the direction he took as his work matured. The later novels are so inward, self-centered, interior, technical as to be virtually unreadable. (I couldn't read them, or finish them.) And Forster, each of his is about people, society, culture, relationships, ethical choices, about life - and it seems as if he built toward Passage to India, a culmination, and then had nothing more to say (at least in the format of the novel), and so he stopped, and I admire him for that, too. He saw in War and Peace all the greatness that was there, in spite of its flaws and its abundance. And James couldn't look into the heart of this novel and respond to the magnificence and beauty. He was cold to War and Peace like he was cold to life, sadly, tragically. Or, more accurately, distant and analytic and removed rather than engaged.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

War and Peace - Back to War!

Book, or Volume, 3 puts peace aside and sets off to war. 1812. France invades Russia. Begins with Tolstoy's disquisition on the forces of history. This would be annoying or pompous if it weren't (a) from Tolstoy and (b) part of a book so grand and sprawling that it can accommodate anything (cf. Moby Dick). Tolstoy argues history made up not solely of grand decisions by great men but of petty decisions by great men (so and so insulted by the tone of a letter) and in fact millions of decisions by millions of people - the war would never have happened if one soldier had refused to serve, leading to another and another... In a way, he anticipates contemporary historical studies that examine the lives of ordinary individuals as a historical and cultural force. But in another way - he can't relinquish his fascination with the great, and the first few chapters make Napoleon (who appeared almost incidentally earlier in the book) into a major figure, proud, irascible, shrewd, fearless. Again, character sketched with amazing efficiency of observation (his broad forehead with a stray lock of hair) and detail (the cheering crowds distract him, as he tries to focus on his plan to cross the river; the soldiers rushing their horses into the cold water and dying, drowning, as Napoleon studies a map, indifferent).

Also yesterday read the New Yorker story by Helen Simpson, something like "Diary of a very bad year." Yet another post-apocalyptic narrative. I suppose it's an open topic, but aren't all these pretty much the same - one horror after another? That movie of a few years ago, can't remember title right now, with the one pregnant woman on earth, was a unique take, but so many others just seem the same: The Road, that Atwood novel. There's a Theroux that I haven't read. I remember a striking Czech film from the 70s. All wandering through wasted landscapes, lament about (in the 70s) nuclear war or (today) ecological disaster), scrounging, fighting, fear, filth. In a way, I think this topic is too easy. Easier to describe a culture in ruins than a complex culture of the living, and definitely easier to go for the big effect. I thought the story, at first, was by Mona Simpson - whatever happened to her? - but saw all the Britishisms that New Yorker fiction editors swoon over - Biro, Uni, gap year - in the first few paragraphs and knew it was someone else.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

War and Peace - Finished Book 2

Last night finished the 2nd (of 4) "books" of War and Peace. Volume ends with Pierre looking at the night sky and having some sort of vision of peace, understanding his place in society and the universe. These moments, typically Tolstoyan, are hard to describe and capture. But each of the male characters seems to have this kind of vision - most notably Andrei, on the battlefield, wounded, looking up at the sky. It's unclear whether these are reassuring moments or frightening. Do they see the wholeness of the universe, or do they see themselves as mere specks, incapable of changing anything, of doing any good? The end of book 2 is incredibly stressful and despairing. Natasha has seemingly ruined her young life by spurning Andrei and trying unsuccessfull to run away for Anatole Kuragin. She's in despair, rightly. And Pierre remains one of the loneliest and inconsolable of heroes. Of course Natasha will end up with someone, but who - back with Andrei? Or Pierre, if he can somehow free himself from Helene, who seems to me not as evil as she seems to Pierre. Describing all this, I make W&P sound like a melodrama, even a soap opera - and it is so far from that. As the translator's intro notes, someone said that "if the world could write itself, it would write like Tolstoy." That seems so true, yet what does it mean exactly? The great naturalists of the 19th C - Tolstoy, Stendahl, Flaubert, in particular - all seem to write like the "mirror carried along the highway." But of all of them, Tolstoy seems the least "present" in his novels. You never quite hear his voice or see a distinct mark of style. This is in fact his style. He enters into the minds of his characters all the time - a whole range of characters - and unfolds their thought process for us, but without the "modernist" stylistic devices (e.g., stream of consciousness). And probably no other writer has a more acute sense of the telling detail: the way Kuragin stands with one foot forward, first looking at himself in the mirror; Natasha shaking with sobs, and her rather haughty expressions. So many scenes, all of them so cinematic (sleigh ride through the snow, troika racing toward the elopement) and done, each, with just a few details it seems. We know the characters, can see them, but we have actually been told so little about them. We know their internal lives and can put them into a physical space because of the discrete details of expression. How can you not see Pierre as someone played by Renoir, bumbling along, trying to make peace, denying the nasty rumors - as in the great Rules of the Game?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

War and Peace - almost half-way through!

Yes, I'm reading War and Peace,the Volkonsky-Pevear (sp?) translation. Put it aside for a few days to read Things Fall Apart for book group, now back to it, just about done with the 2nd section (i.e., almost half-way through, i.e., nearly 600 pp.). Some petty things first: Vintage should not have been so cheap and should have published in 2 vols. like the old Penguin; this edition is far too heavy for anyone to hold & read comfortably, and I need 2 pillows on my lap just to support the book while reading. Ridiculous. That said, it's a great translation of this amazing book, with pretty helpful footnotes (if eccentric - some things are id'd that seem rather trivial and others left unexplained. For example, why don't they tell us what opera the characters attend in Moscow - takes up a whole important chapter. Is it made up? I thought it might have been Don Giovanni, or maybe Faust?) - Major characters listed in front is great, and wish that page had some kind of tab on it, because everyone must go there dozens of times for at least the first third of the book. Chapters I read last night focus on courtship (Peace?), in Moscow - Natasha Rostov visits her potential future inlaws, the Prince Volkonsky and Marya V., is treated horribly, and, though she doesn't realize it yet, begins to have her doubts about her fiance, Andre Volkonsky. Why has he gone away, why is his father's blessing on the marriage so important, doesn't that bode ill - as he'll never get this blessing from his horrible father (and sister). At the opera, the (equally horrible) Anatole Kuragin picks her out and tries to seduce Natasha and she completely falls for this. She's so vulnerable, foolish, young - and alone. It's one of those cases where readers can see far beyond the characters. Tolstoy, as always, remains in the background, just presenting everything like life unfolding before us, without commentary or guidance, like a silent god. Amazing. Parallel to this, the incredible social climber Boris Durbrotsky (that's not right, I'll have to check) becomes engaged to the very unattractive Julie Karagin. She deludes herself into thinking the Boris really cares for her; he has no such illusions. This marriage is doomed - like Pierre Bezukhov's, in reverse - he marrying the beautiful Helene. So it's a midpoint in the book, and lots of mismatches are taking shape and you can see that there will be infidelities and broken hearts and worse on the way. I'll have lots more to say - and will not summarize the entire plot I promise - as I continue to read this amazing novel.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Things Fall Apart - The book-group speaks

Last night book group (8 of us, couples) met, discussed Things Fall Apart. Honestly, I was amazed that I was the only one highly critical of Okonkwe. Even more surprisingly, the four women were by far the most sympathetic to him and to his society. My argument: he's a bully, a thug, he severely beats his wife, terrorizes his children, despises his weak son, wishes his daughter had been a boy. The society itself, entirely misogynistic, male-dominated, the powerful men take multiple wives, leaving the weaker men with nothing and turning others into marauding thugs who (presumably) find their wives by invading other villages. Marge rightly pointed out that the misfits (e.g., O's son) are later in the book drawn to the church. Exactly! Some argued that you have to see the society in its context, that this society works on its own terms, the women were cared for and probably happy. My view is that plenty of people said the same thing about southern plantations. The society does not work - and I give Achebe great credit for building his story on an unsympathetic hero so as to show this. Lowell compared O. to Achilles - very good comparison in some ways. I compare him to Tony Soprano - fascinating, but horrifying, an avatar of a sick (doomed, in this case) way of life. I asked how we would have seen in had he been written as part of a different culture. Imagine this book, say, transformed to contemporary american urban street life. No doubt he would be seen as a thug and a criminal. But some said we have to see it in context. Exactly the argument Acheba opposes when readers try to understand Conrad's racism (in Heart of Darkness). No, the book is its own context, and it shows an ugly man in an ugly world doomed to vanish - even though the world coming in, the colonialism, the church, is horrible in its own way. Very good discussion on this challenging book.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Things Fall Apart

Last night I finished Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart. Second time I read it, a little easier going the 2nd time, of course, as you know what people and ideas to "follow." Especially so in a book like this with so many people introduced in early chapters. Anyone reading this will wait for the plot to kick in, and it never does, really. It's not a book about, or even with, a plot. It's not a book about, or even with, characters. True, there is a central character, Okonkwe (sp?), but we don't really gain access to his interior life, ever. We see him from the outside. Though Achebe is obviously well read and steeped in western literature - the title, with its Yeats reference, tells you that! - he does not draw on any of the techniques of western lit for his novel. No stream of consciousness or interior monologues, for example. Rather, it's a book about a culture, almost anthropological. For most of the book, we have no real idea of the time period or even the specific setting (I could not find the named villages in my atlas). The book breaks into 3 sections, but they are not evenly spaced. I felt that the most interesting material - for a novel - was the conflict between cultures (white christian missionaries v traditional tribal and village ways), which does not enter until at least 2/3 of the way through. And then, to Achebe's credit, it's entirely told through African eyes, he does not even try to shift POV. Problem is, it's done so cursorily. For ex. (spoiler alert), Okonkwe's suicide: isn't that a scene that should be developed, played out, described? But no, we don't see it, don't learn much about it. It's true throughout the book: some major dramatic scenes as skimmed and some irrelevant (seemingly) scenes are played out in full. Ultimately, I think the value is in learning about the vanished village culture, and the book is remarkable for the boldness in portraying that culture as brutal and cruel, especially toward women. You'd expect this type of book to lead you to think that the white missionaries have destroyed a simple and beautiful way of life, but in fact the life of the village was horrible for many and the central character is a terrible brute (despite weak attempts to explain his life as a reaction to his wayward father). I don't know how most people react to this novel. I suspect many do romanticize the village life. If so, I would suggest: think about a novel that would portray this kind of character living in an eastern European village in the 19th century. Would you still sympathize with him? Or would you hope that he be destroyed? So I'm impressed with the honesty, the resistance to the urge to sentitimentlize and romanticize the past. Ultimatley, though, I kind of had it with all the ceremonies and yam-eating. Some of the writing is strong, some is repetitious (how many times to we hear Ok. wish that his daughter had been a boy?), some lines, though written in English, seem to cry out for a translator: "When [the bride] appeared holding a cock in her right hand, a loud cheer arose from the crowd." Hey, everyone should read this book once. I'd be interested in learning about more books about contemporary African culture and politics.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Why do we read? Why do I read? What do I read?

Why do we read, why do I read, what do I read? That's what I'm going to look at, ponder, scribble about, try to figure out. Let's not limit it to reading, either. What do I watch, what do we watch, why do we watch it - on TV, film, video, dvd, blu-ray, anything. I have spent so much of my life reading and deeply absorbed in movies of all kinds, and also a good deal of my life writing, again of all kinds, and I'm going to take a little time off from all that writing, or perhaps better to say engage in a different kind of writing, to chronicle what I read and (sometimes) what I watch every day, to try to make sense of all this material that enters my consciousness and, let's face it, changes me. A smart teacher I once had (J. Hillis Miller), one of those professors who showed up about once a month for class, well tolerated by my college because of his eminence, but no matter, said it very well, in a phrase that has stayed with me for all these years. We read to gain the consciousness of the consciousness of another (an other?). Yes, that is at the basis of it. But there is more to it. Think how narrow the world would be, your world would be, if you had never read a novel (or seen a movie). Think of what you wouldn't know, of whom you wouldn't know. But then again - what do we "know" from having read a novel? Do we know 18th-century English country life from reading Jane Austen? Or do we think we know because we have read her novels? She is an author, and therefor our "authority" for a certain world view that we adopt, and assume is real. Maybe it's not. But it is our point of access.

Right now I am in the midst (literally, midpoint of each) of two novels, totally different in setting and scope: War and Peace, and Things Fall Apart. Can you imagine two such different "worlds" or more accurately world-views populating anyone's brain at the same time? But this happens all the time! What will happen when I finish those books? How will they cohabit in my mind? To what extent will they determine who I am?