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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

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Are there parts of War and Peace that you would cut?

Continuing from yesterday's post on misconceptions about War and Peace. Friend Bill asked me yesterday: But aren't there some passages you have to slog through, that totally bore you? Actually, there aren't. It's a huge book of course, but Henry James was totally full of it when he called it a big messy bag of a book, or some such perjorative phrase (Bill is huge James fan, btw). The book coheres amazingly well. Though there are a vast # of characters and events, the characters' lives to intersect and inform one another, a constantly shifting pattern or relationships, loyalties, and desires. Still, all though could be true and there could still be langourous passages. Admittedly, War and Peace could be a 900 page novel instead of a 1,200-pager, but then it wouldn't be War and Peace, it would Thackeray. I guess you could, if you really wanted to, skip the passages in which Tolstoy expounds on his theories about the movement of historical forces. He comes back to this theme more than once: the general's decisions in battle are not the determinant of victory, history is not moved or led by the decisions of great men (they all were men, at that time) or leaders. By volume 4, we get it, and either believe it or don't (the theories were more shocking and unconventional ca 1865 than today). But I don't find these chapters tedious. They're all taut, well-written, and effective setups for the more action-driven chapters that follow. That is, reading Tolstoy's thoughts about the inability of a general to determine the course of a battle, once it's under way, helps us know how to read the subsequent chapters that depict General Kutuzov lumbering about, giving orders that are ignored or never received, launching into a "Downfall"-like tirade against to insignificant underlings. This book is an oceanic tide, and it's best to swim with the current and not resist the pull of Tolstoy's thinking, even at its most tendentious.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

War and Peace - Some common misunderstandings

Some common misperceptions about War and Peace: It's hard to read? No, it really isn't. In conversation with friends last night someone mentioned that they could never read it, that it would take them the rest of their life to do so, etc. It does take a long time, of course. There's so much material in the book, it covers such an expanse of time and so many families and lives. And the historical references are remote to most of us today. That said, the V&P translation has good notes to help with the history, to the extent you need and want it. And it does have a list of main characters - it would be good to tag that page, as you'll refer to it a lot, throughout the reading. The names are the biggest problem, as with all Russian lit for American readers, the many variants and titles and patronyms and so on. That alone will be a problem. Other than that, the prose is so clean and the story so clear and compelling that it's not difficult to read at all, totally absorbing. Brother-in-law Jay mentioned once that he remembers reading it and that Tolstoy went on for three long pages about someone donning a cloak. I never found this scene, and I think Jay was wrong. Tolstoy does not go on at great length unfolding descriptions, as Proust, famously, does. His scenes are driven by action (though they often include the unfolding of a character's thoughts, perceptions, or realizations) and are really models of concision. The two scenes referenced in the previous post are perfect example, from vol. 4 section 1: the execution that Pierre witnesses, and how it shakes his faith in humankind, and the death of Prince Andrei, so awful and chilling because so understated.

Friday, January 29, 2010

An amazing scary death scene

In contrast with the execution the Pierre witnesses that shakes him to the core of his belief, the death of Prince Andrei is quiet and private and terrifying - one of the truly great scenes in War and Peace. His sister, Marya, has traveled great distance to see him (he's staying with the Rostovs in, I think, Voronezh, north of Moscow). The Rostovs in their horrible way dote over Marya, so wealthy, a perfect match for their son Nikolai. She feels they're keeping her from seeing her brother, Andrei. Natasha runs up to her, explains, that he had been doing well, recovering from the battle wound, until a few days ago "this thing happened." Her very inability to explain "this thing" is terrifying. Then we see Andrei. He speaks without affect, soft and cold, and he's like a man who is already dead. Tolstoy brings us right into his consciousness, and it seems he had fought for life and could not longer hold on - the very demands of life, with its calls for love and even revenge or hatred (he recalls his old rival, Kuragin, and wonders if he is alive) - are too much. Death enters, and Andrei has passed to another kind of consciousness. He doesn't seem to be in pain or distress, but totally affectless and through with this world, even with his beloved Natasha, his sister, and finally his little son right by his side. There is nothing comforting here, it's really scary - much more so that the painful, agonized death of Ivan Illyich in that Tolstoy story. Incredibly powerful scene. Just a mention back to Pierre - he, shaken by the execution and almost thrown into nihilistic despair, he is lifted by contact with peasant soldier Platanov, simple and happy. Here's an attempt by Tolstoy to convey a peasant or working man, and it's totally sympathetic but a portrait from the outside, not the inside, as with the main characters. Must be based on someone Tolstoy knew.

Thursday, January 28, 2010


Moving into volume 4, the next few chapters of War and Peace reveal information about Sonya, and then, switching locales, about Pierre. Sonya first: after Nikolai Rostov receives the letter that "answers his prayer," the letter in which Sonya says he is under no obligation to marry her (how perverse and cruel this seems, Nikolai in ecstasy over the misery of his former beloved - surely a character flaw that will surely take its toll before the story is done), we see Sonya, the orphaned cousin among the Rostovs, outide Moscow. She reflects that she has literally enjoyed her many sacrifices for the good of the family that took her in because each sacrifice makes her more attractive to Nikolai. This one - the countess pressures her to send the letter, more cruelty and crassness of the Rostov clam - is different because she is renouncing the one justification for her continuous self-abasemenet. But she believes that her possible salvation is the recovery of Prince Andrei: somehow, if Andrei recovers and marries Natasha, Nikolai (Natasha's brother) will not be able to marry Marya (Andrei's sister). Why not? Never explained, but perhaps the point is if her brother Andrei survives Marya will not be so wealthy, not such a great catch for the scheming Rostovs. Sonya deserves better than them. Meanwhile, Pierre, under arrest, refusing to give his name, is led off with other prisoners to a field where soldiers prepare the grounds for execution. A cruel French general, Davout, questions Pierre but is interrupted by an orderly and gives no clear ruling on Pierre's fate (at least not that Pierre can hear). Pierre is led to the killing field and watches five prisoners be shot to death. He would be next, but then the killing stops. The French soldiers, forced to shoot, are sickened, miserable. A powerful scene, though of course no reader expects Pierre to be shot at this stage in the story.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Back to War and Peace

Picking up War and Peace at the beginning of volume 4: The first chapter, a gathering at Anna Pavlovna's salon, is very much a reprise of the first chapter of the novel (which also began with a gathering at Anna Pavlovna's), but this time, in the heart of war, the younger characters are all off, either in the army, injured, dying, or dead. It's a gathering of the old. They're in St. Petersberg, completely oblivious of the burning of Moscow. They're old fools, orating bombastic patriotic proclamations and gossiping - in this case about Helene, Pierre's wife, mortally ill with "angina." In short order, we learn that Helene has died, and she's disposed of like Kleenex. Even her father, Prince Vassily, barely seems to notice or care. We also get a glimpse of the emperor and the diplomatic corps - when he gets word of the defeat at Moscow, the emperor seems more concerned about responding with a bon mot (in French of course) than with any realistic response. In other words, this world is vapid, insular, and decadent, and we feel this even more acutely after seeing the devastation of Moscow and at Borodino. Meanwhile, outside of Moscow, Rostov is in a small city building supplies for his regiment (buying horses), when he comes across Marya Bolkonsky, in exile, whom he'd rescued from the mob as she was leaving her estate. He truly is in love with her, and he knows the match would please his family (she's very wealthy), but he has pledged his love to his counsin Sonya (they did things like that, apparently). Alomst in answer to a prayer, he gets a letter from Sonya freeing him of the commitment. Sonya obviously is sacrificing herself and her happiness, and we can't help but hope she will meet a good end - but it does seem unlikely. She has so little to offer, by the measures of her social world.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Amy and Isabelle at the end

A lot happens, maybe too much, in the last 70 or so pages of Amy and Isabelle. As is typical of many novels, you can see the author speeding along and trying to wrap up as many plot elements as possible before the novel grows out of control. The end is in sight! So, to mention just a few, Amy (with Stacy's ex-boyfriend) discover the decomposed body of the kidnapped girl; Amy has a kind of breakdown and is nurtured, at last, by Isabelle; Isabelle invites Avery and Mrs. Clark over for dessert and they never show up; Isabelle confesses to her friends from work (and fills us in at last) that Amy was born out of wedlock and she'd never been married. To top it off, in the last chapter they're on route to Mass. to meet Amy's half-siblings and we get some flashforwards to where all the characters, including others in Shirley Falls who make only cameos throughout the novel, will be 20 years hence. All that said, Strout is a smart and quirky writer. True, she gives some of the plot elements very short shrift, but other scenes are unfolded at great length, as she really lets us experience the inner life of the character (in particular, Isabelle's agony as she waits for the Clark's to show up for her pathetic little party, and her realization that her true friends are he coworkers and not her indifferent boss - scenes like this have been done elsewhere, but maybe never so well). These interior scenes, the characters in thought, are Strout's great strength. She kicks the novel along with dramatic or melodramtic plot elements (robberies in town, the kidnapped girl) but she doesn't handle these assuredly, whereas the interior life of the characters unfolds very beautifully - we know mother and daughter very well by the end of the novel. The long confessional scene in Isabelle's living room, with comic interludes as the women dry their tears with toilet paper, does not work for me at all - a classic example of telling rather than showing. But the final chapter works very well, as Isabelle comprehends and accepts the tension between her and her daughter and realizes that she will lose her, as all parents, to some degree, lose their children.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Amy v Isabelle and after - The Blowup

At about the halfway point in Amy and Isabelle we see the blowup between mother and daughter, and its aftermath. This is, apparently, the dramatic climax of the book, a peak of tension in the middle of the narrative, and all after (so far) seems to be an unwinding. We saw the cold-war standoff between A and I in the first chapter, then moved back in time, then forward until we've just about caught up with the starting point. At this point, we learn that in fact Isabelle learned that Amy was sexually involved with her math teacher from her boss, mill manager/owner Avery Clark, who tells her he's seen Amy in the parked car with Mr. Robertson "having his way with her." I found this not too credible, however - possible, I guess. (quibble: would Isabelle have called him anything but Mr. Clark ca 1975?). Anyway, Isabelle rushes home, has a huge blowout with Amy; part of her torment is that she'd almost rather that Amy had submitted unwillingly, but Amy tells her no, she want to have sex with Mr. R. This is both better and worse, for Isabelle. Isabelle drives over the Robertson's apartment, and tells him to get out of town. He tells her (liar) that Amy was sexually experienced. I guess it's convenient for the plot to simply move R offstage, but hard to believe - I'm sure someone like Isabelle, almost anyone, actually, would have gone first to school authorities and then, possibly, to the police. Isabelle returns home and in a fit of fury cuts Amy's hair (that Amy often used as a seductive screen). We then go through several more chapters of the sweltering summer: Amy's h.s. friend Stacy gives birth to a son, Amy spends some time with Stacy's ex, Isabelle desperately tries to "fit in," both at the mill and in town (the church). Her attempts are very sad, pathetic - an incredibly lonely woman. We still know little about her past, but there are hints that her story is much like Amy's (and Stacy's, for that matter).

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Unusual time scheme - author's decision? editor's?

About half-way through Amy and Isabelle, and now the time frame of the novel is more clear to me. Strout clearly delineates each chapter by its season through careful description of the weather, always extreme it seems. The first chapter takes place in a sweltering summer, with Amy working the mill office with her mom, Isabelle (it's a shoe mill, we learn, the smell of glue and leather pervasive, another eerie quality in this book, as we look from our vantage upon this doomed industry that at the time, ca 1975, seems the economic engine that drives this small Maine town). At end of first chapter we learn that Amy's friend, Stacy, is pregnant. Next chapter, is it winter? late fall?, Amy and Stacy hanging out at school - I'd thought we were moving forward in time, but it gradually becomes evident that we have jumped back, that the first chapter, chronologically, should have come after chapter 7: when Amy first has intimate sexual contact with her math teacher, Mr. Robertson, and when the mill owner (Avery Chase) discovers them and, though it's not clear yet how this happens, Amy's mother, Isabelle, learns about her daughter. This explains the harshness and coldness we see, esp from Isabelle's side, in the first chapter. I really think the book should have been a straight chronology, and I wonder if an editor advised otherwise - it did no favors for a very well-written narrative. Now, halfway through, we much better understand the tensions between the two title characters - Isabelle feels entirely betrayed by her daughter, Amy, whom she had thought was staying after school for clubs etc. Isabelle feels humiliated, too - always thought she was smarter and more sophisticated than her fellow workers at the mill, and that a good mother would know if her daughter was in trouble, and now finds she's no better or different from them. We still don't know about her past and expect there's something that led her to settle in a town among strangers with her young daughter - doubt she's a widow. We also don't know what happens to Mr. Robertson, or even whether Amy knows that her mother (and others) know about their relation. The sex scene in Robertson's car is very well done and extremely creepy, nothing much harder to write than that! I do have a quibble, though, regarding plot creekiness: impossible for me to believe, in small town high school, that nobody would have noticed Robertson's inappropriate attention toward Amy. She's in his class after school every day, he starts driving her home every day, parks in her driveway where they kiss, ever day. Nobody's suspicious? Come on! Then they go for walks in the woods. And the first time they have sex in his car, something draws Avery to stop his car, get out, and see what's going on in this car parked off road mid-day? No way. But, accepting story for what it is, this is becoming quite a compelling novel.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

But it grows on you

About a third of the way through Amy and Isabelle and, I have to say, it does grow on you (me). In yesterday's post I described Strout's world as "bad things happen to dull people," but they're not really dull (well, maybe a little), it's really more: Bad things happen to sad people. Her world is full of darkness and sorrow, and there are these scary things happening on the periphery: a teenage pregnancy in the first chapter, a kidnapping of a 12-year-old, now a series of break-ins/robberies. They haven't touched the lives of the central characters, yet, and maybe they won't, but they define the nature of the world they live in. It's also always cold, freezing snow, early sunset - it's Maine in winter. And always the enclosed sense of a small, provincial town where the great yearnings are for a trip to Boston for shopping or a hair-salon (the dentist's wife can afford this), which Isabelle thinks about with envy. It's a bit heavy handed that she's reading Madame Bovary, isn't it? (Also not credible that she's not well educated and picks up Hamlet and zeros in on most of the key passages.) Isabelle is the particularly sad character, and her lineaments are not yet clear - much less appears to be happening in her life, other than her struggles with her "moody" daughter, Amy, and her unrequited crush on her boss, the mill manager, Avery, one of the haves in the town. More focus, so far, on Amy, and the plot settling into her (parallel) crush on her math teacher. His behavior is totally inappropriate, obviously foucusing on a vulnerable, shy, powerless, outsider girl - and we'll see how far he gets and what consequences he will face.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Plot ... widens

Elizabeth Strout's world is a place where bad things happen to dull people. Okay, that's too harsh. Still. She introduces these very ordinary, quiet, characters, demure and indistinct, ordinary people in an ordinary town, and then crime and tragedy crash down all around them like hail. After about 20 pretty quiet pp in the first chapter during which she introduces the two title characters, she ends it with a snap with the word that Amy's best friend (17 years old?) is pregnant. The next chapters introduce other major plot strands: a new (substitute) math teacher, Mr. Roberts, is making obviously inappropriate flirtatious even sexual comments about Amy. Amy is deeply troubled by the kidnapping of a 12-year-old in a nearby Maine town. All these incidents, but she's the calm within the storm. Most of the narrative concerns her relation with her mother. At first I thought Strout was fumbling a bit, as it wasn't clear if they got along well or if they were virtually estranged, but the more I read the more I think, yes, this is the way a teenage girl would relate to her mother, sometimes embarassed to be seen with her and can't bother to answer her questions or open conversation, and then soothing her mother with a touching remark ("you're pretty, too"). Four chapters in and a lot of material been set down but not clear where the story's going - though probably nowhere happy. And we still haven't opened up the mystery of why Isabelle moved to his town 14 years back with her young daughter. Is it true she was widowed? It's one of those very well-written and ominous books when you know something horrible's going to happen and you don't want to be caught unaware.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Very Down East

Amy and Isabelle is apparently Elizabeth Strout's first novel. I've read two others by her, both pretty much going over the same native soil: depressed people in a depressed town in a wintry landscape on the coast of Maine. It's not really my favorite fiction territory, but the books are saved by some sharp writing and occasional flareups of tension and existential angst. Amy and Isabelle looks, from first chapter, to be of a piece with the others, though maybe a bit more carefully crafted and conventional in structure. First chapter introduces the eponymous mother and daughter who, during a sweltering summer (a break from Maine convention there) work together in the office of a mill (ca 1975 - a sense of doom hangs over the whole enterprise). Neither A nor I seems particularly attractive or interesting, and their coworkers even less so, so you wonder how Strout will sustain this for 300 or so pages, but she is a careful craftswoman and meticulously build the character and the setting through shrewd observations and detail: cooking hamburgers for dinner in the terrible heat, the awkward silences of the dinner, the mother (Isabelle's) strained attempts at conversation, he inner thoughts about how she actually does not like Amy (though she remembers her as a lovable youth - Amy is now about 17), all seem true and believable, though not comfortable or pleasant. It's going to be a very flinty and difficult story, we realize, as we settle into it. The first chapter ends with a bit of a firecracker, as Amy tells her mother (would she really?) that one of her friends is pregnant.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Two great scenes end volume III

Great scene no. 1: Prince Andrei, mortally wounded. Amazing descriptions that give you the grim sense of how horrible, primitive, painful medical treatment of the wounded was in the 19th century. His flesh rotting away, the smell of it and the look of it, the agony he feels as they turn him to dress the wounds. All this is going on in, or to, his body - but his mind is both delirious and so alive, as he remembers what he had perceived about love, when he was next to his dying rival, Kuragin, and came to understand that it was true love to love your enemy - because only then do we understand what it is to be human. He remembers Natasha, realizes he has loved and hated her, more than anyone, and she appears - real to us, but perhaps he thinks she is a vision. And then he offers her his hand, which we had seen before from Natasha's POV, and Tolstoy tells us then that she stays with him and nurses him, perhaps back to life, we're not sure. She, also, discovers true love - but for her it is almost a penance, whereas for Andrei it's a christlike gesture of benediction. As this segment unfolds, we also see Pierre, in the burning Moscow, still plotting to assassinate Napoleon, but he sees a woman, not attractive, not healthy-looking, in the street in tears and he goes into the burning city to rescue the woman's child. Pierre somehow becomes a hero. After the rescue, he steps in to stop a French soldier from stealing the boots off an Armenian man, as other soldiers bother his beautiful daughter. The French arrest Pierre - do they see that he is carrying a dagger and a pistol? - and take him away. Essentially, we have two different types of sacrifice, and two different types of suffering (mental and physical), and two different abasemnets at the end of volume III.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Pierre gets co-opted

Just as War and Peace threatens to become a Dostoyevsky novel - Pierre gets the idea that he's going to assassinate Napoleon (this explains why he's wearing a kaftan and disguising himself as a workingman) - Pierre gets co-opted. He's sleeping on a couch in a mansion owned by his late benefactor (the man who introduced him to the Masonic temple), when a French officer comes in to take over the place for billeting. A crazy old man who'd been living there tries to shoot the officer, Pierre (who till then had pretended he didn't speak French), deflects the shot and saves the officer's life. The office (Rampalle?) then insists that Pierre (now speaking French) dine with him. They eat and drink well, the officer goes on at great length about his adventures in love and war, Pierre is rather silent. Rampalle asks about Pierre's love life; in great contrast with the officer, Pierre says he has loved only one woman, and in recollecting his lifelong adoration of Natasha, Pierre realizes that his life has been tragic and that he still loves only her - remembers that moment of her calling to him as she flies by in the carriage leaving Moscow. Quite beautiful - another one of those great interior moments in War and Peace. We then see Natasha, a few miles outside of Moscow, deeply depressed. She now knows that Prince Andrei is mortally wounded and part of her family caravan. (Sonya told her, to Countess Rostov's ire.) In the distance, Moscow is burning. Natasha fakes sleep, gets up in the night, and goes into Andrei's room. She's terried at what he might look like. She hasn't seen him in years - certainly not since she jilted him for Kuragin. He sees her, smiles, and reaches out his hand. Another beautiful moment, especially in counterpoint to what we have just learned about Pierre. Natasha has surely become the emotional center of the story.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Rastopchin the monster

If Tolstoy is contemptuous of Napoleon, he despises Count Rastopchin, who seems to be in charge of Moscow during the invasion by the French (not clear to me exactly what he role is, probably some kind of appointment from the czar). After he portrays him bitterly as largely responsible for the chaos in the city thanks to his many conflicting and completely mendacious public proclamations (Kutozov will defend the city to the last, etc.), now he shows him in panic as the masses press into his courtyard. To effect his escape literally out the back door, he in turns over a prisoner to the crowd and lets them beat the prisoner to death. We've passed beyond Nixon here into the realm of Saddam Hussein et al., men totally without principle who believe their acting in the best interest of others. Ratopchin rationalizes, as he leaves the city, that he had to do this for the public good (he thinks in French, another sign of contempt). Meanwhile, Tolstoy's view of people on mass is pretty repulsive as well - he again is unable or unwilling to see the working classes as anything but a malignant presence. He sees no individuals, just a swarm. And speaking of swarm - I noted previously that Tolstoy rarely uses metaphor and simile except in the most unoriginal way (e.g., the light shined off the golden domes like stars), but he does, especially in these sections describing the broader sweep of history, use analogies often. Most are not terribly original, but he does use them, like a good teacher, to clarify his point: soldiers entering a deserted city like pouring water on dry ground, soon both the water and ground will disappear and you'll have mud; an army after battle (I think that's what he was describing) like a dying beehive (which he describes for several pages - he truly did care deeply about agrarian life, his writing always brightens when he describes work on a farm or estate, see also Anna Karenina). Ultimately, these are some of the darkest passages (so far) in War and Peace.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Napleon the fool

Man, does Tolstoy hate Napoleon - takes a while for his vitriol to build up, though. In the early part of War and Peace, when Napoleon is depicted at the battle of 3 emporers, he seems smart and kind and an object of reverence (of course he won that battle), but by the time he's about to enter Moscow Tolstoy is really ready to let him have it (it's more credible for having been built up slowly and carefully). Napoleon looks like a fool, surveying the (empty) city, expecting to be greeted as a conquering hero, planning to rename the public buildings, bringing enlightenment, the partner of Alexander, etc. When his soldiers find that the city has been deserted, their biggest concern is how to break the news - they fear his wrath, nothing worse to Napoleon than looking ridiculous (like Hitler in Downfall?, like Nixon?). Manwhile, we also watch the last exodus from the city - the fights in the taverns and at the bridges, drunken workmen, total chaos. Again it seems to me that Tolstoy cannot portray the life of ordinary people except "en masse." These passages are full of action, but no character comes to life and none has an inner life, in the sense that Pierre, Andrei, and others in the nobility do. This section of War and Peace has largely stepped away from the interior lives of characters and examines the forces and follies of history.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Leaving Moscow

This may be the most "cinematic" chapter in War and Peace: the Rostovs have finished packing their belongings, there's lots of chaos as they decided at the last moment what to take and what to leave, they have honorably given up many of their carts and carriages to serve as "caleches" for the wounded soldiers also being evacuated. Lots of fumbling about at the last minute, the old servants totally familiar with the behavior of the Rostovs, how they will inevitably want to to back to pick up forgotten items, how the Countess will want the driver to go more slowly, etc. At last their packed and off, and we see that what looked like one family's drama has been unfolding all across the city - hundreds, maybe thousands, of these caravans heading out of Moscow, while all around the streets are filled with Muscovites arming for a final battle on Three Hills. Most of the people on the streets are the poor of the city - but among them Natasha spies Pierre (easy to spot, he's huge) dressed apparently as a servant. He runs up the carriage, they almost seem to touch hands, and the carriage is gone. We learn that Pierre is in disguise and hoping to join the fight - he's en route to buy a pistol. So much happening in this chapter and beautifully conveyed with great economy. In the background, we know that among the wounded soldiers in the Rostov caravan is Prince Andrei, dying - Natasha does not know this yet. Her mother and Sonya keep the info from her as they know that it will send her into a spin, and they need her energy and good sense.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Which side are you on?

Just a note here about War and Peace as I'm now about 3/4ths of the way through the book and still really enjoying it. I can't say that I'm totally lost in its world, as sometimes happens with a tremendous and tremendously compelling novel, but that's might fault in that I'm reading it pretty slowly and have not had one of those long cold nights when you dive into a few hundred pages at a stretch. One observation though that's somewhat strange and surprising: I don't know that much about Tolstoy's life, though I think he is well known for his liberal attitude toward the serfs and I think he did free the serfs on his own estate. But it seems to me that his novel is very much confined to the POV of his own social class. The occasional peasant, of muzhik as he often calls them, and even the working-class and the footsoldiers, are always just past-throughs, fixtures, part of the furniture, living machines. The only characters who have an inner life and an intellectual life are the nobility and the highly educated. I can't fault someone for writing about his world, about what he knows, and writing beautifully and intelligently is always an accomplishment, and I'd even say that I respect him for not sentimentalizing the peasants or writing about them in a way that would be dishonest. But within a book that is often justly praised for encompassing a whole world, the entire scope of Russian society, it's important to realize that the "whole world" is just an illusion - it's still, inevitably, part of a world and bound by the limitations of the character's vision and, more important, the author's.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The uber-narrator

I'm reading T.C. Boyle's story, A Death at (some weird place name I can't remember, somewhere on Long Island?) in this week's New Yorker, haven't finished, but it's a good story, like just about everything he writes, short stories especially. I know he has his fans, but he may be underappreciated because he's so prolific : 8 books of stories and counting, plus a dozen novels. Anyway, this one seems very good, and he tries something with the narration that I've never seen before. He tells the story, about interactions among some families, mostly Jewish, in a lakeside community, in the mid-70s, over the course of a few months I think - time and place a little foggy, but maybe I was reading inattentively, not clear if it's a summer resort or, as seems more likely as story unfolds, a yearround community on a lake. Anyway, about every 20 paras or so Boyle breaks into the narrative with a bracketed para or two in smaller type. These passages are first-person commentary on the characters in the story, from the POV of a minor character, who may or may not appear on the periphery of the narrated events (one of the other kids in the neighborhood, a friend of some of the teenage guys in the story) - the sense being that the brackted passages are Boyle's own comments on the events of the story, which creates the weird illusion that the story itself is not his. With this technique, he can tell the story in two ways, or two strands/dimensions, and both own and disown it at the same time. It's a little like the first-person plural that others have used to recollect communal events from their you: Alice McDermott, Jeffrey Eugenides. Here, though, in a more daring form, though only for the breadth of a story. Hard to bring off at greater length, though Nabokov did, for a very different effect (Pale Fire).

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Hey, wait a minute!

Isn't Prince Andrei supposed to be dead? Tolstoy, craftilly, never actually showed him die. But a few chapters back Pierre is informed of Andre's death. And now, he turns up, on a litter, needing shelter, and who takes him in? Drumroll: The Rostovs (his former fiancee Natasha is not yet aware of this). Another one of those coincidences we accept in a novel, especially a Gargantuan one. Tolstoy had spent many chapters depicting the fog of war, the misinformation that infests the atmosphere of the battlefield. And now this pays a plot dividend - we can understand why Pierre may have received misinformation about Andrei's fate. So Andrei's recovering at the Rostov Moscow mansion as the Rostovs still try, fecklessly, to join the exodus. Natasha takes control, and she's pretty good at giving orders. And then it's very touching how all the carts and wagons the she packs get unpacked to help with the evacuation of the wounded soldiers. The Rostovs will, probably, be able to leave safely at last once they pare their belongings down to nothing. Their possessions would have literally killed them - a very beautiful touch. Sonya's character is ambiguous and a bit confusing at this section. Does she resist turning the carts and wagons over to the wounded soldiers? She clearly has no stable position in the Rostov family, one of several characters in the book (e.g., the French woman who's Marya Bolkonsky's friend) who are mere appendages and, to a degree, amusements for their host families. In a way, these dependents are worse off and weaker than the serfs - entirely vulnerable. Will be interesting to see how her fate unfolds.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Should I stay or should I go?

The French army is approaching. What's a Muscovite to do? The leadership (Rastropov? can't remember his name) is ludicrously ineffective, sending out conflicting messages and instructions. Rumors fly. Nobody knows what the truth is or what the hell to do about it. Tolstoy focuses on Pierrre and on the Rostov family, who seem headed on different courses (inevitably to meet somewhere). Rastropov chews out Pierre, accusing him of being a Mason (true) and a pacifist (not true), and Pierre, thinking somehow of his latest mystical vision, which came to him as he wandered, half-dazed, away from the battle of Borodino thinking about, if I remember right, everything being hitched together like a carriage (much like Forster's "only connect" I think), decides to hell with it, goes home, sleeps, wakes, and, while people who "have business with him" wait in his sitting room, takes off out the back door, apparently not to be seen again till the siege is lifted. The Rostovs, meanwhile, are trying to leave Moscow but in their ineffectual way are bungling everything, the Countess doting over her younger son, home from the Army, the children accomplishing nothing, the Count likewise. They pack, but don't get off the dime. Can't help feeling bad for Sonya, who now realizes that Nikolai is lost to her (he's written his mother about his meeting with the wealthy Marya Bolkonsky, and his mother insensitively talks about what a great match that will be, which Sonya concedes). There has to be someone for Sonya, right? All this frivolity building up to what I imagine will be scenes of horror as the French move in, and then retreat. Which will be worse - the battle or the occupation?

Monday, January 11, 2010

Clearing the way for Pierre

Tolstoy works out some plot points, now that he's set the pieces in place for the abandonment of Moscow. It's become increasingly obvious that, one way or another, Pierre has to end up with Natasha (Pierre is the most Tolstoyan of the characters, and I read somewhere that Natasha was modeled on Madame Tolstoya). So now, it's confirmed: Prince Andrei is dead, and so is Anatole Kuragin (they die side-by-side, apparently, in the field hospital). But Pierre is still married to the vacuous but beautiful Helene. These few chapters focus on Helene's desire to divorce Pierre. She, as usual, is surrounded by admirers, including now a young foreign prince and an older courtier (neither one named, for some reason - are they based on real people?). She gets a plan mind (she carefully checks this out with a Jesuit priest whom she's also charmed) to divorce Pierre (some weird sort of annulment I guess), marry the older guy, make him happy, he'll die, then she can marry the young prince. None of this makes a great deal of sense, except to her. All of Petersburg society talks of her divorce - an amazing counterpoint to Moscow society, leaving the city to the French invaders. The one thing that might make her scheme work is that Pierre will agree to the divorce, for his own reasons.

Also read yesterday: story in the New Yorker by Jennifer Egan, Safari, one of the better stories they've run in sometime. Focuses on a family ca 1975, dad a record producer, traveling with his much younger girlfriend and to adolescent kids, others on the safari include a British ex-pat tour guide/hunter, some supposed birdwatchers, various near-celebrity musicians (clients of dad). Story is something like Atonement, centering on one event of series of closely related incidents that will reverberate, tragically, across the lives of the characters. There's material for a novel here, but oddly Egan breaks convention and in several interpolated passages tells us what happens to each of the characters throughout the longer course of their lives. But maybe this is the best way to tell this story - if it can be done effectively in a story, why stretch it out to a novel? Writers hate to squander material, but sometimes effficiency and compression is a useful strategy.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Retreat from Moscow - the generals confer

Wait a minute? Didn't the Russians win the battle of Borodino, routing the French army? But winning a battle isn't enough. Gereral Kutozov knew that his forces were too depleted to attack the French the day after the battle. He begins a retreat, not just back to Moscow but beyond. Does this make any sense? It certainly gives Tolstoy the opportunity to further expound on his theory of history (beginning now 3rd section of volume 3), the most didactic single chapter in the book (and yes, here, oddly, he does use metaphors, or at least analogies - turning fiction on its head and being more "literary" in style in the expository sections of War and Peace than in the descriptive narratives). History is not made by great leaders, nor by single decisive events. The forces of history are the thousands, millions of forces at work in the lives of all citizens. Tolstoy obviously stands at the beginning of contemporary methods in historical studies - lives of workers, serfs, popular culture, etc. My sense is this movement was already well afoot (Marx's own historical writings touch on this, although my memory of books like Marx's 18th Brumaire is that they did still focus on great men). Tolstoy was probably popularizing a movement that was just then nascent in academia and is now, I think, dominant - for good reason. War and Peace is the literary demonstration of its principles. The generals confer in the rather large but rudimentary home of a peasant or serf. Kutozov, as is his way, says very little, sighs and moans, lets the others fight it out, then tells them of his decision: They have to abandon Moscow and retreat farther east. Tactically, it may be smart move, but it seems a very tough call for a general, especially after a victory. This scene is observed by a little peasant girl - she thinks of Kutozov as "grampa," in another strange but signature Tolstoy techniques. He doesn't exactly use these "outsiders" as the POV, in that we don't enter the girl's (or, earlier for example, Pierre's consciousness - we are outside, godlike), but the outsider represents a point of reference, they help us to feel that others could gain entry to these scenes, whether private meeting, a party, a battle, a duel, and see the events much as we might. These characters are standins not for the author but for the reader.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The smoke clears, the battle ends

End of the battle at Borodino. Here Tolstoy really lets Napoleon have it, the most judgmental and tendentious part of the book so far. He quotes from N's diaries as to how this was a war to expand civilization, and then Tolstoy cuts to the battlefield, 50,000 or so dead, many wounded, suffering, smoky ruins, and pretty directly states that the invasion of Russia was naked aggression and ambition, cruel and unprovoked. To be fair, the Russian general (Kutuzov) is no great hero, either - perhaps more humane than N., with his teary eyes and his signature "my dear" and "my good man" as he gives orders. He does, however, light into one of the German/Prussian generals, whom he suspects of giving him bad intelligence. Tolstoy at times veering toward the xeonophobic - only the Russians ("our forces," he often says) a noble and valorous. As to the final battle scenes, has anyone written better about the tedium and terror of troops waiting to attack (or be attacked)? We've kind of lost site of Pierre by this point and are entirely with Prince Andrei, pigheaded and impatient, blown apart by some sort of explosive, unnecessarily it seems, then carried off to the field hospital, an incredibly gruesome scene, the doctor with his small and bloody hands, exhausted, the wounded screaming and moaning, four men holding a soldier down while a surgeon cuts off his leg. One of the improbabilies that could never happen in the world but that we accept in the diminutive world of even a massive novel: Andrei and his nemesis, Anatole Kuragin, whom he had sought across Europe, is on the next litter (he's the one who's leg is being amputated), and Andrei fogives him in his heart - another vision. As this section ends (spoiler), it appears that Andrei is dead but we don't know that, yet, for a fact. That would certainly clear the way for Pierre and Natasha, right? The whole section very wrenching, draining - you feel as if you've fought the battle. The Russians hold off the French, but don't have the strength in reserve to finish off the French army. So many lives lost, such carnage, for what? On another note, old friend Leslie Gutterman reminds me of the Woody Allen line: he took an Evelyn Woods course, read War and Peace in 7 minutes. It's about Russia. (I read it first 30 years ago and could have said about the same.)

Friday, January 8, 2010

Novels without Metaphors

Following up on yesterday's observation that Tolstoy rarely uses metaphor, I've been thinking of other novelists who don't and the first whom comes right to mind is Jane Austen. Offhand, you wouldn't think that Tolstoy and Austen have a lot in common, stylistically, thematically, temporally, but in fact I think they do both share this trait of style. And when you think about that, you realize that, yes, Austen, like Tolstoy, is a writer who is somehow transparent. She presents a particular world, her world, but we rarely see her. Or at least we don't see her "writerliness." We do sometimes hear Austen (and Tolstoy) when the expostulate about human nature (the famous: It is a truth universally acknowledged...) or human behavior (Tolstoy's extensive discussions about the forces of history). But though both (particular Austen) write about domestic affairs and the subtleties of social strata, they are completely different from the other great novelists of social behavior - I'm thinking here of Proust, who stands at the exact opposite end of the sprectrum, his writing superabundant with metaphor, a style that constantly makes you aware of the presence, the genius of the writer. To read Proust is to be lost in his style; to read Tolstoy or Austen is to be lost in their world.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Fog of War

Prince Andrei's theory of battle proving right: Russians prevailing at Borodino because their forces are more fierce, confident, and determined. The French army is in disarray, falling apart. There's smoke and mist everywhere. Napoleon in particular - the focus of this section of the battle sequence - is "in the dark," completely unaware of the position and status of his forces. (Apparently same is true for Russian general Kutuzov, though Tolstoy does not depict this, yet. It's part of his point, however, that general's orders and strategies are not decisive events in battle - chance plays a huge role, and afterwards we honor the supposed brilliant tactics of the winning side.) Obviously bearing a national animus against Napoleon, Tolstoy shows him drinking punch and coming up with odd quips and apercus as his army falls apart. Two observations on Tolstoy's style: he extremely rarely uses similes or metaphors of any kind, and when he does they are almost pedestrian figures of speech. His writing just "is," another reason why his novels seem like "the world writing itself." Metaphor is writerly, showing the skill and perspicacity of the author. He rarely needs or chooses to do so. Also note that he uses passive voice a lot in description (hills in the distance could be seen, e.g.,), unless this is just a quirk of the Volkonsky Pavear translation. I think, however, that he does so because, even though the uses characters as a lens (Pierre viewing the battlefield before and during combat), he doesn't want to limit our viewpoint to theirs, he doesn't want to enter their consciousness (Pierre saw...) nor to address us directly (You could have seen...) - rather, the passive, makes the scene more universal and permanent.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

On the battlefront

Now we see why Tolstoy spent so much time meandering around the battlefield of Borodino with the corpulent civilian, Pierre. The battle begins, and he wants to see the action. Amazingly, improbably, he wanders into the thick of the battle on horseback. He settles in among an artillery division at one of the key hills, or redoubts I think Tolstoy calls them. At first, he's in the way, he has no idea what to do and nobody has any idea why he's there. Neither do we, frankly. Except - he's Tolstoy's entry into the scene. He's the lens through which Tolstoy can describe the action, and a particularly effective one as he's disengaged - like an artist painting a canvas. Through Pierre's eyes, we have a rather amazing description of the puffs of smoke that appear in the distance and that are followed seconds later by booms or pops of sound. At first, the distant field is filled with these tiny puffs, but gradually the smoke becomes dense, and Pierre for a time loses his way. The battle engulfs him, everything changes gradually but suddenly, like a pot coming to boil. Before we know it we're in the thick of battle. The soldiers say they're afraid but don't show it at all. Pierre has no fear. He volunteers to carry a message, I think to another company, and an explosion knocks him off his horse and to the ground. I don't know if Tolstoy ever witnessed or participated in a firefight or a full-out battle. Unlike some of the earlier chapters, in which the generals prepare for war, these chapters feel lived in, experienced, rather than researched.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The rivals meet before the battle

As we get near to the Battle of Borodino, Tolstoy shifts our POV to Prince Andrei, and here we get another one of those extreme interior moments in which the character experiences or observes something that makes him ponder his own fate and the entire nature of the universe - a little like what Joyce would later call an epiphany, but in Tolstoy it's all a little bit more heavy-handed and explicated. Prince Andrei looks across the battlefield, actually just a field at this point, and imagines that he might die in the battle. And he sees all the trees and hills and the flowing river (I think he remarks on this) and realizes that the world will continue even when he is no longer in it, and he tries to imagine how this can be so, and his mind cannot really comprehend this all-too-obvious fact. Hasn't everyone had that thought, and tried to imagine what "life would be like without you"? It's sad and shocking feeling, both egotistical - aren't I the center of everything? the very reason for its being? - and self-deprecating to the extreme: I am nothing in this world, I pass through and change nothing, the world will go on. After this realization, Pierre literally stumbles onto the scene and Andrei uneasily welcomes him. These two have had a complex and strained relationship for hundreds of pages (7 years) now, even though they have rarely been in a scene together. Pierre visited Andrei when Andrei was recently widowed and deeply depressed, and he helped to bring him back to life - which Andrei still, I think, resents somewhat. Now, though they don't know it, they are each in love with Natasha - Andrei jilted by her, and Pierre turning away from her because he cannot marry her. Gradually, this conflict must rise up and turn the friends on each other, destroy their friendship, or bond them in some mysterious way yet to be seen.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Before the battle of Borodino

War and Peace gets a little squirrely and strange before the battle of Borodino. Pierre, as noted previously, becomes the lens through which Tolstoy surveys the battleground. In another one of those odd but somehow plausible coincidences, Pierre comes across Dolokhov just before the battle. Dolokhov, whom Pierre had wounded in a duel back in volume 1, asks for Pierre's forgiveness. Then, if I'm remembering correctly, Pierre runs into Boris Dubrosky (sp?), who has risen high in the ranks and in society through his inveterate social climbing and his general opportunism and obsequiousness. Boris offers to give Pierre a tour of the fortigifications and battle lines. I suppose all of this is possible, but could a civilian really wander around like this just pondering the view? This great novel is literally slipping out of Tolstoy's hands here for a few moments (chapters), as the novelist is so intent on depicting the great battle that he loses sight of his characters and their motivations, feelings. They just observe, they don't (Pierre doesn't) do anything much and even say anything much during this stretch. Pierre is a really great and intriguing character - in some ways, I would guess, the closest stand-in for Tolstoy himself. But he needs more of an edge at this point of the book. Pierre actually comes more to life in the drawing room than on the battlefield - though I await to see what becomes of him once the battle begins.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Tolstoy's battle plan

Everyone's surprised (and relieved?) to come across, at about page 750, a map! This is Tolstoy's sketch of the lines of battle at Borodino, where General Kutuzov faces off against Napoleon. In this chapter, Tolstoy again works through his theories or views on history, particularly military history. As brother-in-law Jay Stone pointed out to me, his views (like Solzhenitsyn's much later) are that the outcome of a battle is determined so much by chance and happenstance, so many factors come into play, that it's almost meaningless to speak of military genius or tactical decisions. History is made up of thousands, millions, of discrete and chance events - not only a general's decision as to where to deploy the forces but also a foot soldier's decision as to whether to eat breakfast. Seems odd for one who devotes so much time to analyzing the character and behavior of military and political leaders. Tolstoy uses Pierre, perhaps the character closest in POV to Tolstoy himself?, as a lens through which to see the battle preparations at Borodino (just west of Moscow). Military operations are extremely difficult to depict in fiction - for the very reason that Tolstoy raises. Writers tend to focus on the vast movement of troops, the strategy, the outcome - but fiction calls for individuals and characters and specific actions - not the advance of the cavalry but the feelings and observations of a soldier on horseback. Easy to lose the big picture in the particulars or to lost the individuals in the massive action. Reminds of the old quip about the line in screenplays that drives directors insane: The army crosses the battlefield. Oh, great - one line of direction, and million different ways to show it. Same with fiction: many decisions, and the challenge of both big canvas and sharp focus. Part of what Tolstoy is working toward is the sense in which military life and even warfare can include great stretches of tedium, even serenity, whereas "peace," civilian life during time of war, can include great moral and emotional turbulence.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Characters or characteristics?

Reading about General Kutuzov, the old serenity as they call him, and trying to recall to mind elements of Tolstoy's portrayal of GK: his eyes tear up, he is corpulent, he quotes pithy wisdom to Prince Andrei, advises Andrei to avoid making decisions (abstiner, fr.), his is blind (in one eye?), he hears poorly (ear stuffed with hemp) - these are just what I can recall, from the one chapter. These are "characteristics." I recall from years ago a writing seminar with John Barth in which JB advised that if you couldn't create a character just bestow a lot of characteristics and readers may mistake this for a character. That may have been a comic downfall of Barth's, but it was shrewd advice. Many writers get by with "characteristics," though few do it well (e.g., Dickens) - such severe and surprising and well-articulated characterstics that the need for character is almost obliterated. Tolstoy is not like this. His characteristics emerge from character and inform character. Kutuzov, for example, is a figure within a historical setting. We have seen him in action, in the battle at Austerlitz, which he lost nobly, and now he has been summoned to quell the many voices of the generals - too many generals from too many armies with too many opinions - and to defend Moscow. He seems weary from the weight of the entire empire on his shoulders. His apparent lethargy may be borne of necessity - his incapacity for action - 0r from genius, luring Napoleon deeper into the heart of Russia so as to entrap him.

Friday, January 1, 2010

How many people in a novel?

I find it strange that even - especially? - in a vast novel like War and Peace, in which Tolstoy creates the illusion that he is depicting an entire world - because of the multiple families, the vast historical sweep, the variety of settings, the contrast not only between the two major eponymous themes of the book but also (to a lesser extent) between classes - there is a counterpoint as well. At the same time that we feel that the novel is vastly populated, it also feels tiny and in a way contrived. This sense is heightened almost to the point of the ridiculous in the chapter in which Nikolai Rostov, retreating with his troops toward Moscow, stops at an estate for no obvious reason - to get provisions? - and it just happens to be the estate of the other major family in the novel (Bolkonsky), where he finds Princess Marya in fear and mourning, and he stands up for her against the revolt of the muzhiks (serfs) and escorts her to safety - and obviously a romance is about to bloom. In all of Russia, he rescues the woman whose brother had been engaged to his sister. This makes the novel feel both grand and claustrophobic, contrived. The exact same feelins arise in Proust and in Powell's Dance to the Music of Time (the latter to a literally laughable extent). But as I think about it, life is or can be this way as well, filled with odd coincidences and tiny degrees of separation, and we remark on this all the time. Novelists have to work through this terrain very carefully. The plot must not feel contrived or preposterous, except occasionally for comic effect (e.g., Dickens). But the threads of the story msut be drawn together through interaction of characters, and a novel, even an enormous one, can contain only so many (a counterexample may be The Man Without Qualities, which is constantly introducing new characters, and which I could not finish). How do you cross the characters' lives without resorting to contrivance? What effect do you want, what effect do you achieve? Tolstoy, as you'd expect, achives a virtually perfect balance between a vast world, the illusion of the whole world, through selective representation (cf. Chaucer), and the sense of a tiny, insular society in which the characters live within their limited visions and social sphere, ignorant of the world around them.