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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.

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