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

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Friday, February 12, 2010

Each great novel is great in its own way

All crappy novels are alike, but each great novel is great in its own unique way. Some final thoughts on the greatness of "War and Peace": First of all, its magnitude. It's almost the benchmark of cliche for a big novel, but don't take that to mean an unreadable novel, far from it (though many are daunted and think it's unreadable). It's probably not the biggest of all novels, certainly not if you count the novels in series such as Remembrance of Dance to the Music of Time, and maybe Man without Qualities. But it's probably the biggest novel that truly encompasses the arc of a single story. The other monsters are unique in part because of their style (Joyce) or their philosophical heft (Magic Mountain), but is any truly as approachable as War and Peace? It's epic, but also very personal, emotional - a coming of age story in some ways, as well as a historical novel. It's also great because of its clarity, which again will surprise some people put off by the Russian names, the historical digressions, and the many passages in French (which I enjoyed having a go at in French). But no, not really - as noted many times in these posts, his language is straightforward and economical (easy to translate, I would bet), and his descriptive eye is unmatched. Many scenes stay in memory, and would be worth rereading, reprinting, studying - to see the difficulty of achieving simplicity. Finally, there are the many strange passages (Rostov on the battlefield, Pierre released from captivity, most of all the death of Andrei, and others), something like epiphanies in Joyce but without the overlay of symbolism, in which characters grapple with the very essence of their lives, of the meaning of life, and come to some comprehension that lies just beyond the reach of words - the art of the novel push right up to the edge of its limits.

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