Saturday, December 31, 2011

And So I Have Finished and I Conclude

Reading War and Peace was all the adventure I had hoped. Though I cannot say I found it immaculate as a work of art, War and Peace, "loose baggy monster" that it is, has so very many virtues, and so much I can learn from as a writer, that I only wish I'd read it years sooner. I also feel immensely grateful to have had the chance to enter into this long ago world of Russia before, during, and after Napoleon's invasion.

Susan Sontag said the novel is an education of the heart. How true this is, and how splendidly well -- apart from a few clunky digressions-- Tolstoy does this. A good novel, a novel such as War and Peace, lets the reader experience not cheap thrills to pass the time but a real sense of other lived lives. As foreign as he is to me, Pierre is me. Nikolai is me. Old Countess Rostov, Bolkonsky, Kutuzov, Bilibin, Dolokhov, Sonya, Napoleon-- all of them, for I, as we all, have uncounted facets of my being, facets that may never manifest, but that does not mean they are not there. What would it be like to be a fusty Russian aristocrat? A loyal servant? A Swiss tutor? To fight in the Battle of Austerlitz? To lose all one's money? To walk barefoot for a hundred miles? Encounter an emperor, stab with a sword, gallop on the swiftest of horses over snow dusted fields?

In sum, for having read War and Peace, my sense of the world and of what it means to be human has expanded. Dear Leo Tolstoy, and his translators, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volkhonsky, here on the last day of 2011, in the English language, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Epilogue, Part Two

Dreadful. The whole of Part Two should have been cut, or at the very least whittled way down to a third and published separately. This is not to say I don't think Tolstoy makes some fascinating and important points about free will, freedom, power, history, politicians, and so on, but this part is rather as if Michelangelo, as a final touch to the Pieta, were to have stuck a Bible on a stick onto the Madonna's head.

Epilogue, Part One, Chapters V-XVI

These are the chapters that wrap up the novel proper: the stories of Nastasha and Pierre and Princess Marya and Nikolai Rostov. It begins (p. 1138):

The wedding of Natasha, who married Bezukhov [Pierre] in the year thirteen, was the last joyful event in the family of the old Rostovs.

That is a simply elegant opening sentence-- you know there's a world of story to come (what sad things will happen?).

At this point in the novel, disgruntled as I am over what I think of as the chapters of Herr History Professor bloated blather, I am both engaged and admiring.

Some of the storytelling is the most elegant I've ever read, e.g., p. 1139:

Precisely at a time when the count's affairs had become so entangled that it was impossible to imagine how it would all end if it went on a year longer, he unexpectedly died.

Now, Ch. VII, p. 1144, a real horror:

In the fall of 1814, Nikolai married Princess Marya and moved with his wife, mother, and Sonya to live at Bald Hills.

Sonya, of course, is Nikolai's orphaned cousin and first love.

But, as I read along, I am reminded that no, this is Russia in the early 19th century; such a living arrangement surely had its tensions, but not what they would have been in my world where a person such as Sonya would have had other opportunities.

Re: Sonya, p. 1149:

It seemed [Sonya] valued not so much the people as the whole family. Like a cat, she became accustomed not to the people, but to the house. She took care of the old countess, petted and pampered the children, was always ready to render the small services she was capable of; but all this was involuntarily taken with far too little gratitide...

In Chapter X we see the change in Natasha-- a common change, alas:

p. 1156

Natasha let herself go to such a degree that her clothes, her hair, her words spoken out of place, her jealousy-- she was jealous of Sonya, of the governess, of any woman, beautiful or not-- were habitual subjects of jokes among all those close to her.

And a little later on, Natasha seen from Denisov's point of view, p. 1158:

A dull, despondent gaze, out-of-place replies, and conversation about the nursery was all he saw and heard from the former enchantress.

What strikes me, not for the first time, is how Tolstoy allows his characters to change, oftentimes dramatically and multiple times.

The portrait of old countess Rostov is remarkable (though sixty does not seem so old to me-- albeit perhaps time to consider a first facelift, some highlights, and some serious bucks-worth of cosmetic dental work):

p. 1162

The countess was already past sixty. Her hair was completely white, and she wore a cap with a ruffle that went all the way around her face. Her face was wrinkled, her upper lip was sunken, and her eyes were dull.

A bit later, p. 1163, when the younger generation would exchange glances, as if silently to say:

... that she had already finished her business in life, that all of her was not in that which could be seen in her now, that we would all be the same, and that it was a joy to submit to her, to restrain oneself for the sake of this being, once so dear, once as full of life as we, and now so pathetic. Memento mori-- said these glances.

Of all the household, only quite bad and stupid people, and the little children, did not understand that and avoided her.

Ah, this to me is the greatest of the greatness of Tolstoy.

And the story ends with Nikolenka Bolkonsky, the son of prince Andrei (raised by his aunt Princess Marya and now stepson to Nikolai Rostov), having a dream, feeling love for his father and Pierre, and hoping to be a hero, as in the stories of the Romans and Greeks. The last lines:

Father! Father! Yes, I'll do something that even he would be pleased with. . . "

Does this work as an ending? It most assuredly does, giving a sense of momentum into the future while looking back upon all the horrors and the heroism of the recent war, and comparing it (via mention of Plutach's Parallel Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans) to the symphonies of history. It is, in fact, symphonic.

Problem is, the novel does not end here. Would that it had.

But for fun, let me go back to old countess Rostov. An emulation exercise:

The artist was already past eighty. Her hair was completely white, and she wore a baseball cap with the logo of her gallery, a flying purple zebra. Her face was wrinkled, but rosy, her teeth, not dentures, were brilliant when she smiled, and she was always smiling-- even her eyes were smiling, for she knew, down to her fingernails (also purple) that life was an absurd, joyous joke....

When Tolstoy writes about the other characters' glances and conclusions about Countess Rostov, this reminds me: it's such a limbering up to ask, how do my various characters see each other? The results of the exercise don't have to end up in the novel-- they can be tossed onto compost pile. But there is almost always some insight to be gained, and perhaps some little but brilliant detail pops up.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Epilogue, Part One, Chapters I - IV

"Several years had passed since 1812." That seems innocent enough, but then for four chapters, Tolstoy turns into the Cosmic version of Herr History Professor. It's interesting but largely inarticulate and repetitive and, well, strange. And yet, I take his point.

My sense is that all of this material could have been dramatically reduced and published elsewhere-- in the modern world, it might have been used as fodder for a "Reader's Guide" on the author's website.

Vol IV, Part IV, Chapters XV - XX Pierre Loves Natasha

Oh so Jane Austen-y. But well done. I'm reading.

A technical note-- Tolstoy uses summary to excellent effect on p. 1114:

The princess [Marya], wincing from the desire to hold back her tears, sat beside Natasha and for the first time listened to the story of those last days of the love btween her brother and Natasha.

This tormenting and joyful story was evdiently necessary for Natasha.

She spoke, mixing the most trifling details with her innermost secrets, and it seemed she could never finish. She repeated the same things several times.

Had Tolstoy shown rather than told, ayy it would have been tedious. So here's an example of an exception to the old workshop saw, "show don't tell."

Vol IV, Part Four, Ch XIV

I've been complaining about Tolstoy's history lessons, but this one, about the return of the Russians to Moscow, was very interesting. I'll talk more about this in my summary, but one of the things I've especially enjoyed about reading War ad Peace is getting a rough yet very vivid sense of the history of the French invasion of Russia.

Vol IV, Part Four, Chapters XII-XIII: Finally Back to Pierre

Ayyy, finally the history lesson, which was interesting but bloated and pretentious, has ended, and we're back to Pierre. He's back in society, free of his scheming wife (she's died, happily), and he's become spiritually enlightened --
p. 1104

"[H]e had learned to see the great, the eternal, and the infinite in everything... Now, to this question "Why?" a simple answer was always ready in his soul: because there is God, that God without whose will not a single hair falls from a man's head."

A little Sunday Schooly, but... OK.

Here again, as with so many things, Tolstoy gets away with what a modern writer could not-- at least in the eyes of this reader. Seriously, a lot of theories about Jesus in your novel would not only make me quit reading but curl my toes. So, why does Tolstoy get away with it? In part because, well, he's Tolstoy-- by which I mean, well, he's famous and so reading him gives me something to talk with other people I respect and know who have read him, which I cannot say about contemporary "Christian" novelists. So I'll admit to a little sociological incentive. However, in so many places Tolstoy has revealed such profound and majestic perceptions about human nature that I forgive far, far more than I would any other author.

Vol IV, Part Four, Chapters IV -XI

It becomes textbookish again here: a history lesson, but an interesting one. Military strategy. Internal politics. Kutuzov (in praise of). Napoleon ("that most insignificant instrument of history, who never and nowhere, even in exile, displayed any human dignity").

Vol IV, Part Four, Chapters I - III

After the death of prince Andrei, Natasha and Marya become friends; the death of Petya (Natasha's younger brother). All this is done very well, vividly, engagingly... things are moving along, characters are suffering, we sense we're heading to the wrap-up... (will everyone marry the one they are meant to marry?) It's all good reading in a steak and potatoes way... On p. 1082 this wraps up with a good last sentence of anticipation,

At the end of January, Princess Marya left for Moscow, and the count insisted that Natasha go with her so as to consult the doctors.

Again and again, expertly, Tolstoy wraps up his chapters with an enticing sentence-- and I keep reading.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Vol IV, Part Three, Ch XII- XIX

Wrapping up the war. Dreadful details, e.g. p. 1061

On all sides lay the flesh of various animals, from men to horses, in various stages of decay. The walking men kept the wolves from coming near, so that Gray [a friendly dog] could eat as much as he liked.

Most of this is from Pierre's point of view. He's achieved a spiritual understanding. Much of this seems hurried, vague, yet here and there Tolstoy serves up some exquisite detail, e.g. p. 1064, right after Pierre hears the French soldiers execute his dear friend:

Pierre looked at the soldier and remembered how, twodays before, this soldier had burned his shirt while drying it over the campfire, and how everybody had laughed at him.

The strange power of that one, peculiar detail is stunning.

We see that intriguing movie star of a minor character, Dolokhov, yet again, p. 1066:

Dolokhov stood by the gates of a ruined house, letting a crowd of disarmed French soldiers go past him. The French. . . talked loudly among themselves; but as they went past Dolokhov, who tapped himself lightly on the boots with a whip and looked at them with his cold, glassy gaze, which promised nothing good, the talk ceased.

The last chapters, XVI- XIX it's pretty much Herr Professor Tolstoy bashing away at his theories. Not that I don't buy them; but this is all to the detriment of the novel-- and, dagnabbit, War and Peace wants to be a novel. Say I.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Vol IV, Part Three, Ch IV - XI: Petya Rostov / Point of View / Psychic Distance

The novel becomes exquisitely vivid and engaging once again with the story of Petya Rostov (Natasha's little brother). Denisov reappears as a senior officer, as does Dolokhov. On my paperback, I noted oodles of admirable detail, etc, but as I've become repetitive already, I'll skip blogging about that...

What especially impressed me in this section was Tolstoy's sudden switch in point of view and pull-back in psychic distance in describing the death of Petya Rostov. I think it works brilliantly to show the death and also infuse a sense of strangeness and horror.

pp. 1057- 1058

"Wait?... Hurra-a-ah!..." shouted Petya, and, not losing a moment, he galloped towards the place from which the shots were coming and were the powder smoke was thickest. A volley of shots rang out, stray bullets whined and splattered into something. The Cossacks and Dolokhov gallopped after Petya through the gates of the house. In the dense, undulating smoke some of the French dropped their weapons and ran out of the bushes towards the Cossacks, others ran down the hill to the pond. Petya galloped on his horse across the manor courtyard, and, instead of holding the reins, waved both arms somehow strangely and quickly, and kept slipping further to one side in his saddle. Running into the campfire smoldering in the morning light, his horse balked, and Petya fell heavily onto the wet ground. The Cossacks saw how his arms and legs jerked rapidly, though his head did not move. His head had been pierced by a bullet."

So we're right with Petya as he shouts out, then we move to some distant omniscient point of view ("stray bullets whined and splattered into something"), then for the rest of the paragraph we're with the Cossacks.

But to nitpick, the last sentence could have been cut.

P.S. I was amused to find this blog post by an English reader.

I'm still catching up with blogging and very close to finishing by Dec 31st.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Vol IV, Part Three, Ch I - III

Another sinker of an opening sentence, p. 1031:

The battle of Borodino, with the subsequent occupation of Moscow by the French and their flight without any new battles, is one of the most instructuve phenomena in history.

So there's a bit of lecture... it's interesting, but it's not fiction. But it's War and Peace by Tolstoy! I see now why Tolstoy himself claimed it was not a novel and Henry James called it a "large loose baggy monster."

Vol III, Part Two, XI-XIX

Pierre as POW-- grim, vivid, engaging. I love this book! And relishing the race to finish... A well-paced race.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Vol III, Part Two, Ch I - X

p. 987 "The totally of causes of phenomena is inaccessible to the human mind."

How's that for an unappetizing opening sentence? Oh, bleh, so much in these chapters is boring, boring, boring as cold oatmeal. It's not that what Tolstoy is getting at is boring-- so much philosophizing about history, geopolitics, destiny, theory of war, etc-- it's that he could have said it so much more concisely and elegantly. Would that he'd had an editor.

But I soldier on happily. It's still fascinating, and as I have been so richly rewarded in the previous hundreds of pages, I am eagerly turning the pages. Onward!

P.S. As noted in previous posts, I am catching up; my reading is far ahead of my blogging at this point. So far, I am well on schedule to finish by December 31st.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Vol III, Part One

In Part One, it's back to war. I'm taking another flying leap with the blogging...

This part begins to sag as Tolstoy indulges in philosophizing. Why does it sag? For me, John Gardner's concept of the novel as a continuous "vivid dream," is key to explaining that. (The author of several novels, Gardner is best known for his beloved if controversial The Art of Fiction. Read his Paris Review interview here.

So, following Gardner's very commonsensical point, to hold our attention, a novel needs to be not only vivid, but continuous. There are so many novels to read that even in a fairly high level workshop I find that there several participants who haven't read thus-and-such a classic (and speaking of which, here I am reading War and Peace for the first time!) so I use the analogy of popular movies. Let's say you're watching Gone with the Wind. Would it really work if, right in the middle (oh, I don't know, the burning of Atlanta?), the camera swung around to show Clark Gable in the makeup chair, taking a phone call from his agent? Neither would we want to see the caterer's folding table spread of cheese cubes and Diet Coke, anywhere in the midst of Gladiator's ancient Rome. (No, we don't want to see Russell Crowe in the makeup chair, either!) So, in interrupting the "vivid dream" with all this professorial blather, Tolstoy slows down, ayy, gums up the whole show. That said, the show is still going at 100 mph. I'm loving this book, feeling so grateful, thrilled in fact-- it's a whole world opened up to me.

For Americans of my generation (second half of 20th century) the mesmerizing glamour of Napoleon is difficult to understand; Tolstoy shows it spendidly, e.g.

p. 609

.. Hundreds of uhlans followed [the adjutant into the river]. It was cold and scary in the middle and in the swift current. The uhlans grasped at each other, fell off their horses, some horses drowned, men drowned as well, others tried to swim for it, some in the saddle, others holding onto their horses' manes. They tried to swim forward to the other side, and, though there was a ford a quarter of a mile away, they were proud to swim and drown in this river before the eyes of a man who sat on a log and was not even looking at what they were doing. When the adjutant returned and, choosing the right moment, allowed himself to draw the emperor's attention to the devotion of the Poles to his person, the little man in the gray frock coat stood up and, summoning Berthier to him, began pacing up and down the bank with him, giving him orders and occasionally plancing with displeasure at the drowning uhlans, who distracted his attention.

I was also struck by the narrative's juxtaposition of Anatole's going after Natasha and Napoleon's invading Russia. (Oh, there are about 11 PhD theses on all these interrelated and juxtaposed plots and subplots...)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Volume II

Pictured left (again) is Helmut Dantine as Dolokhov in the 1956 movie.

I'm going to take a flying leap over pp. 298 - 600 because otherwise I'll never keep up with the blogging! And anyway I'm repeating myself, noting with wonder and admiration so much vivid detail, so much insight into human society and human nature...

What stands out for me is the vividess of Dolokhov, a minor but really extraordinary character who might appear completely evil (cardboard cut-out) but for Tolstoy's twist:

p. 317

Rostov went on to carry out his errand, and, to his great surprise, discovered that Dolokhov, this rowdy duelist, lived in Moscow with his old mother and hunchbacked sister, and was a most affectionate son and brother.

There are so many characters, all intriguing with and against each other-- far more people and plot than the humble bucket of normal-sized novel could hold-- it feels like a super-charged version of "All My Children." Or rather, if "All My Childen" is a very Big Mac, War and Peace is the chateaubriand with truffles, wheeled up on a silver cart by a maitre d' in a King Kong costume.

Vol I, Part Three, Ch XIX Napoleon Takes Prince Andrei Prisoner

(By this date I am actually further ahead with the reading, on schedule to finish before December 31st.)

Napoleon takes Prince Andrei prisoner! Well now this is one Burger King of a coincidence but it's such a good story and so well told, who cares? Tolstoy uses this to show how Andrei has changed, from naive hero-worshipper to a man of profound wisdom:

p. 292

Though five minutes earlier Prince Andrei had been able to say a few words to the soldiers transporting him, now, with his eyes fixed directly on Napoleon, he was silent... To him at that moment all the interests that occupied Napoleon seemed so insignificant, his hero himelf seemed so petty to him, with his petty vanity and joy in victory, compared with that lofty, just, and kindly sky, which he had seen and understood, that he was unable to answer him.

Tolstoy's characters change, oftentimes dramatically, and yet always believably. This change, evolution of character, is for me, as a reader, extremely engaging. So now when I think of my own writing, I want to more carefully ask, have my characters changed? If not, why? And / or, what if they were to change?

p. 293 Tolstoy mentions the little golden icon Princess Marya had given her brother-- the French soldiers take it from him, but then, seeing how Napoleon treated Prince Andrei, they return it. So that's a mighty heavy dose of symbolism... but what the hell. It works.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Vol I, Part Three, Ch XVI-XVIII Novelist as God + A Little Comedy

p. 281, It appears Prince Andrei may have died: Tolstoy entered into his point of view as he sees "nothing except silence, tranquility...". Now there's the fun of being a novelist: you can play God.

p. 283
... said Boris, smiling that happy smile which occurs in young men who have been under fire for the first time

Once again, the novelist as All-Knowing

p. 287 -- the most perfectly vivid detail yet (last sentence):

One, with white plumes on his hat, seemed familiar to Rostov for some reason; the other, an unfamiliar horseman on a beautiful chestnut horse (the horse seemed familiar to Rostov), rode up to the ditch, spurred his horse and, releasing the reins, lightly jumped over the garden ditch. Only a little soil crumbled down the bank from the horse's hind hoofs.

p. 288 Rostov's fantasies made ridiculous when Captain von Toll helps the emperor cross the ditch on foot.

Tolstoy certainly knows how to write comedy.

p. 289 Dolokhov reappears. The horror show of men and horses falling into the ice. Cannon balls.

Tolstoy also certainly knows how to write horror.

First comedy, then horror: there's a recipe.

Vol I, Part Three, Ch XV: On the Field at Austerlitz

It belatedly occurs to me that Tolstoy's readers (during his lifetime) would have been as familiar with the Battle of Austerlitz and all the rest of them as people in the late 19th century US would have been familiar with the Battles of the Civil War. He writes for them-- there are so many references that have to be explained in footnotes and yet, he also writes for the ages.

p. 276 love the vividness of this glimpse (and the imagery):

... In the emperors' suit there were picked fine young orderly officers, Russian and Austrian, from the guards and infantry regiments. Among them were grooms leading the handsome spare horses of the royalty in embroidered cloths.

As fresh air from the fields suddenly breathes through an open window into a stuffy room, so youth, energy, and certainy of success breathed upon Kutuzov's cheerless staff as these brilliant young men galloped up.

p. 277 Politics! Kutuzov vs the Emperor. Seems an eternal story.

p. 278 Quite extraordinary: Tolstoy's narrative moves into the point of view of a horse:

The sovereign's horse shied at the sudden shout. This horse, who had carried the sovereign at reviews while still in Russia, also carried her rider here, on the field at Austerlitz, enduring the distracted nudges of his left foot, pricked up her ears at the sound of gunshots just as she did on the Field of Mars, understanding neither the meaning of the shots she heard, nor the presence of the emperor Franz's black stallion, nor anything of what her rider said, thought, or felt that day.

Vol I, Part Three, Chs XIII-XIV: Details

I love how Tolstoy shows us the horses. p. 267

"Maybe him, or maybe just so," the hussar said, "a night thing. Easy now!" he cried to his horse, who was stirring under him.

Rostov's horse was also restive, stamping its hoof on the frozen ground, listening to the sounds and looking at the fires.

Tolstoy shows us Napoleon's charisma-- without which the whole war itself would have seemed far less interesting:

p. 269

The cries and fires in the enemy camp came from the fact that, while Napoleon's orders were being read to the troops, the emperor himself rode around his bivouacs. The soldiers, seeing the emperor, set fire to bundles of straw and ran after him, showting, "Vive l'empereur!"

p. 270 I loved the vivdiness and strangeness of this:

A soldier in movement is as hemmed in, limited, and borne along by his regiment as a sailor by his ship.

and a little later, same page:

The fog was so thick that, though day was breaking, one could not see ten paces ahead. Bushes looked like enormous trees...

Then, p. 272 we again see Napoleon, this time close up:

... An unbroken see of fog spread below, but at the village of Schlapanitz, on the heights, where Napoleon stood, surrounded by his marshals, it was perfectly light...

We get a marvelous description of him and:

He peered silently at the hills, which seemed to rise up from the sea of fog, and over which Russian troops were moving in the distance, and he listened to the sounds of gunfire in the hollow. On his face, still lean at that time, not a muscle stirred; his glistening eyes were fixed motionlessly on one place. His conjectures turned out to be correct.

Then, p. 273

When the sun had fully emerged from the fog and its dazzling brilliance sprayed over the fields and the fog (it was as if he had only been waiting for that to begin the action), he took the glove from his beautiful white hand, made a sign to the marshals, and gave the order for the action to begin.

These sharply focussed details are exquisite.

Vol I, Part Three, Ch XII Imagery Makes It Vivid

p. 260

Weyrother obviously felt himself at the head of the movement which had now become irrepressible. He was like a horse harnessed to a wagon and running downhill.

That second sentence makes it so vivid-- and for me, such vivid imagery, droplets of it sprinkled throughout, keep me gratefully reading. (Without them, the book falls flat and reader puts it down.)

p. 263

"He has forty thousand men, if that," Weyrother replied, with the smile of a doctor being told by a wise woman how to treat a patient.

Vol I, Part Three, Ch XI: Austerlitz Begins

p. 257

... the eighty-thousand-man mass of the allied army undulated and set up in a huge six-mile sheet.


p. 258 Prince Andrei asks Dolgorukov if he saw Bonaparte. The dialogue feels a little puppety-- nonetheless, it works.

The glimpse of Napoleon adds suspense. p. 259, Dolgorukov says:

"He's a man in a gray frock coat, who wished very much that I would say 'Your' Majesty to him"

Vol I, Part Three, Ch X: Rostov's Really Into It

Intense patriotism is so often part of war and, via Rostov's point of view, Tolstoy conveys this. The end of this chapter has a little dialogue between Denisov (who has an accent) and Rostov:

p. 256

Late that night, when everyone had dispersed, Denisov, with his short hand, patted his favorite, Rostov, on the shoulder.

"There's nobody to fall in love with on campaign, so he's fallen in love with the tsaghr," he said.

"Dont joke about that, Denisov," cried Rostov. . .

It wouldn't have been as effective had Tolstoy not had Denisov, "with his short hand," pat Rostov on the shoulder.

Vol I Part Three, Ch IX Preparing for the Battle

Today I'm actually about 30 pages from the end of the book, but woefully behind on blogging.

Again, my aim is not to summarize the book (others have done that, check the links over to the left) nor to give my opinion (that a dime won't get you on the bus), but to read as a writer-- both for myself and for my writing students. What does it mean to read as a writer? To me this means asking where and why does it work and where and why does it not.

So... back to where I was reading last month, round about p. 248, this chapter loosely focussed on the disadvantaged but upwardly striving Boris in the context of the preparations for battle.

It's feeling slow, weighed down with too much detail (well, heck, Tolstoy is writing about an 80,000 man army)... Boris seems a puppet put here to illustrate something larger.

NC Weil is Blogging Too

Check out writer NC Weil's blogging on the mega-tome here.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Vol I, Part Three, Ch VIII: Big Scenic Stuff, Then Rostov's POV

The Russian and the Austrian emperors review the combined 80,000 man army. It reads sort of slow, impersonal, cinematic, then, on 245, the narrative drops into Nikolai Rostov's point of view, his ardent feelings for the emperor, and it picks up speed. Precisely because it is no longer impersonal.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Vol I, Part Three, Ch VII: Still at War, Some Light Comedy Amidst the Gore & Politics

The narcissistic Nikolai Rostov at war. Boris the striver. Berg the tediously conventional.

p. 242 "To tell the truth is very difficult, and young men are rarely capable of it."

There's God speaking again.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Vol I, Part Three, Ch VI: Points of View

You could write 5 PhD theses on Tolstoy's use of the roving omniscient point of view... which is a fancy way of saying "God's" POV. But on a practical level, what it means is that the writer has a menu, sometimes a vast menu, of choices for point of view in any particular scene. In the scene where Anna Mikhailovna brings Nikolai's letter to his mother, Countess Rostov, here's what happens:

p. 236

"Don't come in," [Anna Mikhailovna] said to the old count, who was following her, "later," she said, and closed the door behind her.
The count put his ear to the keyhole and began to listen.

At first he heard the sounds of indifferent talk, then only the sound of Anna Mikhailovna's voice making a long speech, then a cry, then silence, then both voices again, speaking together in joyful intinations, and then footsteps, and then Anna Mikhailova opened the door to him. Anna Mikhailovna's face bore the proud expression of a surgeon who has completed a difficult amuptation and admits the public so that it can appreciate his art.

"C'est fait!" she said to the count, pointing with a solemn gesture to the countess, who was holding the snuffbox with the portrait in one hand and the letter in the other, and pressing her lips first to the one, then to the other.

I think this strategy -- distancing the reader from the two women, blurring the whole scene-- makes it palatable. I start to imagine the scene written in a straightforward way: ooh, icky.

Vol I, Part Three, Ch IV-V

Marya says no to Anatole. I'm very, very engrossed in this novel. It has taken a bit of investment to get all the characters straight, but wow. I can see why this is so widely considered one of the greatest reads of all time.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Vol I, Part Three, Ch III: Physicality

The old Aspbergeresque Prince Bolkonsky-- I love how Tolstoy shows him doing things, rather than just saying things:

p. 216

His plate did not seem clean to him; he pointed to a spot and flung it aside. Tikhon caught it and handed it to the butler.

Very economical, the way he shows us two servants standing there. What kind of person would fling a plate? Hmm. So much is packed into this mini-package of two short sentences.

This is the chapter when Prince Vassily and his libertine of a son Anatole show up, seeking the wealthy Princess Marya's hand in marriage.

The end of this chapter seems to suggest Tolstoy's own philosophy:


What could it all mean in comparison with the predestination of God, without whose will not one hair falls from man's head.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Vol I, Part Three, Chs I-11

So, after war, we're back to the civilian world with Pierre. Prince Vassily is such a schemer! He's angling to get his daughter Helene married to Pierre, to get his money. What's especially interesting to me is the way Tolstoy weaves in the suspense, e.g., p. 206

[Pierre] knew it at that moment as certainly as he would have known it standing at the altar with her. How it would be and when, he did not know; he did not even know whether it would be good (he even felt that it was not good for some reason), but he knew that it would be.

p. 209

Pierre knew that everyone was only waiting for him finally to say one word. to cross a certain line, and he knew that sooner or later he would cross it; but some incomprehensible terror seized him at the mere thought of that frightful step.

Tension... something is not right... We don't want to "watch the paint dry," we want to see the paint can teetering on the edge of the top of the ladder, the painter (in a three day beard and overalls) gazing out the window, distracted by some wonderful noise...

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Vol I, Part Two, Ch XXI: The Dark, the Light

Some of the descriptions are so exquisitely vivid, e.g., p. 200:

He opened his eyes and looked up. The black canopy of the night hung three feet above the light from the coals. A dust of falling snow flew through that light.

The contrast makes this vivid. The specificity: "a dust."

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Vol I, Part Two, Ch XX: Dolokhov, Like a Touch of Red in a Painting

Pictured left, Helmut Dantine, who played Dolokhov in the 1956 movie, War and Peace.

Dolokhov reappears:

(p. 191)

"Your Excellency," here are two trophies," said Dolokhov, pointing to the French sword and pouch. "I captured an officer. I stopped the company." Dolokhov was breathing heavily from fatigue; he spoke with pauses. "The whole company can testify. I ask you to remember, Your Excellency!"

"Very well, very well," said the regimental commander, and he turned to Major Ekonomov.

But Dolokhov did not go away; he untied the handkerchief, pulled it off and showed the clotted blood on his head.

"A bayonet wound. I stayed at the front. Remember, Your Excellency."

Great use of dialogue, by the way. And how is a character breathing as he/ she speaks? That's something to think about. . .

Another emulation exercise:

[name] was breathing [adverb] from [condition/ or something]; he spoke with [what?]

Walter was breathing loudly through his mouth because of his cold; he spoke nasaly

Fidencio was breathing timidly; he spoke with all the liveliness of a robot

Mrs Tourette was breathing raggedly and her eyes were rolling at odd angles; she tried to speak but her tongue was in the way

Buster was panting from having hopped up the stairs; he barked and barked and barked

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Vol I, Part Two, Ch XIX: Rostov in Battle

Pictured left: British actor Jeremy Brett, who played Nikolai Rostov in the 1956 movie.

Young Count Nikolair Rostov falls in battle. p. 189: "He remembered his mother's love for him, his family's, his friends', and the enemy's intention to kill him seemed impossible."

What is so interesting to me here is that Tolstoy evokes in the reader-- or, at least in this reader-- such a complex reaction: both pity and disdain (disdain for Rostov's narcissism and naivete, shown earlier in the novel as well). And at the same time, at the mention of a mother's love, Tolstoy elevates this one young man's reflections to a demonstration of the universal: how horrible is war!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Vol I, Part Two, Ch XVII: Battle Noises

So the book is getting decidedly gory. The descriptions of battle are so wonderfully vivid, filled with sensory detail and, in particular, sounds:

p. 180

He had barely finished speaking when there again came an unexpected, dreaful whistle, suddenly ending in a thud against something liquid, and f-f-flop-- a Cossack, riding a little to the right and behind the auditor, crashed to the ground with his horse.
p. 181

While he was on his way there, a shot rang out from that cannon, deafening him and his suite

p. 181

Below the elevation on which the Kievsky regiment stood, in the river hollow, the soul-wrenching roll and crackle of musketfire could be heard...

p. 182

As he was riding away from the battery, shots were also heard to the left, in the woods...

What strikes me: Tolstoy is not just reporting sounds, but where they are coming from, so we get a sense of space. It feels cinematic.

Vol I, Part Two, Ch. XII: Murat Makes a Cameo

Napoleon's brother-in-law Murat appears... something fun for me, since he also appears in my novel, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire. Murat seems so obscure to us now, but he was a great celebrity of his time. A sort of military David Bowie.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Vol I, Part Two, Ch. XI: Ippolit is Back

With Prince Andrei and Bilibin... Prince Vassily's badly behaved son Ippolit reappears. He's going to cause some trouble (perhaps with Andrei's wife?)

p. 158

Prince Ippolit was lying in a Voltaire armchair, his legs thrown over the armrest. He laughed.

"Parlez-moi de ça," he said.

Body language! Wonderful image! One doesn't sit in a chair like that --> Ippolit does what he likes, what he shouldn't.

How can a character sit in a chair? Let me count the ways.

Vol I, Part Two, Ch X: Bilibin

Bilibin: sounds like the name of a troll, but this is prince Adrei's "elegantly witty" friend, a high-ranking Russian diplomat who is in Brunn, with the Austrian court: "a man of about thirty-five, a bachelor, of the same society as Prince Andrei." What impresses me here is that, having shown us Petersburg and Moscow society, war, and so on, Tolstoy renders yet another world-- a world entirely opaque to most people-- that of the diplomatic corps.

What a ride!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Vol I, Part Two, Ch IX: Prince Andrei

Pictured left, Mel Ferrer as Prince Andrei, from the poster for the 1956 movie.

Such beauty, such economy! Describing part of Prince Andrei's journey to deliver Kutuzov's letter with news of victory to the Austrian court at Bruun:

p. 151

After the dark, starry night came a bright, cheerful morning. The snow melted in the sun, the horses gallopped swiftly, and to the right and left alike passed new and various forests, fields, villages.

But Prince Andrei, it seems, has some emotional maturity issues of the more exasperating and dangerous kind...

Vol I, Part Two, Ch. IV-VIII: More War/ How They Ride Horses / Hairy Fingers

So the war grinds on... or races on, I guess, if you like this sort of historical fiction. I cannot say I am as charmed by these chapters as I was the city scenes in peacetime. But this is just my taste-- I remain in awe of this novel.

I'm blogging lightly here so I can make some more progress and finish on schedule...

What strikes me: some of the descriptions of how different men ride their horses, e.g.:

p. 138

"He called the Cossack with the horse, told him to put the bag and flask away, and lightly swung his heavy body into the saddle."

p. 144

"...the whole squadron, as if on command, with all their similarly dissimular faces, holding their breath while the cannonball flew over, rose in their stirrups, then lowered themselves again."

p. 146

"Striking his horse with his long, muscular legs, as if it was all the horse's fault..."

And I admired the vividness of the description of Denisov, p. 144:

"Vaska Denisov's pug-nosed and black-haired face, and his whole small, compact figure with his sinewy hand (the short fingers covered with hair), in which he gripped the hilt of his bared saber..."

Such a fine example of using detail for vividness. I go on about that rather endlessly in my workshops.

Vol I, Part Two, Ch.III: Chunk o' German

So on p. 123, Tolstoy serves us up a big, nasty, cement-dense spatulaful of German: the letter from Archduke Ferdinand to Kutuzov. Ha! There's a footnote, so who cares?

On another note-- same chapter-- it is so interesting to see the complexity of Prince Andrei:

p. 124

"On Kutuzov's staff, among his comrades and colleagues, and in the army in general, as in Petersburg society, Prince Andrei had two completely opposite reputations."

And it occurs to me, this is so often true for real people. Yet so many novels are peopled by 2-d characters. So let's get some dimensions. Let's get some contradictions. How would other characters see my characters? On which points would they disagree with eachother?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Vol I, Part Two, Ch I-II, Now It's War

Pictured left, Oskar Homolka as Field Marshal Kutuzov. A whiplash of a change: now we're with Prince Andrei in Austria with the Russian troops and we meet yet (sigh) more characters. Once again, I am struck that on the one hand, I am happily, eagerly reading and yet, I seriously doubt such a book could be easily snapped up by a commercial publisher today.

We see Dolokhov-- Pierre's drinking buddy from earlier in the novel-- and it seems he will become a recurring character in the novel.

Tolstoy is such a sociologist-- or perhaps I should say, psychologist:

pp 120-121

The hussar cornet Zherkov had belonged for some time to the rowdy comany headed by Dolokhov in Petersburg. Abroad, Zherkov had encountered Dolokhov as a soldier, but had found it unnecessary to recognize him. Now, after Kutuzov had talked with the demoted man, he addressed him with the joy of an old friend.

"Friend of my heart, how are you?" he said to the sounds of the song, adjusting the pace of his horse to the pace of the company.

"How am I?" Dolokhov replied coldly. "As you see."

Tolstoy is such a master of dialogue! More about that anon.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Vol I, Part One, Ch XXII-XXV

This batch of chapters takes us to the Bolkonsky's Bald Hills estate, where we see Prince Nikolai Andreevich Bolkonsky and his spinster daughter Marya, Prince Andrei's sister. The older Bolkonsky, a verbally abuse and excessively regimented old devil, sounds like a case of Asperberger's. At once comic and pitiable. There is a paid companion for Marya one Mlle Bourienne-- in a novel about a French invasion, sure to be trouble. There are several lumpy chunks of French. Tolstoy gets away with this completely: I am having so much fun! Andrei, having deposited his pregnant wife with his father and sister, leaves for war. And this seems an elegant end to the first part, a portrait of these several interrelated groups of characters in peacetime.

Vol I, Part One, Ch XV-XXI: Pierre

It's getting intensely rich, very soap-operay but the prose is vivid and poetic. All the getting used to so many characters pays off here. As Count Bezuhov lays dying, the scheming Prince Vassily meets his match in Anna Mikhailovna, while in the background, clueless bear-like Pierre, once Count Bezukhov's illegitimate son, now becomes-- thanks to Anna Mikhailovna--- the legitimate son and heir to vast expanses of land and legions of serfs-- and the most eligible bachelor in all of Russia, it seems.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Slow Posting But Rapid Reading

The first half of W & P made it to New Orleans and back for the Apitherapy Association conference. I've made excellent progress wiith the reading but not so much with the blogging. Here's the book happily tucked in at Houston (en route) airport's food court (which one, I forget, I was too engrossed in W & P to notice).

Behind the Pineapples Emulation Exercise

In my workshops I am always urging writers to read as writers, that is, actively, rather than as a consumer, passively. Here is an example of what I mean. In my previous blog post, I noted how much I admired the vividness and sense of depth and-- I should also add that voluptuous syntax-- in this sentence on page 62:

"The countess, too, from behind the pineapples, never forgetting her duties as hostess, cast meaningful glances at her husband, the redness of whose face and bald head, it seemed to her, constrasted sharply with his gray hair." (p.62)

This strikes me as an excellent opportunity to try what I call an "emulation exercise": varying the most of the nouns and verbs but staying with the syntax.

Sally, too, from behind the open box of Cheerios, never forgetting her duties as mother, cast meaningful glaces at her mother-in-law, the doughiness of whose face and white sweatsuit, it seemed to her, contrasted sharply with her black hair.


Robin, too, from behind her briefcase, never forgetting her duties as legal counsel, cast meaningful glances at her client, the sallowness of whose face, it seemed to her, contrasted sharply with her Hawaiian mumu.

Ayy, I could do these all day. Here's one (of an infinite number of) formulas:

[Name], too, from behind [object on table she is sitting at], never forgetting her/ his duties as [role], cast meaningful glances at [other person], the [color] of whose face and [something else], it seemed to her, contrasted sharply with [something else].

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Vol I, Part One, Ch XV: Marya Dmitrievna, Berg / Novelist as Sociologist

OK, ayyy, more characters. Any other writer would be trying my patience to the snapping point-- in fact, I cannot think of any novel I've gotten through with such a crowd of characters-- and only by page 58 (!!). But each new character-- in this chapter, Marya Dmitrieva "le terrible dragon"-- who "always spoke in Russian"-- and old bachelor Shinshin, plus a reintroduction of Berg and Pierre-- is so wonderful, so bright, I just feel a page-turning gratitude and look forward to encountering them again later in the novel.

The novel is written in roving omniscient -- God's point of view-- and here, p, 60, that tone comes through resoundingly.

"It was that time before a formal dinner when the assembled guests refrain from beginning a long conversation, expecting to be called to the hors d'oevres, but at the same time consider it necessaru to move about and not be silent, in order to show that they are not at all impatient to sit down at the table."

Telling the truth with the fiction: that's one example. Novelist as sociologist. More about that anon.

I was so charmed by the descriptions of the dinner, e.g.,:

"The countess, too, from behind the pineapples, neve forgetting her duties as hostess, cast meaningful glances at her husband, the redness of whose face and bald head, it seemed to her, constrasted sharply with his gray hair."

What strikes me is "from behind the pineapples"-- for, a writer could take that and vary it and end up with a picture of a hostess at her table (and a visual sense of depth) in an infinite variety of settings, e.g.,

"from behind the open box of Cheerios"
"from behind the beeswax tapers in their porcelain holders"

Friday, November 4, 2011

Vol I, Part One, Ch XIV: The Rostovs & A Bit of Body Language / Compassion

Show don't tell, that's the perennial chestnut of your basic writing workshop. Of course good writers, Tolstoy among them, do, on occasion, just go ahead and tell. But the vividness and economy of showing... ah, here is a fine example. Countess Rostov wants some money from her husband, so that she may give it to her friend Anna Mikhailnova, who is penniless and needs to buy a uniform for her son.

He sat down by his wife, resting his elbows dashingly on his knees and ruffling his gray hair.

"What are your orders, little countess!"

"The thing is, my friend-- what's this stain you've got there?" she said, pointing to his waistcoat. "Must be the sauté," she added, smiling. "The thing is, Count, that I need money."

Her face grew sad.

"Ah, little countess!. . . "And the count began fussing, pulling out his wallet.

"I need a lot, Count, I need five hundred rubles." And, taking out a cambric handkerchief, she began rubbing her husband's waistcoat.

What so strikes me about this: the simple, intimate gesture that so economically conveys their relationship to each other and about money. Truly, here Tolstoy shows.

+ + +

On a separate note, this same chapter ends with a master stroke: having shown Anna Maikhailovna as a mouse-like schemer, Tolstoy now shows us her tearful gratitude at the Countess's gift:

"This is for Boris from me, to have his uniform made. . . "

Anna Mikhailovna was already embracing her and weeping. The countess was also weeping. They wept because they were friends; and because they were kind; and because they, who had been friends since childhood, were concerned with such a mean subject-- money; and because their youth was gone . . . But for both of them they were pleasant tears . . .

This flexibility of empathy-- the ability to show a character in an unattractive light, doing, saying, thinking unkind things-- but then turn (twist if need be) and show them as complex, deserving of compassion-- this, in my view, is what sets a writer above the level of mediocrity. It is easy to show a cardboard villain, but a tight-rope of a challenge to render a character's humanity.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Vol I, Part One, XII-XIII Bezukhov is Dying

Anna Mikhailovna has got to be one of the most Dickensian characters in here. A mouse-like schemer. Penniless, always looking out for her son, Boris, in the most shameless way... she goes to visit the dying Bezukhov, to see if she can get some money, and she finds there Prince Vassily, who is expecting to inherit everything.

p. 51 "The prince [Vassily] apparently realized, as at Annette Scherer's soirée, that it was difficult to get rid of Anna Mikhailovna."

What strikes me: such fine dialogue.

"I live at the countess Rostov's," said Boris, again, adding, "Your Excellency."

"It's that Ilya Rostov who married Natalie Shinshin," said Anna Mikhailovna.

"I know, I know," said Prince Vassily in his monotone voice. "Je n'ai jamais pu concevoir comment Natalie s'est décidée à épouser cet ours mal-léché! Un personnage complètement stupide et ridicule. Et jouer a ce quón dit."

Prince Vassily... makes me think of Vaseline.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Vol I, Part One, IX- XI: Natasha Loves Boris, Sonya Loves Nikolai, Vera has a Story

Yet more characters, yet more complications... and who will get Count Bezukhov's money, Peirre or Prince Vassily? It's turning into All My Children.

Nice use of dialogue. The last line of Chapter IX:

"What manners! They sat and sat!" said the countess, after seeing the guests off.

Vol I, Part One, VIII: Enter Natasha

The 13 year old Natasha runs in-- and this has to be one of the most spectacular entrances in fiction. What strikes me especially is that, veer razor-close as he may, Tolstoy never once falls into sentimentality. I am only on page 40 and quite stunned at his ability to render vividly such very different characters as, say, Anna Scherer and Natasha.

As for that 1956 movie, to play Natasha, who could have been more simply perfect than Audrey Hepburn? (Though as she's pictured on the movie poster, she's a bit older than thirteen.)

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Vol. I, Part One, VII: Enter Boris

Pictured left, Barry Jones (1893-1981), who played the elder Count Rostov in the 1956 movie.

By the way... I am not attempting to summarize the book as I go-- you can find a handy summary in a number of places, including at the back of the novel itself; here, I am simply offering my reactions as a reader and writer. In other words, I am not, as one blogger suggested (but it did make me laugh), "reading War & Peace so you don't have to."

So, I'm on page 35 and by this point I've made a larger investment than I would for most books-- having to keep track of a constant stream of new characters and their mult-layered and interwoven relationships doesn't make this novel a candidate for easy "beach reading." But I'm in. It feels like a whole world has opened... I even feel the bud of an ambition to start learning Russian.

The portrait Tolstoy offers of the happy go-lucky Count Rostov is a delight:

"Having seen off a guest, the count would return to the gentleman or lady who was still in the drawing room; moving up an armchair, and with the look of a man who loves life and knows how to live it, spreading his legs dashingly and putting his hands on his knees, he would sway significantly, offer his surmises about the weather, discuss health, sometimes in Russian, sometimes in very poor but self-confident French, and again, with the look of a man weary but firm in the fulfillment of his duty, would go see people off, smoothing the thin gray hair over his bald spot, and again invite them to dinner."

That use of body language is marvelous. In my writing workshops I am forever pointing out that people do more than nod, smile, and shrug.

I gather young Boris, whose mother is looking out for him, will become an important character. The burning question, meanwhile: who will inherit Bezukhov's fortune, Pierre or Prince Vassily?

I am eagerly reading...

Monday, October 31, 2011

Vol. I, Part One, VI: First View of the City

On p. 30, another thing amazed me-- we've come from Anna Scherer's party, then a series of tight, close indoor scenes, and all of a sudden:

"It was already past one o'clock when Pierre left his friend's house. It was a duskless Petersburg June night. Pierre got into a hired carriage with the intention of going home. But the closer he came, the more he felt the impossibility of falling asleep that on night, which more resembled an evening or a morning. One could see far down the empty streets."

One could see far down the empty streets.

Is this not vivid? Refreshing? Huge? I feel transported, zoom, I can see it.

Ah, but I know this trick. My amiga the travel writer and memoirist Sara Mansfield Taber (pictured left) spelled it out for me once, when reviewing one of the drafts of my essay, "Picadou's Mexico City or, the Essential Francisco Sosa." As I recall, she said, of a somewhat flat description of the street, "can you tell me, what's behind you? What's ahead of you?" Instantly I realized this is a technique for, at once, "grounding" and scene and making it "pop." (Just because you come up with some description, however, doesn't mean you have to use it.)

It's funny, but when I come across a line like "One could see far down the empty streets," I feel such gratitude-- and then I really want to keep reading.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Vol. I, Part One, V (Continued) and VI (Beginning): Eh, So Much for Modern Capitalism

I'm only on page 23 and it occurs to me that no living, breathing, nonbrain-dead literary agent I know of would know what to do with a manuscript of this size and complexity, other than tell the author, "you need to cut."

Ayy, and a lot of workshoppy stuff like, "who's your main character?"

By page 23, Tolstoy has introduced so many characters that I've had to stick a bright pink Post-It on page xvi, "Principal Characters." And the subplots! Like those little Russian dolls within dolls. Wow, in addition to the match Anna Scherer wants to make for Vassily's son, and the drama around clumsy illegitimate but very nice Pierre, now we have Prince Ippolit about to go after the soon-to-be-abandoned pregnant (!!) princess Liza-- and Liza's wife, Andrei, about to go off to war. And Napoleon about to invade. And... (I'm getting dizzy as I type...)

But here's the thing. I get it, I get it already. This is an amazing novel. What amazed me, what gave me the energy to push through, or perhaps better said, plunge into, this mad thicket of characters and subplots, was the opening of chapter VI. We see the pregnant Princess Liza, terrified and confused that her husband no longer cares for her and is about to abandon her for the adventure of war-- and Tolstoy pours on the pity. But then, like a jacknife, the point of view switches to her husband Andrei's and how he loathes this trivial domestic life-- so, Tolstoy, so elegantly, flips the unhappy coin.

Vol. I, Part One, V: Pierre and the Feathered Hat (and so much more)

So the guests begin to leave Anna Scherer's party and we are informed that, "Pierre is clumsy... and absentminded." The oldest saw of the old saws in a writer's workshop is "show don't tell," but certainly, here, Tolstoy does tell-- and then he shows:

(p.22): "Getting up, he took a three-cornered hat with a general's plumage instead of his own and held on to it, plucking at the feathers, until the general asked him to give it back..."

A few lines further down, "Prince Ippolit stood beside the pretty, pregnant princess and looked at her directly and intently through his lorgnette."

How's that for some foreshadowing? Like a safe pushed out the window of the 21st floor. Wacky analogy, oh well.

I was also so struck by the vividness of the body language earlier on... but if I tarry, I'll never get through this...

So what is Henry Fonda doing in this blog post? He played Pierre in the movie.

Friday, October 28, 2011

In Which I Discover Yet Another Blog About Reading War and Peace

So I've been googling around and I find Stephen E. Foxworthy, "a son, a brother, a believer, a skeptic, a lover, a fighter, a writer, a blighter, a dancer, a romancer, an actor, a tractor, a compactor, a reader, a breeder, a feeder, a man, a plan, a canal, Panama, a joker, a smoker, a midnight cowboy, a comedian, a tragedian, a critic, a cynic, a chef, a butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker, a thinker, a tinker, a gentleman, a scholar, a teacher, a preacher, an orator, a showman, a foodie, and TIME Magazine's 2006 'Person of the Year'," whose blog is and tackle Tolstoy he did!

After 137 days, Foxworthy finished War and Peace on May 27 of this year. It was very inspiring to read his reflections upon finishing.


Foxworthy continues reading other works by Tolstoy, now with a vlog made on his webcam. You can follow him @TweetingTolstoy

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Vol. I, Part One, I-IV. Opening with Dialogue, En Français (Oof)

(Pictured left, the actor Tullio Carminati, who played Prince Vassily in the movie of 1956.)

So, famously, War and Peace opens with a cold water splash of French, Anna Pavlovna Scherer addressing her guest, Prince Vassily, and in mock insulting terms. Two things strike me about this:

--> First, that French. But of course at that time and place Russian aristocrats spoke French, mixed in with Russian and even some sprinklings of English and German. When I think about my own writing, which is mostly about Mexico, and when I teach "Techniques of Fiction" and especially when I give workshops on travel writing, this question often comes up-- when people are speaking in another language, how to render this?

Well, Tolstoy's answer is to just throw it at the reader, assuming his readers could all read French (though we do have a handy translation at the bottom of the page).

What about languages most English-speaking readers don't understand, say, Arabic or Hungarian? I have always thought that Paul Bowles' solution of quoting a word or a line, to give the music, and then a translation directly afterwards, worked well, and I emulated that in my own novel, where I have characters speaking Spanish, French, German, and even Italian.

This comes up a lot in Latino writing, where the characters oftentimes speak in a slangy melange of English and Spanish (oh, I could go on about this-- some of it is really fun and very musical-- and by the way, there is a chilangringa version of Espanglish, by which I mean the way gringas such as myself, who have been living in Mexico City with Mexican husbands, have conversations on Skype). How to handle such language? I tell my writing students, first, it depends on who your intended readers are. If you want to write about and for Chicanos in a Texas border town, (or for that matter us chilangringas, who probably number a few dozen) that's one thing, but you want readers who are members of book groups in, say, Minneapolis, well, probably, like Tolstoy, it would behoove you to supply a footnote with some translation. But to render the whole thing in English, no Spanish, as, if Tolstoy had rendered his opening scene in a single language, without French, would have rung false.

Tricky business this. Hmm, it occurs to me what fun it would be to talk about Sandra Cisnero's The House on Mango Street alongside Tolstoy's War and Peace, for the rendering of language alone.

---> Second, use of dialogue. Usually it doesn't work to open a story or novel with a line of dialogue-- it confuses the reader--but here is a marvelous example to the contrary.

So here is the opening line, all in English:

"Well, my prince, Genoa and Lucca are now no more than possessions, estates, of the Buonaparte family. No, I warn you, if you do not tell me we are at war, if you still allow yourself to palliate all the infamies, all the atrocities of that Antichrist (upon my word, I believe it)-- I no longer know you, you are no longer my friend, you are no longer my faithful slave, as you say. Well, good evening, good evening. I see that I'm frightening you, sit down and tell me about it."

So why does this work? Because it's a jolt, it's strange, and it excites my curiosity-- in short, I want to keep reading. But more than that: good dialogue shows mood and/or character and/or relationship. Here, with this opening, Tolstoy achieves all three. At once I understand that Anna Pavlovna Scherer is person of sparkling energy, she is frightened and angry about Napoleon, she is sophisticated, and she feels so comfortable with this old friend who has come to see her, that she can playfully threaten him, even as he appears at her doorstep.

Well, having read to page 22, end of chapter IV, I get it-- it's brilliant. The language is so exquisite, the characters all so vividly drawn, the tensions-- not just with Napoleon, but among the characters, each wanting something from another, so desperately, or fearing or resenting something. The tension crackles.

The opening scene is Anna Pavolva Scherer's salon. She is a maid-of-honor to the Empress and her guests, the cream of society, begin to arrive, first Prince Vassily, "a significant man who has grown old in society and court. He went over to Anna Pavlovna, kissed her hand, presenting her with his perfumed and shining bald pate, and settled comfortably on the sofa."

This line-- right at top of page 2-- so elegantly establishes the roving omniscient point of view, for suddenly, we see from Anna Pavlova Scherer's point of view, that "shining bald pate."

The opening line of dialogue echoes throughout-- this sense of falseness, of saying something one doesn't really mean or saying things one does mean but in such a way that it might be interpreted differently. Society as nightmarish funhouse of mirrors... The whole opening -- as far as I've read, to page 22-- has a remarkable integrity of texture.

Also, right there on page 2, after Anna says she thought the English ambassador's party had been canceled, she says (in French),

"I confess to you that all these fetes and all these fireworks are beginning to become insipid."

"If they had known known that you wished it, the fete would have been cancelled," said the prince, uttering out of habit, like a wound-up clock, things he did even wish people to believe.

A parade of characters then arrives and I confess, I had to read these pages more than twice to be able to sort them all out. The major ones (as far as I can tell):

ANNA PAVLOVNA SCHERER, hostess of the salon

PRINCE VASSILY, who wants to marry off his spendthrift son Anatole to someone rich and of a good family (and Anna will play matchmaker)

HELENE, Prince Vassily's beautiful daughter who "came to fetch her father and go with him to the fete at the ambassador's. She was wearing a ballgown with a monogram."

PRINCE IPPOLIT, Prince Vassily's son

VISCOUNT MORTMART "a nice-looking young man, with soft features and manners, obviously regarded himself as a celebrity, but, from good breeding, modestly allowed himself to be made use of by the company in which he found himself. Anna Pavlovna was obviously treating her guests to him. As a good maitre d'hotel presents, as something supernaturally excellent, a piece of beef one would not want to eat if one saw it in the dirty kitchen, so that evening Anna Pavlovna served up to her guests first the viscount.." and more: "the viscount was presented to the company in a most refined and advantageous light, like a roast beef on a hot platter sprinkled with herbs."


PRINCESS BOLKONSKY, beautiful, newly married, pregnant

PRINCE ANDREI BOLKONSKY, the husband, who is about to abandon his wife to go to war

PIERRE, Andrei's good friend, "This fat young man was the illegitimate son of a famous courtier from Catherine's time..." whom Anna "greeted with a nod reserved for people of the lowest hierarchy in her salon"

In chapter IV, still in Anna Pavlova Scherer's salon, there is a vignette of an elderly lady who has come to the party to beg a favor for her son from Prince Vassily. "The elderly lady bore the name of Princess Drubetskoy, one of the best families of Russia, but she was poor, had long since left society, and had lost her former connections." It takes more than a bit of wiles for her to get Prince Vassily to agree to help her-- Tolstoy slips into Prince Vassily's point of view: "influence in society is a capital that must be used sparingly, lest in disappear. Prince Vassily knew that and, having once realized that if he were to solicit for everyone who solicited from him, it would soon become impossible to solicit for himself, he rarely used his influence." Once Prince Vassily finally acceeds, "her face again acquired the same cold, sham expression it had before. She went back to the circle, where the viscount was going on about his story, and again pretended to listen, waiting for the moment to leave".

Again, the pretension, the falsity, the intrigue and specter of disaster...

Pierre, young and outspoken, is like a bull in Anna's China shop. Tolstoy sets up Pierre as counterpoint to the falseness of the others. (p. 21) "His smile was not like that of other people, blending into a nonsmile. With him, on the contrary, when a smile came, his serious and even somewhat sullen face vanished and suddenly, instantly, another appeared-- childish, kind, even slightly stupid, and as if apologetic."

And Tolstoy's use of body language is also remarkable. I'll take that up in the next post.

Oh, this is fun.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

In Which, What the Hell, I Just Cut the Thing In Half

It's a peasant's mentality that everything is scarce. If you serve yourself the food, or, if someone else serves you the food, therefore, you have to clean your plate. Even if it's broccoli and you loathe it, even if it's icecream and you are overweight. So if you paid money, hard-earned money, for a book, you have to read that book, to the end... even if it's a load of boring crap.

Well, the reality is, most of us (that means me and y'all blog readers) live in a world wherein-- even if we are not aristocrats or millionaires or anything like that--- if we eat or do not eat that last bit of soggy broccoli it really does not matter to the healthful balance of the planet and in fact, eating anything one doesn't want, no matter what it is, what it cost, or where came from, is a kind of violence against the self. I am sure we can all relate to not eating the icrecream (better in the sink dispoal than on your hips, right?) And moreso for reading material. Even if it cost $60, if it's really not in any worth the bother to read it to the end, why devalue my time? My time is the most precious thing I have. Your time is the most precious thing you have. Every single second has an opportunity cost. So why throw your precious time after money poorly spent? Sunk costs are sunk. Leave that boring crappy book on a bench, and go read a better book. Because, oh, there are far, far more fabulous, wise, beautiful books than anyone can read in a lifetime.

At this juncture I'd like to slip in an elegantly witty little quote by Gabriel Zaid, from his book, So Many Books. But I have so many books, I can't remember where I shelved it.

Anyway, that's my attitude towards books-- all books. Will I put War and Peace down and go read something else? I doubt it. Too many people I respect have raved about it. There must be something to it...

But back to that peasant mentality, which, when it comes to diet and reading material management, can be such a very damaging thing.

A book is more than a material object. It's an idea-- a thoughtform-- in a package. So, having decided it's important to me now to read War and Peace, that is, to digest / comprehend this thoughtform, and I travel a lot and I refuse to travel with this ridiculously gigantic and heavy material object (and see the previous post about why an e-book doesn't work for me), I got out the kitchen scissors and cut the book in half. Yeah! I then mailed the second half to where I will be spending Thanksgiving-- so I can arrive, having read the first half, to get started asap on that second half.

This makes me feel tewwibly aristocratic.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

In Which I Offer a Preparatory Note

It just occured to me the other day that one of my resolutions for 2011 was to read War and Peace. So this seems a lickety-split time to get cracking. It's quite a tome to digest: over 1,000 pages. And I have to confess, the book-- bigger than a brick-- has been gathering dust on a table in my office for over a year.

I did get started several months ago but the book is so heavy I couldn't travel with it, and since I had to travel... Solution? An ebook! Nope, that didn't work. I tried, but reading something as truffle-rich as Tolstoy's War and Peace on a screen is like trying to slice prime rib in gravy on a paper plate. Well, maybe that's not the most apt analogy. The thing is, I needed to be able to leaf back and forth, rereading here and there to make sense of these first opening pages and with an electronic version, that was a hassle. So back to the humungous paperback version it is. And if I have to travel? This time, I will get a razorblade and slice a chunk out of the book and take it with me. Ayyy.

Which translation to read? As a translator myself (from the Spanish) I know there can be huge differences from one version to the next, so I threw the question to my literary translators' litserv. Several different translators recommended several different versions. Fur flew. Were I to quote, I would make enemies for life. Ayyy. With appreciation to all for both honest opinions and encouragement, I hereby opt for the version I already own, that by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

---> The book's official website.

So why this blog?

First, it's just a log (with a modernizing "b" to make it a blog), that is, a way of giving myself some focussing structure. Second, I am a novelist, so I imagine that my reactions will inform my own writing, and my thinking about writing. Third, it can be a long and lonely journey to read a novel of this length, so perhaps some readers/ fellow traveler's in other times and places may find sustenance here.

My goal is to read the book thoughtfully but at a steady clip so I can finish by December 31. That's approximately 15 pages a day (including a couple of days off).

P.S. I thought I was tewwibly clever to think of blogging about reading War and Peace but, of course, someone else has already done it. Last night, with a google search, I found the very good and inspiring blog by a New Yorker named Jerry D. Parra. He digested the whole enchilada in 118 days.

Next post: Wednesday.