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...