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 Fran├žais (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.