Monthly Archives: January 2013

5% done with Anna Karenin

Having just finished War and Peace, I thought it would be fun to stay with Tolstoy and jump right into his other masterpiece.

Already I enjoy the characters as they are more real than in War and Peace. Here they are more drawn from the emotional side of the author’s brain whereas in War and Peace the characters were drawn more from the intellectual.

As usual, Tolstoy’s eye for detail is as sharp as ever.

War and Peace: Read from December 30, 2012 to January 29, 2013

The best book I’ll ever read.

I do have some quibbles, however, and that’s with the epilogue, especially the second epilogue.

Tolstoy makes some interesting points in the otherwise dull and lifeless epilogue – the concept of an objective observer predates Einstein in many ways – but he really, really did not need to go one and on about a point he already made through the course of the novel proper. Of course much time (and tastes) have changed sine he wrote this and a modern author wouldn’t dare tell the reader what to think and what lesson to take away from a book (show, don’t tell), but even forgiving the style, Tolstoy tries too hard to hammer home a point he can’t put into words very well.

Sure, he wants to say that above all, beyond power and influence and even time and space, only one thing can be the cause AND effect of all earthly concerns, but his own logic betrays his hypothesis. He never once applies the same rules of his line of reasoning to his supernatural explanations for the human condition. Yes, man has no true and complete ‘free will’ nor does he owe every decision of his life to that of a controlling master, yet to say that only something that exists completely out of time and space (and therefore not subject to the rules he lays out in his logic) is a cop-out. He just wants to prove there is a god and he fails because like the historians he condemns for the shortsightedness, the more power one has the less influence they wield at the lowest level.

I actually felt bad for Tolstoy reading that second epilogue because he otherwise made his point quite clear before then too. I mean, the whole reason why War and Peace is so long is to convey that great sense of time needed to see things in a greater context and too explain how complicated and messy life really is. He couldn’t do that in a smaller book and certainly not in an epilogue.

Yet the novel is a complete masterpiece, even with this one flaw because it’s so grand, so complete, so observant and so mesmerizing that at times we feel like a god looking down on his creation and being able to see and hear and know the deepest thoughts and fears and foibles of everyone alive at any given moment. Tolstoy basically allows us to play the great deity he tries so hard to prove exists externally of the universe; god is not ‘out there’, he’s us. He’s each of us. He’s the confused mess of stumbling humanity haplessly slouching towards some unknown and unforeseen future that never could have been predicted to begin with. The ebb and flow of history is made up of a billion billion vibrating lives each pressing against each other in a dance like that at a great Russian soiree and every so often a beautiful songbird flutters into the room, delights everyone for an instant and inspires us to love.

97% done with War and Peace

There’s an article on Slate that reports on how Gorbachev believes Chernobyl was a major cause of the downfall of the USSR. Tolstoy does not believe in the single cause theory as a prime mover of history and believes the forces are unseen. Ironic then that an invisible radiation cloud drifting over the fertile Ukraine could have actually been the exception that proves the rule.

94% done with War and Peace

I wonder what Russia would have been like had War and Peace not been written, or to look at from another angle, was (a novel like) War and Peace inevitable?

The notion of breaking with French society, with the ‘west’ and finding life and harmony in just being Russian found expression not too many decades later with the revolution and with communism’s desire to cast off the rich and rise up the common man.

91% done with War and Peace

Tolstoy may have claimed the War and Peace isn’t technically a novel, and even I could argue that it’s not one either, yet a character such as Pierre can only exist in a novel.

Pierre IS the novel as much as Russia IS the narrator. Pierre changes the most, embodies the themes of the novel more than any other character and is a total fiction among a cast of real historical figures.

He’s remarkable.

page 77 of 462 of God’s Clockmaker: Richard of Wallingford and the Invention of Time

First part of the book is a history of Oxford’s humble beginnings, an introduction to the astrolabe (complicated), and the political climate (read: uneasy) of early 14th century England.

The intersection of Richard’s education first as the son of a blacksmith, then adopted into the religious orders, then Oxford to where he discovered maths is one of those fun and unique coincidences of history.

85% done with War and Peace

I was told there would be no math.

The narrator of War and Peace is an interesting device. When the novel begins everything is 3rd person in accordance to a single character. However, we later get chapters addressing an unexplained ‘we’; ‘We fought the French’.

It would be easy to say this narrator is Tolstoy himself, but really the narrator is not a person but rather an entire nation; it’s Russia herself.

81% done with War and Peace

Sentimental emotions in a story are always unearned emotions. They are manipulative, they cheat the reader and expose the author as a fraud.

I suppose Tolstoy could be accused of sentimentality but that would be wrong. Tolstoy earns every emotion and everything that happens is because of the characters. If a character is sentimental, so shall the story go. If there is a coincidence, so too shall the story go.

76% done with War and Peace

Funny how even Tolstoy writing back in the late 1800’s could clearly explain how government officials can do the most horrible things under the cover of the greater good.

Overall, I don’t think there is one human experience that Tolstoy has left unexplored in this novel, it’s practically a catalog of humanity in all it’s forms. How he ever wrote this is astounding; it’s beyond a masterpiece – it’s THE masterpiece

58% done with War and Peace

I find it interesting that Tolstoy was so religiously devout (not to any religion, but to the faith). His writing suggests a keen eye for skepticism, seeing through BS, knowing a scam when he sees one, wary and mocking of superstition, and always on the lookout for a manipulator or someone who is naive who will fall for it and ruin their life. So many consequences arise from foolishness that his own faith seems odd.

53% done with War and Peace

Tolstoy says at the beginning of Book 9 that there is never just one cause for an event (war, in this example) but that there are so many, each of which must happen otherwise the entire plan will fall apart that to understand anything you’d have to know every small detail too and that any generalization will always fall short.

Sums up the whole point of the novel quite nicely.

39% done with War and Peace

Tolstoy seems to have a low opinion of women much of the time. However, for as much time as his male characters spend demeaning women, the men are the ones who are constantly screwing up and are most of the time lost, confused, naive, overly emotional or not emotional enough, ask too many questions or not enough questions and spend a lot of time being weak.

Tolstoy seems to be quite aware of this too. It’s funny.

29% done with War and Peace

I’m going to forgive Tolstoy and allow him this one scene of melodrama with the ‘little princess’, the birth, and the husband. He did have to write for an audience after all, so a good tear-jerk never hurts sales. Still though, I could have done without it.

The novel still is holding steady at my #1 spot of all time, however. The scene with Napoleon surveying the foggy field of battle was pure genius. Pure Genius.

12% done with War and Peace

The introduction of Napoleon is fantastic. First we only hear of him through gossip and then through youthful admiration and then we catch a glimpse of his soldiers and now a letter or reprimand! Still no sign of this ‘Corsican Emperor’ but he permeates every page.

Reading this novel is like watching a great painter at work. First you only can see an outline of a scene but stroke by stroke the whole is revealed.

7% done with War and Peace

The death scene of Count Bezukhov (not a spoiler) is one of the most haunting and beautiful scenes I have ever had the pleasure of re-reading.

Started in on book 2 and I love the touches of humor : a one eyed General reviewing the troops with their poor boots and gray jackets (after switching them) is quite funny (in a lit-nerd sort of way, that is).

This novel is beyond brilliant.