Monthly Archives: December 2013

90% done with War and Peace

Every character represents a very real facet of human nature, good or bad.

Kutuzov, for me, represents the sort of man whose good deeds, hard work, and brilliance go unnoticed because he is not flashy, does not play politics, and just does what is required of him. In a way he is the most tragic because he is, though officially honored, unrecognized.

A lot of us can feel like that many times in our lives.

21% done with A Country Doctor’s Notebook

I stated reading this because of the wonderful TV show.

I’ve never read Bulgakov before but after the very first line on the first story I’m hooked on him. That sense of humor and simple, easy style is brilliant.

His having been a doctor adds to the color of the stories greatly, too. The steel windpipe tale (2nd story) made me really squeamish but also drove home how isolated the hospital is.

87% done with War and Peace

The act of Pierre feeling it an effort to be around Platon and then ignoring Platon’s unspoken beckoning is one of those details common to us all in one way or another. We are like the general at the beginning who has never made a mistake and only wishes to go on not making mistakes. It’s selfish, but we’re all selfish and that’s the point: the sum total of selfishness moves history along, not 1 ‘great man’ alone.

82% done with War and Peace

The main advantage to Tolstoy not ever being funny (ever) is that he doesn’t beat around the bush with tragedy and terror. Pierre, though a comic figure, is never used comically, he’s broken down and then rebuilt as a better man and his ultimate breaking is when he witnesses the execution. Tolstoy soberly recounts this terrible scene and you really do feel a small part of the terror and horror people inflict.

79% done with War and Peace

I have to admit that I always found Sonya to be a character of convenience for Tolstoy in this novel. She seems to exist not as a real person, but as a foil for the Rostov’s.

However, the turn where she writes the letter to Nikolai because she believes that setting him free will bring him closer to her is her best moment as a character. Tolstoy was probably proud for having thought of it, too.

76% done with War and Peace

Unlike Levin who lived on his farm, worked with his serfs, and lived a very simple life, Pierre begins the novel as such a cultural elite that he hasn’t even lived in Russia for years. Yet over the course of the novel he finally comes to this: a shabby man street fighting with French officers over the honor of a foreign girl. Yet I couldn’t say when any particular change happened – Tolstoy’s genius is this.

74% done with War and Peace

Though I know what will happen, I’m still unsettled by the scene with Pierre and the Frenchman. Maybe it’s because there is a madman in the house, and a gun, and a war that there is a thin thread of menace to the scene. I never know if the Frenchman is actually a likable guy or is sinister.

I missed it the first time, but the moaning adjutant, the fire, and Natasha at the window mirrors Andrey at the window before

Kholstomer: Read Dec 22, 2013

The one criticism of Tolstoy is that he was never able to write from a peasants point of view. All of his characters came from his own life experiences and when he did attempt to write a well rounded peasant character he never seemed able to really make them come alive on the page.

This is telling not just of Tolstoy but of all Russian society of his time. There was a sharp divide between those who have and those who have not, those who own land and those who work the land, those who give orders and those who follow. And Tolstoy was always painfully aware of this divide and saw how unfair it was – and not only Tolstoy but plenty of the Russian well-to-do were pained by this inequality in their society and much of the social change came from the privileged and not just from the ground up.

Tolstoy’s struggle with this “sin” in Russia society (a sin much like what Americans felt with slavery in the south) is apparent in nearly all his major works, especially in his two most famous characters: Pierre (in War and Peace) and Levin (in Anna Karenina). Both characters know what is right and wrong and try to live their life by a more moral and simple code of conduct. They go against decent society, are seen as outcasts and a little odd and eccentric, but in the end are enlightened unlike those who wallow around them.

Yet where Pierre goes through one tortured transformation and another and is never sure of anything except that he wants to be good, and where Levin instinctively knows what is right and wrong because he is ‘a good man’, this story takes a much bleaker look at the class divide.

Most obviously is the fact that Tolstoy uses a horse as a stand-in for the peasant class. Take what you will of this, but it there is no denying the implications of using an animal to represent a man. However, since we are reading Tolstoy we can look deeper into this and also understand how important horses are to Russian society in the 19th century (as they were important to everyone up until the automobile). Horses were a status symbol, took brave men into battle, drove the wealthy about, pulled farm equipment, and made possible all of civilization. Without the horse Europe would have been much like the Americas. So the importance of the horse cannot be understated meaning that though Tolstoy paints a picture of an entire class of people with that of a beast of burden, he does not do so out of spite, but rather because that’s the way people like him thought. It was not cruel, it was misinformed, and unenlightened, but not overtly meant to debase. Joseph Conrad famously has these same issues when describing black people in his novels and he can be fairly criticized but one has to be aware of the broader picture, too.

But what Tolstoy is trying to show in this story is how a trick of fate, in this case being piebald (black and white spotted) can mean the difference between a good life and one of servitude. Had Strider (the horse as we learn his name to be) not been piebald he would have never been gelded and would have had a fine life, but fate played its hand and ruined him with those spots that no man wanted on his thoroughbred. And what Tolstoy is saying here is that man, too is made the same way – a twist of fate determines if we live in opulent pleasure in the Winter Palace or sends us to work the fields until our backs break and we die starving in the winter. There is no real difference between men, just random chance.

This is radical stuff for 19th century Russian living under the autocratic rule of an absolute Emperor whose power is given to him by God above. The Emperor would not agree with anything Tolstoy has to say in this story because he would believe there is a difference between men: those who rule and those who serve and that distinction is made by God.

For us this might seem a little too “on the nose”, the point is pretty obvious and we all feel like we have learned the lessons of the past concerning class and society – especially Americans. Yet the lines are still drawn. Race and economics still divide us. We may not have actual slaves and serfs, but we’d be kidding ourselves if we said we all lived equally.

Yet we all die equally. And that’s what sets this story apart from Tolstoy’s other major works. The ending is bleak and painful. I felt as if Tolstoy was sick of treating this subject matter with kid gloves and finally just decided to lay the facts bare on the ground. Joyce, too, in Ulysses makes this very same point during the funeral and that rat who eats away at the corpses underground (it’s all the same to the worms).

The lesson is still valid today as it was when he wrote this and it will probably always be as valid because it’s unlikely we will ever live equally. Sure, we might try and we may start a revolution and force everyone to be equal, but we saw how that turned out for the Russians just a generation after Tolstoy wrote this.

And I do think Tolstoy almost managed to write one really good peasant character in this story with Strider because all he needed to do was realize there is no difference between peasant and gentry – they’re all the same breed so why bother even making a distinction?

Seems simple enough, right?

Yet it’s really hard to actually do both in fiction and in real life.

69% done with War and Peace

The whole point of reading this book during Christmas time is for the point Tolstoy makes with the Rostov’s during the evacuation of Moscow.

What’s incredible about this scene is that while you could see it as sentimental, patriotic, and full of convenient coincidences (Berg, Andrey), we have lived with the Rostov’s for so long that every emotion here is earned. Tolstoy illustrates the spirit of the event artfully

65% done with War and Peace

The word ‘war’ and the word ‘peace’ are not the most important words of the title; ‘and’ is. Everything within is and

Prince Andrey is very much a modern character in fiction, especially in regards to his feeling about war. Andrey is cynical, tired, and let-down by what he thought war would be like. 100 years later (from Borodino) WW1 would have an even greater impact on men and art. Each war drove men even madder

62% done with War and Peace

It’s easy to think the Russian revolution that turned the country to communism was a recent, new development that happened over just a few years. In fact you can see the grumblings right here decades earlier in Tolstoy who writes quite clearly that no one man has the power to change the course of history.

The autocrat Emperors who ruled Russia were the cause of blood and conflict much sooner than Lenin.

58% done with War and Peace

A fair criticism of Tolstoy is his near inability to write from the peasants point of view. He, being a Count and serf owning landowner, had only a dim concept of a life other than his own and even his dealings with the peasants met with vexation on his part. Yet knowing this about himself, he turns this into a plot point with Maria and the peasants and illustrates how everyone acts foolishly and how that spreads.

54% done with War and Peace

At the halfway point, the tone of the novel shifts. Tolstoy as narrator (though I always imagine the narrator as Russia herself) plays a more prominent role and the feeling of sheltered, dream-like safe society we’d been living in so far is now shattered with Natasha’s decision and the looming war. Everything is uncertain, everyone is agitated and angry, and the book becomes more than a novel – it becomes Russia

51% done with War and Peace

It might seem easy to accuse Tolstoy of setting Natasha up as a straw-man (girl) with which he can show how silly girls can be, however, the very next section after her near (self inflicted) disaster is a long dialogue on how stupid men are for going from east to west and west to east killing each other. Tolstoy admonishes everyone equally for stupidity and goes to great length to describe our infinite stupidity.

45% done with War and Peace

Book 7, the section dealing with Nikolai coming home is, for me, the reason why I fell in love with this novel and all of Russian culture. No other book, no painting, no piece of music, no other work of art comes close to what Tolstoy wrote when he described the hunt, Natasha’s dance, and the sleigh ride. All of Russia is on this section, all of what they fought for, died for, loved for, and lived for is in this.

40% done with War and Peace

Tolstoy continuously sets up one situation and then almost immediately contrasts it with its opposite. Once Andrey realizes that Natasha has rejuvenated him and now wants to live life to the fullest, we get the chapter of Berg and the party and the great line “Everything was just as it was everywhere else”.

Tolstoy clearly sees the shallow, fake, pointless existence of striving towards suburban mediocrity.

37% done with War and Peace

At the window Prince Andrey imagines Natasha wishes to fly away into the night and he’s charmed by the girl. Pierre, on the other hand, dreams of a young woman flying into the sky too but imagines the image is symbolic of the Psalms. In the middle of these two images, Tolstoy talks about how two people can have such different ideas of the truth and how difficult it can be to agree on anything.

33% done with War and Peace

Though we can imagine what it is that has turned Prince Andrey even more cynical and dour, his reveal to Pierre that it was his lost chance to make things right with his wife that is so striking and touching.

Also, Pierre is still trying to figure out who he is and how to do anything right, but he still manages to get through to Andrey. Tolstoy treats this friendship masterfully.

Tolstoy’s descriptions are !!!

30% done with War and Peace

Though I like Levin better (from Anna Karenina), Pierre is a more ‘real’ character. Though Levin too struggles to do well, Pierre’s struggles represent the reality of how the world actually works. When he wishes to do good by his serfs he is actually making their life harder. He believes it is so easy to do good while behind his back he’s being taken advantage of and is doing more harm than good. Good is not easy.

27% done with War and Peace

Dolokhov is a bastard, but he knows how to get ahead when the odds of society are stacked against him. In a way he is like an American who not having any rules to play by (like the Ambassador in Remains of the Day) can play his own game, best the old school aristocrats at their own game and come out ahead while ruining them. You have to admire a person like that even if they are quite awful.

24% done with War and Peace

Nothing is ever what it seems or is ever what we imagine it to be. All our plans, best laid as they are, can never be totally counted on – the random, or the more powerful can sweep the best laid plans aside. That’s what the whole point of the battle of Austerlitz – plans that go awry due, in the case, to ego, bravado, and foolishness. Rostov failed to help the Tzar unlike his fantasies, and Napoleon was just cold.

19% done with War and Peace

Tolstoy talks about how difficult it is for young people to tell the truth, especially when recounting their part in a battle. In fact, since Tolstoy himself served during the Crimean War and saw action, it’s no surprise he’s able to so vividly write about what battles are like yet his genius is in being able to temper the bravado and ‘beauty’ of war with all its doubts, hypocrisy, fear, lies, and indecision.

16% done with War and Peace

The narrator of the novel has always fascinated me; I’ve always felt as if Russia herself was the narrator. Tolstoy moves in and out of people’s heads so effortlessly and refers to the troops as ‘we’ and ‘our’ that there is no ‘person’ who narrates the novel, rather something much grander.

His word choices are genius, too. When speaking of one soldier, he uses the term ‘the fairer sex’ to describe that man’s ideas

13% done with War and Peace

The subtle revelation to Prince Andrey of the disillusionment of war (and life in general) happens so minutely, so slowly (and thereby so realistic) that I didn’t perceive it at all the first time around. Now that I know how he’ll turn out, it’s quite sad to see the transformation.

Pierre, too, goes through a similar, slow arc and this contrast is fascinating in how different they are out of similar circumstances.

10% done with War and Peace

I know this says too much about the kind of person I am, but Prince Nikolay Bolkonsky (the father) will always be my favorite character.

The first time I read War and Peace I had to re-read the first few chapters of book 2 I think about 3 times before finally ‘just going with it’. This time around I still find it hard to ‘hang onto’ exactly what’s going and so I’ll assume Tolstoy wants us to feel ‘out of place’.

6% done with War and Peace

I love how Tolstoy always takes the time to describe how and why things are. When the two ladies cry over the loan of money, Tolstoy explains they cry because they are friends, they cry because they are no longer young, they cry because it’s a shame to cry over something as base as money. No other writer does this and it’s beyond beautiful.

The dance with Rostov mirrors Natasha’s dance later: she just knew how.

3% done with War and Peace

Since this is my favorite book of all time (along with Fathers and Sons), I’m going to make it a Christmas tradition to read it every December.

I still think Anna Pavlovna is more dangerous than Napoleon or even a snake. Something about a ‘society gossip’ just rubs me the wrong way.

How many frat parties have a live bear on a chain that they tie a police officer to in throw in a river? Only in Russia.