sábado, 29 de diciembre de 2012

War and Peace

War and Peace [Voina i mir] (Vintage Classics, 2007)
by Leo Tolstoy [translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky]
Russia, 1869

Thinking she was sure to turn my wiseacre 1,215 page proposal down, I challenged Nicole from bibliographing to read War and Peace with me as part of her 2011 bibliographing Reading Challenge in which followers of her blog were encouraged to participate in a personalized one-book, pre-1939 shared read with her.  Unfortunately for the good sport Nicole, she took me up on the dare and pretty much hated the work.  Unfortunately for the spoilsport me, starting and then finishing the work over a full year after my challenge partner did still left me little time to say anything much about it until I return to Caravana de recuerdos headquarters sometime next week.  What follows will have to suffice as an inadequate intro for now.
*
Whatever its apparent flaws (an annoying opening party sequence, its occasional bloated masterpiece tendencies, that anti-climactic epilogue in which stirring novelistic narration abruptly yields to dry essayistic argument), War and Peace was probably about as satisfying a way to end the reading year for me as anything I could have asked for.  In fact, I'm sure it was because the book version of post-partum depression that kicked in once I lay the work down felt nearly as crushing as it did after I finished 2666 (my usual yardstick for measuring these sorts of things).  I never get that feeling from lesser novels.  So what will I miss most about the chunkster until I can make time for the inevitable reread?  For starters, I loved how Tolstoy went to war on the idea and form of historical fiction itself.  In a work dominated by Napoleon's invasion of Russia, you might reasonably expect a great writer to set down memorable battle scenes that admirably capture the fog of war.  Check.  You might also expect the characterization of real-life field marshal rivals like Bonaparte and Kutuzov to be as "realistically" fleshed out as the characterization of the fictional Prince Andrei, Count Bezukhov, and Natasha Rostov.  Check.  But what you couldn't have expected--or at least, what I didn't expect in my W&P naïvety--was to find a novel that also doubles as an inquiry into the nature of history and its methods.  While not exactly a case of Man vs. Novel, War and Peace's envelope-pushing novel/history hybrid continually begs the question: novel + history = what exactly?  Beats the hell out of me, but I was both surprised and delighted by the genre mashing even though I readily admit that the epilogue's attempt to come to grips with the root cause of the Napoleonic wars is less successful from an entertainment standpoint than the very story it serves as a commentary on.  Another thing I'll miss are all the unresolved tensions in the work.  Tolstoy spends much of the epilogue arguing against the great man theory of history, for example, in effect declaring that the decisions of the Napoleons and Alexanders of the world are as nothing compared to the unknown forces that move millions of men to act in a certain way.  While trying to arrive at a philosophical explanation of what moves men to go to war with each other against their own self-interests, Tolstoy at one time even blames "the spread of printing" for being "that most powerful tool of ignorance" in our "self-confident time of the popularization of knowledge" (1202).  Pot calling the kettle black or a thinker who is raising the bar on his medium of choice?  For me, I found Tolstoy an arresting thinker even when I disagreed with him.  Finally, I'll definitely miss Tolstoy's storytelling--both the sweep of the narrative and the often seamless segueways between exposition and meditation, epic similes and historical self-examination.  I'll try to provide a few examples of this in my follow-up post, but I was almost never bored by his writing and I was frequently moved by many individual scenes.  For me at least, a work that lives up to its canonical hype for sure.

Tolstoy in 1856

8 comentarios:

  1. This is pretty close to how I remember War and Peace - a lot of superb scenes but also some questionable ones. Some interesting essayism, but then that deadly final appendix, full of arguments that go against what I had just read in the novel itself.

    I'm looking forward to the scenes you choose. So many good choices, most of which I have likely forgotten.

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    1. I'll have to find another copy of W&P at the library before I get to my follow-up post, Tom, since I left my trusty reading copy with my dad for his eventual enjoyment. However, I'd gladly put up with a few questionable decisions/scenes from Tolstoy for all the standout ones he also dished out. I can live with that sort of ratio any day of the week!

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  2. I think all epic novels tend to sprawl and in places maybe have fat that should been cut one does wonder with w&p how much be trimmed by modern editors ? ,all the best stu

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    1. I agree with you about that sprawling tendency in epic novels, Stu, and the truth is I really wouldn't have wanted Tolstoy to cut anything despite my semi-complaint. W&P is just fine as is, you know? In terms of trimming the fat, though, I'd actually be more concerned about the damage a modern editor would do to a work like this--cutting out great swaths of prose just because of this mythical marketing concern that everybody's in a hurry to finish their books these days.

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  3. Blimey read this more years ago than I care to remember, when I was a more ambitious, less time constrained reader. Best wishes for the coming year.

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    1. I think that this is a book that more than amply rewards the reader for his/her time, Gary, so the only "blimey" moment of my own is that I didn't read it when I was younger to leave more time for what would have been my 2012 reread! In any event, thanks for the well wishes and a Happy 2013 to you as well.

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  4. I have a copy of War and Peace which I purchased more out a sense of obligation than and real desire to read it, but your post certainly encourages me to bump it up my list. Look forward to hearing more of your thoughts. (And Happy New Year!)

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    1. Amanda, I put off reading War and Peace for the longest time because I couldn't get into the snobby aristocracy party scene at the beginning. However, once I got past that part, I became really engrossed in the story and didn't want to read much anything else until I was done with it. Anyway, hope you have a chance to test drive the novel sooner rather than later. Cheers!

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