Thursday, October 29, 2009

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Towards the end of September I read this post by Matt Yglesias about his experience reading Infinite Jest this summer. His conclusion?

But in a fundamental sense it struck me as very unsatisfying. Not just in terms of the weird ending, but in terms of definitely not feeling like I got more out of reading it than I could have gotten out of reading three books that were one third the length. That in turn is really making me glad that I was made to read Anna Karenina and Moby Dick in high school. I really loved both those giant honking books, but does it really make sense for a busy person in the modern world who maybe doesn’t care to dedicate all that much time to classic novels to read them? Seems like it might make more sense to read some short Tolstoy like “Family Happiness” and “Hadji Murat” and then move on to other things.

Adding new possible ways to entertain ourselves naturally starts to squeeze out the viability of some old ways. And maybe the long novel is among the squeezed. Which seems in some ways regrettable (which I take it is part of the point of Infinite Jest) but at the same time to really be a feature of the world.

There was a time when I might have disputed this. After all, what difference is it if you read three 300 page novels or one 900 page novel - if you enjoy the story, or the characters or the style or something about it? The problem, it seemed to me, was the 900 page novel that you don't enjoy in any discernable way. But mostly I felt sympathy for young Matt because at the moment that I read those paragraphs I was, after enjoying the first 1000 pages of War and Peace, only 200 pages from the end but wallowing and stuck just as surely as the French army was wallowing and stuck in the Russian mud and snow. I was afraid that my ability to read long novels was suffering the same destruction as the French army. And I kept wondering why (why?!) I was insisting on finishing the damn thing.

When I decided, in July, to read War and Peace I had my experience of reading Anna Karenina last year fresh in my mind. I began Anna in September and fully anticipated being finished by Thanksgiving. Instead, I read the last words nine months later. I felt strongly that it should not have taken me nine months to finish a novel. Any novel. So I approached War and Peace, not with trepidation, but with a plan.

At about 1200 pages I figured that if I could read 100 pages a week I would be finished in about 3 months. And 100 pages a week seemed reasonably achievable. That was less than 20 pages a night if I spread it out during the week, or 50 pages each weekend day if I got busy during the week. I also thought that there would be times that I would read more than 100 pages a week and, thereby, balance out the times when I could only read fewer pages. I assumed that occasionally I would get engrossed in the story and the pages would fly by. I also assumed that there would be parts that might be slower going. That was OK. It would all even out at the end.

I was also going on vacation during that time and decided to try to read between 25 and 50 pages a day while I was on vacation. That would jump me ahead by a few hundred pages while still giving me time to read other books too. One of the benefits of going to a cabin on a lake that you've been going to for thirty years is that there isn't much new to do. Sitting on the deck or on the dock or in a boat, it's natural to have a book at hand. I can go through many, many books on vacation. So 50 pages a day, more or less, of Tolstoy wouldn't be a hardship. I assumed that the further I got into the novel, the more engrossed I would be by the story and the more likely I would be to read more and faster.

Of course that didn't work at all when I came down with the flu and couldn't read. I found myself not ahead of schedule but behind schedule. But not that much behind. Not enough to give up.

I can't say that I flew through the first half of War and Peace but I made fairly steady progress and got back on schedule pretty easily. I liked the character groupings and plot intertwinings between the families - the difficult Bolkonsky family (the old, irascible and slightly senile father, the pompous but still somewhat attractive Prince Andrei, the self-effacing sister Marya), the attractive Rostov family (the fun loving but financially silly count, his too serious countess, Nicolas with his army life, charming Natasha, young Petya and cousin Sofia) and of course Pierre and his conniving wife and in-laws.

As usual Tolstoy had constructed a story that could be played on modern daytime soap operas. And if the story got a bit bogged down at Austerlitz when Tolstoy introduced the reader to the Sovereign Alexander and the various real-life generals and field commanders (not to mention Napolean), he still kept his fictional characters involved in the story line. I worried about Nicholas Rostov. I had earlier been annoyed at Andrei Bolkonsky's treatment of his wife, the little princess, but I was truly saddened at the thought that he might die in battle. But I really wanted the story to get back to Natasha and Sofia and Marya and all the characters who were "left behind" during the War part of the story. I wanted to get back to Peace. And that kept me reading without much effort of will.

It occurred to me at some point early in the story that Tolstoy had put together a somewhat complicated story (if you factored in his desire to discuss military strategy) using characters who were ... how shall I put this? -- not especially smart. I don't mean that they were stupid but they were just not especially smart. There were no geniuses in the cast. This occurred to me out of the blue one day after reading a long chapter in which a character (Prince Andrei I think, but it might have been Pierre) went through a long drawn out decision-making process for a decision that the reader could easily predict. But at the same time, he had characters who didn't think and were constantly getting into trouble because of that. And I thought, this is what real life is made up of, people like this. But that's why it makes for slow reading. In most novels there is at least one character who is smarter than everyone else and makes decisions that are both quick and good. A character that you cannot hope to meet in real life. A character that can move the plot forward quickly. But not here. Not in War and Peace.

No one is a genius in Tolstoy's world. This had been somewhat true in Anna Karenina too but, since that novel encompassed the purely personal, it was less obvious. And possibly less annoying to me (although I do remember getting bored with the stream of consciousness style that accompanied every decision). In War and Peace, I noticed it more. And I wondered if Tolstoy just couldn't conceive of genius or couldn't figure out how to portray genius. But by the time I got to Austerlitz I realized that Tolstoy intended that all of his characters, fictional and non-fictional, be quite ordinary. His whole point in writing the novel is that events happen outside the control of the people experiencing them or, in fact, held responsible for them and genius is irrelevant if it even exists.

The only "genius" who was allowed into War and Peace was Tolstoy himself who began to intrude more and more into the novel as the voice of the narrator. A voice that mocked the conclusions of historians about the war. A voice that spoke authoritatively about war: its causes and its progress and its aftermath.

By the time I was stuck in the snows outside Moscow wondering if I had the strength to go on, this exposition had taken over the novel and it seemed to have, in fact, ceased to be a novel and had turned into a treatise on the war in 1812. Tolstoy seemed to have lost most of his characters. They were missing, wandering in a novelistic no man's land the way the evacuees from Moscow were wandering the countryside seeking refuge. And like family and friends who wonder what has happened to those refugees, I was wondering where Natasha and Sonya and the Countess and Marya were and how they were doing. And whether Prince Andrei was going to live. But instead of giving me glimpses of the characters I now knew intimately, Tolstoy continued to expound on the shortsightedness of all Russian commanders except Kutuzov.

This is not, I thought, what I signed up for. If I wanted to read a treatise on Napolean's invasion of Russia and the Russian response, I would have found myself a treatise on Napolean's invasion of Russia and the Russian response. At least I would have known that the person writing it had some "authority". Who was Tolstoy anyway? A novelist. Not a historian. Not a military tactician. Why should I listen to him?

I slogged on, though, assuming that once the French army was destroyed Tolstoy would find the characters again and we would then gallop toward the ending. And since so many people had written about it, I was pretty sure the ending involved the old countess Rostov leaving the tea table in a grumpy mood.

Tolstoy did find the characters again. He wound things up nicely and the Countess did, indeed, leave the tea table in a bad mood. But then ... THEN Tolstoy wrote thirty more pages of exposition about war. Oh. My. God. I found that I couldn't read it. But how could I not read it? How could I stop thirty pages (30 pages !?!) from the end and not finish. So I stopped and I read the Forward (I always save Forwards for the end because I don't like "spoilers") and then I went back to it. And stared at it. Finally I read it - mostly. I would read paragraphs and then skim a few paragraphs and then read some more and then skim some more (he was very repetitive). And finally it said "The End".

And while it wasn't that I felt I would have got more out of reading 3 books in place of one reading of War and Peace, I do feel that I would have gotten more out of reading a thirty page short story than reading those last 30 pages of War and Peace.

But other than that, I enjoyed it.