Thursday, July 4, 2013

Dexter Filkins on War and Peace

New Yorker writer Dexter Filkins is reading War and Peace, and he has this to say about it:

I’m reading “War and Peace” as I travel through the Middle East. It’s a battered Signet Classic paperback, copyright 1968, translated by Ann Dunnigan. The covers, fraying and crumbling, cling to the rest of the book with the aid of of scotch tape. John Bayley’s introduction has broken from the binder completely, along with the first thirty-two pages.
I’m on page four hundred and sixty-nine, which means I have only nine-hundred eighty-six pages to go. (Pierre and Andrei have just met on Andrei’s estate, Bogucharovo, and are having a philosophical argument about the utility of trying to do good in the world.) I’m in Tel Aviv, and headed, soon enough, to, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon: war here, peace there. I wonder whether my copy can survive the journey.
People considering reading “War and Peace” are justifiably terrified by its length; it is eight-hundred thousand words long. But readers should not be daunted by Tolstoy’s prose, which is clear and simple. “War and Peace” is a fast read. Here’s a sample from page four hundred and fifty-seven. Andrei, wounded while fighting Napoleon’s invasion, has just returned home to witness the birth of his son and the death of his wife. He has resolved not to return to the front. Here he is alone with sister, Marya, and his baby boy.
Prince Andrei looked at his sister. In the dim shadow of the canopy her luminous eyes shone more brilliantly than usual, filled as they were with tears of joy. She leaned over to her brother and kissed him, slightly catching the curtains of the crib. Each made the other a warning sign and stood still in the dim light of the canopy, as if unwilling to leave the seclusion where they three were alone, shut off from all the world. Prince Andrei was the first to move away, ruffling his hair against the curtains.
“Yes, this is the one thing left to me now,” he said with a sigh.

Friday, September 14, 2012

A Tolstoy for the 21st Century

Nicholson Baker interviewed at the New York Times:

What’s the one book you wish someone else would write? 
I’d like somebody to write a book that really told the truth about life now. Leo Tolstoy but with drive-through windows. 

Monday, January 16, 2012

Turgenev and Chekhov on Tolstoy

From an interesting review of Rosamund Bartlett's new biography of Tolstoy, a glimpse into how his literary peers viewed him:

From his deathbed, Ivan Turgenev harangued the errant novelist: "My friend, return to literary activity! This gift has come to you from where everything else comes from. Oh, how happy I would be if I could think that my request makes an impact on you!! I am a finished man…. I can't walk, I can't eat, I can't sleep, but so what! It's even boring to repeat all this! My friend, great writer of the Russian land -- heed my request!" Chekhov sometimes felt considerable distaste for Tolstoy in his chosen role of priest. "To hell with the philosophy of the great men of this world! All great wise men are as despotic as generals and as rude and insensitive as generals, because they are confident of their impunity." In the role of artist, though, he believed the older author to be unsurpassed: "What he does serves to justify all the hopes and aspirations invested in literature…. [S]o long as he lives, bad taste in literature, all vulgarity, insolence and sniveling, all crude, embittered vainglory, will stay banished in outer darkness."

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Our Third and Final Meeting

Here's a picture from our final meeting, graciously hosted on August 28th by Chuck and Marsha H. It's a little blurry, you may notice, which I take as an emblem of how, inevitably, our memories of this novel will blur and lose focus as time passes. That's sad, in a way, but I expect that my memories of this book and the time I spent discussing it with good friends will always retain a warm glow of happiness, no matter how fuzzy.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Our Second Meeting

We had our second group meeting on Sunday. We met at the Bottleworks again, and we discussed up to page 820 in the novel.

Among the topics discussed: Natasha's age when she attends her coming-out ball; a comparison of the character arcs of Andrei and Pierre; the wolf hunt; War and Peace as an epic; its possible similarities to Moby-Dick in that regard; whether it's still true, if indeed it ever was, that leaders have no real control over large-scale human events, as Tolstoy asserts; and various other topics that slip my mind at the moment (perhaps my fellow group members could chime in if I missed something noteworthy).

I think my favorite turn in the discussion was when we looked at this wonderful passage in which Tolstoy, describing the various generals who comprise the war council, identifies them by their national characters, which he distinguishes on the basis of why each is self-assured:

...only Germans can be self-assured on the basis of an abstract idea—science, that is, an imaginary knowledge of the perfect truth. A Frenchman is self-assured becasue he considers himself personally, in mind as well as in body, irresistibly enchanting for men as well as women. An Englishman is self-assured on the grounds that he is an citizen of the best-organized state in the world, and therefore, as an Englishman, he always knows what he must do, and knows that everything he does as an Englishman is unquestionably good. An Italian is self-assured because he is excitable and easily forgets himself and others. A Russian is self-assured precisely because he does not know anything and does not want to know anything, because he does not believe it possible to know anything fully. (639)

Tolstoy is almost entirely uninterested in Americans, but of course we had to ask the question: Why are Americans self-assured?

At first we thought maybe it had to do with military might, but then we decided that wasn't it. Americans are self-assured, we decided, because they believe that anything is possible (even when it manifestly isn't). It's why, according to the Swedish coach of the women's World Cup soccer team, the Americans persisted in the face of seemingly fated defeat and ended up winning against Brazil. It's also why many Americans resist more progressive taxation on the wealthy, because they believe that someday they may be wealthy, too.

In any case, it was a great afternoon and a very enjoyable discussion. Although the end of the summer vacation is always a bittersweet time, our final discussion, re-scheduled for August 28th, gives me something to look forward to.

Monday, June 27, 2011


It's funny how "reading War and Peace" has become a kind of shorthand phrase that means "spending one's time in a worthwhile fashion" or "doing something challenging and meaningful." For example, the following passage from this blog post about a government study of how Americans spend their time:

The findings are unsurprising at first glance: time spent on the job is down from previous years (thanks to the recession), women continue to spend more time housekeeping and caring for children than men, television-watching continues to be our favorite leisure activity, and time spent reading for pleasure remains abysmal (about seventeen minutes a day on average, though the numbers vary largely by age)....

Journal also notes that the increase in leisure time brought on by the recession hasn’t resulted, as one might think, in Americans finally getting around to all the productive things (like tackling “War and Peace”) they hadn’t had time for before, but in more television-viewing: an average of two hours and thirty-one minutes per weekday.

Why is this the case? Is it the length of the novel? The sheer investment of time and attention it requires? Or does it have something more to do with the ambitions of the novel—the way that it packs so much of life and human experience between its covers?

In some ways, it seems strange that a novel written by a Russian aristocrat almost 150 years ago should occupy this rhetorical position in our culture. Why not the complete works of Shakespeare? Or the Odyssey or the Iliad? Or Moby-Dick?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Our First Meeting

We had our first discussion this past Saturday at the Schlafly Bottleworks in Maplewood. We had a great time talking about the first 417 pages while drinking beer and eating elk chili. No photos were taken (an oversight on my part), and we didn't appoint anyone to take minutes. But I did want to record some impressions of the conversation. This post is by no means a transcript, but instead a riff on our discussion and two essays on Tolstoy by Isaiah Berlin that I read in the days following the discussion.

Early on, Jim R. made reference to the distinction between foxes and hedgehogs, a dichotomy that has been associated with Tolstoy ever since the publication in 1953 of Isaiah Berlin's celebrated essay "The Hedgehog and the Fox" (which you can read here, and which is also available in book form and in this volume).

Berlin begins by quoting from the fragments of the Greek poet Archilochus: "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." Berlin uses this fragment to classify writers. The foxes pursue many interests and present a multifarious world without needing to bend their observations to a single unitary vision. The hedgehogs, on the other hand, do seek that type of unitary vision, at times even fanatically. Berlin offers Dante, Plato, Ibsen, and Dostoevsky as examples of hedgehogs; and Shakespeare, Montaigne, Balzac, and Joyce as examples of foxes.

Berlin offers the hypothesis that "Tolstoy was by nature a fox, but believed in being a hedgehog."

Our group marveled at Tolstoy's foxlike ability to go seemingly anywhere—from the battlefield to the drawing room to the highest realms of political and court life, as well as the most domestic scenes of family life. Despite his panoramic view of the world and the wide-angle scenes of battle he's able to provide, he is also able to zoom in on the most microscopic detail. For example, Chuck H. pointed out a great detail on page 121, when Zherkov prepares to leave on his horse and "it shifted its footing three times excitedly, not knowing which leg to start with, worked it out, and galloped off."

Details like that one that must have led Berlin to describe Tolstoy as "a creator of a world more real than life itself":

The celebrated life-likeness of every object and every person in his world derives from this astonishing capacity of presenting every ingredient of it in its fullest essence, in all its many dimensions, as it were ... always as a solid object, seen simultaneously from near and far, in natural, unaltering daylight, from all possible angles of vision, set in an absolutely specific context in time and space—an event fully present to the senses or the imagination in all its facets, with every nuance sharply and firmly articulated.

Yet Tolstoy the fox, Berlin argues, wanted to be a hedgehog. He "longed for a universal explanatory principle," and in some sense disdained his own writerly gifts which others so admired (as did Flaubert and Turgenev, for instance, both of whom disdained Tolstoy's flights into philosophical abstraction).

One feels Tolstoy's attraction to this universal, profound explanation in Andrei's near-death experience on the battlefield at Austerlitz (see the final chapter of Volume I), which, as Barbara O. noted, constitutes a remarkable epiphany. It's Andrei's abandonment of his previous search for personal glory in battle; his acceptance of his insignificance (as well as that of even the "great" Napoleon) before the infinity of the sky; his admission that "I knew nothing, nothing till now." And yet, in the end, what does he know now? Barbara wondered.

One thing seemed clear to me as a result of our discussion: that one of Tolstoy's greatest attributes as a writer is love. He loves the details of the world—for example, the horse that doesn't know in its excitement which foot it will start off with. He loves so many of the people that he's writing about, imperfect and human as they are: Pierre, Andrei, Marya, Natasha, Rostov, Denisov, and others. So I was gratified to read the following in another of Berlin's essays on Tolstoy ("Tolstoy and Enlightenment"), in which Berlin describes the "conditions of excellence in art" that Tolstoy laid out in an introduction to a Russion edition of the stories of Maupassant:

...he demanded of all writers, in the first place the possession of sufficient talent; in the second that the subject itself must be morally important; and finally that they must truly love (what was worthy of love) and hate (what was worthy of hate) in what they describe.

War and Peace, I think we all agreed after this first meeting, amply fulfills all three conditions. Tolstoy's talent seems so multifaceted and deep—and modern as well. This epic tale treats so many issues of moral importance—indeed, everything from war to peace—suggesting, for one thing, that in wartime as well as peacetime human beings do not really understand why they do what they do, cannot make sense of all the confusing and chaotic events taking place all around them, but only later fashion these experiences into narratives that, though incomplete or even false, are believed to be true. Lastly, though, I think it's Tolstoy's depth of writerly judgment that we find so enjoyable and engrossing: how much we trust that he does indeed hate what is worthy of hate and love what is worthy of love.

I'm really looking forward to the second meeting, scheduled for Saturday, July 16, at which we'll discuss pages 417-820. I hope to see you there.