Friday, February 25, 2011

Base Camp

In this recent Prep News article about our project, I compared reading War and Peace to climbing Mount Everest. Part of my motivation for getting our reading group together was to have companions on this long, potentially arduous journey—fellow readers to make the journey easier and more fun as well.

Some of us, anticipating busy summers, have already started on the journey. As one of the ringleaders of the expedition, I felt a certain responsibility to stay near the head of the pack. I also wanted to be able to participate in some of the early scouting forays and conversations. So I pressed ahead and have now finished Part One of Volume One of the novel (to page 112).

From where I stand, I think this is a good place to set up a kind of "base camp" for the climb—and, if I may, to give some encouragement and advice on how to make it this far.

I felt pretty good for about the first thirty-five pages. The terrain could be rocky—lots of characters, lots of French, lots of references to political, social, and military matters that I didn't know much about—but I felt that I was on more or less steady footing.

After that, though, I hit fog and snow.

In Chapter VII the action switches to Moscow, and a whole new group of characters comes into play with little introduction. I started to feel lost; I sometimes fell asleep while reading. I was getting scared that I wasn't going to like this book. I pressed on, though, trying for the sake of navigation to hold on to certain characters from the opening Petersburg section: Count Vassily, Anna Mikhailovna, and Pierre. I tried my best to keep up with all the new characters, but I missed a lot of nuances and I didn't really enjoy what I was reading.

In Chapter XVIII (page 70), suddenly the plot heated up and got me interested again for about seventeen pages. Things were making sense once more, and pretty dramatic stuff was occurring. I was still a little shaky on some of the characters' motivations, but I was understanding enough to regain some of my confidence.

There was one more rather treacherous crossing at the beginning of Chapter XXII. The action shifts location again, this time to Bald Hills, an estate 100 miles outside of Moscow. We have to adjust to yet another set of characters (some of whom we've already seen or heard of at the beginning of the novel), and a pair of long letters in French.

The Bald Hills section is interesting but a little puzzling UNTIL you get to Chapter XXV, the final chapter of Part One. For me, that was where everything began to snap into place. It's a neat chapter, full of everything I love about Tolstoy—complex psychological insights, wonderfully drawn characters with complicated relationships to each other, and, basically, the drama of human existence.

From my vantage point at this base camp, I could now look back over the ground I'd covered and see it much more clearly. After finishing Part One, I went back and reviewed what I'd read so far, and I started noticing all kinds of things that made much more sense now.

I dipped into Richard Pevear's introduction and came across, in the first paragraph, a simple description of the novel that I found very helpful.

Pevear says the book is about "the interweaving of historical events with the private lives of two very different families of the Russian nobility—the severe Bolkonskys and the easygoing Rostovs—and of a singular man, reminiscent of the author himself—Count Pierre Bezukhov."

This focus is not at all clear as you're struggling through Part One of Volume One. (At least it wasn't clear to me.) But if you can keep your eye on these families and Pierre and think of them as the ones to watch most closely, it helps quite a bit, I think.

Happy climbing! Feel free to chime in with your own observations, links, or questions in the comments section of this blog, or in your own posts. If you want to do a full post, let me know and I can add you as an author to the blog.

No comments:

Post a Comment