Wednesday, July 05, 2006

At war and peace with myself

Discussion opens today (we hope) on the first chunk of Tolstoy's War and Peace (as if anyone else ever wrote a book called "War and Peace").

Confession: I'm not loving it. I mean, it moves along swiftly enough, it holds my interest, it's funny even, and I'd like to get to know all these characters better. It's certainly not hard. But it doesn't really grab me; I don't really care about it. Maybe this will change; I'm only about 180 pages in (about 12%), but it's getting kind of far on to be drawing a reader along without drawing them in. (Or maybe this is not the right time for me and War and Peace to come together.)

I can't even make out what, so far, is discussion-worthy. Excuse me while I clear my head...

One problem I'm stumbling over: it turns out I know nothing about the Napoleonic Wars. Rather, knew nothing. I know quite a bit now (at least, so far, about the rise of Napoleon's career to about 1805), not because Tolstoy has taught me anything but because I keep looking up information to feed my understanding of passing references. I'm assured that one doesn't need to know these things to appreciate the work as a whole, but I have trouble passing over the characters' comments, politely smiling and nodding, when the reference is not to something vague or wholly fictitious but is a matter of actual historical events and their consequent interpretation.

Thus far, the references seem to add only a little to the character of Pierre. Pierre is a sympathizer (of Napoleon and the French Revolution), a Jacobin. He has the brashness of youth, a revolutionary spirit. Indeed, among aristocratic circles, he could be seen as if not a subversive then certainly an unpleasantness, a threat, at the very least a fool.

Prince Andrei seems to like Pierre. We know Andrei to be smart and level-headed (though perhaps a little inconsiderate of his pregnant wife). Andrei strikes me as a good judge of character.

The other problem that is a thorn in the forefront of my brain is that I read the introduction by John Bayley. (By the second page he is judging Middlemarch unfavourably: "George Eliot combined a power of intellect with a power of human sympathy, but she could not begin to render a common experience as Tolstoy did." I'm not sure I agree.) He begins by telling us there are more happy marriages in War and Peace than in any other novel. Well, I'm only on page 177, it's just 1805, but I've had insight into exactly one marriage (Andrei and Lisa) and it doesn't seem all happy to me. (The merest glimpse into the Rostov's life together is just that — a glimpse.) Other marriages loom on the horizon, but from where I stand they are rife with expectations and jealousies.

None of this really matters, except for that I read the introduction and I wish I hadn't; it's planted an unwelcome (at this point) answer to the seed of the question of "what's this novel all about anyway?"

I'm also realizing how very strongly the answer, for me, now, to that question is nourished by the other books I've recently read (specifically MiƩville, also responsible for leading me to search out the historical reality behind Tolstoy's references).
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