Monday, August 21, 2006

On finishing the masterpiece

I did it. I finished War and Peace. All 1456 pages. One could even say I read it twice, what with circling back to refresh my mind and hunting down specific passages.

Helena, after begging me to read to her from it and then having sat through my reading of a couple pages of the epilogue, seems to be undertaking to read the whole thing for herself from the beginning.

Greatest novel ever written? At the risk of losing the respect of, umm, anybody who's read War and Peace, I must say: Not in my opinion. Sure, it's pretty good, they don't call it a classic for nothing, but...

(Possible spoilers ahead.)
(Consider this space a dumping ground for some of the things running through my head; some of these ideas may be further thought out and, someday, posted here.)
I mentioned previously that the book takes off for me with Prince Andrei's vision of the heavens. The book ends for me with Andrei's death (p 1177; cut out all the philosophizing that repeats the second epilogue, which is now placed at the beginning, and you've got yourself a manageable 800-page book) — it's all (well, mostly) downhill from there.

The second epilogue really ought to be used as an introduction. Moving that chunk of text would save many people the compulsion to reread the damn thing. Once you know Tolstoy's views on the mechanical and spiritual forces of history, the significance of the characters's actions and inactions, the patterns and themes are far more evident.

John Bayley's introduction to my edition ought never to be reprinted again. Who the hell is John Bayley anyway? "There are more happy marriages in War and Peace than in any other novel" — hah! There are two, maybe three (counting the old Rostovs). He says of Middlemarch that Dorothea is interesting while unhappily married but loses her interest once she is happily married. I would level the same criticism at Natasha, Marya, Nikolai... Not Pierre so much, though of all of them he's the only one previously unhappily married; he remains interesting, perhaps because he's offscreen for most of the first epilogue (to which all of married life is relegated for that examination in such fine detail, according to Bayley) and he's developing a new politically minded passion; rather in many ways he reminds me of Andrei when we first met him, married but not fulfilled and looking outwards for purpose (how compatible can this be with Natasha, whose life's meaning is found in family?)

(One book that I wish had been written, though I answered differently a short while ago, and I'm sure I'm borrowing this idea from something I've read over the lat week or so: the early life of Prince Andrei, including his engagement and marriage to Lisa, up to that point at which we make his acquaintance at Anna Pavlovna's.)

And poor Sonya. Says Natasha:
Perhaps she lacks egoism, I don't know, but from her is taken away — and everything has been taken away. I feel dreadfully sorry for her sometimes. I used to be awfully anxious for Nicolas to marry her, but I always had a presentiment that it wouldn'thappen. She is a sterile flower, you know, like a strawberry blosson. Sometimes I feel so sorry for her, and at other times I think she doesn't feel as you or I feel.

(Watched Match Point this weekend: "I'd rather be lucky than good." Are we born one way or another? It seems Dostoevsky thought so (Match Point's main character has an interest in him). Maybe Tolstoy too. Not exactly unlucky, but Sonya seems kind of doomed. That beyond free will or predistination lies some essential element of character? I'm liking this movie better the more I think about it. Another great line: "faith is the path of least resistance.")

I'd had some trouble understanding Andrei's death. Karatayev's story (told in complete ignorance of Andrei and his death; a completely separate element, not related to Andrei at all except in my head) spoke a little to me about it; it could be said of Andrei that God pardoned him (but still, for what? for Lisa? for lack of faith?) and he was dead. And it is still not clear to me why suddenly Andrei decided to die; he did not give up, he let death in. And why did he break off from discussing the Gospels with Marya? Because he understood that she already knew, it didn't need discussing, or because he couldn't yet admit his change of mind/heart (to himself, that his life to that point had been meaningless after all? to others, that he'd been wrong in mocking them?)?

Ellen's death was disappointing, serving only to free Pierre. Tolstoy was lazy on this one.

I'm glad I read it, cuz it's a good book, but also to be able to say I actually read it. Would I ever reread War and Peace? Would I reread it 5 or 6 times? No. There are scenes I'd like to revisit (namely the hunt, and the visit with Uncle), but I don't imagine myself having an ongoing love affair with this book. Maybe it wasn't in the right time for me; I wasn't particularly enthusiastic about undertaking it. Maybe I really don't get it, its full significance hasn't yet clicked, and maybe when I do, when it does, I'll feel differently. I would recommend War and Peace to history buffs, but not to most casual readers I know.

Go ahead. Tell me what a literary heathen I am. I can take it. I read War and Peace, and at age 36 I'm brave enough to formulate (and modify as necessary) an opinion on it. What did you do this summer?


rachel said...

It's funny (or maybe it isn't)... I liked this book better when I was younger. I'm not sure why; I'm going to have to meditate on this a bit. Which is just the opposite of Middlemarch, where I understood all kinds of things better this time around.

Carl V. said...

Skipped over most of this on the off chance that I actually ever read this, but do want to congratulate you on the accomplishment of reading it. Large books can be very daunting, at least to me, and I think its great that you stuck it out and finished it.

litlove said...

I'm impressed you got through it - I don't feel able to take on a book that size! And it's quite ok, as far as I can see, to say that it's good but not fabulous. I can't imagine how anything that long could sustain literary brilliance (well, apart from Proust and he's unique).

Amanda A. said...

I've got less than 100 pages to go. I've got a similar picture of my 6 year old little girl attempting to read Thomas Hardy. Apparently, Junie B. Jones doesn't cut it.

Alexandra said...

Another literary heathen here then...I'm a genre fan, well, more specifically, I'm lost in space.

cipriano said...

It's still the 2nd best book I ever read.
The first being another Tolstoy one... Anna!
[Helps I was sort of in love with Natasha in W & P!]

Kimberly said...

Far be it from me to call you a literary heathen, when I've yet to make the attempt. Somewhere, my husband has a copy of W&P given to him as a baby present by Adlai Stevenson. (Paul's mom worked for Stevenson.) If we ever find that copy, I'll give it a try.

Isabella said...

Kimberly: That's a neat and telling gift. A politician who admires, and presumably understands, War and Peace, is a man who knows his place in history.

Danielle said...

COngratulations!! I have just gotten to book II!!! Ha. Can you see how far behind I am!! (that's what I get for reading too many books at once! :) But I am reading a little every day at least). I will have to wait until I get farther to decide whether I think it is the greatest or not, too. I think I have not read enough classics to make such a sweeping statement anyway...too many as yet unread. But it has been enjoyable thus far! I stopped reading your post at the "possible spoilers"part, but will come back to it later (hopefully not too much later!).

Krakovianka said...

I read the whole post even though I haven't finished the book. Some spoilers I already guessed because of the annoying chart I printed and studied early on. (So I knew Lisa was going to die practically from page one--so annoying!)

I'm a few years older than 36 (just a few!) and I would have to agree with you. As a novel, this is not the greatest book ever written (which category is subjective anyway). However, I think it is not easy to write philosophy as fiction, and that is what Tolstoy is (partially) doing. And against the backdrop of some of the most significant events in European history. He's attempted far more in a single book than the average author, and because he is aiming higher, he hits a high mark, even if he didn't achieve the pinnacle. I think few authors could rival this book in scope and content.

And yet I still don't think it's the greatest novel ever written!