Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Life & Death, War & Peace

Well, no sooner did I promise a weekly post on this blog than I was unexpectedly whisked into an internet-free world for a week. I've been late for so many things in life that the usual cliche would normally apply. Except that last Tuesday, I was instead very nearly early for my own funeral. In spite of what the ER admissions nurse and the blood pressure cuff would have you believe, however, I am, like Terry Pratchett, not yet dead.

And there's nothing like an extended hospital stay to help you catch up on your neglected reading. During mine, I finally finished the last 300 pages of War and Peace, which I have been plodding through in occasional 10-page increments since July-ish. I suspect that my choice of reading material may have factored into the length of my hospital stay. In fact, I firmly believe that the hospital staff were acting at least as proactively on my educational behalf as they were on my medical behalf, because not two hours after I decided that the second epilogue was really just a massive conceit not worth reading with any close attention, the doctor told me I was going home. And home is mostly where I have been ever since.

Having not ready any criticism of Tolstoy, I am not even slightly suggesting that anything I will say here hasn't been done to death by the academy already. I am only giving my thoughts on the book and on my experience of reading it, particularly my experience of reading the end while holed up with a gaggle of elderly female diabetics who were producing a near-constant stream of cheerful vitriol against life and men.

Firstly, I am always impressed by a well-researched novel, and War and Peace is nothing if not well-researched. So well done, Leo. Have a biscuit. The problem in talking about it is that it is so vast (my edition ran 1352 pages, with miniscule print) that trying to reference anything in it is nearly impossible if you haven't kept up steady bookmarking, which I did not and now regret. Still, there is so much that is impressive, I'm not sure how much bookmarking would have helped. A few things jumped out that should make you want to read this if you haven't done so already.

1) Although lengthy, this is not a difficult book to read. It's not densely written at all. Compared with Moby Dick (with its unending and very tedious treatises on cetacean biology), it's actually an incredibly easy read. It's an enjoyable chronicle of a few aristocratic families (all of them decaying in one way or another--financially, morally, genetically) and a collection of tableaux around the war with Napoleon. I wouldn't call it a history, as a) it is fiction and b) Tolstoy makes clear what he thinks of historians repeatedly throughout the book. It is never boring.

2) Written as a "realist" book, and not (God forbid) a novel, according to Tolstoy, it is so realistic I sometimes forgot I was reading a book and not inside my own head. What is most astonishing about this is the small volume of visual description. For example, you aren't really ever given anyone's distinguishing physical characteristics beyond a few scattered details. There are no lengthy descriptions of the landscape or really of any sensual data. It is practically the opposite of Proust. It relies almost entirely on describing action and getting inside the heads of the characters. I think this is why it is very easy to pick up.

Because of this realist thing, Tolstoy doesn't romanticize much. His descriptions of the banal annoyance inherent in all relationships is deeply uncomfortable because you, the reader, know it's true. By this I mean the endurance of people we don't like, but also mean the intermittent blooms of mild contempt that color virtually all relationships now and then. But it also means showing willfully difficult personalities, such as the old Countess toward the end of the book, who is basically a cranky old bat, and wants everyone to know it. Tolstoy has her finding absurd reasons to pick fights with everyone for no purpose except that she feels like picking a fight. Who among us hasn't done that at least once when feeling sorry for ourselves? Tolstoy also gets inside self-pitying martyrdom such as the relationship between Princess Mary and her father. This is underscored by the fact that Princess Mary more than once weeps not because the old prince has been so horribly abusive to her (which he is, constantly), but because she loves him. His abuse is practically the only passionate human interaction she has until he finally dies and she properly enters society. It colors her life, so she loves it, although she knows that this is sinful in its bizarre selfishness. Turns out that he loves her, too; it's just that he's an asshat who shows his love by pushing her to the mental brink. It's so twisted, but so familiar. Any teenager can relate to this.

Some examples of the kinds of internal monologues War and Peace considers: the annoyance between mother and prospective daughter-in-law; the earnestness of the new ideological convert; the resignation of the unrequited lover; the inner self-righteousness of the young; the unintentional exclusion of the socially awkward; the irrationality of the perceived slight. The careful cataloging of human motivation and reaction is amazing. Somewhere (if only I could find it again!) there is a one or two sentence description of someone catching their finger on a needle or something that was so vivid, I knew exactly the feeling. What's crazy is that I can't remember if it was a needle or what. But I can remember recalling the physical and mental reaction to whatever happened exactly as described.

There are things that are disappointing. The one that stood out the most was the treatment of women's minds. Although afforded as rich a variety of mental feelings as the male characters, Tolstoy belittles them often, giving them the literary pat on the head for being ever so smart and charming. This is the weirdest sort of misogyny. It's an acknowledgment that women have the full mental capacity of men, but that it doesn't matter because they're women. It's somehow more shocking than someone with a belief that women aren't capable, because at least you can understand why that person would treat women contemptuously. What makes it all more surprising is Tolstoy's radical politics and equality beliefs, which one feels would surely have ejected sexist prejudice. Maybe it used to be worse? Or perhaps it is itself Tolstoy's satire of aristocratic women? His own wife gave him a lot of grief that probably is wrapped up in this image. No other subject is patronized in this way. This is where the realism goes a bit funny.

The other disappointment is the second epilogue. What a load of tosh. Firstly, by the time you get to it, you've read something like 1300 pages of detailed exploits of a handful of people. The first epilogue gives the old "Ken became the Master of Ceremonies at London Sea World" treatment. All the major players still alive are rounded up and accounted for. Which is itself not really required. But then the second epilogue is just ridiculous. It's Tolstoy being paranoid that somehow his main points haven't come across clearly enough, even though he's just spent six months of your life explaining them to you. So he goes over them. Again. And this time he does it in 47 pages. And you can't help thinking, why didn't he just publish this part as a paper and call it a day? Was the novel necessary? If you don't get how he feels about history and the historian and the forces of the past and how people should be treated after reading the entirety of War and Peace (which I do believe is actually impossible), then it's been a colossal waste of time.

I'm sure every author gets irritated when inevitably someone totally doesn't get their book. But the need to write essentially another short book about how it should be interpreted is just controlling. It's like those chefs who don't allow salt shakers on restaurant tables because what comes out of the kitchen is perfectly seasoned, and anyone who thinks otherwise is a plebian. It's just annoying and elitist without cause.

In any case, as I said, nearly as soon as I finished, the doctor rang through my hospital discharge confirmation, and away I went. It was nice to think the big questions about my own life with some guidance. I am a firm believer in the universality of the human condition, and reading Tolstoy affirmed that for me even as I was considering the old why-do-unfortunate-things-happen-to-nice-people question. Me being the nice person in said question.

I think we'll call it a day here for my first actual post.