Wednesday, August 02, 2006

A laggard's notes

Who else is behind? Woooo! Shake off your shame, people! The real shame is making Isabella write this blog all by herself, and I just can't do it anymore.

This is my third or fourth time through W&P, and I tells ya, it's like reading a different story. I'm not sure what it is, whether I'm just older, or I remember the basic plot so the details are sinking in more. Previously, for me, this seemed like a very plot-driven book. This time, I'm getting hung up on character portraits.

Not so much the main characters -- Andrei, Pierre, Nikolai, Natasha are all pretty much what I remembered them to be. But Dolokhov is more interesting this time. Bagration. Kutuzov. Denisov. Boris. Each embodies a different strategy for leading, for winning. (Bagration in particular, while utterly useless in social situations, is my kind of leader -- whatever his troops happened to do turned out to be exactly what he had wanted them to do. And by god, it gave them confidence, and pretty well worked!)

Fathers stand out. Prince Bolkonsky and Count Rostov, aging fathers completely at the mercy of their emotions (although one is furious, the other jolly). Count Bezukhov, who gave his son no guidance whatsoever, vs. Prince Vasily, who places his children where they will be useful, like furniture.

I am also struck by Tolstoy's preoccupation with the difference between what people think is real, and what is in fact real. The truth is sometimes unknowable. That idea strikes me as very... well, postmodern, of all things. The world is too complex for us to untangle.

Bleah. This book is too complex to untangle. Here's to better organization in the future, and to (maybe!) catching up!


Blogger Isabella said...

I don't know why, but in the beginning stages I'd imagined Boris would play a much larger role in the story. The minor characters are amazingly rich — though they appear only sporadically we see them in all their glorious humanity when they're called upon to act (and sometimes fail to act). Interestingly, two that you mention — Bagration and Kutuzov — are actual historical figures. I'm quite taken, too, with Tolstoy's characterizations of Napoleon and Aleksandr — poignant, tragic, fully believable, though my knowledge of history is too poor to know how well they mesh with the popular impressions of them at the time.

I've just passed the bit where Napoleon invades Russia, after Balashev conveyed the tsar's letter (I took a break from W&P this week, am also now behind schedule). Balashev can't bring himself to repeat Aleksandr's words "so long as a single armed foe remains on Russian soil" and instead says the French must retire beyond Niemen. Instead of mollifying Napoleon, the statement provokes him. I believe Baleshev is wholly fictitious, and this exchange entirely imagined, but, and I guess this is one of Tolstoy's points, one can't help but wonder what effect the spontaneous actions of insignificant people have on the course of history.

I wish there were more of Vasily. For all the control he has over his children, the positioning of them, his children are "stupid" and least able to make any real decisions with any moral context. Vasily has a sense of social obligation — he's the closest to being a villain of the evil genius variety — but I don't think he's all bad. There's that great bit before setting up Ellen with Pierre where it's said he doesn't plan these things, it's more like an instinct, suggesting if he stopped to think, he might be overruled by conscience.

The real vs thinking it real is preoccupying me — maybe there'll be more posts on this subject.

(What the heck can "postmodern" mean if W&P and Don Quixote are postmodern?)

The bigness of this book (and I don't mean the page count) makes it very difficult to talk about.
Rachel: Did you ever study W&P or did you read it on your own?
Matt: Are you there? How the heck do you teach this thing?

But hey, for a book I wasn't very keen on (and didn't vote for), it's pretty good. ;-)

3:31 PM  
Anonymous rachel said...

I read this on my own. It seemed like something a really pretentious person should have under her belt before college, so I read it the summer before. It made me want to study hostory, but college cured me of that pretty tidily.

"Postmodern" is one of the most utterly meaningless words ever. Maybe THE most meaningless. I felt nothing but contempt for it for years, until one day I realized that the very uselessness of the term was the whole point, and that I was an idiot.

But seriously, postmodern (as I understand it) has to do with the idea that while objective reality may exist (although there are some who obstinately insist that it does not), our ability to SEE reality objectively is seriously compromised by our culture, prejudices, moods, inadequacies, what have you. Which is exactly what Tolstoy seems to believe, which preoccupied Cervantes... hell, you can find that as far back as LUCIAN, at least.

And what that says to me is that we postmoderns are not as cutting edge as we'd like to think we are...

7:13 PM  
Blogger Mailyn said...

OMG this is one of my favorite books ever, love Tolstoy! lol.

cute idea of having a blog all for the book. :-)

6:49 PM  
Anonymous gina c said...

I spent my leisure time this weekend catching up, and am finally making some progress. I finished book 3, part 1, and I am definitely going to finish by the scheduled date (I hope!). Would love to hear some of your ideas regarding the relationship (?) between Natasha and Anatole Kuragin.

12:13 PM  
Blogger Isabella said...

Natasha and Anatole. I was disappointed with Natasha for it. Like everyone she encounters, I was charmed by here, and hoped for better of her. But, it's admitted she's not the smartest or cleverest; I wouldn't exactly call her fickle, but we have seen her emotions change, and mature somewhat. We know her to have stars in her eyes and the impetuousness of youth. Yet she seems most sincere in everything she undertakes. So, is her love for real?

Anatole is like his father, but, I think, stupider, not thinking about any consequences or implications. What would've happened, do you think, were the plan not thwarted?

There's a bit, later, when Pierre's talking with the Frenchman in Iosif Alekseyevich's house in Moscow:
"It was plain that l’amour which the Frenchman was so fond of was not that low and simple kind that Pierre had once felt for his wife, nor was it the romantic love stimulated by himself that he experienced for Natasha. (Ramballe despised both these kinds of love equally: the one he considered the "love of clodhoppers" and the other the "love of simpletons.") L’amour which the Frenchman worshiped consisted principally in the unnaturalness of his relation to the woman and in a combination of incongruities giving the chief charm to the feeling."

(My translation calls the first 2 types the love of boors and the love of dolts.)

Natasha and Anatole, though dolts, I think fall into that 3rd category of the Frenchman, the most storied but least meaningful.

Do you think she's a victim? She maintains she loves him, and the remorse she feels later stems from knowing her own role in it. Maybe she's too hard on herself?

10:49 PM  

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