Monday, February 06, 2006

Hip and Well Read

I have finished War and Peace. WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!!! Hee hee.

Well, I finished 1400 pages of it. The last 44 pages or so--the second part of the epilogue--proved to be an authorial rant on the historians of Tolstoy's day (they give Napoleon too much credit, in fact they give leaders in general too much credit, and don't take into account the unpredictable moods of the people), free will, and various other things which I kind of didn't get because I lost interest and skimmed to the end. All the dying and the marrying was done, and that's the important stuff.

It's really an impressive book. (Not the same thing as good, which I think it is, but by today's standards it has its problems.) Long, yes, but then that shouldn't be a deterrent to anyone who's read a couple of doorstop fantasy series. The war stuff is, in general, less interesting than the peace, in part because of Tolstoy's distaste for all things military. Initially, during the war of 1805, he manages to set much of this aside in order to capture the excitement and pride of his young protagonists, but by the time of Napoleon's invasion he does not bother to shield his contempt. It's not just the wastefulness and stupidity of death that he despises, but the jostling and pageantry of the generals more interested in winning personal glory and making one another look incompetent than in saving lives. What credit he feels it necessary to give, he gives to Kutuzov, defending the field marshal's reputation against the historians of the day.

While Tolstoy doesn't hesitate to wield his wit at the expense of historians and military men, he's at his funniest when he focuses on life at home. I don't mean to imply that this book is a comedy, but there are moments of wry comic gold. Some of it, I'm sure, is unintentional, as when the casual philanderer Pierre Bezukhov (so casual, in fact, that it is scarcely worth a mention) becomes depressed over his wife's unfaithfulness. But there are plenty of subtle and not-so-subtle digs at the hypocrisy of the nobility, particularly with respect to money and marriage--Pierre, for instance, goes from disagreeable to desirable within the space of his illegitimate father's death and bequest.

It's fair to say that Tolstoy's women come off as childish, impractical, and flighty (Natasha, in particular, begins to grate on the nerves). But this is no less true of his men; only the roles differ, not their approach to them. They are all self-centered, subject to flattery, short-sighted, and impulsive. Pierre, whom I found the most appealing character, is generally pretty fuzzy-headed and thoughtless. At one point, unhappy in his marriage--see above--he becomes a dedicated Freemason, and Tolstoy details the ritual and Pierre's feeling that he is become privy to certain secrets of the universe. But the society turns out to be largely a social club, and his interest begins to wane after he realizes that he's basically subsidizing his chapter with his fortune. The only difference between him and Natasha, really, is that he's got money of his own, and she never will; everyone finds them both equally charming in spite of (indeed, because of) their complete impracticality, and so it's not much of a surprise when they marry in the end. (After, of course, everyone who would stand in the way of their match has died.)

After a while I realized that War and Peace is, in some ways, a good model for the novel of successions I'm planning to write at some point. So the serendipitous approach to conquering my reading stack wins again. I don't plan, however, to take quite the same approach as Tolstoy did. For one thing, I probably won't write the novel in Russian. I'd have to learn it first, and it turns out they use a whole different alphabet. Then there'd be the translations, and I'm sure that when I saw the English version I'd be furious and rant about how that wasn't what I wrote at all, all the nuance is gone, what kind of a barbarian invented this "English" anyway--but I digress.

So, it goes on the shelf with the books for the succession novel. (Um, so far this list consists of Fraser's Mary, Queen of Scots. If you know of a good book on wars of succession, speak up.)

Am now reading King of the World by David Remnick, a bio of Muhammad Ali. Although so far he's only talked about Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston. Also, am reading Bear's Jenny books, which I won in the Strange Horizons donations drawing. W00T! They are autographed and everything, to Snurri and David and some guy named Friedrich whom I've never met. (OK, I'm lying about the Friedrich thing. I've met himi.) I'm liking them. I want a prosthetic hand, but without the burning. Also, a prosthetic forehead, but everybody wants prosthetic foreheads on their real heads.

In other book news, I received my copy of Douglas Lain's collection Last Week's Apocalypse the other day. It's a lovely lovely book (Doug himself is handsome, but no competition for his book), and a major collection. Doug's stories, if you haven't read them, are funny and frightening and political and personal. Buy the book, folks.

5 Comments:

Blogger haddayr said...

Yes, yes. You're well-read. But hip? You're forgetting that some of the people who read your journal have _met_ you.

4:11 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

It's a song title, I swear!

4:17 PM  
Blogger Christopher Barzak said...

"They are all self-centered, subject to flattery, short-sighted, and impulsive."

Yep, sounds like he captured humanity as they say.

4:35 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

Chris, he really did, for the most part. There are some really moving moments in the book as well.

4:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for calling me handsome! I've got goose pimples now.
-doug

5:09 PM  

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