Sunday, June 7, 2015

War and Peace (Second Half)

I had two goals this weekend: to take a longer (25-mile) bike ride and finish War and Peace.  

While to many, this might seem to be the recipe for a weekend from hell, to me, this all made good sense.  Case in point: yesterday, when I began to think, "I'm kinda sick of reading this novel..." I quickly thought, "Tomorrow, when you're on the bike, you'll wish you were back reading this novel."

And today, as I was biking, I found myself thinking, "I can't wait to get home and just sit and read."

Now that the bike has been adjusted to fit me, I'm actually beginning to enjoy my rides.  But the thing with me is, left to my own devices, I would happily ride a sensible distance and never really push myself.  So in a way, this was my "Push Myself Weekend."

I had actually made good progress through War and Peace last fall and on break in January, but then I got bogged down somewhere around page 1000 or so (lol).  The Battle of Borodino had happened, Moscow was to be abandoned, Napoleon was just about to enter the city... any minute now... he's on his way... getting there... a few more pages and he'll be there...

In all seriousness, I'm not sure why Tolstoy chose to spend so much time on that particular moment.  Because, for me, that's where it really dragged.  My reaction to the narrative quickly became, okay, I get it, he's taking the city, it's bad, let's go.

By contrast, Tolstoy has Napoleon spend the narrative equivalent of an afternoon in Moscow (not very long), and then the retreat from Russia begins.   I will say, though, that there is something about Tolstoy's writing that is infectious: as I read about the French retreat from Moscow, I frequently found myself on the verge of shouting things like "Hurrah!" and "Drive the bastards out!  How DARE they try to take Moscow from us?!"

And I like France and the French.  Just as much as I like Russia and the Russians.  So it had to be something that Tolstoy was doing there in the writing style.

As I reflect on it, I think Tolstoy was clever in that it is precisely at this point in the novel that he shifts to representing the peasants in a (somewhat) more positive light and simultaneously develops the characterization of the Russian general Kutuzov as the military "voice" of the Russian people in the war against Napoleon.

Prior to this point in the novel, all of the "peace" sections have been devoted to the aristocracy and their frivolous, gossipy life-squandering "activities."  Would anyone be too upset if someone destroyed Helene Bezukhova's "I-have-large-breasts-and-I'm-a-sneaky-little-skank" lifestyle?  Probably not.

And while we're on the subject of Helene Bezuhkhova, I need to say a bit about Tolstoy's female characters.   I would say that they're one-dimensional, but it's more accurate to say that, for the most part, they're... half-dimensional.

I suspect this is largely because, when he depicts female characters, Tolstoy depicts the women of the upper class, who never work and who never have much of a purpose in life that isn't largely (if not exclusively) ornamental.

I get that Natasha and Sonya are teenagers (really I do), but if I had to endure any more brainless, man-obsessed behavior followed by bizarre emotional outbursts that seem to be very clear signs of premenstrual dysphoric disorder... oy.

It's particularly disappointing to me, I think, because the characterizations of Pierre Bezukhov and Prince Andrei and Platon Karataev (among others) show what Tolstoy is capable of when it comes to creating interesting characters.  His depiction of these male characters always organizes itself around the question of, "Why am I here?  What is my life's purpose?" 

Not surprisingly, when the characterizations of Natasha and Princess Mary do take on some (temporary) depth, it is in conjunction with their experience of the war and their role as witnesses to death and suffering.   In essence, Pierre Bezukhov seems to sum up the role of "real women" in Tolstoy's world:
Now that [Pierre] was telling it all to Natasha he experienced that pleasure which a man has when women listen to him--not clever women who when listening either try to remember what they hear to enrich their minds and when opportunity offers to retell it, or who wish to adapt it to some thought of their own and promptly contribute their own clever comments prepared in their own little mental workshop--but the pleasure given by real women gifted with a capacity to select and absorb the very best a man shows of himself. (1241)
The fact that Tolstoy seems to believe that female empathy and female intelligence are mutually exclusive: that's disappointing to me.

Because they're not mutually exclusive.  Not at all, actually.

So what does  Tolstoy do well in War and Peace?  For me, the most enjoyable moments in Tolstoy's prose occur when he elaborates on clever and apposite analogy or comparison and when he indulges in a descriptive vignette that works to engage the reader's emotional interest in the topic at hand.

The best example of the latter, in my opinion, is the chapter detailing the death of Petya.  In narrating this sequence of events, Tolstoy once more puts the character of Denisov--one of the more amusing and sympathetic characters from the first half of the novel--center stage, in order to reflect upon the senselessness of the war and the heroic ideals it inspires in its young soldiers.

There are many wonderful examples of Tolstoy's use of clever comparisons as a way of making his (historic and therefore rather epic) subject matter more down-to-earth.  I'll conclude with one of my favorite, which describes the disintegration of the French army in the aftermath of the occupation of Moscow:
The aim of each man when he left Moscow was no longer, as it had been, to conquer, but merely to keep what he had acquired.  Like a monkey which puts its paw into the narrow neck of a jug, and having seized a handful of nuts will not open its fist for fear of losing what it holds, and therefore perishes, the French when they left Moscow had inevitably to perish because they carried their loot with them, yet to abandon what they had stolen was as impossible for them as it is for the monkey to open its paw... (998)

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