Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Slogging through War and Peace

A friend recommended that I read War and Peace. Perhaps, I should start with the stipulation that this post, which is a preliminary one will not be as long as the novel. Like my earlier posts about Atlas Shrugged, Tolstoy could have gained from a good editor. I am about half way through the second part, which means I am about 30% through the whole book. I do not read many novels (although based on the last year's blog posts that seems not to be true). But the friend said this was an exceptional book and I took her at her word.

As I was preparing to lift the book for the first time, I looked into some of its history. That alone is worth the read. Tolstoy came from a prominent family in Russia - with both literary and military figures that stretch over a long period of time. War and Peace (or as it could also be translated War and the World- according to Wikipedia) was a massive effort to tell a couple of stories. Thusfar, the story has been about the intrigues of Russian high society and some initial views of the military. In reality, his novel is about characters and character.

I have three initial comments about the first 30%. First, some of the language is dated. There are a lot of reticules and swooning. That is true of Dickens also, where it, for some reason, does not bother me. But with this novel, it does. I am not sure why. He spends a lot of time explaining that this character or that spoke in a particular language - I guess he is trying to make the point that high society in Russia at the time was still living with the attempts to become citizens of Europe and thus the use of French in "polite" society. But the constant reference to this phrase or that by a character and the identification of which language it was said in was disturbing to the flow of the story.

Second, Tolstoy is a sly painter of situations. His descriptions about the relative roles of Russian society at the time of the battles with Napolean are both clever and exacting. They suggest a series of rentseekers around the Czar who give and trade lots but little of value. The description in three places was stunning. When the Count has a massive stroke, two of his relatives conspire to deprive the Count's intended beneficiary of his inheritance. The count has an illegitimate son who stands to inherit a pretty large fortune. But that cannot happen without a certification of legitimacy. The two cousins conspire to get the document destroyed before the old man dies. Ultimately they are unsuccessful. He described the thievery of one of the officers and how a young officer who discovers the theft is reproached because of his attempt to point out the flaw - not of the theft but of the attempt to point out that an officer might be disgraced. The point here is the very real attempt to live with a corporatist mentality. The second came in his description about the struggles that one young officer has with a first battle. The Russians had been expected to attack in the morning but did not mount a battle until late afternoon. Their explanation, based on a lot of interesting descriptions, was they just could not get it together in order to make a timely assualt on their intended position. The same kind of irony in the theft is presented in battle strategy. Tolstoy makes the point skillfully and repeatedly.

Third, is Tolstoy's efficient use of a turn of phrase. Although the book is long, there are some priceless phrases. My current came when I was reading last night. In describing a diplomat (or diplomaticist in Tolstoy's lexicon) he comments "He was not one of those many diplomats who are esteemed because they have certain negative qualities, avoid doing certain things, and speak French." That sly comment could be used in many venues even today. In another description he comments (again about Bilibin the diplomat "Bilibin liked conversation as he liked work, only when it could be made elegantly witty. In society he always awaited an opportunity to say something striking and took part in a conversation only when that was possible. His conversation was always sprinkled with wittily original, finished phrases of general interest. These sayings were prepared in the inner laboratory of his mind in a portable form as if intentionally, so that insignificant society people might carry them from drawing room to drawing room."

When I get a bit farther along, I will add some more comments. My friend recommended the descriptions of Napoleon and some of the battle scenes - which are yet to come.

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