Monday, February 19, 2007

The Torments of Spring

Last month I accidentally started rereading War and Peace[1]. I picked it up looking for a quote--I don't remember which--and, reminded of how good it was, started reading again from the beginning. Now I am captivated by Tostoy novels the way more normal readers are captivated by murder mysteries, thrillers, and tv show novelizations. Because of this, after finishing the second book (about halfway through the novel), I am setting it aside for Lent, because late night reading about the trials of 18th century high society is probably not the best way for me to spend my time this spring [2].

Some thoughts on rereading the novel:

1. I was reminded again of the similarities between Tolstoy's writing style, especially in the first book, with Homer's (especially the Iliad and I believe someone famous compared the two books before me so this is nothing new, I guess), in his use of long and complex similes which one rarely sees in fiction these days and his use of epithets in describing the characters, so much so that I wonder if he did this intentionally. Perhaps the epithets (which seem to drop off as the novel progresses) are there because he recognized that even the most alert readers, even readers familiar and comfortable with Russian names, will have trouble keeping track of the seemingly endless cast of characters. So, the good author helps us out: Elena Kuragina is always "the beautiful Ellen," and Lisa Bolonskaya is always "the little princess." The intention, I suppose, of both the similes and the epithets was for simplicity and clarity of expression as well as an eagerness to help the reader as much as possible [3]. The result is also a certain lightness and charm, which is refreshing in a book unapologetically dedicated to lofty subjects like death, life, honor, love, and the mechanisms and telos of history. The ancient Greeks had their "swift-footed Achilles" but a part of me prefers "the clumsy Pierre" of Russia.

2. It is interesting also that his use of more poetic language (metaphor and the like) are usually confined to when he is describing a character's subjective feelings. This strikes me as the right way to go about writing novels. Often contemporary novels, especially 'literary' ones, indulge in one of two extremes: on the one hand they are overly poetic, using a sort of insipid lyric realism, a plodding crypto-poem; on the other hand they often have a sort of journalistic, even voyeuristic, style, with the author going out of their way to 'tell it as it is' or to shock. The upshot of all this is that I rarely read contemporary novels [4]. But Tolstoy uses his techniques to suit the requirements of the narrative. The epic battle and the marriage ceremony are described in a detached 3rd person, with realistic detail and intellectual commentary; the feelings of a soldier in the midst of a battle, however, or the sudden confusion and lofty hopes and despair of a young man who has fallen in love are written in a subjective, personal, and poetic style.

3. My copy (the Signet Classic version, translated by Ann Dunnigan) is well written, but the fact that it uses "Mass" rather than "Divine Liturgy" makes it suspect. Alas, I wish I knew Russian! [5]

4. It was a bit unsettling, but certain parts of the novel, especially near the end of the second book, resonated with my own struggles and situation, resonated more than I would prefer in petty entertainments like novel reading. For instance (I will leave out the most poignant and painful resonances), there is a beautiful passage where Prince Andrei is riding down a road during the early spring and notices an old oak, older than all the other trees in the forest, an oak that has not yet begun to bud, which seemed to be mocking the rest of the forest by its barrenness, by its unwillingness to participate in the hopes of spring:
"Yes, that oak is right, a thousand times right," mused Prince Andrei. "Let others, the young, be snared anew by that delusion, but we know life--our life is over!"
A whole new sequence of thoughts, hopeless but ruefully satisfying, rose in Prince Andrei's soul in connection with that oak tree. He considered his life afresh as it were and arrived at the same hopeless but soothing conclusion as before, that it was not for him to begin anything anew, but that he must live out his life harming no one, disturbed by nothing, desiring nothing.

The fact that the Prince finds renewed hope soon after these musings, and then later loses it again, only adds to the sad, whimsical beauty of the passage. But what a temptation! and the beauty of it, the fact that it is so close to truth, only adds to the lure of that temptation. I have to admit I feel this way more often then I should, indulging in a sort of self-righteous and arrogant, and therefore false, sense of martyrdom; certainly there is nothing particularly special or redeeming in my own personal failures. But there is a thin line between humility and self-pity, between fleeing the fallen world and hating the created world, between true self-sacrifice and empty vanity. These are matters that with myself I too much discuss.

Anyway, I will pick up my reading of War and Peace later this spring with book three which, I regret to report, ma chère, begins in the year 1812.

[1] I have tried my best in the past to promote the reading of this great novel.

[2] Especially by an author who would be excommunicated, but we shall let that pass for now...

[3] And, I suppose, a reader reading 1500 page novel needs all the help he or she can get.

[4] So for all I know my criticism of them is unjust.

[5] Or at the very least I wish Pevear and Volokhonsky would get to work on a translation!


Diego said...

[5] Or at the very least I wish Pevear and Volokhonsky would get to work on a translation!

I believe P-V translation of War and Peace is due this fall 2007

Matthew said...

Thanks, Diego. That's great news.

But I guess it means I'll be rereading W&P sooner than I thought...