Monday, June 30, 2008

War and Peace War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Climbing the mountain that is Tolstoy

rating: 4 of 5 stars

Already, I'm hankering to reread this sucker. Twenty or so subplots: impossible to summarize here (for me, anyway). But I look at the book this way: Carl Sagan once wrote an essay arguing that looking at a grain of salt could open up answers to questions about the universe. That's what Tolstoy did here. He used Napoleon's conquest of Russia to examine questions that still resound today: How much can we actually control the events around us, how great are "great" men in history (not very, according to him, merely tools of history), and what motives ultimately benefit a person in the face of tragedy and upheaval?

Tolstoy makes it very clear in his afterword that he does not consider War and Peace a novel. Neither do I. I had to fight through some of his digressions about the war, the military actions and the nature of history. I understand why most critics wish to cut them (that's right, "most" critics, not just a few radicals), but once you junk the term "novel," you have to take the package deal. And if we're to move within the parameters of mimetic realism, there's just no way to cover this material in any other fashion. You have to have a wide array of characters, to prevent coincidence and fortuitousness from intruding, and you have to contrast what is said about the events (by Napoleon, Alexander, Kutozov, or whoever) with what is actually done (by the soldiers, the nobility, etc.).

A few notable observations:

--W&P seems to have a few things in common with Gone With the Wind. Not enough for a doctoral dissertation, alas, but both novels begin with a party and end with a declaration of future change, both revolve around spoiled upper-crust girls who learn their lessons the hard way (if they learn them at all), both deal with women struggling in less-than-ideal marriages. There's no Rhet Butler equivalent, but there's plenty of his edge in scenes like where Pierre flips out against Helene, or the old Count Marya's abuses of his daughter.

--Tolstoy is big on revelation presenting itself through the natural world. Pierre, Prince Andrei, and assorted others get their big wake-up call while dying in a battlefield looking up at the sky, or sitting on a horse looking up at the sky, or staring at an oak tree, or hunting a wolf. His metaphors and analogies, when not classical references, depend on farms and farm activity (sheep being fattened for slaughter, for example: the sheep don't know why it's happening, but other sheep can correlate them being taken away periodically with their fattening bellies). None of this is surprising, I suppose, given the fact that the novel was written smack dab in the middle of an Industrial Revolution that was just beginning to make its way to Russia, but the thing about motifs, obvious or not, you notice them.

--Some of these women are downright seductive to the reader. And that's saying something. Tolstoy's prose is hardly risque, even if his topics sometimes are, so when Helene works her charms at a party, or Natasha flirts with Anatole or Andrei, I can just sense some of Tolstoy's middle-brow readers (myself included) panting with enthusiasm. Why, I'm not sure. Maybe it's the party scenes, with their many and sundry rivalries masked beneath a veneer of civility, that has me looking for further cracks in the armor. Or maybe I'm conditioned by Anna Karenina to equate these settings with eventual sexual forays. Whatever. I'm not proud.

--As far as I'm concerned, Tolstoy would have done quite the job setting this book in Alexander the Great's reign, or the American Civil War, or wherever, for reasons I've already stated. But the great thing here is, even if you know nothing about the Napoleonic Wars, it doesn't matter. Tolstoy walks you through it. A lot of critics find his "lectures" pedantic and boring, and I'd agree that you have to be in the right mood to absorb them. But they're there. My translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (2007, Knopf Publishers)has over a hundred pages of footnotes, which, admittedly, I did not make full use of but which will benefit me in a second reading. Furthermore, I like how he characterizes Napoleon in scenes where he appears directly. He doesn't go out of his way to paint him as a scared little boy in scenes where he (Tolstoy) quite clearly would address him as such. But I can see him penning the scenes after the French retreat from Moscow with a dry smile on his face.

So, ultimately, I'm not about to claim expertise with W&P. It ate up the entire month of June for me, like I was having a Great Romance with it (I did cheat occasionally--I dipped into a few short story anthologies and a Michael Moorcock collection, God save me), and now I'm happy to turn to something less demanding.

But this is what Deep Reading is all about. I feel good. I feel like I've cleaned the house, paid my bills, gotten a complete physical and benchpressed eighty percent of my weight. I feel strong. I feel vindicated.

Next up: Henry James. Portrait of a Lady.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Alliance Films' Mongol just came to the U.S. Clocking in at just over two hours, it's the first in a planned trilogy of films chronicling (with a fair extent of poetic license) the rise of Genghis Khan in twelfth and thirteenth century Mongolia.

I liked it a lot. (The 1962 Taras Bulba, which I also just watched, I didn't like so much, but that's a different post.) A lot of reviewers seem to have characterized it as an "Asian Braveheart," which is just the sort of short-sighted trope the Internet was born to disseminate. I mean, come on, what was The Godfather, a Sicilian Macbeth? The equation seems to be: sprawling battle scenes, breathtaking panoramics of the setting's landscape, a tasteful love affair and a father/son motif=pre-Catholic badass Mel Gibson.

I don't buy it. For one thing, I don't think Mongol succeeds where Braveheart did. The battle scenes, while brilliantly choreographed, don't bother to highlight any secondary characters' contributions, thus robbing them of a potential emotional punch. For another thing, filmmaker Sergei Bodrov takes the undoubtedly bloody and tumultuous childhood of one of history's most notorious rulers and adds a pathos I found near-impossible to swallow. The future Khan (his birth name was Temujin, "ironmaker," for the record) fought a battle over his wife, when most Mongols had several? Multiple arrows in the back only feed his rage? All he needs to do now is yell "This! Is! Mongolia!" and kick some doofus into a nearby pit.

But that's all secondary. Bodrov takes Temujin and makes you root for him. We first meet him as a nine-year-old choosing his bride, although ten-year-old Borte, of a neighboring tribe, winds up choosing him first. He loses his father to another tribe's treachery. He can't get his own tribe to accept him as ruler in his father's place. He flees a rival ruler's sword. He hides in the steppes, meets a blood brother, comes back for Borte to marry her, loses her, reclaims her in battle, and continues on his meteoric rise to power.

The locations were well-chosen; they highlight the story more than effectively. The acting is believable. The battle scenes are engrossing, although, what with computer-added swarms of warriors, digital thunderstorms and CGI blood, their effect is somewhat muted.

The film ends with a cheesy title card: "Genghis Khan's journey had only just begun," or some such words. Cheesy or not, the carrot works: I am so there when it comes out.
An oldie but a goodie...

From Spitting Image: President George H.W. Bush on Mastermind.

And they say history doesn't repeat itself. Pshaw.

And they say puppets don't do biting social commentary. Pshaw-pshaw.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The first move I haven't had to go through putting together an IKEA or otherwise-crappy piece of castoff furniture:

As related by Jay Pinkerton:

Actually, I've unloaded quite a few of these in the past.

Monday, June 23, 2008

SCHEWL--You come in to do work. You really do. It may not be rip-roaringly important, but by God, you're an educator and you take your duties seriously. How many other assholes out there actually work during vacation? Exactly.

(Besides, I don't get internet at home until next week.)

And then you see what maintenance has done to your room in the meantime:

This is my room. Normally the desks are organized and kids are in them. But as far as the activity level, it's about the same.

It's like karma is telling you, "Go out. Get some sunshine. You know, that stuff you never see from August to May? Take a book, take a walk, smell the air. Nothing here can't wait."

Well, I'm strong. I'm tough. I can handle temptation. I settle down to work.

What finally gets me out the door is an administrator leaving for the day. At ten a.m. To go to a ball game. With a smile on his face and no work to take home in his bag.

This is a dean. See how happy he is to leave early? You mock me, Mr. Dean.

Screw this. I'm for the movies.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Currently stuck in an alley, during the Chicago book fair, waiting for the rain to abate. This is what city rain looks like:

No, it's not the Midwestern flood damage that's been all over the news. But there's a reeking dumpster next to me, and my underwear is riding up into the unknown. So I've had better Sundays.