Friday, May 29, 2009

Leo Tolstoy – ‘War and Peace’ (Vols 1 & 2)

So far, there are no islands in War and Peace, it seems to be a land locked novel. Unless you want to be less literal about that, in which case there is plenty of escaping from Moscow to St Petersburg, from St Petersburg to Moscow, from both cities to the countryside, from Russian to French (French is what the Russians speak when they are trying to be sophisticated – there is an interesting clash of cultural and actual imperialism, given that the two nations are at war for much of the time), from war to peace, and peace to war. Each an island for the time its novelty takes to wear off. Which could be why this long book’s chapters are so short, and why it is so exhilarating to take them in by the dozen. Tolstoy knows how to distract his readers, but he knows too that distraction is not just a trick to keep his fiction moving, it is also how people can bear to live.

Sometimes Pierre remembered what he had been told about soldiers in a shelter under fire with nothing to do, trying their best to keep busy and thus make danger easier to bear. And Pierre pictured all men as soldiers like these, escaping from life through ambition, cards, law-making, women, little playthings, horses, politics, sport, wine, even government service. ‘Everything matters, nothing matters, it’s all the same. If I can only escape, one way or another!’ thought Pierre, ‘And not see it, the terrible it.’ (p. 592)

I can hear Scott Walker singing that as an extra verse to ‘Next!’ Elsewhere the same idea is expressed in terms of the fall of man, after which our ‘sense of morality will not allow us to be both idle and at ease.’ (p. 533). The opposite of ‘idle’ being not ‘productive’ but ‘occupied’, so it is difficult to see where morality comes into that. It seems such a modern idea, the inability to do nothing, the need for our attention to be saturated. Surely TV caused it, or Rock ’n’ Roll, or computers? Not at all, it was there all along. There is that great line on Jeffrey Lewis’ recent LP, ‘And you just apply it to whatever’s passing by it’. There’s Bill Callahan: ‘If you could only stop your heart beat for one heart beat.’ There’s Popeye: ‘I yam what I yam’. People are not in control: they follow their natures, which react to other natures, and drive them to distraction when clarity or boredom threaten. As Marya Bolkonsky reflects:

Like the old French émigré who declined to marry the lady with whom he had spent all his evenings over many years because if he got married he wouldn’t know where to spend his evenings, she regretted that with Julie being here she had no one to write to. (p. 594)

This is not to say that War and Peace is amoral, far from it. When Natasha Rostov visits Moscow with her family near the end of a long separation from her fiancé Andrey Bolkonsky, she provokes two reactions: Pierre, afraid of how attracted he is to her, leaves Moscow for a short while on a pretext; his brother-in-law Anatole Kuragin, though he knows about the engagement and is already married himself, quite deliberately plots to seduce her – more than that, to kidnap her and marry her in secret (this section’s thrills are reminiscent of The Count of Monte Cristo: Dolokhov as Danglars, manipulating events with an easy conscience). Moral action is possible, but never quite detached: in upbraiding Anatole and reassuring Natasha, Pierre finds himself drawn to her in exactly the way he had wanted to avoid.

These are the events which bring Volume 2 to a close, and they are so vivid that it would be easy to forget the scope of what has led to them. Much of it I have already forgotten – not because it was a great deal less vivid (though Volume 2 does build to an incredible peak), but because there is so much of it. Someone said of Proust’s sentences, that if you tried to hold on to the sense of them all the way through, you were lost, and a similar thing is true of the plot of War and Peace: it is only necessary to be conscious of a small subset of it at any one time. I am already starting to think that re-reading it would be helpful for the clues you’d pick up about characters from accounts of their behaviour when they were children, but that is a pleasure for another time: letting go, is how to enjoy this book.


Anonymous said...

Oh, fuck. I wish you hadn't mentioned The Count of Montecristo. I can now envisage my week off diappearing into a beautiful Nigerian goatskin-bound book of toomanywords.
I remember, on reading Bleak House, thinking that a re-reading would help: the re-reading was enjoyable, but lessened the book; the same applied to The Idiot, The Devils, &c. &c.
I look forward to rereading The Count of Montechristo and Anna Karenina, but daren't.

Chris said...

Don't think I've ever re-read a really big book - Ellman's Wilde biography is a constant possibility, though, and I would be sad at the thought of never reading 'David Copperfield' again.

That extra 'h' in Monte Cristo... you never actually changed your name, did you?

Anonymous said...

Not yet; I was a bit tipsy last night, and my typing was all over the place. An unconscious expression of ambition, perhaps.

David Copperfield does stand up to re-reading, more so than Great Expectations, perhaps because the plot is less reliant upon suspense.

I think I could read the passage in which David gets drunk a hundred times and still fid it hilarious.

Anonymous said...

The miniature keyboard on my new pc really isn't helping matters at all.

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