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Previously read: The Red and the Black, War and Peace, Middlemarch.

Updated: 2018-02-17T09:51:34.565-05:00




I'm considering undertaking another book as a group reading project, tentatively to start in September. Again, something "big," and generally acknowledged as a classic.

Any ideas? Would you read along?

Novels, mirrors, and politics


(Rushing to catch up with the rest of the class...)

I had a good laugh at the lengthy parenthetical that Stendhal interjects into his narrative in Ch. 19 (Pt. II). Well-written irony is pure joy to read. He eventually came right out with his beef with those he offends:
(Ah, my dear sir: a novel is a mirror, talking a walk down a big road. Sometimes you'll see nothing but blue skies; sometimes you'll see the muck in the mud piles along the road. And you'll accuse the man carrying the mirror in his basket of being immoral! His mirror reflects muck, so you'll accuse the mirror, too! Why not also accuse the highway where the muck is piled, or, more strongly still, the street inspector who leaves water wallowing in the roads, so the mud piles can come into being.)
Later (in Ch. 22), he inserts another during the secret political meeting where Julien is the note-taker:
(The author would have preferred, at this point, to insert a page consisting of nothing but ellipses. "That would look awful," said the publisher, "and, for such a lightweight book, looking bad is, quite simply, death." -- "Politics," the author replied, "is a stone tied around literature's neck, and in less than six months, it sinks under the weight. Politics set among the imagination's concerns is like a pistol shot fired at a concert. The noise mangles without energizing. It does not harmonize with the sound of any instrument in the orchestra. Politics will mortally offend half your readers, and bore the other half, who would have found the discussion fascinating, and wonderfully lively, in the morning newspaper...." -- "If your characters don't talk politics," responded the publisher, "they'll cease to be the Frenchmen of 1830, and your book will no longer be a mirror as you claim it is....")
I love this. What do you think about Stenhal's argument here? His resistance to politicizing his narrative is certainly still an issue today.



Did you like it?

To borrow a question from The Modern Library Reading Guide: Why did the twentieth century see an enormous rise in Stendhal’s literary reputation and influence?

What do you interpret "the red" and "the black" as symbolizing?

Nessie has just posted a review of the book that touches on some major points but without going into too much detail.

The question that lingers with me is what were these characters' motivations — it starts with boredom, a let's-see-what-happens, but later? Do you think, in the end, Mme de Renal and Mathilde really love Julien — I mean REALLY love him? How sincere, or genuine, are Julien's words and actions? Has he achieved any kind of love or heroism?

Mathilde early on had said: "Nothing can so distinguish a man as a death sentence. It's the only thing one can't buy."


Is this thing on?


I admit it: I fell behind, got distracted. But I'm back on schedule, slightly ahead even, and planning to finish in the next couple days.

I'd wanted to pick up on Rachel's comment that "Mme de Renal's handling of her husband was comical and ingenious and WAY cleverer than she should have been capable of." I completely agree! But where does the cleverness come from? Not books. It's something that arises from the force and purity of her love?

I'm thoroughly enjoying how Stendhal presents Paris society, the petty power games, the wars of words, how people fall in and out of favour (I'm reminded of the movie Ridicule — did anyone see it?).

(Mathilde is worshipful of Rousseau, while Julien calls Rousseau a fool and, essentially, a hypocrite (B2,ch8,p273). What's that all about?)

"We no longer have genuine passions, in the nineteenth century. That's why there's so much boredom, here in France. We do the most incredibly cruel things but without cruelty."

I did fall back on the Spark Notes, to make sure I wasn't missing anything. They did reinforce the sense that all actions are taken not for themselves but for their approval (eg, Julien considers Mathilde only after the respected academician sings her praises). Also, they did help make clear Julien's method, that all his actions are conceived as a military strategy (only without having much understanding of strategy), his whole life is a battle, and in this "small" way he continues to try to emulate his hero, Napoleon. ("It's clear that Julien had no experience of life; he had not even read novels.")

Mathilde, on the other hand, had read quite a lot, and things she shouldn't. Most descriptions of passion she dismisses as frivolous love. But she sees herself as Marguerite de Valois.

These two lovers are so intent on conforming to their respective models, they're lacking for genuine passion. All their knowledge and ideas and ambitions seem bound to end in disappointment, and they keep upping the stakes to keep it exciting.

Mme de Renal certainly does look better when cast against the light of Paris. Julien often compares them, and Mme shines superiorly. And I wonder — is it because of her naivete, the convent-upbringing, the living in the provinces, that makes her seem a better — purer — person? Is it my age, that I sympathize with her, that I feel critical of the young adults, careless, fickle, without the strength of character they purport to admire?

Is anyone still reading? Where are you?

Some quick and general comments (thru ch 21)


I haven't had much time for reading while away (and I'm still away). I just wanted to comment on the show versus tell thing. I know this conversations been had in various forums, and some of you have been part of it, so this isn't exactly a new and stunning observation, but I'm finding that Stendhal's "show" is minimal and "tell" pretty extreme. Those events we traditionally think of as moving the plot forward happen in the blink of an eye, but the characters analyze them to death in their heads. For example, when one of the Renal sons is seriously ill and Mme freaks out, I had to review these pages to be sure precisely what happened.

Then there's the letters. Stendhal's treatment of the episode seems so opposite to what we (as a mature, postmodern reading audience) have come to expect.

Sorry for not going into more detail, but I'm short on time.

I'd love to hear from the rest of you on that last section before moving forward. Do you think the relationship between Julien and Mme has evolved any? What do you think of M de Renal's show of character in response to the letters?

Stendhal and Rousseau


When I came across this in Ch. 13, I began to wonder if Stendhal was poking fun at Rousseau:
He discovered a small cave in the almost perpendicular face of one of the rocks. He set his course for it, and presently was ensconced in this retreat. 'Here,' he said, his eyes sparkling with joy, 'men can do me no harm.' It occurred to him to indulge in the pleasure of writing down his thoughts, so dangerous to him in any other place. A smooth block of stone served as his table. His pen flew: he saw nothing of the scene round about him. At length he noticed that the sun was setting behind the distant mountains of Beaujolais.

'Why should I not spend the night here?' he asked himself; 'I have bread, and I am free!' At the sound of that great word his heart leaped, his hypocrisy meant that he was not free even with Fouque. His head supported on both his hands, Julien stayed in this cave happier than he had ever been in his life, engrossed in his dreams and in the joy of freedom. Without heeding it he saw fade and die, one after another, the last rays of evening light.
I haven't read much philosophy, but it seems that Julien fits the type of the Romantic-hero wannabe. Is Stendhal slyly criticizing this ideal, or is he demonstrating (through Julien) how the ideal can never by reached by someone of such shallow character?

What to make of Julien?


I mentioned previously in passing that Julien, in the opening chapters anyway, reminded me a little of Pierre in War and Peace. Obviously, I still have War and Peace on the brain — and with each passing chapter they're less alike. However, there are some superficial similarities: There's references to both of them as childlike. They're both ardent supporters of Napoleon. They've both been denied access to "society," and when finally admitted are rather enamoured of it (Julien not actually admitted, but at least allowed to see it up close).

I sympathize with these naifs. They're underdogs; I want to root for them.

Except, a few more chapters along, I don't really like Julien anymore. I still feel a little sorry for him, but I don't understand him.

I don't have any fully formed notions of his motivations — I'm just thinking out loud here and I have yet to go back and reread some of this section.

What's with this duty he feels toward Mme de Rênal? Or is it duty to himself to fulfill a role he's decided he's fit for. Or duty to his aspired-to station in society?

Mme is also naive; we know she didn't get any ideas about love (or much else) from books, indeed she has trouble recognizing it. As awkward or uninformed as her actions are, they seem to me to come purely of herself, her nature; it's natural.

But Julien?! As I understand it: he picked up these notions of how a young man ought to conduct himself quite recently and suddenly, while in the employ of de Rênal? Does he think this will advance his career? How stupid is he? Or is he in fact acting on a natural impulse that he now regards through a distorted lens?

Pollarded trees


I was struck in Chapter 2 by Stendhal's description of some trees because it strikes me as emblematic of one of the central themes:
...what I object to in the Cours de la Fidelite is the barbarous manner in which the authorities keep those sturdy plane trees trimmed and clipped short. Instead of looking, with their low, rounded, flattened heads, like the commonest of vegetables, they would like nothing better than to take on the magnificent form they develop in England. But the mayor's will is despotic, and twice a year the branches of all trees belonging to the commune are mercilessly amputated. ...

"I like shade," replied Monsieur de Renal... "I have my trees trimmed to make them give more shade, and I can't imagine what else a tree is made for if, unlike the useful walnut tree, it doesn't bring in money."
This specific kind of tree-trimming is called pollarding. It isn't seen much in North America, but is pretty common in European cities. It's an ancient practice, a way of making a tree that would otherwise be very large into a manageable street-tree. As you can see from the picture, the tree forms big bulging nodes on the end of its branches (my Dad used to call these "cat-heads", but I'm not finding a confirmation of that term on the web). These nodes don't get any higher, year after year, because a tree only grows bigger around, not taller, except at the very ends of its branches. Slender shoots spring up from the nodes, and when they start getting too big, they are trimmed back.

(My father's a plant pathologist. While your dad was teaching you to juggle or play pool, this is what mine was teaching me.)

Anyway, the trees in the story suggest something I'm seeing throughout: conformity and how much it hurts. How we bend over backwards and mutilate ourselves to meet ridiculous standards of behaviour, success, decency. These are disingenuous, hypocritical trees. They will provide the shade they are required to provide, no matter how ugly it makes them.



Stendhal is light on the irony at the start of things, but then I came upon this in Ch. 5 and could not keep from laughing:
This horror of feeding with the servants was not natural to Julien; he would, in seeking his fortune, have done other things far more disagreeable. He derived this repugnance from Rousseau's _Confessions_. It was the one book that helped his imagination to form any idea of the world.
It goes on:
The collection of reports of the Grand Army and the _Memorial de Sainte-Helene_ completed his Koran. He would have gone to the stake for those three books. Never did he believe in any other. Remembering a saying of the old Surgeon-Major, he regarded all the other books in the world as liars, written by rogues in order to obtain advancement.

With his fiery nature Julien had one of those astonishing memories so often found in foolish people.
Ok, I'm definitely in for the long-haul--this is going to be fun. (The epigraph by "ENNIUS" made me smile as well.)

P.S. I'm reading the Moncrieff e-text since I have no bookstore access.

"The cage less gay"


"The little town of Verrières might be one of the prettiest in all Franche-Comté."

The town of Verrières is fictional, but its geography and description suggests Besançon. It's not a stand-in, however, as characters refer to this other town in their comings and goings (as a centre of learning and of fashion, or at least shopping).


It's pretty, pretty, pretty, we're told repeatedly. With a horizon "for the purpose of pleasing the eye." Rênal's wall offers "one of the most picturesques views in all France.


"Nowhere in France can you hope to find the picturesque gardens surrounding Germany's manufacturing towns — Leipzig, Frankfurt, Nuremburg, etc. In Franch-Comté, the more walls you put up, the more your property bristles with rocks heaped one on top of another, the more claim you have on your neighbours' respect."

The trees are "like the most vulgar of garden vegetables."

Add to this the roar and frightful appearance of the mill's operation, "visibly harsh and violent," and the stench of financial transactions, and I have to wonder:

How pretty is it really?

I get the feeling we may get a look at some ugly undersides, including of the good-looking (if delicate) Julien and the pretty-for-her-age Mme Rênal.

And what is it that makes them ugly? For the town, it's the concessions to commerce, the idiotic "tyranny of opinion" (any idea what to make of this reference to the United States?), the call to a kind of conformity. The epigraph suggests it's not a happy place, and Julien is desperate to escape. (I knew a town like that once.)

In Julien we already see hypocrisy regarding his public stance on Napoleon, a conformity to his new crowd. Madame is "an artless soul," bored and not giving much thought (or care?) to anything (a kind of passionless conformity to her station?). But they'll make a handsome couple, no?

Some preliminaries


I've had neither much time to search out any interesting or relevant background material nor luck in finding anything that goes beyond the introductory notes to most editions and which doesn't include spoilers.

The main events of The Red and the Black are based on a real-life incident, but to share any details of it seems to give away the book's ending. Warning: the introduction to the Raffel translation contains spoilers, as does the biographical note.

To warm up to a discussion about the book proper, maybe we could talk a bit about reading the book...

What translation are you reading?
Have you read the introduction?

Why are you reading TR&TB? Have you read it before?

Diane Johnson in her introduction to the Raffel translation notes that "An American reader is most likely to have encountered The Red and the Black at about the age of its protagonists, Julien Sorel and Mathilde de la Mole, who are eighteen or nineteen when we meet them. [...] As with many novels, to take it up again at an older age is to experience a different book." Stendhal saw it published when he was 47. I feel a peculiar pleasure in being of an age somewhere between Stendhal's and that of the other, older (about thirty) protagonist, as if I'm well-poised to get it.

Do you have a reading plan, or method? I've noted elsewhere that I'm having a hard time pacing myself, not reading ahead, but I'm trying to set aside blocks of time as well as trying to read in French.

Most important: are you liking it so far?

I'll be posting a couple more specific thoughts later in the day (1. my impressions of the town; 2. how Julien reminds me of Pierre in War and Peace).



I've posted a schedule in the sidebar, its main purpose being to focus discussion on specific sections and prevent spoiling plot and character developments for your fellow readers.

The date cited is the day on which posting and discussion opens for the indicated chapters.

I've used my French edition as a cue for a few of the breaks, as some academics have deemed it appropriate to interrupt the text in these places with scholarly articles and other supplementary material. The remainder of the breaks I've determined solely on the basis of page count.

I will be away November 22–29 and may or may not have internet access during that time, but I certainly intend to read while away. Section discussions now open on Mondays (a change from previous discussions, to accommodate my little vacation so I won't miss a full section). Also, I've stretched one section over 2 weeks at the end of December as I expect both reading and discussion may slow a little around Christmas.

I'll be digging around for some background material to post over the next couple weeks. Feel free to do same, introduce yourselves, post some initial thoughts on Stendhal or The Red and the Black, why you're reading it or what you've heard about it.

Happy reading!

Introducing Stendhal's The Red and the Black


A novel is a mirror that strolls along a highway. Now it reflects the blue of the skies, now the mud puddles underfoot. [The Red and the Black, ch 49]According to The Modern Library:The Red and the Black, Stendhal’s masterpiece, is the story of Julien Sorel, a young dreamer from the provinces, fueled by Napoleonic ideals, whose desire to make his fortune sets in motion events both mesmerizing and tragic. Sorel’s quest to find himself, and the doomed love he encounters along the way, are delineated with an unprecedented psychological depth and realism. At the same time, Stendhal weaves together the social life and fraught political intrigues of post–Napoleonic France, bringing that world to unforgettable, full-color life. His portrait of Julien and early-nineteenth-century France remains an unsurpassed creation, one that brilliantly anticipates modern literature. Published in 1830, the novel's events span the years 1827-1829. Both Middlemarch and War and Peace are historical novels, written many decades after the events they describe. I'm curious how Stendhal then will present "history" — I expect a sense of immediacy, without the benefit of hindsight nor the filters of historians.Coincidentally (or this may account in part for why I'm drawn to this book), it covers post-Napoleonic France, picking up not long after where War and Peace left off and occurring just a few years before the political reforms and other goings on discussed in Middlemarch.Politics in a literary work, is like a gun shot in the middle of a concert, something vulgar, and however, something which is impossible to ignore. [The Charterhouse of Parma, ch 23]Tolstoy was enormously influenced by Stendhal. The Russians imitate French ways, but always at a distance of fifty years. [The Red and the Black, ch 54]According to Wikipedia, "André Gide felt that The Red and the Black was a novel far ahead of its time, and called it a novel for readers in the 20th century.""We should never be finished with Stendhal," said Paul Valéry. "I can think of no greater praise than that."In The Red and the Black Czeslaw Milosz "perceives the "legend of the will": that a lone individual can apprehend the complexity of society as hypocrisy and assert his authenticity by rebelling against it."In our calling, we have to choose; we must make our fortune either in this world or in the next, there is no middle way. [The Red and the Black, ch 8]Wikipedia.Excerpt (translated by Burton Raffel).One review favourable, another not so much.Etext (translated by CK Scott-Moncrieff).Etext (translated by Charles Tergie).I've been rather enthusiastic for some months now regarding the prospect of reading this book, and even promised myself I'd try reading it in French. Don't worry: in addition to having a great number of dictionaries at my disposal, as well as a resident French speaker (everyone should have one), I have on hand Burton Raffel's English translation of the novel for reference.Register your interest in reading along in the comments or by email. (If you've previously emailed me regarding joining in on the next book, I'll be in touch with you shortly.) Any suggestions on how to tackle this masterpiece, all comments, and any resources are welcome.I'll be posting a schedule in the next week or so. I'd like discussion to open in the first bit of November. The schedule will take into account my late-November vacation, as well as Christmas preparations and festivities. Reading will go into the new year.A novel is like a bow, and the violin that produces the sound is the reader's soul.[...]

The end of Tolstoy


We may as well call it a day and consider discussion on War and Peace closed.

I'm still thinking about War and Peace, I'm just having great difficulty saying anything about it. I've determined that perhaps it lends itself better to introspection; any discussion of it (that isn't in the flesh and involving music and vodka) is bound to be superficial.

I may post some further thoughts, as I intend to watch Sergei Bondarchuk's 1968 epic Soviet production (years in the making! cast of thousands! a record-setting cost of $100 million), as soon as I can get my hands on it (there's a waiting list at the library!). It's considered to be the most faithful adaptation.

Still, I'd appreciate your thoughts (in the comments below, or by email) on where the difficulties lie: the timing, the pace, the size of the book, the bigness of its themes, the historic detail? Maybe it'll help in planning the next group reading project.

Yes, I do have another group reading project in mind. (Hint: Stendhal's The Red and the Black.) More information in the days to come.

A little discussion


I say this is a "little" discussion, because I'm not looking at larger themes or underlying philosophies. I'm just going to write about one of the characters I enjoy--Pierre. I liked him at the very beginning, and although he sometimes acts foolishly, he remains likable.

I'm still in the middle of the Battle of Borodino (trying to remember if, in history, Napolean ever did take Moscow or not--can't remember!), and I've just been marveling over Pierre. Who rides out into the middle of a battle just to see what's going on? It reminds me of the first few chapters in Anna Pavlovna's drawing room. Pierre was a naive young man, charging into the group and sharing his opinions without the least idea that he was ridiculous or unwelcome. And now he's doing the same thing on the battlefield! He chats with the officers or the soldiers without the faintest idea of what's really going on.

I don't think Pierre sees things as they are. I think he sees them as he is. And because he is generous, big-hearted, and open, he casts everything in his own mold, imagining that everyone is as happy to see him as he is to see them. He's not stupid, though. I'm curious to see whether he will remain so enchanted with the Masons. I suppose it depends on what Tolstoy thought about them, and that I don't know.

The further into the book we go, the more complex I find the battles. I know nothing about military maneuvers. The only "battlefields" I've been on are historic (like Gettysburg). I have been at a few re-enactments, though, and they are so loud! If you added to the noise of the guns and cannons the sounds of men and horses screaming...I can't even imagine. How can Pierre be so oblivious????

Well, I'm hoping to finish reading about this battle today or tomorrow. Where is everyone else? I know Isabella finished on time, but surely not everyone else?

Some reviews


If anyone's nearing the end of War and Peace, you may be interested in the following more cohesive perspectives on the book as a whole (as opposed to on its itty-bitty parts taken separately). (Some links below contain spoilers.)

Matt has in recent weeks posted some thoughts on wrapping up the reading of War and Peace and a fuller review.

Also, Maxine some time ago in the comments provided a link to Frank Wilson's review of War and Peace in the Philadelphia Inquirer (I believe it's no longer available online, but I was able to search on the elements and find a cached copy). Here's a bit:
The nearest to a hero in the war chronicle is Prince Kutuzov, the old, one-eyed Russian commander. ("Long years of military experience, confirmed by the wisdom of old age, had told him that one person cannot control hundreds of thousands of men fighting to the death, and he knew that the fate of battles... is decided by a mysterious force known as the 'spirit of the army.'... ")

Napoleon is portrayed as an amoral brigand whose luck has run out, Czar Alexander as well-meaning but largely clueless. The most controversial parts of the work are the essays on history, which many regard as its least successful component. But they often segue nicely into the war episodes.

The essays also remind us that the novelist able to perform the miracle of creation that is Natasha could also be a common scold. From start to finish, the book is told in Tolstoy's voice, the viewpoint that of a patriotic Russian (the Russian forces are always referred to as "ours").

A laggard's notes


Who else is behind? Woooo! Shake off your shame, people! The real shame is making Isabella write this blog all by herself, and I just can't do it anymore.

This is my third or fourth time through W&P, and I tells ya, it's like reading a different story. I'm not sure what it is, whether I'm just older, or I remember the basic plot so the details are sinking in more. Previously, for me, this seemed like a very plot-driven book. This time, I'm getting hung up on character portraits.

Not so much the main characters -- Andrei, Pierre, Nikolai, Natasha are all pretty much what I remembered them to be. But Dolokhov is more interesting this time. Bagration. Kutuzov. Denisov. Boris. Each embodies a different strategy for leading, for winning. (Bagration in particular, while utterly useless in social situations, is my kind of leader -- whatever his troops happened to do turned out to be exactly what he had wanted them to do. And by god, it gave them confidence, and pretty well worked!)

Fathers stand out. Prince Bolkonsky and Count Rostov, aging fathers completely at the mercy of their emotions (although one is furious, the other jolly). Count Bezukhov, who gave his son no guidance whatsoever, vs. Prince Vasily, who places his children where they will be useful, like furniture.

I am also struck by Tolstoy's preoccupation with the difference between what people think is real, and what is in fact real. The truth is sometimes unknowable. That idea strikes me as very... well, postmodern, of all things. The world is too complex for us to untangle.

Bleah. This book is too complex to untangle. Here's to better organization in the future, and to (maybe!) catching up!

Meaning and meaninglessness


[Adapted from my scribblings on these subjects on my blog.]Am having a great deal of trouble figuring out how or where to start. As I started to write this, it seemd I was stringing together quotations more than articulating any useful connections between them, but maybe this is where you can help. I need to spit it all out before I paralyze myself into not writing about anything on this novel at all.Page references are to the Signet Classic Dunnigan translation (I can cite you a book and chapter on request).AndreiThe book begins for me on p 377. That is, really begins — this is where I realize there's more going on than soirées and troop movements.Prince Andrei is wounded (B1, P3, ch17).He opened his eyes, hoping to see how the struggle between the gunner and the Frenchman ended; he wanted to know whether the red-haired artilleryman had been killed or not, and whether the cannons had been captured or saved. But he saw nothing. Above him there was nothing but the sky, the lofty heavens, not clear, yet immeasurably lofty, with gray clouds slowly drifting across them. "How quiet, solemn, and serene, not at all as it was when I was running," thought Prince Andrei, "not like our running, shouting, fighting; not like the gunner and the Frenchman with their distraught, infuriated faces, struggling for the rod; how differently do those clouds float over the lofty infinite heavens! How is it I did not see this sky before? How happy I am to have discovered it at last! Yes! All is vanity, all is delusion, except those infinite heavens. There is nothing but that. And even that does not exist; there is nothing but stillness, peace. Thank God..."This scene is often cited as being one of the most memorable in W&P. I held my breath for the next few chapters; I shifted with Andrei, in and out of consciousness, between reality and something else. He is before Napoleon, "such a small, insignificant creature compared with what was taking place between his soul and that lofty, infinite sky with the clouds sailing over it."This bit still puzzles me: What did he see? What did it inspire in him? Not God. He's ill for some time. When he returns, his wife dies with a reproachful look on her face. For 2 or 3 years it seems Andrei is merely going through the motions; he's in a depressive state. Is he mourning (the wife he thought stupid)? Is it posttraumatic stress disorder? Somehow that clarity, that sense of what it all means, translates into inaction, the pointlessness of everything? Russian fatalism? All that is left for him is his son, he thinks, and this does not seem much to him.There's the oak tree; we pass by it a few times. I love the oak sequences better than the lofty heavens. 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.Andrei inspired by the first blush of love finally recognizes the oak for the metaphor it is. "All the finest moments of his life suddenly rose to his mind. Austerlitz with its lofty heavens, the reproachful look on his wife's face in death, Pierre at the ferry, that young girl thrilled by the beauty of the night, and the night itself and the moon — all this suddenly came to his mind." Wait a minute! His wife's reproach, a fine moment?! (Then, "No, life is not over at thirty-one!" Hah!)PierreSo Pierre doesn't believe in God. He mee[...]

Anybody there?


Just a quick note...

Sorry for keeping so quiet lately. I've been swamped with work, etc. The spare time I've had I've devoted to reading rather than writing about what I've read. I'm pleased to say I've passed the halfway mark, and am finding W&P to be unputdownable.

Anyway, constraints on my time are easing up, and I hope to organize some thoughts for a post or two in the next couple days.

Of course, this shouldn't stop you from saying anything.

Tolstoy's bloopers


Is it sacrilege to pick apart War and Peace — "the greatest novel ever written" — on this most superficial of levels?

It started innocently enough: the copyeditor in me notes a discrepancy and dismisses it as a typo. The next point I notice is not something wrong, exactly, but a disconnect between specific words and my sense of events in time — perhaps something unintended was introduced in the translation. But the more it goes, the more I believe Tolstoy had a very poor sense of time; at least he didn't map out a timeline for his characters.

Here are the discrepancies I've found:

1. Anna Pavlovna holds a soirée some July evening, 1805; Pierre leaves the party, visits with Andrei, and steps out into the June night. Typo?

2. Lisa goes into labour March 19, 1806. That previous July evening, we're told she "being pregnant, no longer attended any of the gala evenings," as though it had been going on for some time. How long had she even known she was pregnant? — "soon to become a mother," "bore her burden," "waddling steps"; she's plump and stout even in these early days. Were these references to her condition translated with some exaggeration?

3. Later in the summer of 1805, the Rostovs have a party for Natalya's name day (August 26). Natasha we're told is 13. (Sonya is 15.) When her brother returns in early 1806, she is "smiling as only a happy girl of fifteen can smile" (Sonya is now 16). (Later in 1809 Natasha is 16.)

4. Early in 1806, Rostov returns home on leave. (He'd left sometime after Aug 26.) Twice it's mentioned he'd been away for a year and half. (These bits are intercut with other scenes definitely occurring in 1806.)

5. In November 1805 the deal of Pierre's marriage is sealed, and he's married 6 weeks later. March 3 he's at dinner at the Rostovs and calls Dolokhov out to a duel. Dolokhov's mother: "And if he was so jealous, well, as I see things, then he ought to have shown it sooner, instead of letting it go on for a year."

6. It's the third day of Christmas holidays; Nikolai and Denisov plan to rejoin their regiments after Epiphany (January 6 by our calendar). There's dinner, a ball, a couple days go by, gambling, Denisov leaves, Rostov stays on a couple weeks, then leaves at the end of November.

Of course, none of this diminishes the quality of the work as a whole. Although, in a lesser novel, I might find these discrepancies distracting, evidence of a sloppy mind even, reason to (gasp!) abandon a book (or at least scoff at it).

I believe W&P was published in instalments, which likely accounts for most of these oversights (any insight into 19th-century Russian publishing practices?), but I'm curious whether any of these might be the effects of sloppy translation (are they present in your editions?). Most importantly, I want to know: have you come across any other "bloopers"?

Book I, Parts 2&3, in general


I thought a separate post might be in order to open some general discussion on Book I, Parts 2 & 3.

1. So? How's it going? I admit to having fallen behind the schedule this week, but I'm back on track now. Are we going too fast? If you don't speak up we'll never know.

2. How do feel about the war scenes? Do you prefer them over the scenes in society?

3. Can Prince Vasily be any more unpleasant?

4. Nikolai Rostov: coward? What do you make of his love for the Tsar?

5. Tolstoy really dwells on the ugliness of women (or is it just me?).

6. Do you have any favourite quotations or scenes?

State your opinions, ask your questions, gossip!

Napoleon, Bush and Tolstoi


The best way to see Pierre's initial admiration for Napoleon is in the context of the time's politics. Yes, Pierre is naive, like a lot of intellectuals and free thinkers of the time, about Napoleon and what he stood for. Although a lot of what Napoleon represented seemed to be admirable on the surface--an end to kings, establishment of constitutional governments, the end of the power of the Catholic Church--in reality Napoleon tried to effect all this through constant militarism that bled Europe dry for a generation and completely ruined France. When Napoleon took up the cause of Italian or Polish freedom against outside occupiers he seemed enlightened. But Napoleon never liberated a country without becoming the new oppressor--"meet the new boss, same as the old boss," in the words of Pete Townshend.

Pierre's mistaken understanding of Napoleon, shared by Beethoven and many intellectuals and supporters of the Enlightemment, was common. By 1812 most of them (Pierre included for those of you who've read ahead) had turned against him. Tolstoi's view of Bonaparte was neither that he was the savior of Europe nor the Anti-Christ. He thought Napoleon and Tsar Alexander were both pathetic because they didn't realize that they were as caught up by Fate as the lowliest peasant. He thought Napoleon mistaken about his own genius and Alexander mistaken about his own righteousness. Tolstoi believed that most historians were wrong for casting these men as great leaders rather than just tools of the forces of history.

If we put this in the present context: what is the role that history will assign George Bush II in the Iraq debacle? Can any of us, having seen this guy stumble over a speech a sixth grader could slam-dunk, think that Bush II was smart enough to plan and carry out such a historical act? The invasion was a fact of history brought on by many converging forces and mistaken world-views: conservative think tanks, industries looking for contracts, political responses made to cover up incompetence over 9/11, a stolen election in 2000, oil greed, upper echelon officers looking for advancement, diplomatic posturing, etc. To think Bush II had much control over these forces is to be sadly mistaken--or so I think Tolstoi would argue.

The Face Of War


Part Two has us in the thick of war. One of my favourite passages occurs when Natasha's brother, Nikolai, faces a rush of Frenchmen after being thrown from his horse:

From the Ann Dunnigan translation:
"He stared at the approaching Frenchmen, and although only a moment before he had been galloping ahead to reach these men and cut them down, their proximity now seemed to him so awful that he could not believe his eyes. "Who are they? Why are they running? Can they be coming to me? Really coming to me? Me whom everyone loves?" He recalled his mother's love for him, the love of his family and his friends, and the intention of the enemy to kill him seemed impossible. "But perhaps--they are not going to kill me!" He stood for more than ten seconds, not moving from the spot, not understanding his position.

The foremost Frenchman, the one with the hooked nose, was now so close that the expression on his face could be seen. And the excited, alien appearance of this man with his bayonet tilted forward, holding his breath and lightly running towad him, frightened Rostov. He grasped his pistol, but instead of firing flung it at the Frenchman and ran with all his might toward the bushes. He ran not with the feeling of doubt and conflict with which he had marched onto the Enns Ridge, but with the feeling of a hare fleeing from the hounds. One single feeling of fear for his young, happy life took possession of his whole being."

For those interested there is an article in the current issue of The Walrus magazine by David Gilmour, called My Life with Tolstoy. It is a memoir and focuses Gilmour's passion for Tolstoy, and particularly War and Peace, over the years.

Pierre and Napoleon


I don't know much about history, and I'm assured I don't need to to appreciate War and Peace. There's not many references to historical events in Book I, but enough to sidetrack me and want to know more. Unless otherwise indicated quoatations are taken from Wikipedia's entry on Napoleon, which compares well with other encyclopedic sources I've checked, and I'm assured by a couple history buffs I consulted that it's fairly accurate, it covers the basics, and it's mostly objective. Napoleon was serving in the military when the French revolution broke out (1789).Throughout the 90s, as a general, he became increasingly influential in French politics. He published 3 newspapers, widely circulated within France.From 1795 to 1799, the Directoire exécutif held executive power in France. Power was shared by 5 directors, chosen by the Council of Ancients from a list elected by the Council of Five Hundred (two parliamentary houses).Napoleon seized power on November 9, 1799 (or 18 Brumaire on the French Republican calendar).War and Peace begins in 1805. Genoa and Lucca (city-states) had just been annexed by France.On the second page Prince Vasily tells us, "They have decided that Bonaparte has burned his boats." This doesn't appear to match a historical event. Perhaps it's meant as a metaphor? Although, it's the sort of thing that Napoleon would do, or that would be attributed to him.At the beginning of chapter 3, the party is discussing the assasination (see below) of the Duke of Enghien.I can find no substantiation for the Viscount's anecdote, that the Duke and Bonaparte both enjoyed Mademoiselle George's favours, although Napoleon's association with her is mentioned in the Historic Court Memoirs of France. Toward the end of chapter 4, Anna Pavlovna's guests gang up on Pierre:" can you account for a great man who is capable of executing a duke or even an ordinary person, for that matter, without cause and without trial?"In January 1804, Bonaparte's police uncovered an assassination plot against him, ostensibly sponsored by the Bourbons. In retaliation, Bonaparte ordered the arrest of the Duc d'Enghien, in a violation of the sovereignty of Baden. After a hurried secret trial, the Duke was executed on 21 March. Bonaparte then used this incident to justify the re-creation of a hereditary monarchy in France, with himself as Emperor, on the theory that a Bourbon restoration would be impossible once the Bonapartist succession was entrenched in the constitution."I should like to ask Monsiuer how he explains the Eighteenth Brumaire... Was that not a hoax? It was an act of trickery in no way resembling the conduct of a great man."When Napoleon had returned to Paris in October 1799,the military situation had improved due to several French victories. The Republic was bankrupt, however, and the corrupt and inefficient Directory was more unpopular with the French public than ever.Bonaparte was approached by one of the Directors, Sieyès, seeking his support for a coup to overthrow the constitution. The plot included Bonaparte's brother Lucien, then serving as speaker of the Council of Five Hundred, Roger Ducos, another Director, and Talleyrand. On 9 November (18 Brumaire), and the following day, troops led by Bonaparte seized control and dispersed the legislative councils, leaving a rump to name Bonaparte, Sieyès, and Ducos as provisional Consuls to administer the government. Although Sieyès expected to dominate the ne[...]

Initial thoughts


I honestly don't know where to start. I feel like the 148 pages of part 1 barely constitute an introduction to characters and events. I'm having trouble picking out anything that is really discussion-worthy. In case you're having similar difficulties, or if you're just shy, I'll try to start some kind of ball rolling here.

A summary of the difficulties I rambled about on my own blog, hoping it would point me in some direction (but no such luck):

1. I'm not loving this book. It's entertaining, and it's certainly not hard, but I'm not captivated (yet?). Anyone else?

2. I've learned quite a bit about the rise of Napoleon. Comments the characters make in passing are sidetracking me. I'm assured that understanding them is not crucial to appreciating the novel — I could skip right over them — but I can't help but want to know. I'll post a few notes on the historical references in days to come, and I welcome any insight from those of you who actually do know something about the Napoleonic Wars.

3. Do your editions have introductions and/or notes? Have you read them? I'm almost wishing I hadn't read the introduction to my book (John Bayley), as I feel my impressions are quite strongly coloured by it.

4. The big question: "What's this novel all about anyway?"

Matt (who's read W&P before) ventured an answer in previous comments: "the meaning of a man's soul - the tension between one's free will and fate; sort of like if you're put into the position, you have decide whether this is really your passion or merely because it's expected of you."

I'd have to agree there are tensions, but don't think I'd call it "fate" just yet. To this point I see the struggle between following one's desires and doing one's social duty. I think that's clearly true for Andrei, Pierre, and Boris.

Andrei, coming to Pierre's defense and in reference to Napoleon, says, "Besides, in the actions of a statesman one must distinguish between his acts as a private person and those as a general or an emperor." (Chapter 4)

Perhaps this is applicable to anyone, statesman or not: distinguishing between acts of free will and those performed in fulfilling a social/political role.

So? How far have you gotten? What do you think so far?