Saturday, January 28, 2012

War and Peace Wrap-up

I finished reading War & Peace a couple of weeks ago, but I've been stymied by the challenge of distilling this 1200 page tour-de-force into a manageable review. The work consists of a fictional story, with characters immersed in the challenges of war and love; views of battle bowing to both historical record and these characters; and philosophical ruminations on a range of subjects: history; war; power; genius; human searches for meaning; life and death; and Russia as a nation and its people.

Tolstoy places his characters at critical events to provide us eyewitness experience, and while these events are as historically accurate as any account can be, they are also beautifully written. The night before he is killed in battle, 16-year-old Petya Rostov, who has run off to immerse himself in the thrill of war as part of the Russian force pursuing the retreating French, has a reverie while listening to a man sharpen his saber: the youth directs a many-voiced hymn which becomes a march, and at his command it takes glorious form: "Ah, how lovely that is! As much as I like and however I like," Petya said to himself... "Softer, softer now, fade away." And the sounds obeyed him[...] and drops dripped, and bzhik, zhik, zhik... whistled the saber, and again the horses scuffled and neighed, not disrupting the chorus, but entering into it. (Vol IV, Part 3, Ch. X). A mere two pages later, "Running into the campfire smoldering in the morning light, the horse balked, and Petya fell heavily onto the wet ground. The Cossacks saw how his arms and legs jerked rapidly, though his head did not move. His head had been pierced by a bullet." (ibid, Ch. XI).

Tolstoy intersperses these vivid scenes with treatises on how wars come to be. He regards Napoleon as the inevitable consequence of myriad actions and movements - though the man is hailed by historians as a military genius, Tolstoy goes to considerable lengths to explain the chaos of battle, the involvement of myriad individuals in actions which create the whole, and generally discredits the "great man" theory of history. He finds it all, to some degree, preordained: this soldier will utter a valiant full-throated cry which inspires his regiment to unwonted bravery, while other regiments in the same battle retreat in confusion because the captains leading them are uncertain, disorganized or afraid. None of this occurs in response to orders from generals, who in an age of limited communication are not aware until afterwards what has actually happened, including even victory or defeat.

About the "rules of war" he has this to say, "Let us imagine two men who came with swords to fight a duel by all the rules of the art of fencing; the fighting went on for quite a long time; suddenly one of the adversaries, feeling himself wounded, realizing that it was not a joking matter, but something that concerned his life, threw down his sword and, picking up the first club he found, started brandishing it...
"The French were the fencer who demanded a fight by the rules of the art; the Russians were the adversary who dropped his sword and picked up a club; those who attempt to explain everything by the rules of fencing are the historians who have written about this event.
"From the time of the burning of Smolensk, a war began that did not fit any of the former traditions of war. The burning of towns and villages, the retreats after battles, the blow struck at Borodino and then another retreat, the abandoning and burning of Moscow, the hunt for marauders, the cutting off of transport, the partisan war - these were all deviations from the rules.
"Napoleon sensed that, and from the moment when he stopped in Moscow, in the correct position of a fencer, and instead of his adversary's sword, saw a club raised over him, he never ceased complaining to Kutuzov and the emperor Alexander that the war was being conducted against all the rules (as if there existed some sort of rules for killing people)."
(Vol IV, Part 3, Ch. II). Here is Tolstoy, heaping his scorn upon the pretensions to civilization of the brutish business of war.

Meanwhile, even as he repudiates the historians and tacticians for their orderly views of battle, he takes us into the mind and soul of a fatally injured man. Andrei Bolkonsky, severely wounded at Borodino, has been transported to and beyond Moscow with the Russian retreat. "But Prince Andrei's soul was not in a normal state in this respect. The forces of his soul were all clearer and more active than ever, but they acted outside his will. The most diverse thoughts and notions took hold of him simultaneously. Sometimes his thought suddenly began to work, and with such strength, clarity and depth as it had never been able to do in healthy conditions; but suddenly, in the middle of its work, it broke off and was replaced by some unexpected notion, and he was unable to return to it....
"And each time the fly touched his face, it made a burning sensation, and at the same time he was surprised that, hitting against the very area of his face where the edifice was being raised, the fly did not destroy it. But besides that, there was something else important. It was the white thing in the doorway, it was the statue of a sphinx, which also weighed on him." (Vol III, Part 3, Ch. XXXII). This "white thing in the doorway" is Natasha, lodging in the same inn, compelled to look at this wounded man to whom she had been in love and betrothed, but through the interference of others, had rejected. In the days that follow, the pair grow close, then Andrei puts aside all human affection as he faces his death:

"Prince Andrei not only knew that he would die, but felt that he was dying, that he was already half dead. He experienced an awareness of estrangement from everything earthly and a joyful and strange lightness of being. Without haste or worry, he waited for what lay ahead of him... Formerly he had been afraid of the end... The more he pondered the new principle of eternal love revealed to him, the more, though without feeling it himself, he renounced earthly life. To love everything, everybody, always to sacrifice oneself for love, meant to love no one, meant not to live this earthly life....
"Love? What is love?" he thought. "Love hinders death. Love is life. Everything, everything I understand, I understand only because I love. Everything is connected only by that... Love is God, and to die - means that I, a part of love, return to the common and eternal source." These thoughts seemed comforting to him. But they were only thoughts. Something was lacking in them, there was something one-sidedly personal, cerebral - there was no evidence."...
"But in the same instant that he died, Prince Andrei remembered that he was asleep, and in the same instant that he died, he made an effort with himself and woke up.
"Yes that was death. I died - I woke up. Yes, death is an awakening." Clarity suddenly came to his soul, and the curtain that until then had concealed the unknown was raised before his inner gaze. He felt the release of a force that previously had been as if bound in him and that strange lightness which from then on did not leave him." (Vol IV, Part 1, Ch. XVI)

I could not help feeling that Tolstoy himself must have experienced a moment close to death, to write about it with such convincing beauty. Even as he applies his intellect to it, he tells us that's what he's doing, and that it's false, failing to grasp the completeness of death.

Pierre, in a group of prisoners of war, witnesses the firing-squad execution of a number of his fellows. He expects to be shot next. "Another two were led up. In the same way, with the same eyes, these two also looked at everyone, in vain, with their eyes only, silently, begging for protection, and clearly not understanding and not believing what was going to happen. They could not believe it, because they alone knew what their life was for them, and therefore did not understand or believe that it could be taken from them....
"Pierre ... saw smoke, someone's blood, and the pale, frightened faces of the Frenchmen, who again were doing something by the post, pushing each other with trembling hands. Pierre, breathing hard, looked around as if asking, "What does it mean?" The same question was in all the gazes that met Pierre's gaze.

"On all the Russian faces, on the faces of the French soldiers and officers, on all without exception, he read the same fear, horror and struggle that were in his heart. "But who, finally, is doing this? They're all suffering just as I am. Who is it? Who?" flashed for a second in Pierre's soul." (Vol IV, Part 1, Ch. XI). Pierre is spared execution, but this confrontation with death has demolished the life he once prized. He becomes fully the earthy simple Russian who has lived unacknowledged beneath his wealth, idleness and comfort - being a prisoner has liberated him.

Do not be intimidated by the length of this book. Chapters are short, often only two or three pages, and once you settle in with the principal characters you enter a world so fully realized that it has the force of truth in all its particulars. Whether it's Tsar Alexander afraid to make his horse jump a ditch; or generals at a party ignoring the news that the French forces have crossed into Russia; or the burning of Moscow because a wooden city will inevitably have fires, and once the residents have fled, no one has the responsibility to quench them - we see simultaneously the broad sweep of war and the details of struggle. Tolstoy exposes the mundane actions that underlie events, and convinces us theory is a vain attempt to force order onto the chaos of life.

This writer has written not only a history that will stand alongside any other account of the Napoleonic wars, he has given us individuals in all their complexity: weak and brilliant, foolish and courageous, petty and joyful, brash and impressionable. He spares none of them the heights of glory and depths of human suffering, and we scramble to keep up, fascinated at this mirror held up to our own souls.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Tonight I read a short story at the Mercury Cafe in downtown Denver. It's short - I'll share it with you here:

Seek Your Fortune

by NC Weil

"Out! You can't sit around this house any more! Leave!" She shoved the protesting books onto the porch. When she was done, nearly two hundred copies huddled together, shivering in the frosty morning air and sniveling.

"You can't do this," one whined.

"We're your children," said another.

"Yours, all yours," chorused a third.

Marigold closed the door on their complaints. She'd stumbled over their boxes long enough. No one was going to read them in her dining room time to make their way in the wide world, like younger sons in fairy tales.

Through the keyhole and the crack under the heavy door she could hear their collective plaint. Hardening her heart, she went back to the kitchen and put on the teakettle.

"You did what?!" Fred was shocked, if not alarmed. He'd actually read the book, claimed to like it.

"I gave up," she said. "Maybe they'll do some of the PR heavy lifting themselves, now that I'm finished."

"How are they supposed to do that? They're helpless."

She gave him a skeptical look. "Yeah, they had me convinced, for a while there. No more. This morning I heard them giggling, horsing around in my office. They sounded like teenagers older teenagers. They're just lazy."

He opened the front door and looked at the bare porch. "You put them out here?"

"Sure did."

"They're gone."

"All of them?"

"I don't see any books. Are you sure "

"Let me see," she elbowed past him. "Well I'll be durned." She laughed, flinging her arms around Fred. "It worked," she crowed.

"Pure fantasy," he muttered, sure she'd made up the whole story.

"That's what writers do," Marigold explained at dinner. "We make up stories." She speared a floret of fractal broccoli.

"You sure had me fooled." He shook his head.

"You misunderstand. I made up the story in the book. Kicking them out today? That's true."

"True stories are the best, if anyone believes them," he said.

She flattened a chunk of yam with her fork. "True stories are true whether anyone believes them or not."

He studied her a moment before he resumed eating. "The trash-man must've taken them."

She snorted. "Yeah, you know how diligent he is about looking for stuff to throw in his truck." She leveled her fork at him. "He doesn't even empty the can, if it's not in exactly the right place."

Fred nodded thoughtfully. "Well, a neighbor took them."

"Two hundred books. In a pile. Because " she couldn't keep the sneer from her voice "they're so popular. So desirable."

"All right, where did they go, miss smarty?"

"To seek their fortunes. They didn't leave a note so I don't know where they're headed."

Within a week rumors were circulating. A local art website posted a photo of three copies hitchhiking at a northbound Interstate on-ramp. They looked a little roughed-up but their covers were still glossy. She could swear the title, Karmafornia, was grinning.

Their friend Joe two blocks away reported seeing a gang of ten or a dozen, facing down a large stray dog. After winning the standoff they clustered in a front yard to celebrate, then went up to the porch. The big brick house was subdivided into half a dozen apartments, and they split up, ringing doorbells. As Joe watched, the broad front door opened and they all trooped inside. With the door closed and nothing more to see, he went on his way, but thought Marigold would want to know.

"Thanks," she laughed. It was working! They'd got the message. Those books had seemed so pitiful, lying around in cartons. What an act!

The local video store soon had a row of them in the window, below the movie posters. Fred mentioned them to the clerk, who didn't believe him. When he dragged him out to the sidewalk to see the new display, the clerk just shrugged.

"The owner musta put 'em there. Wanna buy one?"

"I have one already, but maybe you should."

"Aw, I don't really read."

"They want to be looked into, can't you tell?"

And as they watched, one of the books pulled open its cover to the title page.

"Hey, cool graphic," the clerk said.

"The story's good too." Fred gave the guy a friendly slap on the shoulder and walked away.

The clerk went in and pulled the enticing copy off the windowsill. He put it in his backpack, but didn't put money in the till: there were so many, who'd miss just one? He wanted to read it.

A bold foursome showed up at a sports bar, demanding coasters and napkins so they could watch the game without getting wet. Pretty soon the guys sitting next to them were asking them questions. One copy showed off its Part 2 title page: "Angels can fly 'cause they take themselves lightly," the elegant font superimposed on a ghost imprint of an unusual curlicue. The guy plucked up the book.

"Check this out," he showed his buddy the page.

The guy laughed. "Good joke. Never heard that one."

"Take it," the first guy said, handing over the copy. "There's more."

"Who do we pay?"

"We're free," the book in his hand said. "Everybody should be free, don't you think?"

"Hell yeah."

The books fared better in groups. One going it alone tumbled into a greasy puddle. Even after its pages had more or less dried out, its cover was curled and dirty. It took shelter in an alley, then was run over when the trash truck came by to empty the adjacent dumpster. Torn and aching, the book crawled into the weeds. But when a homeless woman came by with a big bag, scavenging aluminum cans, the copy came out. She picked it up, curious. She read a few sentences, then sitting with her back against the sun-warmed wall of a garage, settled in to read.

A month after Marigold had kicked them out, one of the books slipped through her mail slot.

"Just thought you'd like a progress report," it said.

"And ?"

"You were right. We were cozy here, and safe, but we might as well have been blank. Some of us are beat-up and dog-eared now, but your words are out there."

Marigold extended a hand to pick it up, but the book scurried out of range.

"I'm not staying," it said. "I just wanted to let you know we're doing all right." And before she could think of a response, it was wriggling back out the mail slot. She pulled the door open to look: it was already toddling down the street, erect and proud. Free.