Sunday, April 17, 2011

Book Review: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

I'll get back to writing about real things at some point, I promise. But until then I'm going to keep up the book reflection part of this blog while I watch Bashkortostani public access news because that's what there's to do in Cleveland. I'll start when I start. Until then, well, books.

As I write this I realize, I'm not born to be a writer. I might be able to turn a phrase, to tell a story, but I will never be able to really weave something true to life, or even a gross enough approximation. You might think you have style, maybe some class, and then you look up and compare to - not even Tolstoy - but Grann or Tyler the Creator and realize that it is hopeless to start. All you'd be doing is beating against the current.

Heaping praise on War and Peace isn't even an attractive thing to do. It's a goddamned classic of literature, it hardly needs my validation. But it is relevant. If you happen to be unemployed for a decent stretch of time, it's worth picking up.

Why did I pick it up? Because I was told to, and I listen to my elders. A Real Person Writer told me I ought to get into Russian fiction, so I asked him what. After going back and forth between his collection and what I could find in the Cleveland house, we settled on W&P. So what I'm trying to say is, I did it to try to impress, to try and validate myself. Not sure if it worked, but at least I picked something up along the way.

The plot is simple, actually. The setting is Napoleonic, from Austerlitz in 1805 to about 1820. There are 5 major families, but really 4 main characters: Natasha and Nicholas Rostov, Andrew Balkonsky, and Pierre Bezhukov. Everyone has their favorites, I'm sure, but Natasha is a Audrey Hepburn-type, Nicholas is a headstrong man who wants to have a rustic/heroic streak. Andrew is an older, wiser, Nicholas and Pierre is Tolstoy's mouthpiece, a man who falls into money and then fences with the consequences. They all have their pros and cons (I'm #teamandrew) to be sure, and the side characters are just as full and often more interesting, like the dastardly Dolokhov or probably my personal favorite, the speech-defected Denisov. It's fairly enjoyable that Tolstoy feels no need to wrap up everybody's story and make sure we have a Fugees-esque finality to everyone, even if there are two wholly separate epilogues.

It's about more than Napoleon, of course. Tolstoy takes his time, going on monologues to destroy the 1860's concept of greatness, attempt to reconstruct historiography, or prove that God exists and there is no such thing as free will. All heady stuff, for sure. And it's difficult to pretend these are all some soft subtleties, Tolstoy hits you over the head with these things and talks like a college professor for ten, twenty pages at a time. The book is certainly one of those big important books, and again, I wish I was a better writer so I could take some lessons of the craft from Tolstoy. The way he describes characters, the way he continually talks through people's heads is fun to read and interesting to look at.

But as I said, I'm hardly a writer. All the same, using rich people as a lens through which to view history is a more interesting plot device than it sounds. Tolstoy says straight off, "I don't know the serf classes and I will not pretend to" in one of his monologues. And with rich people you can travel, speak French, and do a whole lot in that sort. And the protagonist of the book, Pierre, is an only moderately opaque version of Tolstoy himself. And all of the war scenes are of officers riding around, taken from Tolstoy's Caucasus years into the steppes west of Moscow.

W&P is probably most known for its war scenes, widely lauded as some of the most accurate in the history of literature. I wouldn't know, of course, but there's lots of interesting looks at the concept of bravery, the indefinability of glory, and such and sundry 19th century concepts that still live on today. It's interesting to read about how these concepts were tired and irrelevant in the 1860s, and yet we still use them today. How we still talk of Napoleon's glory, of the pomp of battle, like we're still marching out in red wool coats in a line of battle, shooting 3 shots a minute under Major Sharpe.

Tolstoy refers to the guerilla war in Spain at the time, and talks degradingly about the Russians' version of the same. It's clear that he didn't like how war was, but certainly doesn't care for where it's going. Making Dolokhov a guerilla was probably not a coincidence.

There's lots to talk about, about war, about class, in War & Peace. I'm not going to pretend to be the Spark Notes version, though. It's a good book to read if you have a month or two to kill.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Book Review: Passage to India by E.M. Forester

If you're as big into Central/South (or really, Cool) Asia as I am, you are probably reading some of the good stuff that Jonathan Shainin writes, or what he posts on his Twitter feed. One of his larger rages in the past week or so has been against the Guardian, that ol' English rag that apparently has been celebrating the British Empire and all of its good.

That wasn't all that much good. It's fun to look back wistfully, of course. When I first set off for Central Asia, I was with a bunch of Brits, Aussies, Kiwis and Canadians celebrating the triumph of their spirit. It's, well, sometimes a bit off from the truth.

Probably the seminal novel of British India is Passage to India, which came out in 1924 at the sunset of the British empire. Forester was pretty pissed off from his experiences in India, or at least upset enough to write a fictionalized account (there is no Chandrapore) of how Indians and Anglos interact.

Passage to India is a great read because it's an easy read. It reads less like a Merchant Ivory production, which I was expecting. For being nearly 90 years old, the characters are fresh and their English is very easy to understand. They're each sketched out individually, and for having the whole Anglo vs. Indian divide, it's not Sharks vs. Jets, its a feud that develops into a race war. None of the main characters are entirely good or entirely evil. Some of the side characters may seem it (particularly the Nauwab Badhur) but you realize they're just following their own path. I remember getting into a long talk with some older gentleman in a hostel in Split a month ago. He was very proud of finishing his first book and was explaining that, "the funny thing about characters is, they don't always do what you want." I couldn't really believe for anything I've ever written, Lord knows, but I did believe it here.

Like any very good book, Passage to India is just as much about the human condition as anything else. The characters are set down their paths by external coincidences, unable to stop themselves from fulfilling some certain destiny. The fate of the country can be seen in the fate of the characters, and the whole fate/God/reason thing comes into play as much as the reader allows it to.

There's a reason why Passage to India is one of the triumphs of the English language. I was lucky to pick up an aged copy at a book exchange for free, and it was one of the better accidents (OR FATE OMGZZZ) I stumbled into the past year. So yeah, worth checking out.