Wednesday, May 25, 2011

War and Peace Concluded

I finished War and Peace yesterday.  I don't actually have anything to say about it, except that I highly recommend any readers to skip the last epilog section; it's just a restatement of an earlier essay, and at 40 pages long it's a doozy.  It's the sort of thing that we make fun of in The Fountainhead, and what's sauce for the goose...  I actually didn't like the first epilog so much either -- it felt very tacked-on.

I guess the big question with any long book like this is whether it's worth investing the time & effort to read it.  I'd give a qualified yes.  You need to be at least marginally interested in the period but also willing to accept Tolstoy's (admittedly obvious) bias.  You also need to be able to wade through long essays on historiography (though those only start in the second half of the book).  But the actual story really sucked me in; I found Andrei and Pierre to be pretty compelling characters.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Janissary Tree, a small note on War & Peace

Jason Goodwin's Janissary Tree is a mystery/thriller set in the closing days of the Ottoman Empire. It feels like the thriller plot is constructed to get us into a bunch of "interesting" places, as a sort of tour.  So we spend some time in the Sultan's quarters in Topkapi Palace, some time in a slum, some time in a Turkish bath, and so on.  Goodwin's very good at scene-building, and I think that if I were looking for a panoramic view of Istanbul in that period, I could do worse.

Unfortunately, he's not so good at the thriller-writing parts.  The underlying plot doesn't make a whole lot of sense as soon as you step back and think about it.  It makes a James Bond plot seem down-to-earth.  On top of that, there are scenes that feel taken straight out of a Bond movie.  Yashim, a functionary in the sultan's court fights a trained assassin hand-to-hand; there's no way he should survive for one minute, never mind winning.  Elsewhere he's locked in a Turkish Bath and left to die -- why not just kill him and leave?  That's almost Dan Brown-level stupidity.

On another note, War & Peace has too many damn essays.  It's a great book, and I'm really enjoying it, but I'm getting tired of hearing how much Napoleon is not a military genius and how much Kutuzov connected with the soul of the Russian people.  The essays make a good case for an edited version, but they'd probably on shave 30 pages off the text, probably not even worth doing.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Acceptance World, War and Peace yet again

I read The Acceptance World, the third volume of A Dance to the Music of Time.  There probably isn't much I can say about it that I didn't talk about before.  The writing is beautiful, not much happens, Jenkins slips around in time, yadda yadda.  Jenkins has an affair with Jean DuPorte, but it doesn't carry much emotional weight.  Jenkins himself is pretty detached; one senses that he rarely gets emotionally involved with the people around him.

I think that his detachment paradoxically gives more of a punch to the spots where characters are in trouble.  When we see Stringham as a wreck, for example, it's a real shock, and Jenkins's cool reporting of the episode makes it seem worse.  I've seen people call this a comedy (Evelyn Waugh said that Powell is almost as funny as Wodehouse), and I can't agree.  There are very funny parts, but also some very painful parts, as well as a lot of parts that are neither.  Certainly I wouldn't recommend this to someone looking for another Wodehouse...

Closing in on the end of War and Peace.  Pierre finds his redemption in suffering while a prisoner of the French.  Reminds me of Raskolnikov or Dimitry Karamazov.  Maybe just a Russian thing...  The big problem for me, though, is that Pierre is so changeable through the novel.  He's pro-Napoleon, then an ardent Mason, then he decides to assassinate Napoleon, and so on.  I have trouble accepting that he's finally found the good road.  I liked Andrei Bolkonsky's character arc much better.  (I've come to think of them as the main characters, but there's no good reason for that -- certainly the various Rostovs are just as important, but it may be that I just can't connect with them in the same way.  Though Natasha is a great character).

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Dirty White Boys, A Buyer's Market

Listened to Stephen Hunter's Dirty White Boys.  Kept expecting it to get better, ended up listening to the second half at 2x speed and even so skipping bits.  Meh.  Hard to believe it's by the same guy who wrote Point of Impact.  Even harder to believe that it was well-received, but it apparently was.

Now listening to A Buyer's Market, second part of his "Dance to the Music of Time."  It's amazing how enthralling Powell makes this story where really nothing happens.  (At least, not in the first quarter).  Beautiful writing, and he slips nicely through time, as one thing reminds him of another.


Read the beginning of Book 22.  Among other things, Hector, finding himself outside the walls of Troy, debates with himself whether to stand up to Achilles or to flee.  It seems pretty clear that he already knows he's likely to lose a fight, but he doesn't want to live on branded a coward.

He also now realizes that he should've withdrawn into Troy much earlier.  Although this story isn't Hector's tragedy, I think that he has some tragic elements as well, and this fatal overconfidence is his biggest flaw.  He hadn't realized that, just as the scales suddenly tipped in his favor, they could as quickly be reversed.

I think that the whole sequence is one of the great soliloquies in the Iliad.  In general, heroes aren't given to self-doubt, and the epic idiom doesn't really lend itself to complex monologs, so this struck me as a real tour de force.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

War and Peace again

I'm almost through Part III, which includes a massive section on the Battle Of Borodino, one of the pivotal battles in Napoleon's Russian Campaign.  Tolstoy uses the Battle to make some points about warfare, history, and social forces.

For one thing, Tolstoy is adamantly opposed to the Great Man theory of history.  As he puts it, Napoleon could not have invaded Russia if 100,000 Frenchman had not signed up for his army and agreed to invade Russia.  Further, having arrived in Russia, if Napoleon had just disappeared, they would have continued to fight, because that's what they came for.  He also depicts Napoleon as a bumbler who happened to have things go his way most of the time.  He mocks those who credit Napoleon with great genius, pointing out that most of the time, Napoleon couldn't have given orders on the battlefield, because, with the fog of war, by the time his orders were given and received, the situation had usually changed drastically.

I think that Tolstoy overplays his hand a bit with this argument.  Although it's true that Napoleon couldn't have marched without an army, and he didn't personally round up 100,000 men to serve in his army, it's equally true that 100,000 Frenchmen didn't spontaneously decide to make war on Russia.  Similarly, you can acknowledge the fog of war, but also credit Napoleon with the strategic ability to set up battles ahead of time, knowing that his orders during the battle might not always make it through.

I'm not a military (or any kind of) historian, though, so I think it's more interesting to see how these view fall into the context of the novel.  For one thing, they explain Tolstoy's panoramic approach to the years 1805-13.  Since he doesn't believe that one person is a prime mover, but instead that everyone is responding to general historical forces, he needs to show us the period from multiple points of view.  We see reactions to the sparring of the Tsar and Napoleon from the point of view of diplomats, soldiers, country land-holders, minor nobility, peasants (not so often, but occasionally), and so on.

This also helps Tolstoy illustrate another of his theses, that it's impossible to get an unbiased view of an historical event/personage.  Is General Kutuzov a hero, a bumbler, a man who gets credit for others' deeds, or what?  Each character would give a different answer, I think.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Black Tide

I just finished listening to Peter Temple's Black Tide.  Temple has since gone on to win a major Australian literary prize, but Black Tide is still square in the hard-boiled camp.  It's very solid, though, and would jump to the top of my list of recommended hard-boiled novels, except that it's over-complicated.  Granted, Temple is telling a story in which financial shell companies play a major role, but it's hard to keep the cast straight, especially at first.

On the plus, side, though:
  • The violent show-down scenes are very well-done.  Temple's hero, Jack Irish, is a lawyer, but he makes it seem believable that he makes a Molotov cocktail during a firefight.  But, even better is that, in fact, Irish screws it up, and ends up with something that won't even ignite.  We see time & again that Irish is just not very good in a gun battle, which adds tremendously to the realism.
  • I loved the ending.  We get a nice sense of closure where it's needed, not some added angst thrown in at the end just to be unsettling.
  • Irish is also an amateur cabinet-maker, and Temple is very good at showing us this part of Irish's life.  The same goes for his football club.  These glimpses of Irish's life all humanize him and get away from the driven-guy-who's-an-alcoholic-to-get-away-from-it-all stereotype.