Questioning the Tomes

I just finished War and Peace. Yeah, you read that sentence right. Get the streamers; uncork the champagne. I read War and Peace, and it only took me a year. War and Peace is one of those books that is perhaps more famous for not being read than read. It looms, taking up an obscene amount of bookshelf space, and seems to say, “don’t even pretend like you’re going to read me.” Well, screw you book, I read the hell out of you.

What really struck me as I was reading was that I didn’t already have an idea what the book was about before I read it. Yes, I knew it was about Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia, but that’s like saying that All Quiet on the Western Front is about World War I, that Slaughterhouse-Five is about the bombing of Dresden, or that Oliver Twist is about the economic stratification of nineteenth century England. However, I’ve rarely picked up a book that would be considered part of the “Western Canon” without already knowing the main conflict. Long before I read either novel, I knew that Moby-Dick was about Captain Ahab’s obsession with killing the albino whale that ate his leg and that The Brothers Karamazov was in part a murder mystery about which brother killed their father (perhaps this knowledge was why I was so frustrated that the despicable father remained alive so long). I haven’t read Great Expectations, but I know it’s a bildungsroman about a boy who aids a convict, plays with crazy Miss Havisham’s ward, and comes into unexpected wealth. The list goes on. If a book is widely read, its plot leaks into the collective consciousness. After a while, everyone knows what these books are about, yet I was wholly unfamiliar with the plot of War and Peace.

I suspect that some will say this ignorance is due to the fact that War and Peace is more famous for not being read. It’s one of those intimidating tomes that people demur from reading. However, I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I think of Tolstoy’s novel as being like Mt. Everest—it’s big and intimidating and that challenge attracts people. Around 4,000 people have climbed Everest. I bet a lot more have read War and Peace—it’s much less expensive than mountain climbing. I daresay that, like me, others will shamelessly brag about their accomplishment, which should be enough to get some of the major plot points into the larger culture.

What I think actually keeps the plot of this book out of the cultural consciousness is that we view it with such respect. It is one of the great literary classics, and to read it shows that you have refined tastes and that you’re an intellectual who ponders what others cannot hope to understand. Talking about the plot would rob the book of some of that mystique. True, it’s hard to summarize a book that follows about a dozen characters and that takes place over the years 1807 to 1819, but let’s take one character, Pierre. Pierre is the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. His father has made him his heir, but Prince Vasili tries to convince the father, who is on his death-bed, to write Pierre out of the will. The father does not, and, when Pierre inherits the fortune, Prince Vasili manipulates Pierre into marrying his daughter, Hélène. Hélène probably had an affair with Dolokhov, so Pierre challenges Dolokhov to a duel. We’re not even through the first quarter of the book, yet this bare bones summary is starting to sound a bit melodramatic. And as we all know, there is nothing more counter to literary refinement than melodrama.

The brief summary that I gave above isn’t fair to Tolstoy’s work; as with all summaries, it cuts away the nuances of character and language. Still the novel is filled with moments that would be equally at home in a soap opera. When describing what was happening in the book to my friends, I would sometimes refer to it as The Days of Our Lives: The Napoleonic Wars Edition. Often when we talk about literature, especially books with a reputation for being “Important,” we fail to talk about the parts that share similarities with writing done for pure entertainment. I’m often surprised by how fun some old books are to read.

There is nothing more absurd than going into battle wearing white pants.

One of the most surprising aspects of War and Peace was how funny it was. Tolstoy is trying to make the point that great men aren’t the ones who change the world, but rather they just get caught on top of the cresting wave of change. To do this he often shows the chaos of the battlefield—how orders from generals are based on old, often wrong, information and how the soldiers on the field are reacting to a different set of circumstances so cannot possibly follow said orders. He also shows how the bureaucracy of war keeps anything from getting done, officers vying for advancement and trying to sabotage each other. As far as Tolstoy is concerned, wars are won or lost regardless of the generals and their tactics. During these sections, I started to refer to the novel as Cluster F***: A Victory. Another thing that Tolstoy taught me about war is that it causes traffic jams: people fleeing the coming army, soldiers marching to battle or retreating from a loss. Another title I used to refer to the novel was Traffic Jams and Bureaucracy.

Less surprisingly, Tolstoy interweaves the moments of humor with moments of horror. Officers vying for advancement, no matter how pathetic and funny they may seem, still make their power-plays with men’s lives. The chaos of the battlefield can seem funny one second, and in the next second a cannon ball has obliterated a person. In one scene, Pierre, a civilian, goes to a battlefield just to look. Tolstoy paints a humorous picture of this bumbling tourist wandering about, yet, when Pierre barely escapes with his life and the soldiers he stayed with are all killed, we are terrified. After the capture of Moscow, Pierre is taken prisoner by the French. Tolstoy superbly shows Pierre entering a dissociative state in order to survive: he focuses on counting trees rather than realizing that his friend was just executed.

Strangely, one modern genre that War and Peace reminds me of is that of the internet comment. Tolstoy is angry at historians and how they paint history. There is chapter after chapter, with many great insults, where he picks apart the Great Man theory. He mentions that many historians believe that Napoleon lost a certain battle because he didn’t personally oversee it, as he was suffering from a cold, which means, according to Tolstoy, that the servant who failed to dress the French Emperor in warm clothes was actually responsible for the outcome of the battle. Basically, Tolstoy read some history, became enraged at it, and wrote a really long comment. I imagine that if Tolstoy lived today, he would be a terror, albeit an eloquent one, of the Amazon reviews and the YouTube comments section.

It may seem like I’m being disrespectful to a great piece of literature, and you’re right, I am.

While I read the novel, I was moved, I laughed, I gained new insight, and I yelled at it. I’ll praise what I thought was good, and I’ll criticize what I thought was not. I disliked how he presents peasants as an ideal of Russian identity and Christian suffering rather than as people, and how he presented two of the women as representations of true womanhood whose identities are consumed completely by their husbands and children. Still, I loved how he showed war as absurd. I like to interact with the books that I read. One of the ways that we can kill a book is to treat it like an untouchable relic behind glass in a museum.

This post, no doubt, has revealed my suspicion of dividing literature into the categories of high culture and low culture. I find the elements that low culture is derided for (sex, violence, bathroom humor, melodrama) are often in the works of so-called high culture, while I’ve discovered moments of transcendence and have seen the human condition laid bare in low culture. Admittedly genre or pulp fiction often provide nothing more than an escape from the everyday, but sometimes Literature, with a capital “L,” is nothing more than empty intellectual posing that only reassures its readers that they’re better than that ugly rabble. The latter has always struck me as more dangerous. It disturbs me that I feel a sense of accomplishment in reading War and Peace, which is, as we discussed, primarily known for being long, whereas I was reading fantasy series where individual novels were just as long in my teens. I too am guilty of being awed by the dubious reputation of “Great Literature” and “Important” books, when all that makes a book great is that it helps you understand the world in a way that you haven’t before. It doesn’t matter if this understanding comes from horror novels, fairy tales, or chick lit, as long as it makes you re-examine who you are and how you interact with the world.

As I was finishing War and Peace, I was also giving up on another famously long, much more recent and read novel, The Goldfinch. I was listening to The Goldfinch audio book on my commute, and, for whatever reason, that medium wasn’t working out for me. I’ve had this happen with a few other audio books—sometimes I just need to experience a book through the printed page—so The Goldfinch is now on my to read pile.

Recently a Vanity Fair article came out discussing the growing divide over the novel. Is it awesome that a literary novel has become so popular, or is it an example of the decline of letters that such a book could even be considered Literature? As I haven’t finished the book, I don’t feel comfortable in saying whether I think it’s good or not. However, reading the criticisms of Tart’s novel, I was struck by how much of it was about keeping all that adventure stuff, that escapism, that ability to be enjoyed by teenagers away from important literature. I’m guessing that some of these critics aren’t big fans of Treasure Island. Ultimately, I’m suspicious of this criticism, because it reeks of the old high culture versus low culture view. What seems to decide the boundary between the two is the critics’ aesthetic tastes. However, if they weren’t moved to reflection or didn’t gain some kind of insight, I can’t blame them for dismissing the novel. Still, as an outsider and member of the rabble, I can’t help but wonder if there is some literary guarding of the gates going on here.

The only really good negative review of the novel that I read was one from Salon. The reviewer points out problems with The Goldfinch’s portrayal of its characters of color. What makes this review good is it does what good literature does: it made me reflect. The reflection was on myself and my assumptions. I had already encountered four of the characters she mentioned, and I only felt bothered by the doorman. In fact, I assumed that what we initially saw of the doorman was part of a professional persona and that there would be more to his character. However, when I heard the part about the maid who offered to work for free because she loves her employer so much, I didn’t even register what a B.S. statement that was. It’s like when, in War and Peace, Pierre asks one of his serfs if he wants to be free, and the serf says no. While I believe that Tolstoy wanted his readers to see that statement as sincere, I read the character as being guarded with his master and saying that which most insured his safety. Why I didn’t have a similar realization with The Goldfinch, when the maid basically tells the narrator’s mother that she’s such a good boss that cleaning the mother’s house is reward in and of itself, reveals my own ignorance. Notice that the maid didn’t say she wanted to be friends—which would create a more equal power dynamic between the two woman—but that she wanted to continue to serve even without compensation. I’m not  happy realizing that I too didn’t think anything of that scene when first heard it, but I’m glad that this critic pointed out the problematic assumptions inherent in such a view.

I suppose what I’m looking for when I read is an interrogation of the world and myself. While I enjoy escaping from time to time, I’ve never seen escapism as being opposed to that interrogation. Vampires, spaceships, and afternoon tea can help shatter illusions about the world. However, because books are by people, they will be inherently flawed like people with dangerous blind spots that allow us to remain secure in a false sense of superiority. When I was talking about my problems with the portrayal of women in War and Peace, a friend said, “Yeah, but it was written over a hundred years ago.” “So it was of its time,” I said, “that doesn’t mean that I should excuse either it or its time.” Let us praise the books that make us feel, but let us never excuse or ignore when they fail to question dangerous assumptions—these two activities are not exclusive.

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