Peace at last

Did I happen to mention that I was reading War and Peace? I finished it last weekend, but I was so drained by the whole experience that it’s taken me a week (during which I read the Everyman Book of Detective Stories, Dan Rhodes’ Anthropology and the first 200 pages of The Phantom of the Opera: god, but it’s good to have my reading mojo back) to marshall my thoughts on it.

Thanks to a wise old Russian woman I once knew who declared that when it came to War and Peace she “only read the Peace”, I had always thought that War and Peace was neatly divided into alternating sections. It does begin that way, but gradually the two strands resolve into a single story. And there’s a third strand, which has nothing to do with any of the rest of it and reads as though it was written by someone else entirely, which consists of intermittent discussions on history and military tactics and how the two are related. You can spot these sections immediately because the close-set narrative voice disappears and we swoop out to an omniscient level that is somewhere on a par with god.

I enjoyed 90% of the peace, 50% of the war and 50% of the philosophy, which mathematically makes this a success story, except that when you take those numbers and apply them to a 1400-page book, assuming for the sake of convenience that each strand constitutes about a third of the whole, you are still left with 500-odd pages of big fat no fun. Add that (yes, more maths!) to the voices of the various people who warned me before I started that the final section of the book was impenetrably dull, and you begin to see why I picked it up with a slight but perceptible sense of doom each time.

The other problem I had was that there are so many characters; so many stories to follow, that it’s hard to know which of them to care about. Even Leo himself seems to have lost track, because several threads are started which never go anywhere. The story starts in the elegant salon of Anna Pavlova Scherer, a bewitching and playful woman whom I expected to loom large in what followed, but she is barely mentioned again. Other characters appear and disappear without consequence; people make spectacular entrances early on, then die abruptly a thousand pages later without having been mentioned in the interim. It took Tolstoy five years to write War and Peace, and I can’t help thinking that by the time he got to the end, he had forgotten the beginning.

I did enjoy most of the Peace, though. The Rostovs are a seductive, chaotic, convincing mess of a family, and the various people who walk in and out of their lives are all worth meeting, though Count Anatole, like his sister Helen, is a pantomime villain. The contrast with the sadder and sterner Bolkonskys is good, too. And I enjoyed the various romances very much, even if they did (with one exception) all get wrapped up in a sentence or two, Tolstoy clearly not sharing my avid interest in the small rituals of betrothal and marriage.

The War is good when things are happening, and less good when nothing is, which is often. I struggled with long descriptions of where the army were stationed, and the benefits and disadvantages their position offered. It may have been beautifully observed, but it was also quite boring. And I have never been able to discern the hierarchy of the various ranks, so I’m sure some subtleties were lost on me there.

I didn’t mind the philosophical stuff, although it suffers from the same problem it criticises in written accounts of history, which is the assumption that the author is capable of abstracting himself from his own time and circumstances and writing objectively about the world. And the last section, a 44-page essay on the nature and meaning of free will, is interesting and I’m glad I read it, but I wish it wasn’t the final section of War and Peace, because the section immediately before it would have made a perfect ending. Without giving too much away, here is what would have been the final paragraph of the book had it ended where it should have done, with the firstborn of the new generation contemplating his family’s past and future:

‘Non’ answered Nikolai, and fell back on his pillow. ‘He is good and kind and I am fond of him,’ he said to himself, thinking of Desalles. ‘But Uncle Pierre! Oh, what a wonderful person he is! And my father? Oh, Father, Father! Yes, I will do something that even he would be content with…’.

And here is the actual last paragraph:

In the first case it was necessary to surmount the sensation of an unreal mobility in space and to recognize an emotion we did not feel. In the present case it is similarly necessary to renounce a freedom that does not exist and to recognize a dependence of which we are not personally conscious.

See?

I am glad to have read War and Peace, if only because it’s something I thought I didn’t have the discipline and earnestness of intention ever to do. And there’s lots in there that’s good, and although I wouldn’t unhesitatingly recommend it, I certainly wouldn’t warn you off it. But I am enjoying The Phantom of the Opera more than I’ve ever enjoyed a book, and that’s not because it’s very good (it isn’t).

Peace by peace

As I may have mentioned here before, I am reading War and Peace. I’ve been reading it since the start of December, when I loftily and optimistically expected to be finished by the new year. As of this morning, I am 1,155 pages in with 289 to go, so I’m well in sight of the finishing line, relatively speaking, but I still don’t quite believe I’m ever going to get there.

Part of the problem is that the physical thing itself is so large that my reading locations are limited. I lug it to and from work every day and read it on the tube, but I can’t read it in bed – which is where I get most of my reading done – because I have a habit of dropping my book on my face when I fall asleep, and doing that with W&P would result in severe facial injuries (or at the very least a nasty shock).

Another distraction is the pile of mystery books I was given last week: I am currently also in the middle of The Penguin Book of Gaslight Crime, which is as much fun as it sounds, and once I’m finished with that I’ve got an anthology of detective stories to read, as well as Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks. All of these books draw me in and keep me breathlessly bound to them in a way that War and Peace is not doing, though I admit that the fault may lie with me rather than with Leo. I am so used to reading stories with a mystery that must be solved that I keep waiting for something to happen, some sort of denoumenent or revelation; and I can’t help feeling that all that will happen is that various people will get married and some of them will die, and it all will be a bit like real life, only…longer.

My sister recently emailed from somewhere on the Red Sea and said she’d given up on her current book because, in her words, “I was quite enjoying it, but all the characters had the same name and it always returned to describing war tactics”. Although she happened to be talking about One Hundred Years of Solitude, this is more or less exactly how I feel about War and Peace. I’m going to plough grimly on to the end, however, and will let you know if I experience a sudden change of heart, or if I find out whodunnit.

Book Crossing

An exciting start to the new year: today I found my first Book Crossing book. I had heard about the scheme (whereby, in case you don’t know, members read books, attach labels to them saying “please read this book and pass it on”, and then leave them in a public place to be found by someone else), but never seen it in action.

My first thought, on seeing a copy of Kate Atkinson’s Emotionally Weird left on the tube at Brixton, was to look for whoever had left it there and give it back, but once it became clear nobody was going to claim it I opened it up and found the Book Crossing sticker. As well as explaining the way the scheme works, the sticker displays a reference number unique to that copy, and you can go online and report where you found it and what you’re going to do with it next, which I have just done. I’ve been giving unwanted or unwieldy books away to the local charity shop, but I think this is much more fun.

I was also quite pleased that it was Kate Atkinson, because when I worked at a bookshop I had two colleagues who used to rave about her, and I could never quite bring myself to be bothered to read her. This feels like the right time to do it, although she will have to slot into the gaps in War and Peace – of which there are plenty, because W&P is too big to be read in bed. Since I started reading it in early December I have got halfway through it, but have also started and finished four other books. It actually works very well to read something big and important during the day and something small and silly at night, although my most recent bedtime book was Julian Barnes’ Nothing To Be Frightened Of, which is many things (very good, mainly) but which is certainly not small or silly.

Now I must send off for a sheet stickers and release some books of my own into the wild. If in the future you ever discover a Book Crossing book registered by “EllseeM” (I know: elsiem was already taken and I panicked), it’s one of mine.