Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Dear Tolstoy,

I had a commitment crisis. I bailed without say. I'm sorry.

I wish I could proclaim you to be the only person I've abandoned with no explanation. Alas, such words running from my lips would be a grave dishonesty. Though commitment is the one thing I long for most in life, it is the one thing I run away from at meteor speed. Today marks my re-commitment.

Devotedly yours (until the next commitment crisis),


Thursday, January 5, 2012

To be an honest man, he had to be a poet.

I began with the introduction. This is not my usual habit when reading a classic (it should be noted that every college professor preached the opposite). In the past I have left it for the end, romanticizing it as the key to summarizing my entire reading experience, being the glue that would secure all the fragmented ideas and plot theories into one sweeping literary landscape. Through the introduction I can assemble and put the author into the context. Fundamentally, I can read others' opinion before forming my own.

When purchasing War and Peace today, it was decided that I would start with the first three sections of Volume 1, Part 1. I didn't intend to read the introduction, written by translator Richard Pevear. It was a last minute renavigation that brought me to an even better destination, as all unforeseen changes do. It starts of as follows:

"War and Peace is the most famous and at the same time the most daunting of the Russian novels, as sad as Russia itself and as long to cross from one end to the other."

Fact. I am daunted by this new addition to my library. The spine is at least two-inches thick and the pages are light and sheer--women's hosiery light and sheer, and just as sexy. If tested by the scientific method, I wager that I could walk across Russia from its eastern most shore to it's western most shore in less time than it will take me to read this book.

"Yet if one makes the journey, the sights seen and the people met on the way mark one's life forever."

This is what I am counting on. If a sojourn in a foreign country can violently destruct my being only to reconstruct my persona into a more thoughtful, polished, and provocative female, twelve-hundred-and-fifteen pages of Tolstoy will be sure to alter my world view in some significant form.

"[War and Peace] is a work full of provocation and irony, and written in Tolstoy's signature style, with broad and elaborately developed rhetorical devices--periodic structure, emphatic receptions, epic similes... an account of all that is most real and ordinary in life, all that is most fragile and therefore most precious, all that eludes formulations, that is not subject to absolute pronouncements, that is so mercurial that it can hardly be reflected upon, and can be grasped only by a rare quality of attention and self-effacement."

This is why introductions should be read first: they warn you in a very mater-of-fact tone that can easily be interpreted as "enter at your own risk."

Pevear moves on to a brief overview of Tolstoy's life, War and Peace's plot and its historical context, and ends with his own theory on translations and the translation of War and Peace, in which Tolstoy uses French and German for his character dialogues--adding a certain je ne sais quoi to the translating experience. He talks of the death of Tolstoy's brother, which was "the strongest impression in [his] life." This quote resonated with me on so many levels, for obvious reasons and the sheltered ones. Peaver quotes other Tolstoy scholars and includes excerpts from their works. A favorite borrowed idea being that of Tolstoy's passion for creative contemplation, which is a disease I am willingly diagnosing myself with.

This creative contemplation of Tolstoy's is articulate in his writing. His form jumps from historical to fictional, from narrative to philosophical. "War and Peace," writes Peavear, " is a work of art, and if succeeds, it cannot be in spire of its formal deficiencies, but only because Tolstoy created a new form that was adequate to his vision." The first readers of War and Peace did not understand the form, the creative contemplation that found its place in the world through his writing. However, for modern scholars and critics, it appears to be his draw: his ability to take his observations and articulate them creatively, while truthfully capturing the fragile and ordinary limits of being a human being misplaced in civilized society. (I know, 7 hours into this relationship and I'm already a full-fledged, devoted, preaching believer.)

Quoting Pascal, "a poet cannot be an honest man." Tolstoy inverted this and strives to be, "an honest man, not a poet." But as Pevear points out, "against his will, he found that to be an honest man, he had to be a poet."

Volume 1, Part 1, Sections 1 - 3:

War and Peace begins with a paragraph in french. Mon coeur! The first protagonist introduced is Anna Pavlovna Schere, an old, wealthy woman who Tolstoy refers to as a "maid," though, she is hardly a maid in the sense of keeping house and scrubbing the layer of film that builds at the top of a toilet bowl; she is an older, unmarried, woman, who is hosting a party. The topics of conversation are politics, power, and beauty. (Not much has changed at cocktail parties since 19th century Russia). There is an idleness to Tolstoy's Anna, she is a woman of much word and thought but very little action.

"How can one be well when ones suffers morally? Is it possible to remain at ease in our times, if one has any feelings?"

Anna asks this of a guest, Prince Vassily, whose seems have a very high opinion of himself, and a very low opinion of everything and everyone that is not him. Having had such conversations recently (with unevolved self-centered beings like Vassily), it seems that morality is not only in constant correspondence with society and civilization, but that the two, though eternally linked, are never in agreement with one another. There is a timeless conflict with moral compasses that are guided by the magnetic pulls of government and society.

The last line of section three is the following,

"Nothing is so necessary for a young man as the company of intelligent women."

This is coming from Prince Vassily, a man who's ego was bruised and disappointed by not being appointed to a higher, social and political rank. I read this line with arrogance in tone (based on a small amount of character development), but it appears that Tolstoy was speaking a truth here, which brings me back to an idea that Pevear spoke of in the introduction: all of Tolstoy's fictional characters are real, true portrayals of individuals, and the historical characters are dishonest portrayals of real men. Perhaps comments made in jest by Tolstoy's characters are really the sporadic bursts of universal truths from dishonest and snarky people.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Seldom did art work so much like nature.

As an aspiring artist and well-read human being I have decided to dedicate my 2012 year to Tolstoy. By December 31, 2012 I will have read War and Peace, Anna Karenia, and—hopefully—The Death of Ivan Ilyich (I don’t want to get too overzealous and set myself up for failure and/or disappointment). I will have blogged my way through them all, and I will learn as much about Tolstoy as possible.

Prior to December 26, 2011 I knew nothing of Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy other than the colloquial pertaining to War and Peace and Anna Karenia—two novels I assumed were over rated and over loaded with the heavy melancholy of 19th century Russia. As of today, January 4, 2012 I know little more; however, my admiration for him is multiplying at viral rate.

Before the reading begins, I thought it best to give myself a rudimentary introduction to Tolstoy. I started with a google search and ended with Wikipedia (I’m a millennium after all).

To my delight, Tolstoy is loved by my authorial lovers: James Joyce; Virginia Woolf; Fyodor Dostoyevsky; Gustave Flaubert; and Marcel Proust. I fantasize about all of us gathering with Mr. Tolstoy (I don’t know him well enough, yet, to call him Leo). The room is being illuminated by oil lamps while crackling, burning wood adds a shadowed effect to the walls and hearth, cigarettes are puffing clouds of indulgence through the air, open bottles of Beaune’s finest are carelessly lounging on all flat surfaces, and each guest takes a turn reading a selection of work with frequent interruptions of witty commentary and sarcastic jokes. Fyodor eventually is overloaded with aggression from all of Flaubert’s radical, honest, and violently simple state-of-the union proclamations. Mr. Tolstoy defends Fyodor’s aggression and they pirate the conversation with weapons of lived experiences from the front lines of battle. Fyodor digresses toward the melancholy of exile. Virginia decrees that all women live in exile as she coyly gives me a wink; I add that all women are in exile because we are only seen as whores and mothers—whores with golden hearts and mothers with tainted hysteria. Proust then reminds all of us to take a step back and consider the landscape.

What I’ve learned of Tolstoy & His Work

  • After traveling to Paris and witnessing a public execution he wrote, “The truth is that the State is a conspiracy designed not only to exploit, but above all to corrupt its citizens... Henceforth, I shall never serve any government anywhere.”

  • Tolstoy is known for his “complicated and paradoxical persona and for his extreme moralistic and ascetic views, which he adopted after a moral crisis and spiritual awakening in the 1870s, after which he also became noted as a moral thinker and social reformer.”

  • War and Peace is generally thought to be one of the greatest novels ever written, remarkable for its dramatic breadth of unity.”

  • “His literal interpretation of the ethical teachings of Jesus, centering on the Sermon on the Mount, caused him in later life to become a fervent Christian anarchist and anarcho-pacifist. His ideas on nonviolent resistance were to have a profound impact on such pivotal twentieth-century figures as Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.”

  • Of Tolstoy’s work, Thomas Mann, twentieth-century German novelist, wrote: Seldom did art work so much like nature.

Today is the beginning. I have purchased my copy of War and Peace, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. It is paperback; heavy. The cover is Tiffany blue with serif fonts and ornamental scrolls. Part one, Volume one, is 99 pages long with 25 sections. The anticipation to sitting down and reading is consuming.

2012 will forever be known as my year with Tolstoy. I will be courting him for the next 361 days. We'll have date nights; dinner nights; Saturday afternoon tea, and we might even end our relationship with a viewing of the 1956 feature film War and Peace.