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.

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