Posted in Fiction

Family Happiness by Leo Tolstoy

For Father’s Day, I received several novellas by Leo Tolstoy and Henry James so I’ll probably be reading them here and there over the next few months.  Tolstoy’s Family Happiness is the first one I’ve read.  I admit that I didn’t like this story as well as some of Tolstoy’s other short works or his not-so-short War and Peace, but it does have a certain charm and appeal.

Leo Tolstoy

There is an idea that a marriage starts out with a romantic, warm fuzzy kind of love that ultimately goes deeper when the couple really gets to know each other.  This concept can just as easily be applied in a slight variation to any kind relationship such as friendship or family.  Tolstoy chooses to illustrate this concept with the marriage of Marya and Sergey.  At first, they live on Sergey’s family farm with the Russian countryside seeming to compliment there ideal love for each other.  However, after a while, Marya starts to dream of the city and they’re off to St. Petersburg.  While she becomes the “belle of the ball” in the high society of the city, Sergey fades into the background.  This is where the real “getting to know each other” starts.

Marya and Sergey are decent characters for the story; however, I would have to say that Tolstoy’s marriage “idea” takes center stage and is a more developed character to the story than the couple.  His description of the rolling hills of the Russian farm captured my attention more than the marriage.

Another interesting fact to note:  according to the “About the Author” foreword in my edition, in 1910, at the age of 82, Tolstoy abandoned his wife to live somewhere else.  He became sick and died at the train station.  A good biography of Tolstoy might be worth reading someday.

Posted in Fiction

War and Peace: DONE!

Taking longer than I anticipated, I finished Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace last night.  I have to admit that I feel very relieved to have finally finished it.  The conflict between the temptation to give up and the pressure to keep going became intense toward the end.  The following from page 1217 seemed appropriate to my situation (as well as the situations faced by the characters in the novel):

To be able to walk hundreds of miles a man must believe that something good awaits him at the end of those hundreds of miles.  He needs the prospect of a promised land to give him the strength to keep on.

I guess my “promised land” is the accomplishment of a goal.  I would recommend the novel to anyone with the caveat that they plan on taking their time.  While the novel is worthy of the time I spent reading, it probably won’t make it to my All-Time Favorites list.  The five principal characters of the story,  Pierre Bezuhov, Nicholas Rostov, Natasha Rostov, Andrei Bolkonsky and Maria Bolkonsky, all fascinated me from time to time; however, I didn’t find myself attached to any of them.  Pierre Bezuhov’s quest for meaning in life and the triumphs and disappointments that he encounters along the way probably came closest to resonating with me.

I found it interesting that the novel ended much the way it began – with Russian aristocracy discussing life and politics with all of the disagreements that go along with that.  The only difference is that the adults at the end were the kids at the beginning.

Throughout the novel, Tolstoy throws in his own scholarly thoughts regarding history, philosophy, religion and the human condition in general.  In spite of the temptation to skip these parts and get back to the story, I found that they tied in well with the fictional narrative.  Tolstoy’s ability to jump back and forth between these two different writing styles without making it jarring stands as a testament to his genius and the status of War and Peace as a classic.

Here are my other posts on this novel:

War and Peace: The first 54 pages

War and Peace: Book 1

War and Peace: Book 2

War and Peace: Book 3

Posted in Fiction

War and Peace: Book 3

I almost lost it in Book 3 of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace – the momentum I had in reading it.  I still like it well enough – it’s just that I keep seeing so many other books I want to read.  And War and Peace is just so long.  I’m managing, though.  I am going to have to scramble if I want to get it read by the end of the year.

“War” takes presedence in Book 3.  We get a first-hand view of The Battle of Borodino while all the various love interests continue to take their twists and turns.  In portraying war, Tolstoy makes several analogies to the game of chess.  He’s probably not the first person, nor the last, to make this analogy; however, he does it so well:

A good chess player who has lost a game is genuinely convinced that his failure resulted from a false move on his part, and tries to see the mistake he made at the beginning of the game, forgetting that at each stage of play there were similar blunders, so that no single move was perfect.  The mistake on which he concentrates attention attracts his notice simply because his opponent took advantage of it.  How much more complex is the game of war, which must be played within certain limits of time and where it is a question not of one will manipulating inanimate objects but of something resulting from the innumerable collisions of diverse wills!

Later on, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky contrasts chess and war:

…in chess you may think over each move as long as you please, taking your time, and with this further difference that a knight is always stronger than a pawn and two pawns are always stronger than one, while in war a battalion is sometimes stronger than a division and sometimes weaker than a company.  The relative strength of opposing armies can never be predicted.

Throughout the novel, many conversations take place about Napoleon Bonaparte as a man and as a leader.  On occasion, in some relatively short narratives, Napoleon actually becomes a character, himself, instead of someone who is simply discussed.  He seems to appear like a ghost out of the woods and start talking.   I find it interesting when authors make historical figures into fictional characters.  Tolstoy’s ability to make Napoleon apparate into a character in the story gives Bonaparte an awe-inspired creepiness.

Let’s see if I can tackle the rest of this novel before December 31?

Posted in Fiction

Classic Intimidation

For November, the monthly meme at The Classics Club asks the question:  What classic book most intimidates you?  Tolstoy’s War and Peace immediately comes to mind.  I have a feeling many readers find this novel intimidating simply because of its length.  I might actually use this novel to answer the question if it wasn’t for the fact that I’m currently half way through reading it – and I’m completely confident that I will finish it.  I’m guessing I won’t finish it until December, but I will finish it.

So what other classic work of literature intimidates me?  I’ll pick William Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury.  During my senior year in high school, my English class read Faulkner’s Light in August.  I enjoyed the novel enough to try reading more Faulkner and The Sound and the Fury popped up on my radar.  I don’t remember how far I got into it, but I could not make heads or tails out of it.   I’ve never been afraid of working at reading a book and usually a little extra effort pays off in an enjoyable reading experience; however, this Faulkner novel never got finished.  The disjointed, stream of consciousness, lack of chronological order narrative just proved too much for me.

It’s been a little while since high school and I’ve developed some as a reader, but giving The Sound and The Fury another go just isn’t on my agenda – but never say never.  I never thought I’d be reading War and Peace and enjoying it as much as I am.

Posted in Fiction

War and Peace: Book 2

The second book of Tolstoy’s War and Peace brings me to page 714 – just about half way through.  While Book 1 only spanned six months, Book 2 takes place over the course of six years.  “War” takes a back seat in Book 2.

(A painting of the Battle of Borodino – this hasn’t taken place in the novel, but I have a feeling it will).

The word “panorama” comes to my mind while I’m reading this novel.  I looked up that word and found it to mean “a continuously passing or changing scene or an unfolding of events”.  That’s a pretty apt description of War and Peace in relation to early 19th century Russian life.  As for a plot, only small story lines weave back and forth between many characters; however, the smaller scenes give the mammoth novel a quaint aspect. Perhaps that is the genius of the novel: so far it’s both “panoramic” and “quaint” at the same time.

Two scenes in Book 2 will remain memorable to me when I think of literature in general, both of them involving the young Countess Natasha Rostov.  After tagging along with her brother, Nicholai, and her cousin, Sonya, on a winter wolf hunting expedition with their Uncle, they end up warming up in a cabin listening to their Uncle play the balalaika – a triangular Russian guitar (see picture below).  Natasha dances an impromptu folk-dance for the hunters and her Uncle’s housekeeper that took the breath away of all who were watching:

Her performance was so perfect, so absolutely perfect, that Anisya  Fiodorovna [the housekeeper], who had at once handed her the kerchief she needed for the dance, had tears in her eyes, though she laughed as she watched the slender, graceful countess, reared in silks and velvets, in another world than hers, who was yet able to understand all that was in Anisya’s father and mother and aunt, and in every Russian man and woman.

Another scene takes place while the Rostov’s visit Moscow and attend an opera.  Tolstoy writes this scene by brilliantly and humorously alternating between Natasha’s observance of the opera, which she finds boring and a little ridiculous, and her realization that she is turning the heads of the young men in the audience, particularly Anatole Kuragin – a “scoundrel” by everyone’s admission, even his friends.

Count Pierre Bezuhov runs from his bad marriage to Helene Kuragin into a spiritual journey within Freemasonry.  Throughout Book 2, Pierre’s journey takes the form of a struggle between helping the poor and socializing with the rich, “enlightened” members of his circles.  At the end of Book 2, Pierre has become enamored with Natasha and drives away from her in a carriage under a starlit night sky.  As he looks at the sky, he sees what is probably a once-in-a-lifetime event:

Almost in the centre of this sky, above the Prichistensky boulevard, surrounded and convoyed on every side by stars but distinguished from them all by its nearness to the earth, its white light and its long uplifted tail, shone the huge, brilliant comet of the  year 1812 – the comet which was said to portend all manner of horrors and the end of the world.

I found this to be a fascinating way to end Book 2.  Having been published one at a time, I think I would be “chomping at the bit” for the next one to be published.  I wonder how long they had to wait in the 1870’s?

(A picture of balalaika)

Posted in Fiction

War and Peace: Book 1

I’ve completed Book 1 of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace which takes me to page 344, not quite one fourth of the way through the book.

I’m experiencing what I would call a minor phenomenon that I’ve experienced before in a few other books – books that have numerous characters and story lines woven together.  When I attempt to make a concerted effort to keep all the characters and stories straight, I get frustrated; however, when I kick back and just soak it all in, the characters and the stories eventually fall into place.  That’s what’s been happening from my perspective in the first book with the Rostovs, Kuragins and Bolkonskys along with their friends and enemies.  A number of years ago, a co-worker of mine bought J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy at a bookstore.  The clerk at the bookstore told her that The Lord of the Rings was War and Peace with elves.  I could reverse that and say War and Peace is The Lord of the Rings without elves (or hobbits or wizards).

Unlike The Lord of the Rings, however, a character or characters have not jumped out at me as a favorite.  Anatole Kuragin, Prince Vasili’s “wild child” probably comes the closest.  No favorite, though, does not correspond to no enjoyment.  From the conversations in the drawing rooms to the battlefield, the characters manage to quite brilliantly fascinate, intrigue and keep me engaged in the story.

The military storyline provides the most thought-provoking moments and the thoughts of the soldiers, from privates to commanding officers, depict a great paradox not only applicable to war but to life itself:

From general to private, every man was conscious of his own insignificance, aware that he was but a grain of sand in that ocean of humanity, and yet at the same time had a sense of power as a part of that vast whole.

The structure of the novel made me realize that television series were not the first to utilize what is known as a cliffhanger.  If the books of War and Peace were published separately, Book 1 would have left it’s original readers wondering about the marriage of Pierre Bezuhov to Prince Vasili’s daughter, Helene, and the rejection of Anatole by Prince Bolkonsky’s daughter, Maria.  Book 1 involves the bitter defeat of the Russian army by Napoleon’s forces, ending with one of the major characters suffering a life threatening wound as he is captured by the French army.  This character movingly faces his fate with these words:

Nothing, nothing is certain, except the unimportance of every thing within my comprehension and the grandeur of something incomprehensible but all-important.

Does he live or die?  I don’t know yet.  I’m looking forward to reading more to find out.

Posted in Fiction

War and Peace: The first 54 pages…

I started reading Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace yesterday.  It seems this book is synonymous with “big book”.  My edition has 1,442 pages; but when I think about it, several series over the last few years have significantly more pages than War and Peace.  I think of a certain kid’s series with a boy wizard that is at least twice as long.  In reading a little about War and Peace, I found out that the novel was originally published in serial format and the novel now is separated into four books, though they are together in one volume.

So far the story reminds me very much of Jane Austen’s writing.  The novel initially begins in 1805, right around the time that Jane Austen’s novels were published.  The characters attend quite a few parties and balls and discuss love, life, and politics.  Their conversations seem to be on a grander scale than the conversations in Austen’s novels, though.  Perhaps in part due to the continuous mention of Emperor Alexander I of Russia and Napoleon Bonaparte.

During the first gathering, the hostess, Anna Pavlovna, spends her time bouncing from one group of people to another making sure nobody is stepping on anyone’s toes with their political discussions.  I’ve been to parties like this.  At the (outloud) musings of Pierre Bezuhov regarding Napoleon (Pierre could be called “pro-Bonaparte”), one of his acquaintances tells him “My dear fellow, one can’t everywhere and at all times say all one thinks.”

So true, so true.  I think I’m going to enjoy this book.


Posted in Books in General

Top Ten Tuesday: Books on My Fall “To Be Read” List

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish.  This week’s topic is books on my fall “To Be Read” list.  I have to admit that I did a decent job of getting through my summer TBR list.  I only missed one:  Charles Dickens’ Bleak House.  Guess which one is first on my fall list?  I also have an abundance of authors from Indianapolis, IN, one of the handful of cities/towns I consider home.

1.)  Bleak House by Charles Dickens:  I was less than thrilled with Hard Times so I think I’m a little hesitant to get started on this one.  My copy has a great preface by Vladamir Nabokov, though!

2.)  Armageddon In Retrospect by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.:  I just started this one.  So far, it’s typical Vonnegut (an Indianapolis native) – very funny.  

3.)  The Fault In Our Stars by John Green:  Another YA novel that I’ve seen all over the blogosphere.  As he’s from Indianapolis, also, I thought I’d give him a try.

4.)  Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes:  A book I read as a kid that I’ve decided to re-read.  A nostalgia read-along is being hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

5.)  Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.: As mentioned previously, Vonnegut is an Indianapolis native.  I’m going to re-read this one in honor of Banned Book Week at the end of September.

6.)  Awaken Your Senses by J. Brent Bill and Beth A. Boorman:  Brent led a book group I attended when I lived in Indianapolis.  He has written several books about Quaker traditions that I’ve found fascinating.  I’m looking forward to reading his latest book.

7.)  The Death of Adam by Marilynne Robinson:  This is another book of Robinson’s essays of which I’ve found to be very thought-provoking.

8.)  War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

9.)  War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

10.)  War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy