#7 War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy - War and Peace - first edition, 1869.jpg

If we were looking to crown One Classic to Rule Them All—the ultimate, quintessential, indisputable classic that comes to mind whenever we hear the word—War and Peace (1865–1867) would be a reasonable candidate. Classics don’t come much bigger, broader, bolder, or better than Tolstoy’s masterpiece of realism. It tops British readers’ literary wish lists and spawns relentless adaptations. It’s about literally everything. And it’s hailed, time and time again, as one of the Greatest Books of All Time.

Which is exactly why I’m here.

Tolstoy insisted that War and Peace

is not a novel, still less an epic poem, still less a historical chronicle.

But the latter comes, in many ways, closest to reality. Tolstoy wrote his 600 characters against the backdrop of the French invasion of Russia in the early 1800s. And, according to Shmoop,

Tolstoy’s research didn’t just involve reading some history books and calling it a day. No, he dove into the archives, getting his hands on actual letters sent by Napoleon and the Russian and French generals and figuring out the personalities involved from the way they wrote about their activities. Even more impressive, he traveled to the actual battlefields, compass and surveying tools in hand, to map out for himself where the troops were stationed and how they attacked and defended.

War and Peace, then, was Tolstoy’s attempt to rewrite history—and, hopefully, correct it. In his mind, history was a product of diverse forces across time and place, from the greatest general and the most decisive battle to the smallest, most “insignificant” contextual detail. People don’t make history; history makes history. What came before determines what comes after.

But Tolstoy’s version of the Napoleonic era is more than a little subjective, with more than a few fictional events and characters. The main cast is made up of:

  • Pierre Bezukhov, a socially inept party-boy-turned-heir-turned-Freemason-turned-politician-turned-prisoner who acts as a stand-in for Tolstoy himself
  • Natasha Rostov, an “enchanting” teenager-turned-fiancée-turned-adulteress-turned-wife-and-mother whose selfish streak shifts into a self-effacing one
  • Andrei Bolkonsky, an intellectually-minded soldier and father who almost marries Natasha despite being twice her age
  • Nikolai Rostov, brother to Natasha, soldier for Russia, and gambling disaster with a scalding temper
  • Marya Bolkonsky, Andrei’s sister, and frequent bully victim of her father and her circumstances
  • Hélène Kuragin, Pierre’s beautiful wife, who may or may not be an idiot but is definitely unfaithful

With an omniscient third-person narrator at the wheel, perspective turns on a dime. And while Tolstoy can be seen and felt in the philosophy of War and Peace, he is startlingly neutral in his character depictions. These are people who aren’t always likable, who make mistakes both large and small, and who often act without explanation. It’s disorienting, in my experience. But it’s equally intriguing, on a good day.

War and Peace is best known, of course, for its size. The edition I read was 1,215 pages. If we could make one collective request of Tolstoy, we’d probably ask him to get to the point a little bit quicker—and he probably could. In what outrageous literary universe does an author need a two-part epilogue? One is usually bad enough. Two is perverse and sadistic, if you’re a) me, and b) 99 books in to The 100 Greatest Books Challenge.

Excess and all, War and Peace is an extraordinary achievement, and it’s easy to see why it has stood the test of time. But if I’m being totally honest (and what else is this blog for), I preferred Anna Karenina. I preferred many books on The List, actually, to the illustrious War and Peace. I would go so far as to say I’m a little disappointed by it. If War and Peace is a panorama, then I prefer a close-up. If it’s a boundless, restless ocean, then I prefer a bath tub. And if Tolstoy asks me ever again to sit back, relax, and admire the glaze on the world’s tastiest doughnut, I’ll tell him No: I’d rather sink my teeth in.

Because that’s where things start to get really good.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time? 

War and Peace is Great with a capital G, but I didn’t Love it with a capital L.

Favorite Quotes:

War isn’t courtesy, it’s the vilest thing in the world, and we must understand that and not play at war. We must take this terrible necessity sternly and seriously. That’s the whole point: to cast off the lie, and if it’s war it’s war, and not a game. As it is, war is the favorite pastime of idle and light-minded people.

In captivity, in the shed, Pierre had learned, not with his mind, but with his whole being, his life, that man is created for happiness, that happiness is within him, in the satisfying of natural human needs, and that all unhappiness comes not from lack, but from superfluity.

I’ve noticed that being an interesting person is very convenient (I’m an interesting person now); people invite me and tell me about myself.

Pierre’s insanity consisted in the fact that he did not wait, as before, for personal reasons, which he called people’s merits, in order to love them, but love overflowed his heart, and, loving people without reason, he discovered the unquestionable reasons for which it was worth loving them.

Read: 2017

#12 Middlemarch, George Eliot

Middlemarch_1

Middlemarch is a book about marriage.

But this is no story of marital kamikaze (à la Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary), nor is it the script for a “Love Conquers All” press conference penned by Romance’s PR team (à la The Time Traveler’s Wife, or anything by Nicholas Sparks).

Middlemarch is a realistic book about marriage—and it should be, as part of the “literary realism” movement of the 18th and 19th centuries. The marriages of Middlemarch are turbulent, naïve, and ever-evolving. After all, none of us really know what we’re signing on for when we commit to a lifetime with another person, other than a lot of ups and downs, eternal toothpaste woes, and the occasional Christmas gift dud.

Lydgate lives outside his means to please Rosamond. Dorothea discovers that Casaubon’s intelligence is a double-edged sword. Fred makes mistakes and works to earn Mary’s respect instead of taking it for granted. It all feels familiar, yet—because it’s happening to other people—intriguing. Maybe it’s the gossip inside all of us that takes George Eliot’s bait.

Eliot's grave in Highgate Cemetery, London

Eliot’s grave in Highgate Cemetery, London

Marriage is a funny thing, especially in literature. In the classics, of course, social mores often prohibit divorce. So you, as the reader, spend a lot of time hoping lackluster/inattentive/dumb/abusive spouses will conveniently die so that the hero/heroine ends up with the “right” partner. This is definitely the case in Middlemarch when it comes to Dorothea and Casaubon—Dorothea being a human utopia, and Casaubon being a fusty intellectual elitist. The shiniest moment amid Casaubon’s prevailing dullness was his love letter to Dorothea—a love letter to her mind instead of her beauty:

…Our conversations have, I think, made sufficiently clear to you the tenor of my life and purposes: a tenor unsuited, I am aware, to the commoner order of minds. But I have discerned in you an elevation of thought and a capability of devotedness, which I had hitherto not conceived to be compatible either with the early bloom of youth or with those graces of sex that may be said at once to win and to confer distinction when combined, as they notably are in you, with the mental qualities above indicated. It was, I confess, beyond my hope to meet with this rare combination of elements both solid and attractive, adapted to supply aid in graver labors and to cast a charm over vacant hours.

But even this crosses a line we don’t see until we’re far beyond it. As it turns out, most happy marriages don’t involve the kind of teacher-pupil/boss-employee role playing Casaubon and Dorothea eagerly engage in. (Eagerly at first, that is.)

Middlemarch is also a book about religion, politics, education, gender, and the consequences of choice. It is broader than it is deep—a sweeping panorama of provincial life in 19th-century England—and it excels exactly as intended, in its quietly profound study of the mundane. In Middlemarch, a novel intent on depicting reality, the worst crime a person can commit is self-delusion. And while it may have its slow moments, Eliot’s masterpiece is remarkably interesting for all its preoccupation with the ordinary.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

Virginia Woolf famously called it “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” It was selected by C. S. Lewis and Julian Barnes as the greatest English novel of all time. None of this would stop me from hating it, but I didn’t hate it—not at all. As classics go, it’s easily among my Top 20.

Favorite Quotes:

“He has got no good red blood in his body,” said Sir James.
“No. Somebody put a drop under a magnifying-glass, and it was all semicolons and parentheses,” said Mrs. Cadwallader.

Though he “did” his classics and mathematics, he was not pre-eminent in them. It was said of him, that Lydgate could do anything he liked, but he had certainly not yet liked to do anything remarkable.

She seated herself on a dark ottoman with the brown books behind her, looking in her plain dress of some thin woollen-white material, without a single ornament on her besides her wedding-ring, as if she were under a vow to be different from all other women.

For years after Lydgate remembered the impression produced in him by this involuntary appeal—this cry from soul to soul, without other consciousness than their moving with kindred natures in the same embroiled medium, the same troublous fitfully-illuminated life.

It had already occurred to him that books were stuff, and that life was stupid.

Read: 2013

#87 Rabbit, Run, John Updike

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So far, I have not hated any book on The List as much as I hated Rabbit, Run. Runners up include The Grapes of Wrath and Things Fall Apart—but even they fell short of provoking the kind of thorough and profound hatred I feel for this unintentional horror story.

Here’s a sneak peek at John Updike’s most famous novel, featuring Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom in the role of Dude. It’s filled with spoilers, which should save you the trouble of actually reading the book:

  • Dude quits his pregnant wife, Janice, and two-year-old son, for the same reason he quits smoking: just because he felt like it.
  • Dude tries to cope with the fact that he peaked in high school as the star of the basketball team.
  • Dude solicits sometimes-prostitute/soon-to-be-girlfriend Ruth and whines about using contraception.
  • Dude spends Ruth’s money.
  • Dude hits on minister’s wife.
  • Dude interrogates Ruth about her sexual history and, upon discovering she once gave an ex-boyfriend a blow job, demands one for himself.
  • Dude leaves Ruth (now also pregnant) and goes back to his wife, just in time for her to give birth.
  • Dude tries to ply Janice, a former alcoholic, with whisky so that she’ll sleep with him.
  • When she doesn’t—mostly because she just had an episiotomy, gave birth, and put up with Dude’s abandonment—Dude gets mad and leaves.
  • Janice starts drinking, hits their two-year-old, and accidentally drowns their infant.
  • FINALLY feeling some remorse does not stop Dude from loudly accusing his wife of murdering their baby at the burial service.
  • Dude goes back to Ruth, who threatens to get an abortion if he doesn’t divorce Janice and marry her instead.
  • Dude agrees, then walks out “to the deli”… and breaks into a run.

Most of my animosity probably stems from finding this entire plot personally offensive, but even that could be saved by exceptionally beautiful writing. The Great Gatsby is a gorgeous book about marital infidelity. So is Anna Karenina. The Golden Notebook shares several perverse themes with Rabbit, Run, as well as its bleak perspective—but I loved reading it. Dean Moriarty in On the Road walks out on multiple families and still manages to be a sympathetic character.

But for me, Updike’s style was no redemption. I am not one of those critics who will recognize his exhaustive genius just before I delicately call his more troublesome themes into question. I hated his writing style on top of hating everything else.

I didn’t even get the impression that he tried to write a good book—not even once, not at any turn of this inane plot line. But hey, if you like over-the-top descriptive language, tedious interior monologues, and zero character development, Updike might be just your size.

Maybe I’m conflating writing about a character like Rabbit with glorifying a character like Rabbit. Maybe I’m annoyed that Updike received near-unanimous praise for his work (Updike won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction twice—one of only three authors ever to do so—for his 1982 and 1990 Rabbit, Run sequels), while writers like Jane Austen and Zora Neale Hurston were and still are frequently dismissed. Maybe I’m vexed at being given one predominant perspective on Rabbit (his own), and it being a subhuman one. Because surely he is not quite human, this “realist” character creation of Updike’s tepid imagination?

For the record, I enjoy realist work and support Updike’s intention to “give the mundane its beautiful due.” What bothers me, then, perhaps, is the idea that a character as reprehensible as Rabbit Angstrom is realistic. (Homer Simpson, for his part, is at least satirical.) I give men, and people in general, more credit than Updike does. I believe men can feel compassion and empathy and guilt. I believe their motivations lie, sometimes, outside of self-interest. I believe they’re not pathetic, childish tantrum-throwers. I believe that, somewhere in America’s suburbs, there live men who don’t rely on their own blissful ignorance to be “let off the hook” of life.

I don’t expect every author to share my values or my point of view, but I reserve the right to hate his book if it violates my own personhood. I read Rabbit, Run as quickly as possible, because every passage left me fuming. There has been a mere 48-hour span between finishing the book and posting this review (a new record, and then some; I’m usually, er, two years behind)—all because I never want to think about Updike, and the words that came out of his fingers, ever again.

Let’s get started, shall we?

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time? 

Rabbit, Run is the literary equivalent of a long, loud belch. And I, for one, would like to pretend it never happened.

Favorite Quotes:

NONE. NONE FAVORITE QUOTES.

Instead, let’s look at some of my least favorite quotes:

The ball wobbles up and with a glottal rattle bobbles in.

Ugh, it’s called EDITING, Updike.

Words come from this monumental Ruth in the same scale, as massive wheels rolling to the porches of his ears, as mute coins spinning in the light.

THIS IS DUMB.

His sea of seed buckles, and sobs into a still channel.

EW.

But it is just two lovers, holding hands and in a hurry to reach their car, their locked hands a starfish leaping through the dark.

NO.

Read: 2015