Tag Archives: Tolstoy

Summer 2019: Reading and Reflections

Last year was the most difficult in my 20+ year teaching career.  I was burned out and exhausted by June and decided that, except for a quick trip to Boston, I wasn’t going to do any traveling over the summer.  In order to recharge and refocus I spent my time at home sitting in my garden which has a beautiful view and I alternated between reading, getting some sun, and swimming.

I began the summer by reading Virginia Woolf’s The Waves which I brought with me on my long weekend to Boston in late June.  Of all her books this one seems to get the least attention, but I enjoyed it, in a different way of course, as much as any of her other novels I’ve read.  One can see the beginnings of her stream-of-consciousness style for which she is so well-know.  The story is heart wrenching and tragic and not an easy read, but so worth the effort.  It’s not surprising, now that I look back on the summer, that I chose Horace’s Carpe Diem poem, Ode 2.11  to translate and spend some time with after reading The Waves:  “Why would you exhaust your soul making plans for the future, a soul that is not up to the task?”

After this I was in the mood for more Tolstoy, especially after I saw @levistahl post on Twitter that Hadji Murat was one of his favorite summer reads.  (Levi is great to follow, by the way,  if you like books, cats, dogs, baseball, 70’s movies and Columbo.)  Tolstoy is one of those authors whose writings I savor and am rationing the few remaining books of his I have left.  J.L. Carr’s novella, A Month in the Country was also on Levi’s list and I read the book and saw the film.  Carr’s story was the perfect book for the summer setting in my garden.

I spent all of July reading Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities I was so happy to connect with @genese_grill on Twitter who has translated Musil and who had wonderful insights into this enigmatic magnum opus.  (Genese is also great to follow on Twitter for books, literature and translation.)  The Man without Qualities, both Volumes I and II , were the most challenging books I have ever read.  I’ve seen them described as philosophical novels and the combination of Musil’s complex sentences and thought demanded my focus and concentration.  Reading Musil’s Diaries alongside the novels also provided valuable insights into some of the threads that run throughout his narrative.

My final summer reading was spent on the first three volumes of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.   On Friday night I finished Volume III, The Guermantes Way,  which felt like it ended on a sad note.  The narrator finally gains admittance into the Guermantes’ inner circle and, like many other things, is disappointed by what he finds.  The petty gossip and the shallowness of the characters he meets are sad and pathetic.  I’ve been thinking a lot about indifference, which word Proust uses continually throughout all three books in a variety of contexts.  If I can pull my thoughts together I might write something about this after I finish all six volume. Needless to say, this is one of the most intense, illuminating, pleasurable reads I’ve ever had.  It was a wonderful summer, indeed, and I feel refreshed and recharged and ready to inspire my new classes to appreciate an ancient language.  Wish me luck!

For the rest of this year I will be occupied with finishing Proust and would also like to finish Schmidt’s Lives of the Poets which I’ve gotten half way through.

(By the way, Henry, my black and white cat, who is quite annoyed that I’ve gone back to work, insisted on sticking his nose into my book photo.)

 

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Filed under British Literature, German Literature, In Search of Lost Time, New York Review of Books, Novella, Proust

Putting the Shaken House in its New Order: My Year in Reading-2018

There is no doubt that this was a tough year by any measure. The news, in my country and around the world. was depressing, scary and, at times, downright ridiculous. Personally, I had some very high highs and some very low lows. The summer was particularly hot and oppressive. And this semester was unusually demanding at work. More than any other year I can remember, I took solace and comfort by retreating into my books. I have listed here the books, essays and translations that kept me busy in 2018. War and Peace, Daniel Deronda, The Divine Comedy and Stach’s three volume biography of Kafka were particular favorites, but there really wasn’t a dud in this bunch.

Classic Fiction and Non-Fiction (20th Century or earlier):

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (trans. Louise and Alymer Maude)

The Bachelors by Adalbert Stifter (trans. David Bryer)

City Folk and Country Folk by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya (trans. Nora Seligman Favorov)

The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns

The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot

The Warden by Anthony Trollope

A Dead Rose by Aurora Caceres (trans. Laura Kanost)

Nothing but the Night by John Williams

G: A Novel by John Berger

Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles

Artemisia by Anna Banti (trans. Shirley D’Ardia Caracciolo)

The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark

Flesh by Brigid Brophy

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh

The Colour of Memory by Geoff Dyer

The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky (trans. by Ignat Avsey)

Daniel Deronda by George Eliot

Lyric Novella by Annmarie Schwarzenbach (trans. Lucy Renner Jones)

The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (trans. Allen Mandelbaum)

The Achilleid by Statius (trans. Stanley Lombardo)

The Life and Opinions of Zacharias Lichter by Matei Calinescu (trans. Adriana Calinescu and Breon Mitchell)

The Blue Octavo Notebooks by Franz Kafka (trans. Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins)

Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter by Simone de Beauvoir (trans. James Kirkup)

Journey into the Mind’s Eye: Fragments of an Autobiography by Lesley Blanch

String of Beginnings by Michael Hamburger

Theseus by André Gide (trans. John Russell)

Contemporary Fiction and Non-Fiction:

Kafka: The Early Years by Reiner Stach (trans. Shelley Frisch)

Kafka: The Decisive Years by Reiner Stach (trans. Shelley Frisch)

Kafka: The Years of Insight by Reiner Stach (trans. Shelley Frisch)

Villa Amalia by Pascal Quignard (trans. Chris Turner)

All the World’s Mornings by Pascal Quignard (trans. James Kirkup)

Requiem for Ernst Jundl by Friederike Mayröcker (trans. Roslyn Theobald)

Bergeners by Tomas Espedal (trans. James Anderson)

Kudos by Rachel Cusk

The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy

The Years by Annie Ernaux (trans. Alison L. Strayer)

He Held Radical Light by Christian Wiman

The Unspeakable Girl by Giorgio Agamben and Monica Ferrando (trans. Leland de la Durantaye)

The Adventure by Giorgio Agamben (trans. Lorenzo Chiesa)

Essays and Essay Collections:

Expectations by Jean-Luc Nancy

Errata by George Steiner

My Unwritten Books by George Steiner

The Poetry of Thought by George Steiner

A Handbook of Disappointed Fate by Anne Boyer

“Dante Now: The Gossip of Eternity” by George Steiner

“Conversation with Dante” by Osip Mandelstam

“George Washington”, “The Bookish Life,” and “On Being Well-Read” and “The Ideal of Culture” by Joseph Epstein

“On Not Knowing Greek,” “George Eliot,” “Russian Thinking” by Virginia Woolf

Poetry Collections:

The Selected Poems of Donald Hall

Exiles and Marriage: Poems by Donald Hall

H.D., Collected Poems

Elizabeth Jennings, Selected Poems and Timely Issues

Eavan Boland, New Selected Poems

Omar Carcares, Defense of the Idol

The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova

Analicia Sotelo, Virgin

Elizabeth Bishop, Poems, Prose and Letters (LOA Edition)

Michael Hamburger: A Reader, (Declan O’Driscoll, ed.)

I also dipped into quite a few collections of letters such as Kafka, Kierkegaard, Kleist, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, etc. that I won’t bother to list here. I enjoyed reading personal letters alongside an author’s fiction and/or biography.

My own Translations (Latin and Greek):

Vergil, Aeneid IV: Dido’s Suicide

Statius, Silvae IV: A Plea for Some Sleep

Horace Ode 1.5: Oh Gracilis Puer!

Horace, Ode 1.11: May You Strain Your Wine

Propertius 1.3: Entrusting One’s Sleep to Another

Seneca: A Selection from “The Trojan Women”

Heraclitus: Selected Fragments

Cristoforo Landino, Love is not Blind: A Renaissance Latin Love Elegy

As George Steiner writes in his essay Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: “Great works of art pass through us like storm-winds, flinging open the doors of perception, pressing upon the architecture of our beliefs with their transforming powers. We seek to record their impact, to put our shaken house in its new order.” My reading patterns have most definitely changed and shifted this year. I am no longer satisfied to read a single book by an author and move on. I feel the need to become completely absorbed by an author’s works in addition to whatever other sources are available (letters, essays, biography, autobiography, etc.) Instead of just one book at a time, I immerse myself in what feels more like reading projects. I am also drawn to classics, especially “loose, baggy monsters” and have read very little contemporary authors this year. I image that this pattern will continue into 2019.

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Filed under Autobiography, British Literature, French Literature, German Literature, Italian Literature, Kafka, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Nonfiction, Novella, Poetry, Russian Literature, Tolstoi, Virginia Woolf

The Sum of These Infinitesimals: Some Concluding Thoughts about War and Peace

At the beginning of Book Three of War and Peace, Tolstoy writes about the laws of historical movement: “Only by taking an infinitesimally small unit for observation (the differential of history, that is, the individual tendencies of men) and attaining to the art of integrating them (that is, finding the sum of these infinitesimals) can we hope to arrive at the laws of history.”  Throughout his many commentaries on history in War and Peace, the author rejects the idea that it was a single great man, like Napoleon or Alexander I, that caused the French invasion of Russia and the army’s resulting destruction.  The entire second epilogue, for instance,  is dedicated to Tolstoy’s thoughts on the study of history as he explores concepts like liberty, grandeur, power and religion and how they come to bear on the examination of past events; it is a shame that many don’t read this section and that it is not included in certain editions of the English translations.  As I reflect on the work as a whole, two of Tolstoy’s themes keep coming to mind: war and love.  He examines both of these subjects on a grand scale but it is equally important for him to focus his text on the lives of individuals, getting down to the level of the “infinitesimals.”

The male protagonists in War and Peace, Prince Andrei, Nicholas Rostov, and Pierre, go through  significant transformations in their thinking about warfare after they experience it firsthand.  Early in the story, Prince Andrei and Nicholas both, as I discussed in a previous post, display a great deal of bravado and desire to go to war to attain fame and honor.  Their horrific experiences on the battlefield, however, cause both men to lose their naïve and callow views of battle.  They come to the realization that individual glory is not important but that they are part of a much larger and important whole.  But it’s really Pierre, a pampered and privileged count, whose view of life and war change most dramatically because of his experiences of watching men fight and die.   Pierre doesn’t join the army as a soldier like Andrei or Nicholas, but his desire to experience the events of a battlefield  and his ensuing hardships as a result of his curiosity force him to have a dramatic existential shift in his worldviews.  When placed under situations of extreme duress, Pierre shows himself to be a good, decent man and even a hero.

The most surprising theme for me that I encountered in War and Peace is that of love; one encounters examples of many different types of love throughout Tolstoy’s epic—romantic love, erotic love, conjugal love, patriotic love, familial love and even love of one’s enemy.  Due to traumatic events they suffer while serving in the Russian army, Prince Andrei and Nicholas also come to the conclusion that human connections and love are more important than anything in life, including glory.  (Achilles would have been horrified by both of them.)  Nicholas, when he meets the woman that he will eventually marry has an epiphany; even though she is rather plain, it is her gracious and beautiful soul that attracts him.   Prince Andrei becomes, I think, a softened and much more likeable character when he is overcome with love for a woman.  I was glad to see that, in the end, this woman (I don’t want to give her name away) grows to make herself worthy of his love.

The beginning parts of War and Peace are difficult to read because of Pierre’s confused notions of love.  He awkwardly speaks to his fiancée the  moment they become engaged, “‘Je vous amie‘! he said, remembering what has to be said at such moments: but his words felt so weak that he felt ashamed of himself.”  It is not so much love Pierre feels but lust.  In the epilogue of War and Peace, Tolstoy presents us with a very different Pierre who has settled into a tranquil and happy domestic life during his second marriage.  Tolstoy’s epic ends on a positive note for his characters as far as love is concerned but his view of conjugal love is realistic, attainable by anyone.  These final scenes are captivating and unexpected in their depiction of a couple engaging in mundane, everyday, family activities; Tolstoy provides a realistic view of love in which mutual kindness, a deep love and unconditional acceptance are attained.

I have that empty, restless feeling one has when one finishes a truly great book.  I am still not quite sure what reading I will settle into next; nothing seems to have captured my attention since I have completed Tolstoy’s masterpiece.

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Qualis Apes: Vergil, Tolstoy and Bees

Dido Building Carthage. J.M.W. Turner. 1815.

In Book I of Vergil’s Aeneid, when the epic hero lands in Carthage after surviving a violent storm at sea, he encounters the Queen, Dido, and its inhabitants in the midst of building their city.   Vergil uses one of his most famous similes to describe this communal activity in which the Carthaginians are engaging.  In Aeneid 1.430-436 Vergil writes(translation is my own):*

Just as work drives the bees under the sun
in early summer throughout the florid countryside
when the adults of the hive lead forth the young,
or when they store the liquid honey
and stuff the cells with sweet nectar.
Or when they receive the deliveries of those
arriving, or ward off, having formed a
phalanx, the drones—a lazy swarm—
from the hive; The work seethes and the
fragrant honey is redolent with thyme.

Building a city is a communal activity, and with this simile Vergil emphasizes that the sum is greater than its parts.  There is a feeling of hope and a bright future.  It’s also striking that, in addition to supervising the building of their hive, that the bees ward off danger and protect their home.

I have written in a previous post about Tolstoy’s Homeric influences, but as I was reading the last third of War and Peace, his elaborate similes and metaphors have struck me time and again as being rather Vergilian.   My suspicions were confirmed when Tolstoy uses an elaborate metaphor involving bees to describe the relinquishment and subsequent destruction of the Russians’ beloved “Mother Moscow.”  The inhabitants know that the French are marching towards their city and they would rather run away than submit to foreign rule.  Tolstoy uses the bees as an extended metaphor and completely and ingeniously inverts Vergil’s simile.  The city is destroyed, there is no hope for her, and instead of protecting their home, the inhabitants—from the governor to the upper classes to the peasants to the serfs—utterly abandon their home to the enemy. Tolstoy  writes about deserted Moscow:

In a queenless hive no life is left though to a superficial glance it seems as much alive as other hives.

The bees circle round a queenless hive in the hot beams of the midday sun as gaily as around the living hives; from a distance is smells of honey like the others, and bees fly in and out in the same way.  But one has only to observe that hive to realize that there is no longer any life in it.  The bees do not fly in the same way, the smell and the sound that meet the bee-keeper are not the same.  To the bee-keeper’s tap on the wall of the sick hive, instead of the former instant unanimous humming of tens of thousands of bees with their abdomens threateningly compressed, and producing by the rapid vibration of their wings an aerial living sound, the only reply is a disconnected buzzing from different parts of the deserted hive.  From the alighting-board, instead of the former spirituous fragrant smell of honey and venom, and the warm whiffs of crowded life, comes an odour of emptiness and decay mingling with the smell of honey.  There are no longer sentinels there sounding the alarm with their abdomens raised, and ready to die in defence of the hive.  There is no longer the measured quiet sound of throbbing activity, like the sound of boiling water, but diverse discordant sounds of disorder.

Napoleon in Burning Moscow. Adam Albrecht. 1841.

The metaphor goes on for the next page and a half in the Maude English translation.  Tolstoy portrays Napoleon standing on the Poklonny Hill outside Moscow with eager anticipation at his entry.  To him all things look normal, as they should be with a magnificent city,  but once he enters the gates he is bitterly disappointed to learn that Moscow is empty.  This place, without its people, is just a shell of its former self.  Tolstoy’s metaphor, I think, also has an underlying tone of hopelessness that foreshadows defeat not for the Russians but for Napoleon himself.  The author stresses the point in his narrative that the army’s dispersal throughout the deserted city and Napoleon’s extended stay in Moscow were contributing factors in the ultimate failure of the French army.  And finally, the bee metaphor is also apt for discussing Tolstoy’s theme of soldiers being individual yet important parts of an enormous whole which I also discussed in my previous post.

I will finish War and Peace in the next day or so.  I thought I would be immersed in this epic for a few months, but it has so captivated my attention that I am reading it every free moment I have and will finish much more quickly than planned.

*For the extra curious, here are the lines of the Aeneid I translated above in Latin:

Qualis apes aestate nova per florea rura               430
exercet sub sole labor, cum gentis adultos
educunt fetus, aut cum liquentia mella
stipant et dulci distendunt nectare cellas,
aut onera accipiunt venientum, aut agmine facto
ignavom fucos pecus a praesepibus arcent:               435
fervet opus, redolentque thymo fragrantia mella.

 

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Part of that Enormous Whole: Battle Scenes in War and Peace

A page from Tolstoy’s ninth draft of War and Peace. 1864.

The cinematic nature of Tolstoy’s scenes, especially those involving battle, has been widely noted.  His ability to give us an overall perspective of the war as a whole as well as up close and personal views of battle through the eyes of specific characters is astonishing.  A short paragraph inserted during the scenes of the battle of Austerlitz captures both of these perspectives: “Every general and every soldier was conscious of his own insignificance, aware of being but a drop in that ocean of men, and yet at the same time was conscious of his strength as a part of that enormous whole.”  I thought I would share a few examples of Tolstoy’s writing that have captivated me both for their literary brilliance as well as their display of raw emotion; Tolstoy consistently pans out wide and zooms in close to give us both a philosophical and a personal view of warfare.

In a passage describing the Russian army under Bagration’s command as it is about to fight the French in Austria Tolstoy writes:

A soldier on the march is hemmed in and borne along by his regiment as much as a sailor is by his ship.  However far he has walked, whatever strange, unknown, and dangerous places he reaches, just as a sailor is always surrounded by the same decks, masts, and rigging of his ship, so the soldier always has around him the same comrades, the same ranks, the same sergeant-major Ivan Mitrich, the came company dog Zhuchka, and the same commanders.  The sailor rarely cares to know the latitude  in which his ship is sailing, but of the day of battle—heaven knows how and whence—a stern note of which all are conscious sounds in the moral atmosphere of an army,, announcing the approach of something decisive and solemn, and awakening in men an unusual curiosity.  On the day of battle the soldiers excitedly try to get beyond the interests of their regiment, they listen intently, look about, and eagerly ask concerning what is going on around them.

Later on in the same battle, we get a view of the horror of warfare from the eyes of Prince Andrei who has suffered a terrible head wound:

On the Pratzen heights, where he had fallen with the flagstaff in his hand, lay Prince Andrei Bolkonsky bleeding profusely and unconsciously uttering a gentle, piteous and childlike moan.

Towards evening he ceased moaning and became quite still.  He did not know how long his unconsciousness lasted.  Suddenly he again felt that he was alive and suffering from a burning, lacerating pain in his head.

‘Where is it, that lofty sky that I did not know till now, but saw today?’ was his first thought.  ‘And I did not know this suffering either,’ he thought.  ‘Yes, I did not know anything, anything at all till now.  But where am I?’

And later in the novel when Count Rostov is fighting French dragoons, Tolstoy gives us a vision of the enemy’s humanity through the eyes of the Count:

Rostov reined in his horse, and his eyes sought his foe to see whom he had vanquished.  The French dragoon office was hopping with one foot on the ground, the other being caught in the stirrup.  His eyes, screwed up with fear as if he every moment expected another blow, gazed up at Rostov with shrinking terror.  His pale and mud-stained face—fair and young, with a dimple in the chin and light blue eyes—was not an enemy’s face at all suited to a battlefield, but a most ordinary, homelike face.

I have read 900 pages of the Maudes’ translation and am beginning to panic that there are only 400 pages left in the novel for me to read.  I am utterly engrossed in this epic and I don’t know what I shall read after this!

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