Off to Vote

Perspective on Politics

"Well, and so everything's falling apart.... Everybody sees that it can't go on like this. It's all too strained and bound to snap," Pierre said (as people have been saying as long as governments have existed, once they look attentively at any government whatsoever).

--Tolstoy, War and Peace

I finished War and Peace a couple of days ago, by the way. It's truly a great novel in every sense of the word. If you haven't read it and figured that you probably never would, reconsider. It's not a difficult read except in sheer length.


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The thing about that perspective, though, is that it was written before the Holocaust or the atomic bomb.

That's a good point. Sometimes things really do fall apart in big ways. More often, though, we think they're falling apart when they're not. Or maybe it's more accurate to say that almost-falling-apart is normal.

Congratulations on finishing this great book! I read it in the months before I was married -- a last gasp of bachelorhood -- and there is a distinct possibility I'll not read it again until my children are grown! That's how it seems now, at any rate.

I hope you'll find time to write a few thoughts about the book. I wrote some myself, at the time.

Your comments are very similar to what mine would be. Actually the reason I mentioned having just finished the book (instead of just letting the quote stand alone) is that the task of saying much about it seems overwhelming, but I wanted to at least say "it's great."

I think the only substantial negative I can say about it is that I thought the historical philosophizing got pretty tiresome, which made the last couple of hundred pages a bit of a letdown.

There is a new BBC adaptation out that sounds and looks kind of stinky to me. Apparently a supposed incestuous relationship between Helene and Anatole is emphasized. I gather that there is respectable opinion that holds it to have been implied. I didn't pick up on that myself. But even if Tolstoy intended it, it was hardly a major part of the picture.


I had a question that I didn't think the book really answered: what exactly happened to Helene? It was odd the way she was disposed of in a few sentences, and by that odd means. I half-expected that to turn out to be false rumor. When it became clear that she was really gone, I thought maybe the "herbs" or whatever it was that she was said to have taken were an abortifacent. That seems to be a widely-held opinion.

I thought the historical philosophizing got pretty tiresome

Yes, the third time I read it, I found that it was possible to skip whole chapers of that and get on with the story.


Congrats, Mac! Craig, I enjoyed the thoughts you expressed on your blog as well. I read it several years ago and have been wanting to revisit it ever since. I was telling Mac recently that it is funny how people always want to ask "Tolstoy, or Dostoevsky?" when really they could not be more different. One is expansive of everything and all society; the other very internal, of the interior lives of his characters. I enjoy Dostoevsky, but I adore Tolstoy.

And I meant to also say that other than the two appendixes, or epilogues, which could easily be skipped over and seen as separate essays not really part of the book ... I don't recall other long parts which strayed terribly far from the action. But I may not be remembering correctly.

Well, as I remember, there were at least 3 editions published years apart and I think that they did not all have all of this stuff in them. When I read it the last time, I couldn't remember having read it before.


There are definitely some historiographical excursions prior to the epilogue and appendix. They're mostly later in the book. I felt like they were slowly taking over.

I wouldn't want to have to choose Tolstoy vs. Dostoevsky. I guess it's an obvious comparison to make, and that's fine as literary conversation, but there's no need to to say one is superior.

So I google "war and peace helene" to get some more info on her death, and every result on the first page is about this new BBC series, with headlines like this: "Bed-hopping antics of War and Peace's outrageous Helene (and her SEVEN lovers) have shocked viewers... but they haven't seen anything yet"

Definitely one to skip, I think.

I think you may be right.


~~I was telling Mac recently that it is funny how people always want to ask "Tolstoy, or Dostoevsky?" when really they could not be more different.~~

George Steiner, of course, wrote a rather well-known book of that title, but without the question mark. I have it but haven't read it, largely because I have yet to read any Tolstoy. One of these days. One goal of mine for this year is to read Anna Karenina.

"One is expansive of everything and all society; the other very internal, of the interior lives of his characters."

Steiner's case includes the argument that they're also radically different in their ideas of God and history.

They are. Different at least, if not radically. At least in W&P it's not clear that Tolstoy was Christian, and later in life he adopted a fairly eccentric variety. I don't see in Dostoevsky a definite philosophy of history comparable to Tolstoy's, though the latter seems sort of apophatic, you might say-- what history is not.

Out of curiosity, Mac, which translation of W&P did you read?


Mac is a P/V disciple. So far I have stayed away from them. ;-)

That's the one I read too. I liked it. (Sorry, Stu.)

Was it here that someone wrote that they felt P-V was better for Dost'y, but Garnett for Tolstoy? All the former I've read has been P-V, except for my first read of Bros. K, which was Andrew McAndrew. And I've read at least four translations of Notes From Underground.

Not exactly a disciple. I did like P-V's Karamazov and Devils better than Garnett's Crime and Punishment. But I don't have any direct comparisons. And I may just like those two novels better than that one. I do like the way they handle the French in W&P--print the French with translation in a footnote.

Speaking of Russian lit, has anyone taken a look at this novel 'Laurus' that's getting so much attenion? I bought a copy a couple weeks ago but haven't had the chance to start it yet. It seems to be getting very high marks across the board from both religious and non-religious reviewers. Author is Eugene Vodolazkin.

No. I've heard the buzz, too, but haven't considered reading it. There's a level of excitement that sometimes appears around a new book or record or movie that actually has the effect of discouraging me from checking it out, except maybe for things that I was already personally interested in. I'm not sure why that is. Never really thought about it before. It's not just contrariness. It's more that it seems urgent in a burdensome way: I've got to hurry up and get this, check it out, voice an opinion, participate in the discussions about it--keep up. I don't like that feeling.

"Familiarity breeds contempt, so I turn off the radio." --Graham Parker

That was me, Rob. But based more on what I read on the internet than my own experience. I have yet to read any P/V translations, though I own Anna Karenina and War & Peace by them. The last time I read AK (a newer translation by .... Marian Schwartz?) I had the P/V next to me and would occasionally read passages of it, and it did not compare well. The Constance Garnett of AK is very nice, but her W&P is not so great.

You must be the one who said Notes From Underground is the Dostoevsky which should be read as a prologue to his later works, if I am paraphrasing you correctly? Which translation of that do you recommend? I have only read C&P and Brothers K.

I read Notes many years ago, and really don't remember it. Obviously I should read it again.

I got Laurus for Christmas. I started reading it a few weeks ago, and I'm about half through it now. I am enjoying it, but not to the extent that I'd hoped based on the laudatory reviews I saw.

It's a story told with literary flair and elements of magical realism. As I read it, I keep thinking of Salman Rushdie. In this case the story has a strong religious element, but I'm not sure the fantastic elements help to make the religious stuff persuasive.

I had heard from others that they found reading the book disposed them to prayer. Perhaps I'm just spiritually obtuse, but it hasn't done that for me, or maybe I just haven't gotten to the really good bits yet. Or maybe I'm just too tired! As with Rushdie, I'm finding it more diverting than nourishing.

The audio version of Notes that I have is a good translation, but so far I've not been able to determine whose it is. P-V is good, but I like the newer one by Boris Jakim even better.

Puts me in mind of a line from H. Beam Piper's parallel-world short story "He Walked around the Horses", where the narrator is trying to work out the time traveller's background:

After guiding the conversation to where I wanted it, I asked him: "What, Herr Bathurst, in your belief, is the real, underlying cause of the present tragic situation in Europe?" That, I thought, was safe enough. Name me one year, since the days of Julius Caesar, when the situation in Europe hasn't been tragic!

A good story. You pointed us to it once before, but I can't remember the context. Anyway--yes.

Probably the same or similar context. I'm glad you remember things I say, but worried that I apparently don't.

If we let ourselves worry about that, we'd never do anything else.


I do that all the time. I repeat myself not just in comments but in whole posts where I didn't even remember that I'd written about the topic.

For instance.

And Paul's original mention of the story was here.

Just started reading Montgomery's Why Poe Drank Liquor and came across this interesting mention of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. He's quoting the Russian writer Andrei Sinyavsky as distinguishing two stylistic traditions in Russian literature:

"One is the realistic tradition which depicted the world in life size -- let us say the tradition of Turgenev, Chekhov, Tolstoy....It is the other category which I find more important--namely Gogol, Leskov, Dostoevsky....I call it 'the art of exaggeration' in contrast to the art which presents a life-sized portrait of reality."

"[P]eople are exaggerated, are caricatures--are unnatural, if you like" but such writing "provides an access to reality from another contrast to the direct representation of the world as it is."

I did a little checking on Sinyavsky, and it turns out that he was a dissident Soviet literary critic who also wrote fiction under the name "Abram Tertz."

Interesting stuff.

Seems pretty accurate, though I wouldn't want to have to choose one over the other.

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