My reading project for 2020 was going to be the works of Victor Hugo – I even read the first 20% or so of Les Miserable.
But then the Corona virus came out of China and changed all that. It didn’t take long before I’d lost all interest in Hugo and the government reaction to the pandemic put me in mind of George Orwell. So during the lockdown I read two of his novels: Animal Farm and 1984 and his memoir of his time fighting in the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia.
The first two I had already read, of course, but not for many years and definitely not a perspective of being in a government lockdown and being increasingly suspicious that the pandemic – like crises before – were being used as an excuse to limit civil rights and extend government controls.
I’ve no great insight into either of the fictional works that others haven’t already discussed except reading them back-to-back I’d realized that one was a history and the other a projection. Animal Farm, written first, tells the story, allegorically, of Stalinist Russian. While 1984 gives us a future England/Airstrip One that Orwell envisions. We are still between those two – falling backward and forward to one or the other.
Homage to Catalonia is not so much a story about the Spanish Civil War so much as a story of how the left always manages to eat itself. Animal Farm is pretty much the same thing. In Homage, Orwell details how he went to Spain to fight Fascist but joined the wrong kind of communist unit and in the end had to make a break for the French border before the Russian backed communist tossed him in jail or put a bullet in his head.
Throughout though, his story of fighting – such as it was – at the Spanish front makes for some nice scenes and his own story of being shot through the neck is gruesome. My only gripe about the book is a lack of footnotes. It read like a newspaper article and not being an expert on the war, I had a hard time keeping up with the players, especially when many of the parties were abbreviated.
What I missed about reading these stories as opposed to the previous Tolstoy that I’ve read this year is the personal. What I’ve grown to love about Tolstoy is his characters. His insight into humanity and how he can describe the common psychology that binds us – from aristocracy to peasant in his time and our modern equivalents.
In these “Sketches”, that is gone. Maybe it’s not the point Tolstoy was going for. Or possibly he didn’t have the maturity or skill yet to do that. They are good reading none-the-less and a nice historical insight. But I did get a flash of the Tolstoy to come during the final ‘December’ sketch as the fear of battle came into the character. That Tolstoy communicated brilliantly.
This is my final Tolstoy of the year. But I’m sure I’ll be revisiting him again.
I enjoyed the first bits – Jonathan Harker heads out to Transylvania and ends up becoming Dracula’s prisoner along with the three women vampires. That part was great: Eager young lawyer Harker slowly realizes a career opportunity is turning life threatening. How many movies have been made on this premise alone? Then Dracula’s passage to England with the ship’s crew disappearing one by one until the ship runs aground and the large dog is seen running from it.
Then we meet the likes of train schedule memorizing Mina and things just get boring.
Bug-eating Renfield offers some enjoyment but as Dracula steps off stage the novel is taken over by some cartoon characters and became a hard to read slog for me. Lucy doesn’t brighten things much. Lucy! Lucy! Lucy! Everyone loves Lucy. A cowboy loves her! A peer of the realm loves her! A doctor loves her! And now Dracula loves her. And then kills her.
And I don’t really care. It’s written like a boy’s adventure story. The gang does this and the gang does that. It’s over written and over wrought and still lacking emotion.
” Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible. “
– Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Illych
This is the only bit of Tolstoy I’ve read before this year. Maybe it was five years ago. Maybe ten. It has stuck with me since then. And reading it again this month, it reads fresh. It’s one of those books that reveals itself anew with each reading. So I have a feeling I’ll read it in another five or ten years.
I think every man should. Every person.
Is it? So much of my life seems to be trial and error without the reward but lately it seems the rewards are finally coming.
It’s a story, obviously, about how to live told through a man’s death. It teaches how a life lived poorly will lead to a death died poorly and vice versa. That’s something I want – a good death. I don’t want to be screaming in regret. Or depressed wondering where the lifetime went – thinking I’d wasted what I had.
I question that now. Maybe too much. But even now when I think I’m wasting time or what others may think of as wasting time I often see a purpose. Although even later I think it may have been a waste but even then, if I’ve learned from that waste, the time isn’t really wasted.
Ivan Illych spent his time following rules and making sure things looked right for other people. At least I learned early on that that’s not the way to a good life.
As I wrote in my thoughts on Anna Karinena, Tolstoy inhabits people. He gets to know them. He lives in them and inhabits their souls. In this case, that of a jealous murderer.
And Tolstoy writes from the jealous murderer’s viewpoint with sympathy. I didn’t feel sympathy for him but Tolstoy wrote with sympathy. He didn’t condemn his creation. He simply depicted him truly – without judgement. Which is off putting. Does this mean Tolstoy agree with his character? He seems to hate women, kids and sex. And possibly himself as well as humanity in general. Tolstoy doesn’t flinch. No. Of course, Tolstoy doesn’t agree with his protagonist. But this character of his is a human being, like all of us but one whose flaws overcome him and lead him into killing his wife.
I could have done without the killer’s rationalization and speechifiying for half the novella. Or it could have at least been present in more of a debate or dialogue rather than an endless monologue.
Tolstoy knows me. He seems to know everyone. Deeply.
One of the best compliments I got on my own writing was by a friend who said something to the effect of, “I know every single one of those characters in your book. Including me.”
It was one of my proudest moments. I thought that I’d created several characters that were believable and realistic. But that compliment, said by someone who I respected, proved I’d accomplished it.
But I’m no Tolstoy.
He seems to know the souls of every character he writes because they are the souls of every person he ever met. We’re not so different really but he was able to detail the inner life of each character – no matter how diverse – so succinctly. Even in my own life, I feel it’s hard to empathise with my younger self. How can that young man I was do such a stupid thing? Who was that teenager that was so stupid? As if I was another person. That lack of empathy must be profound at a differnet person – a different sex, race, etc.
I marvel at how Tolstoy is able to put us in the mind and soul of Anna in love and in despair. In Levin’s heart as he waffles between one socially awkward scene to another struggling with his own faith. Or giving us empathy for Vronksy, who only wanted to love – on his terms. I only mention these three but none of his characters are caricatures. All are given a soul. They may be bad people or have bad moments but Tolstoy does not treat them badly. They are not created, I feel, just to be sacrificed for a lesson or to be the baddie.
Even looking back on the story, I want to dislike Vronsky. Or Alexei Karenin or Anna. Definitely Stiva …but I can’t. Not really. I’ve gotten to know them.
That is to say, I’m a bit of a goof trying to do my best and failing. I’m trying to improve myself but often coming up worse for wear. I’m often going on tangents in life but meandering back, I think, slowly, to the truth path that I was always seeking and would never have arrived at if I hadn’t gone on all those side trips.
Earnest and silly and a fool and I think wiser than all the other characters by the end, Pierre is the character that is going to stick with me. While I’m sure I will not forget the novel any time soon – maybe the educational bits and the second epilogue – I’m sure the characters and plots will get muddled in my brain but Pierre’s journey will not because it’s just hit too close to home. Likely for many.
While reading it I often wished I had read it earlier but I have a feeling I was too immature and just not ready for it. I am not and I hope I have the interest to read it again and I hope I have the growth to read it with new eyes when I do.
This is a brilliant guide, btw: https://medium.com/@BrianEDenton/a-year-of-war-and-peace-cc66540d9619
Growing up, I came to think anything anti-war started with the 1960s. The Baby Boomers, like many generations, though they were the first to think the thoughts they had. They were no different than other generations – although maybe they did amp up the narcissism.
Of course there were other works of anti-war fiction but Book Ten of W&P seems to me the most memorable and the most epic. From the beginning of the book as the Russians seem to fall apart and flee before a purposeless French army finally ending at Borodino with the opposing mindsets of the historic Napoleon and Zutuzov down to the blood soaked fictional field hospital where Dolohov is having his leg amputated.
I could do with less of Tolstoy’s historical essays interrupting the narrative. But I knew they were coming. Maybe at some point I’ll read about why those are in there. They aren’t too distracting and are a bit informative but I’m not reading this to be informed.
This week my two orders of Russian bees came. In the past I’ve ordered Italians but since I’ve had little success with that breed, time to change it up.
In the McEwen Hive, we had some serious interest from some wild bees. They looked to be moving in. They stayed a week or so but by the time the two packages of Russian’s showed up they were gone. So in when the Russians. And they were absolutely easy to install.
The next day I put another package in at the McKee Hive and had the same easy. I’m still hoping to keep some for Hooper and Koewler Hives. And hoping those installations go just as easy.
One big change I’m doing this year is that I’m feeling the living heck out of these guys. In the past I’ve tried to go full blown hippie dippie natural. Let the bees be. And they’ve all died or absconded. No more of that. I can’t handle the disappointment. These bees or now going to go on full Swedish welfare. Lots of feeding, especially in the spring and then later in the fall. I’m going to make them fat and not want to leave. They are going to go into the winter with as much honey as possible. And as strong as possible.
I’m about 330,000 words into W&P and Tolstoy still has me humming along with his narrative. Book Nine is mostly about Napoleon finally launching into Russian. We all know how this turns out for the French but I don’t know how it will turn out for the characters…and I want to know.
What I’m most impressed by is not only how episodic the story telling is but how deeply thought out it is yet how accessible it is. Again, I’m terribly intimidated by Tolstoy.
One last observation: I love it’s genre-lessness. War and romance. politics and family squabbles. He writes about it all and he writes it all so truthfully. Incredible.