Sunday, November 25, 2007

James Wood & Lev Tolstoy, History & Literature, &tc

It’s a happy day when I can read an analysis-review in The New Yorker by a favorite critic, James Wood, writing about one of my favorite books, Lev Tolstoy’s Война и мир (War and Peace). I’m even happier that Wood succeeded both in illustrating the superiority of a new translation of War and Peace and describing Tolstoy’s techniques in the span of about five pages.

I always enjoy reading Wood’s reviews because he shows a rare talent for illuminating literary texts: he explains literary theory and techniques in ways that make books more intriguing rather than stripping them of their mysteries.

Wood’s piece on War and Peace praises the translation of Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear because he believes they give “new access to the spirit and order of the book.” Although I can’t quite share his enthusiasm for the use of “juicy” for сочный instead of “sappy” in the passage detailing Prince Andrei’s observations of an oak tree – this juice is sap, so neither word is truly right or wrong – his analysis of Tolstoy’s narration should help readers link the book’s style and substance.

Wood’s commentary on Tolstoy’s paradoxes – Is Tolstoy’s narration intrusive or absent? Are his characters unique or typical? – mentions that Tolstoy, who read European fiction as well as “awkward misfits” of Russian literature, didn’t consider War and Peace a novel. Wood also covers the literary device of defamiliarization, “making it strange” (остранение), and Tolstoy’s views of history, including his belief in “ordinary” people instead of famous figures.

A Couple Thoughts on History and Literature. Writing and reading fiction about historical figures raises questions about plenty of books beyond War and Peace. A friend who's reading Anatolii Rybakov’s Дети Арбата (Children of the Arbat) mentioned that she has trouble with the passages about Stalin. Despite loving most of the book, I did, too, and admit that I skimmed many of the Stalin scenes because I preferred the fictional characters; a Russian friend did the same.

I read fiction because I like to lose myself in stories that combine imaginary people, ideas about real life, and literary devices that help make the stories compelling. Every now and then, though, I find myself caught up in historical novels with figures who once lived. When I began thinking more about what historical characters work for me, I realized that I react best to figures about whom I have the least book knowledge. For example:

-Tolstoy’s generals are fine because of my limited knowledge of the War of 1812.

-I have read so much about Stalin, though, that I much preferred fictional characters in Rybakov’s Children of the Arbat trilogy.

-Vasilii Aksenov’s Московская сага, which begins in English with Generations of Winter, did not impress me when a fictional character gave Stalin an enema. It’s not proctology that was the problem, though: I didn’t like his fictional characters’ interactions with real writers, either. I know too much about Stalin and the writers. Meanwhile, though, I didn’t mind Aksenov’s characterization of Stalin’s son because I knew little about him. In fact, Aksenov piqued my interest enough that I watched a documentary about Vasilii’s exploits as a pilot.

Book Reviews. Today’s New York Times Book Review contains two reviews of nonfiction books about the Soviet Union and Russia:

Young Stalin, by Simon Sebag Montefiore. Review by Richard Lourie.

The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia, by Orlando Figes. Review by Joshua Rubenstein. Although I rarely read nonfiction books, Figes’s inclusion of the stories of Pavlik Morozov, Aleksandr Tvardovsky, and Konstantin Simonov should be more than enough to inspire me to look at the factual side of Russian cultural life for 700 or so pages. Figes’s Natasha’s Dance is a valuable book on Russian cultural history.

Books in this posting:
Pevear-Volokhonsky's "War and Peace" on Amazon
Children of the Arbat on Amazon
Vasilii Aksenov on Amazon
Simon Sebag Montefiore's Stalin Books on Amazon
Orlando Figes Books on Amazon

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