On Finishing War and Peace

The idea of writing a review on War and Peace is almost as daunting as reading the novel itself.

So I’m not going to. Instead, here are some bullet-point thoughts (probably spoilers in here) now that I’m done and not just a 1/3 of the way through:

  • The title is apt. The book flips between battlefields and domestic scenes as the Russian men go off to fight against Napoleon’s army and the women deal with things at home: mainly men woes and money woes. I preferred the domestic scenes.
  • The book also flips between the epic and the miniature: the grandeur of war, history, human action juxtaposed with the beautiful simplicity of staring at a night sky, a glance that reveals someone in a new way, a conversation that changes how you love people. In my opinion, Tolstoy is best at the latter.
  • It took me a while to figure out the main characters: Pierre Bezukhov, Prince Andrei, and Natasha Rostov, and that’s mostly because their names are listed in the description on the back of the book. I guess this shows 1) there are so many characters and 2) not a clear plot line to determine the main players.
  • I didn’t like Pierre Bezukhov (apparently modeled after Tolstoy) as much as I thought I would, except near the end. It seems like he functions similarly to Levin in Anna Karenina, but I found Levin far more winsome.
  • Speaking of Anna Karenina (the only other Tolstoy novel I’ve read), overall I preferred it to War and Peace (for plot and characters).
  • I’d rather have characters grow on me as I get to know them, rather than the other way around where I initially like them but grow to dislike them. That’s how I felt with Rostov, Princess Marya, and even Natasha somewhat. Prince Andrei was the most intriguing character, and perhaps the most honest: “I said that a fallen woman should be forgiven, but I did not say that I could forgive. I cannot.”
  • There was a section in the middle that I absolutely loved and might be my favourite chapter of any book. Maybe I loved it so much because that’s the last time we really see the Rostov children as “children” before innocence gives way to experience.
  • The last 1/4 was the hardest to get through. The burning of Moscow went on forever, and Tolstoy gave far more attention to describing this historical event than wrapping up the plot on the domestic front with the characters’ fates that I was far more interested in. And when he did wrap them up, he did so hastily. The character I ended up caring about most (Sonya) essentially disappeared from the narrative in a very unresolved way.
  • The ending (if you can even call it that) was a philosophical treatise of Tolstoy’s thoughts on how history unfolds, and whether human’s actions are predestined or done freely. He should have published this separately; it felt like it didn’t belong.
  • Am I glad I read it? Yes. Would I read it again? Hell no.

Yes, I’m showing off the thickness of this monster. 1225 pages.

What I enjoyed most in reading War and Peace was Tolstoy’s language (translated by the excellent duo of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky). His power of observation is unrivalled. Here are some passages that stand out (it’s really hard to choose just a few!):

When Princess Marya came back from her father, the little princess was sitting over her work, and she looked at Princess Marya with that special expression of an inward and happily serene gaze that only pregnant women have. It was clear that she did not see Princess Marya, but was looking deep inside herself–into something happy and mysterious that was being accomplished in her.

Prince Andrei smiled, looking at his sister, as we smile listening to people whom we think we can see through.

Rostov kept thinking, not believing his eyes. “Can they be Frenchmen?” He looked at the approaching Frenchmen and, though a moment before he had been galloping only in order to meet these Frenchmen and cut them to pieces, their closeness now seemed so terrible to him that he could not believe his eyes. “Who are they? Why are they running? Can it be they’re running to me? Can it be? And why? To kill me? Me, whom everybody loves so?” He remembered his mother’s love for him, his family’s, his friends’, and the enemy’s intention to kill him seemed impossible

Boris told them about his Schongraben action in just the way that those who take part in battles usually tell about them, that is, in the way they would like it to have been, the way they have heard others tell it, the way it could be told more beautifully, but not at all the way it had been.

At that time there was a special atmosphere of amorousness in the Rostovs’ house, as happens in a house where there are very nice and very young girls.

When Pierre left and all the members of the family came together, they began to discuss him, as always happens after the departure of a new person, and, as rarely happens, they all said only good things about him.

For him, Moscow was comfortable, warm, habitual, and dirty, like an old dressing gown.

It was too frightening to be under the burden of all the insoluble questions of life, and he gave himself to the first amusements that came along, only so as to forget them.

She valued the society of the people to whom, disheveled, in a dressing gown, she could come striding out of the nursery with a joyful face and show a diaper with a yellow instead of a green stain, and hear comforting words that the baby was now much better.

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.

Have you read this book? If yes, I want to hear from you and what you thought about it!

The Irretrievable Moment

One of my favourite parts about my job is getting to interview artists. I recently spoke with Jim Adams in advance of his upcoming exhibition at the Surrey Art Gallery. He characterized his art as the following:

I’m always looking for the irretrievable moment where you’re committed to the action but the action hasn’t actually happened yet.

This is evident in his paintings. A Japanese bride is on her way to get married less than a minute after the first atomic bomb is dropped. A contrail is faintly visible in the sky overhead. Other paintings envision a peaceful evening sunset before a meteor streaks across the sky. Locals enjoy their drinks in a White Rock Starbucks as the blue and red lights of a patrol car are reflected in the window, and you know something’s about to change. You can see images here.

After Adams mentioned this phrase to me that’s also the title of his art show, I’ve been noticing numerous irretrievable moments crop up in my reading.


As you will probably not remember at this time last year, I was reading Crime and Punishment for GRNM (Giant Russian Novel Month). This year, a friend and I are tackling Tolstoy’s War and Peace. We are not going to be finished in a month.

I am about a third of the way through. Even though the plot is faint and meandering and the characters are numerous and changing, many of the characters (particularly Pierre) seem to embody what Jim Adams was talking about. It’s as if they are able to get out of their bodies and look at their lives from a distance, knowing they will go on to make this decision, and that decision will snowball into this other thing, and they don’t like it but they seem powerless to stop it. And so they don’t. In the meantime, I’m reading and shouting at them, “But it’s not too late! If you don’t love her, don’t marry her!” Or, “Get out of there now, you don’t have to lose all this money that you don’t have!”

Take Pierre on noticing Hélène for the first time and wondering if he should take her as his wife:

He recalled her former words and looks, and the words and looks of those who had seen them together. He recalled the words and looks of Anna Pavlovna when she spoke to him about his house, recalled hundreds of similar hints from Prince Vassily and others, and terror came over him at the thought that he might already have bound himself in some way to go through with something which was obviously not good and which he ought not to do. But while he expressed this realization to himself, on the other side of his soul her image floated up in all its feminine beauty.

Pierre knew that everyone was only waiting for him finally to say one word, to cross a certain line, and he knew that sooner or later he would cross it; but some incomprehensible terror seized him at the mere thought of that frightful step.

Or when he duels with Dolokhov after suspecting him of having a dalliance with his wife, though neither party wants to go through with it:

It was becoming frightening. It was obvious that the affair [referring to the duel], having begun so lightly, could no longer be prevented by anything, that it was going on by itself, independently of men’s will, and would be accomplished.

There is definitely a fatalistic streak in Pierre’s thinking. I also notice it in Rostov and Prince Andrei but, interestingly, not so much in the female characters. While I understand this feeling of “how way leads on to way” to borrow from Robert Frost, I think we tend to stick that irretrievable label onto our own lives more quickly than onto others’ lives. We are so entangled in our own that we sometimes can’t see there actually are other paths, other “roads not taken.” Sometimes I get the sense with these Russian characters that there’s even a Romanticism to fatalism, as if accepting the inevitable is heroic and must be so. But it’s so obvious as a reader that it’s not necessarily so.

I’m coming to a part in the novel now where the main characters are waking up from the false slumber of the inevitable, realizing that things can and should be otherwise, and perhaps it’s not too late . . .

How to Save a Life

A friend dubbed March “Giant Russian Novel Month” and challenged anyone who wants to join her in reading a giant Russian novel. I chose Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

[this review contains spoilers, as usual, so here’s your warning.]


This psychological novel quickly swept me up with its cat and mouse, murderer/detective game, kind of along the lines of Tom Hanks and Leonardo diCaprio in Catch Me If You Can. The protagonist is 23-year-old Rodion Raskolnikov, an impoverished but talented student in St. Petersburg who murders a vile, cynical old pawnbroker and her sister. Even though he is poor and has dropped out of school, he doesn’t do the crime for the money. The few trinkets he steals from the pawnbroker, along with her unopened purse, he hides under a rock.

It was the perfect murder with no evidence to catch him, yet Raskolnikov is tormented by his conscience. I think this is the punishment the title refers to more than the legal punishment that comes at the end of the book. It’s almost like Raskolnikov wants the detective Porfiry, who’s been assigned to his case, to come right out and accuse him—to put him out of its misery. And yet Raskolnikov lives off of secrecy and deception. Hence the cat-and-mouse-game.

Raskolnikov finally confesses the murder to Sonya. Sonya is a young woman, deeply religious, who is forced into prostitution to keep her highly dysfunctional family afloat (three young siblings, an alcoholic father, and a raging stepmother). It is her family that Raskolnikov gives the last of his money to (not the stolen money) when he hears about their suffering. It is one of his few beautiful acts throughout the novel, complicating our aversion to him.

Incidentally, Sonya is a fascinating character in the novel because her prostitution is consistently separated from her character. Somehow, the dehumanizing transaction she’s in has not tainted her pure spirit. She’s a Christ-like figure, actually. Her role made me ask: Can you be involved in something like that and not have it define who you are? I think yes. Can the same thing be said for Raskolnikov?

Raskolnikov is one of those bright young intellectuals who gets carried away with a theory that has no grounding in reality (characters refer to him as a “monomaniac.”) He divides the world into two groups: ordinary and extraordinary men. According to him, extraordinary men can step over the law (even going as far as murder) if it’s in pursuit of a higher purpose. Their brilliance allows them to think new thoughts that the majority of people don’t understand, yet in stepping over certain obstacles, they do something “salutary for the whole of mankind” and gain glory. Raskolnikov cites Napoleon Bonaparte as one of these extraordinary men. As you can imagine, Raskolnikov believes himself to be one of these men, too.

He justifies the murder, saying, “It wasn’t a human being I killed, it was a principle!”

And when he does admit he killed a human, he tries to minimize his crime:

“I only killed a louse, Sonya, a useless, nasty, pernicious louse.”

“A human being—a louse!”

But then he admits to her that he’s lying. “I’ve been lying for a long time.”

Raskolnikov is one of the most conflicted characters I’ve encountered in literature. He doesn’t know what’s up and down, and how can he if he’s been lying to himself so long he can’t tell the difference between ground and sky?

When his sister Dunya finds out about his crime, she asks another character in the novel, “How can you save him?” And then the follow-up question lurking in the shadows: “Can he be saved?”

This seems to be the question Dostoevsky is asking throughout Crime and Punishment.

Even after Sonya urges Raskolnikov to turn himself in (which he eventually does), he still isn’t remorseful. Remorseful that his theory about being one of the extraordinary men didn’t turn out as he expected, yes, but not remorseful for murdering two humans. It’s almost like he’s mad his conscience works so well, that it won’t let him carry on with his life unhindered.

Of course there is a problem with him if he had.

I was still left wondering if Raskolnikov is repentant when we see him, in the epilogue, working at a labour camp in Siberia (he was given 8 years). Sonya follows him there on her own volition. In a beautiful scene at the end, he throws himself down at her feet, weeping. She realizes he loves her, at last. She’s loved him for a long time already.

In rereading this scene, I wonder if Raskolnikov’s repentance is implied in his ability to love Sonya, because it’s difficult (I’d say impossible) to love another if your heart is hard and closed.

Indeed, Dostoevsky gives us his answer to Dunya’s question in these lines:

They wanted to speak but could not. Tears stood in their eyes. They were both pale and thin, but in those pale, sick faces there already shone the dawn of a renewed future, of a complete resurrection into a new life. They were resurrected by love; the heart of each held infinite sources of life for the heart of the other.

For a man who used words to lie and reason his life away, Raskolnikov’s silence and tears are perhaps the truest response he could have.

After his epiphany with Sonya, Raskolnikov returns to his barracks, lies in bed and thinks: “Did not everything have to change now?”

I wrote in pencil in the margin: yes.

Beauty Will Save the World

I was tempted not to buy this version of the book, solely because of the grotesque image on the cover. But it was an Oxford Classics edition, which are my favourite, so I resolved to put up with the image even though I grimaced every time I opened it.

The Idiot was my Christmas reading. I do love a good Russian classic (I read The Brothers Karamazov this summer), and what drew me to this lesser-known work of Dostoevsky was the oft-quoted line, “Beauty will save the world” said by the main character, Prince Myshkin. This line sounds wonderful and intriguing on its own, but I wanted to know the context. How will beauty save the world? Save the world from what?

After finishing the book, I still ponder those questions.

I’m not going to give a whole plot summary of the book because others have already done it (and very well, too) so I’d suggest heading over to Emily Burns Morgan’s article to get better acquainted with the rich plot and cast of characters.

My only other knowledge of the book apart from the beauty line was that it was “depressing” and something my friend “would never want to read again.”

Most Russian classics are depressing but they obviously contain something worthwhile or else they wouldn’t be considered classics, so those words of warning only made me want to read the book more.

In case you’re wondering who the Idiot is, he’s Prince Myshkin (also referred to as the Prince). 26 years old at the outset of the novel, he’s returning to his native Russia after many years in Switzerland where he received extensive treatment for his epilepsy. Characters often call him an “idiot” because he is seen as “simple”—only speaking the truth, usually saying too much, failing to read social cues, frequently falling for swindlers’ schemes because he is always willing to help.

As Morgan says in her article, the illness he suffers from even more than epilepsy is being “afflicted with extreme compassion.” Extreme indeed. The book makes you question the extent to which honesty and compassion is good. “What makes a man good?” seems to be exactly the question Dostoevsky wanted readers to ask when he sketched out Prince Myshkin’s character, who is easily identifiable as a Christ figure (albeit a flawed one).

Dostoevsky writes to his niece:

The main idea of the novel is to depict the positively good man. There is nothing more difficult than this in the world, especially nowadays. …The good is an ideal, and neither we nor civilized Europe have yet succeeded in working out such an ideal for ourselves. There is only one positively good man in the world, and that is Christ. … Sympathy is aroused for the good man who is ridiculed and who does not know his own worth, and this sympathy is aroused in the reader too. This arousing of sympathy is the secret of humour. …. I have nothing of the kind, absolutely nothing, and therefore I am terribly afraid that [my novel] will be a positive failure.

There are times when Prince Myshkin confounds those around him because he cuts to the heart of their issues with startling acuity, but other times (many times), he positively fails to say or do the right thing.

Prince Myshkin fails catastrophically at the end when he has to decide between two women—Nastasya Filippovna, a femme fatale whom Myshkin is immediately enraptured by and whose love/hate would ruin him; and Agalya Yepanchin, a younger woman who is just as beautiful and tempestuous at times, but who is ultimately pure, tender, and childlike. We actually believe her when she says she loves Myshkin.

The Prince, however, chooses Nastasya—the “fallen woman.” On one hand, the Prince’s action is understandable given his uber-compassionate nature that stretches so deep he thinks no man/woman is too far gone, and yet on the other hand, his friend Yevgeni Radomsky scathingly but truthfully challenges him about the problem with his lofty ideals:

But for the sake of compassion and to satisfy her, how could you have put to shame another girl, high-minded and pure, and degrade her in those arrogant and hate-filled eyes? What lengths will compassion go to after that? Why, it’s incredibly out of proportion! How could you, if you loved a girl, humiliate her in front of her rival, reject her in favour of the other, after you’d proposed to her yourself . . . and you did propose to her, didn’t you, you told her in the presence of her parents and sisters! After that, may I ask if you are an honourable man, Prince? And didn’t you deceive that heavenly girl by telling her you loved her?

So how does this all fit in with “beauty will save the world”? Based on the climactic scene above, it is easy to tell that Prince Myshkin thinks of himself as a saviour figure. But he doesn’t end up saving anyone in Russia—he loses them. Contrast this with his earlier time in Switzerland, where society scorned another fallen woman almost to the point of death but whom the Prince, however, had compassion on her and loved back to life.

If beauty means love and truth, then I can get behind “beauty will save the world,” but I think the Prince also meant it aesthetically—physically.

In Part 1, the Prince says to Agalya and her family, “It’s hard to judge beauty; I’m not ready it. Beauty is a puzzle.” Those words contain a lot of truth for a young man of 26 years making his entrance into “normal” society. But then just a bit later in the novel, the Prince meets beauty embodied in the person of Nastasya Filippovna, and he rashly  proposes to her and she accepts, only to leave him a few minutes later for a rogue named Rogozhin. So the Prince says he won’t judge beauty but then does almost immediately. He sees Nastasya, deems her beautiful, wants to have/save her, and blindly follows this dangerous beauty to multiple “deaths”:

1) the physical death of Nastasya (she’s murdered by Rogozhin)

2) the destruction of Agalya (she runs off with a dishonest Polish émigré, becomes a Catholic fanatic, and is cut off from her family), and

3) the Prince’s “death” or exile from Russia and society—he gets sent back to Switzerland, sicker than ever to undergo more treatments in a clinic.

All this because of beauty?

The other instance that makes me think the Prince is talking about physical beauty ties in with the cover image, which is actually the painting The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb by Hans Holbein, a 16th century German artist. The Prince sees the painting hanging in Rogozhin’s house and rightly proclaims how horrific it is. You couldn’t tell it was Christ (as I obviously didn’t) because it looks like any man’s decomposing corpse.

The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb by Hans Holbein. 1520-1522.

“I do love looking at that picture,” muttered Rogozhin after a pause, having forgotten the question it seemed.

“That picture!” cried the prince, struck by a sudden thought. “That picture! A man could lose his faith looking at that picture!”

“Yes, that’s another thing going,” Rogozhin confirmed surprisingly.

What is the relationship between beauty to faith? Could an ugly subject in a painting make you lose your faith? Or is there something still beautiful here about the truth of Christ’s suffering? About love embodied? About real life and real death?

Perhaps the Prince’s ideals are beautiful but they are abstract and disembodied from the world he now resides in. Knowing the context that spawned the book’s famous quotation, I am more skeptical about it now than before, but I think it all hinges on what beauty is.

Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

 So says John Keats in his last lines of Ode on a Grecian Urn.

It’s not surprising that a 600-page book touches on the big questions of truth, beauty, and goodness. I will leave you with a line from one of my favourite characters in the novel, Prince S, who gently and accurately interprets Prince Myshkin’s saviour complex:

Dear Prince, . . . It is not easy to establish paradise on earth, and you do seem to count on that a little; paradise is a difficult business, Prince, a great deal more difficult than it seems to your splendid heart.

Paradise is a terribly difficult, rather, impossible business on earth, as our fallen hero learns by the end. But for all the depressing pieces in this novel, glimpses of truth/beauty about the human condition emerge from the wasteland, making The Idiot so worth the read and the ugly Oxford cover.