Having just finished – and loved – War and Peace, and having also battled through/enjoyed Don Quixote, Bleak House and the like, I can state that I do like the long breathed mighty literary classic. “Battled through” can be the issue though. You have to pace yourself, something greatly aided by Tolstoy and Dickens pitching their chapter lengths perfectly.
However, I am grinding to a halt with Musil’s The Man Without Qualities (1152 pages), although I don’t think I’ve given up. Yet.
There is something to be said for the intrinsic advantages of the short novel. I don’t mean the short story. I’m not sure if I mean the novella either. Despite people bragging about knocking off Tolstoy in a long weekend, I mean the kind of book you can genuinely complete in a day or two, easy to carry if you’re travelling, and possibly just as satisfying as one of the behemoths.
As a comparison, here’s what I mean. I finished the ten on the right in less time than it took to do the bottom left. At my age (middlish) I’m not going to even get close to reading all the books I own (or listen to all the music I’ve bought).
The work of medicine can be grim. Death, pain, madness, addiction, mutilation, indignity are all around you at times. How one copes with it as the objective medical practitioner is hard to define**. I personally feel that the ancient rite of passage of the dissection room in first year had considerable merit in this regard. Its abandonment in most UK medical schools means that current and future generations may be missing out on something other than knowing anatomy. Likewise, the cosseted world of the junior doctors’ contract and hours regulations means that the fruitful maxim, ‘they can always hit you harder’, becomes less true by the year.
Doctors, then, are changing. Their work by and large stays the same in its broad themes. You have to be able to cope with the dark side, which includes a significant attrition rate amongst our own – illness, fatigue, family crises, scandal etc.
Some of our coping mechanism comes from our personality and our background, some is learnt. Some relates to personal beliefs, often religious. Either way, you have to acquire it in order to function. Here is a vignette from Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, a mini masterpiece of selfish young man nihilism, written long before trite pale imitations like American Psycho. The hero, Pechorin, is preparing for a duel in the Caucasus mountains, seconded by his worried doctor friend, Werner:
“Why so sad, doctor?” I said to him. “Haven’t you seen people off to the next world a hundred times with the greatest indifference? Imagine that I have a bilious fever, and that I have equal chances of recovering or succumbing. Both outcomes are in the order of things. Try to regard me as a patient stricken with a disease you have not yet diagnosed–that will stimulate your curiosity to the utmost. You may now make some important physiological observations on me . . . Isn’t expectation of death by violence a real illness in itself?”
This thought struck the doctor, and he cheered up.
A true and shrewd observation, which most medics will recognise: the awfulness of illness and death is mostly genuinely fascinating, and can be its own reward, in a strange way.
**As an afterword there is a good quote from Russian/Armenian/American author Vera Nazarian, the parentheses are my own contributions:
“If you are faced with a mountain, you have several options.
You can climb it and cross to the other side (doctors who can do the job, but who get out into management etc ASAP).
You can go around it.
You can dig under it.
You can fly over it.
You can blow it up.
You can ignore it and pretend it’s not there (usually become Public Health ‘experts’ in the UK).
You can turn around and go back the way you came (doctors who don’t cope and drop out of the tough specialties) .
Or you can stay on the mountain and make it your home (the frontline doctors of any challenging specialty who stick it out).”
[I’m still working on career analogies for the middle four *]
When renaissance men of the stature of Simon Schama (who is also an idiot), Clive James and Philip Hensher (1, 2) have recently opined on the topic, it seemed only appropriate for me to add my bit. These are some of my thoughts on the book, I haven’t yet seen any of the TV or film adaptations.
1.Stick with it, the first 50 pages or so are the hardest. Use the footnotes etc if your translation has them
2. Large parts of it are essentially an upmarket soap opera. This is not intended to demean it, or the reader. It makes it a very compelling tale.
3. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina trick of being able to inhabit the female mind is a wonder.
5. It can be difficult to read in the bath, especially in hardback.
6. Having recourse to a map and historical summaries (eg. for Austerlitz and Borodino) is a smart idea. Various paintings (eg, by the mighty Vereshchagin, are remarkably vivid)
7. My translation kept the French bits (a lot), which is fine if there are footnotes on the same page. It’s actually a neat way of reutilising your school French again.
8. Despite the book’s length, Tolstoy knows how to avoid fatiguing the reader. His chapter lengths are perfect, like Dickens. Compare that with alleged masterpieces of European literature which are exhaustingly indigestible like Broch’s The Death of Virgil. To quote DJ Enright: Could it be that what a flow of lyrical speculation needs is precisely to be interrupted from time to time by the unlyrical and the known? And can a technical advance be “genuinely” an advance if its prime effect is to produce unreadability?
9. The two consecutive chapters ( Vol IV, Part 1, ch XV; XVI ) on the effects of impending death on the dying person are quite phenomenal. I have seen variations on this many times in my career. It is simply brilliant, Tolstoy’s insight and powers of expression are so far ahead of nearly every other writer.
10. What has been described as Tolstoy’s take on ‘historical determinism’ was an unexpected feast, for me, of clear eyed thinking. The great man rips apart the idea that individuals create history according to any sort of plan, and he does it with the driest and wittiest of prose, even in translation (see 4).
Here’s a typical example (Epilogue Part 2, ch VII):
For reasons known or unknown to us the French began to drown and kill one another. And corresponding to the event its justification appears in people’s belief that this was necessary for the welfare of France, for liberty, and for equality. People ceased to kill one another, and this event was accompanied by its justification in the necessity for a centralization of power, resistance to Europe, and so on. Men went from the west to the east killing their fellow men, and the event was accompanied by phrases about the glory of France, the baseness of England, and so on. History shows us that these justifications of the events have no common sense and are all contradictory, as in the case of killing a man as the result of recognizing his rights, and the killing of millions in Russia for the humiliation of England. But these justifications have a very necessary significance in their own day.
You’ll find it at various points:
Vol III Part 1 ch I
Vol III Part 2 ch I; XIX; XXVIII, Part 3 ch I; II; V
Vol IV Part 1 ch IV; V; VI, Part 2 ch I; II; XVIII; XIX Part 3 ch I; XVIII; XIX
Epilogue – all of Part 2 (ch I-XII). If I had to select the single most telling and representative part of this dense and closely argued polemic, I would say it’s ch III of this absorbing afterword
You have to interpret historical writing, however brilliantly done, with a degree of skepticism after Tolstoy, it’s always “too early to say”.
Tolstoy continues this reflection in his honest and occasionally amusing appendix to the whole novel, drawing on his own military experience (which shows throughout the book) in the Crimean War.
11. Napoleon does not come out of it too well, whatever his abilities to galvanise and lead. To quote: ..that most insignificant instrument of history, who never and nowhere, even in exile, displayed any human dignity, whereas General Kutuzov is an inscrutable,unfussy Russian hero with a magisterial historical insight
12. It’s probably wise to take claims of finishing it quickly, or reading it umpteen times, with a bucket of salt (see below, from comments after a Guardian article)
13. Tolstoy is a master psychologist. Not a speculative ‘filling in the plot with the character’s thoughts’ writer: his understanding of his characters, and of humanity in general, is pretty awesome.
14. Tolstoy is not overtly interested in erotic love per se. His numerous insights into love relate to the meeting of minds and a supernatural, religious bonding with a nod to physical attraction. The most bodacious female character Princess Helene does not get a good rep. The book is not a bodice ripper, though I imagine the TV people feel they have to push that line a bit.
15. When people complain about the ending, I’m not sure what they mean. The fictional narrative ends earlier than the whole novel, but Tolstoy’s occasionally complicated discussion of necessity v freedom in defining history and historical thought is really pretty good, and relates beautifully to all that has gone before. The very last two paragraphs are truly magnificent.
16. It’s not just hype. This might well be the best novel that you’ll ever read.
I was recently talking to a friend who is a sharp mind, a good businessman, a nice guy and a Scottish Nationalist. Not only did he used to brandish a selfie of himself with Alex Salmond, he knew him moderately, having been involved in one of the various Scottish government publicity projects that Eck used to encourage, to demonstrate the Nat’s love of ‘social justice’ (whatever), and hatred of…er…bigotry
In any event, it was made pretty clear in our chat that Eck, the putative ‘father of the independent nation’ is now self evidently a selfish, arrogant, embarrassing, lying monster who is utterly persona non grata with the present Holyrood SNP band of numpties.
Oddly enough, the description was pretty much what most No supporters had been saying about Eck in the run up to the independence referendum, and now we learn from his erstwhile chums that we were in fact, correct.
This blog has criticised Salmond and his mysterious, frequently unexplained decisions and activities for a long time. It was blindingly obvious that he was gagging to get back to Westminster, which curiously is in the hated England, and equally obvious that if he lost the referendum that Sturgeon et al were going to kick him out. And so it proved.
The utterly ludicrous SNP ‘Named Child’ policy has strong echoes of Jacobin social engineering from the French Revolution. One of the more endearing habits of the said Jacobins was to decapitate their former heroes, most notably Robespierre. It looks like Eck has met the same fate.
The historic parallels don’t stop there. Not enough people know about something Iain Martin likes to publicise, which is that you’re not actually allowed to criticise or dissent from what passes for policy in the SNP, from within the party. Really, it is officially banned. Specifically MP’s and MSP’s must:
“accept that no Member shall, within or outwith Parliament, publicly criticise a Group decision, policy or another member of the Group.”
Which is pleasingly similar to another one party state, Soviet Russia. The latter didn’t last that long, despite wrecking lives and wreaking havoc on its native soil – the similarities are piling up – but it did inspire George Orwell in writing 1984. Which brings us back to poor old Eck. He has finally, and delightfully, become an Orwellian Stalinist unperson, a victim of damnatio memoriae. To quote Wiki:
Such a person would be taken out of books, photographs, and articles so that no trace of them is found in the present anywhere – no record of them would be found.This was so that a person who defied the Party would be gone from all citizens’ memories, even friends and family
Nikolai Ge was a successful Russian realist painter with elements of symbolism and expressionism. His portraits are terrific, notably of Tolstoy, but he majored in religious themes and his Easter pieces, such as Christ with Pilate (Quod est Veritas) and Golgotha are superb. His Calvary in the Musee d’Orsay is quite stunning.