Tuesday, January 29, 2008

A book as daunting as this beard: War and Peace, Part One

The signs preceded the announcement of the book’s publication. I moved house in July, and my new neighbours turned out to be Russians, a whole shwack of them whom I could watch go about their yard work and endless renovations through a series of large windows as though they were the subjects of some Bruegelesque panorama. They’re cute. They shout a lot. Later on I attended a normal party that my friend Peter mistook for a costume party. He came dressed as Napoleon, brought with him a bottle of brandy, sort of sulked much of the night. Finally, I got talking to this homeless guy who camps out front of a coffee shop I frequent. He never says much, just leaves out a collection plate and hunches over a book. I decided to ask him what he was reading. It was a dog-eared copy of War and Peace.

I’m not especially superstitious but I am fond of coincidence. Mere days after my chat with homeless guy I saw it on Amazon: a brand new translation of War and Peace by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, the Sonny and Cher of Russian-into-English translation, superstars in their field, and rightly so. The new hardcover edition looked regal, enormous, glorious. Its appearance was accompanied by trumpets in my mind, a proclamation that now, now the time has come for me to finally read Leo Tolstoy’s gargantuan magnum opus about Russian society during the Napoleonic era. I felt a surge of readiness and ordered a review copy.

Full disclosure: I am not qualified to be a books columnist. Among my chief deficiencies are two items that apply directly to this column: 1) I haven’t read all the classics of world literature, I mean like not even the top five. 2) I have a problem with big books. Now, the first deficiency might come down to my lack of education or, more self-flatteringly, my diversity of interests that keep me from pursuing any sort of regimented reading program. The second deficiency however I consider to be a professional hazard. I review books. I read slow. There’s a lot of books out there. So tell me how a guy’s supposed to pay the bills reviewing all these new books and still have time to catch up on every literary doorstop in the Everyman’s Library?

But enough excuses. The moment had come, and along with it the holidays. Surely Christmas in Cowtown with the folks would provide ample time for Tolstoy. Yet it proved impossible. There were visits. There were sudden meals occurring at strange hours. There were walks in need of shoveling. There was booze. More problematically, every time I endeavoured to dig in my heels and just get going already I found the book unexpectedly forbidding. The entire first paragraph is in French for god’s sake. I’m a bad, bad Canadian. Je ne parle pas francias. I’m from Alberta. Okay, so there’s footnotes with all the English, but still…

This pathetic farce continued. I spent a promising night in the mountains, but got sidelined by two books I purchased at The Banff Book and Art Den –F. González-Crussi’s On Seeing and John Vaillant’s The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed, both of which are really good. Then came my Christmas gifts –Brad Pager’s critical study of Werner Herzog and some long out-of-print volume with the delicious title of Sex and the Occult– which added further, enormously pleasurable distraction from what I was now thinking of as my War and Peace self-betterment project. Then January came, deadlines were looming. I was, it seemed, an utter failure.

Then a funny thing happened. This time, not a coincidence exactly, but a sort of accidental gift. Having finished with writing for the day, I decided to hike over to a quiet coffee shop a good half-hour’s walk away to get in some reading. I scooped up my satchel and left, not realizing until I got there and ordered something hot that I scooped the wrong satchel, not the one containing whatever book I should be reading for work but the one with, you guessed it, War and Peace. Fuck it, I thought, and settled into it.

…And having made it past the first few pages this time, I realized something: it’s terrific, even fun. The French bits began to feel rhythmically appealing, of a piece within the social pretensions of the many characters, who gradually didn’t seem so difficult to keep track of but rather came vibrantly to life through sly descriptions –“Being an enthusiast had become her social position”– and even more so through the dialogue –“Opinions are opinions, but you see what a good and nice fellow I am,” says Pierre, not long before we find him tying a police officer to a bear and tossing them into the Moika. “Precisely because you’re father is rich, I don’t consider myself his relation,” Boris tells Pierre –as Pierre’s father lays dying and Boris’ mom is hanging around making an embarrassingly desperate play for the gasping man’s pity cash.

I’ve still barley cut into War and Peace’s 1224 pages, but I am now officially under its spell. I’m equally aware of course that it’ll probably take me a while to get through it, to truly savour it, and so I will report on my progress in future columns. For now, adieu, mon petit liseur. And please feel free to correct my miserable, condescending French.


Anonymous said...

dear J.B.
1. I really like that gigantic beard, good choice.
2. I don't know why but most of your anecdotes sound very familiar, almost like a deja-vu.
3. I really like the very relaxed tone of your article, very different from the other ones. It feels like a nice break, isn't it?
I relate very much to your sensibility.


JB said...

Just read your comment. Glad you like the beard. Glad too to be able to contribute to any fleeting affliction of deja-vu, a state I find weirdly pleasing. I will be returning to War and Peace very soon, so I hope you come back to see what happens next.
Take care,