Friday, December 30, 2011

On War and Peace and Tales of Burning Love

Book 132: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

What is there for me to say about a book many consider the greatest novel ever written?
I could say that 21st Century tastes don't agree with 19th Century writing, but that's far too broad an observation.  Besides, I'm a Dickens fan boy, which eliminates that argument.

It's not the length of War and Peace that troubles me.  Novels that I read this past year by Stephen King, Margaret Mitchell and Larry McMurtry all weighed in at more than 1,000 pages. And all those novels demonstrated that a 1,000-plus pages can read like 220 pages, which is also true -- at times -- of Tolstoy.

When he tells the story of Count Bezuhov, Rostov or Prince Bolkonsky -- their misfortunes in love, financial woes or valor in war -- he weaves a compelling story. But when he doesn't do that -- and he doesn't do it a lot -- Tolstoy loses me.

By today's standards, War and Peace isn't a pure novel.  It's as much a philosophical treatise on the vagaries of war, the existence of free will in man and a dozen other musings as well as a loose history of the Napoleonic Wars.  

I prefer a narrative uncluttered by philosophical observation.

Finally, War and Peace is often portrayed as a celebration of the Russian spirit. I struggle with that. All of the people portrayed here, in any depth, are Russian gentry -- counts, princes and princesses.  Thousands of servants and serfs are only shadowy background figures. It is difficult, if not impossible, to truly capture the spirit of the Russian people without telling their story. 

More than anything, I just want to say I've read it -- all 1,386 pages of this Modern Library paperback edition. That's enough for now.  It's quite a lot actually.

Book 133: Tales of Burning Love by Louise Erdrich

Tales of Burning Love, Louise Erdrich's most erotic novel, is the story of Jack Mauser, a North Dakota building contractor, and his five wives. 

Jack's first marriage lasted only a few hours. That wife walked off into a North Dakota blizzard. Between that marriage and his current one, Jack was married three more times.  He still sees all three ex-wives and is still in love with one of them.

It's the second marriage for his current wife. She's still married to husband number one who is in prison for life.

There's a lot of moving parts of Tales of Burning Love.    Jack fakes his own death after his house burns to the ground. Someone kidnaps his infant son in the middle of a blizzard. The first husband of wife number five escapes from prison. And all that is secondary to the stories the wives tell.

After attending Jack's funeral, his four living wives are stranded in a car in the midst of a North Dakota blizzard. To stay alert, and alive, the wives agree to each tell a true story, a story "you've never told another soul, a story that would scorch paper, heat up the air!" 

The stories (Erdrich has always had a penchant for slipping whole stories, stories that can stand alone, into her novels) do heat up the air even as they serve to tell us more about Jack Mauser and the lives of his wives.

Erdrich is skillful at drawing all the separate strands of a convoluted plot into a coherent whole.  She demonstrates that skill here as she brings Tales of Burning Love to a satisfying, and steamy, conclusion. 

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