Big Reads

Each year, I try to do what I call a Big Read along with the other normal-sized books.  Lately I’ve been trying David Copperfield, which is 900 pages or so but easy reading, compared to most. Giant reads like War and Peace that take years rather than quarters.  There have been others like Melville’s Moby Dick, Joyce’s Ulysses, Bolaño’s 2666, Thomas Wolfe’s massive unedited version of Look Homeward Angel called O Lost.

Each event has had its pains and gains. No secret: there has been wading, hedging, skipping. For example I couldn’t endure the entire list of grisly events presented police-report style in 2666.  I chose to be selective. With Melville, I drifted in and out of sleep with his minutiae, his random straying from narrator Ishmael. Many parts of Ulysses are just too dense, too arcane (though I have since been trying to revisit it, chapter by chapter, as if studying a long and wonderful poem, and acquiring the Gilbert guide helps). Maybe Wolfe’s is the only one I read thoroughly and hung on in amazement, word-for-word.

Reading Franzen’s novel Freedom (in itself a pretty big book and one digested completely) prompted me to go to War and Peace. In the Franzen book one of his characters (Patty Berglund) escapes to a lake house and takes the occasion to finally read War and Peace. Her decision, according to many reviewers, is a significant device within the book (an expression of her need for clarity and a thematic parallel to love triangles), a matter discussed in various erudite reviews and blogs.  Maybe all that’s valid, but bottom line, it’s a matter of her being in the right place under the right conditions and with the luxury of time (freedom?) to tackle it. That’s something we all identify with.

wpAnyway, Volume I of W&P is now behind me. The plan was to stop there for a while and consider the merits of going ahead. Not much deliberation. I’ve even become used to its weight, finding the right spot on my midsection to read it comfortably in bed. So, my bookmark is well into Volume II, where at its end another pit stop will occur. There will be two volumes and six hundred pages more after that.  It’s colossal.

Like the Patty Berglund character said in Franzen’s book, I am surprised how readable W&P is. The book is far better than I ever imagined, so far, and my admiration for Tolstoy as a writer has jumped exponentially.

Two example sections below that I particularly like in Volume I:

“It was nine o’clock in the morning. The fog lay unbroken like a sea down below, but higher up at the village of Schlappanitz where Napoleon stood with his marshals around him, it was quite light. Above him was a clear blue sky, and the sun’s vast orb quivered like a huge hollow, crimson float on the surface of that milky sea of mist. The whole French army, and even Napoleon himself with his staff, were not on the far side of the streams and hollows of Sokolnitz and Schlappanitz beyond which we intended to take up our position and begin the action, but were on this side, so close to our own forces that Napoleon with the naked eye could distinguish a mounted man from one on foot. Napoleon, in the blue cloak which he had worn on his Italian campaign, sat on his small gray Arab horse a little in front of his marshals. He gazed silently at the hills which seemed to rise out of the sea of mist and on which the Russian troops were moving in the distance, and he listened to the sounds of firing in the valley. Not a single muscle of his face- which in those days was still thin- moved. His gleaming eyes were fixed intently on one spot. His predictions were being justified. Part of the Russian force had already descended into the valley…”

– copied from the online Maude translation.


“What is it? Am I falling? Are my legs giving way under me?” Prince Andrei thought, and fell on his back. He opened his eyes, hoping to see how the fight between the French and the artillerists ended, and wishing to know whether or not the red-haired artillerist had been killed, whether the cannon had been taken or saved. But he did not see anything. There was nothing over him now except the sky – the lofty sky, not clear, but still immeasurably lofty, with gray clouds slowly creeping across it. “How quiet, calm, and solemn, not at all like when I was running,” thought Prince Andrei, “not like when we were running, shouting, and fighting; not at all like when the Frenchman and the artillerist, with angry and frightened faces, were pulling at the swab – it’s quite different the way the clouds creep across this lofty, infinite sky. How is it I haven’t seen this lofty sky before? And how happy I am that I’ve finally come to know it. Yes! Everything is empty, everything is a deception, except this infinite sky. There is nothing, nothing except that. But there is not even that, there is nothing except silence, tranquility…”

– copied from the 2009 Pevear & Volokhonsky translation, the version I’m reading. It’s good, and sometimes a small crash course in French too.