Tag Archives: Leo Tolstoy

Roberto Bolaño on lost books

From Between Parentheses:


Tolstoy’s War and Peace: Short Chapters


The short chapters are something else I have noticed. I like that type of structure. It allows for a lot of temporal leaps, long or short, and for efficient and direct storytelling. Stops any meandering or over philosophizing or purple description. It reminds me of Breaking Bad‘s method of cutting action with jump cuts and skipping over conversations that we already know the content of. Bolaño also works in short chapters in The Savage Detectives and 2666. So does Walser in Jakob von Gunten.

Even authors like Wallace and Pynchon, who sometimes let their chapters go to epic lengths, still operate on the principle of self-contained chapters. Ones that reset to give a new train of thought its own room or to let a sequence be driven by its own momentum. Like a film set piece or a short story.

Other authors like Saul Bellow and W.G. Sebald go from tangent to tangent. Mostly it seems like their chapters are just arbitrary, like they are taking a breath, or more so that they want to insert the type of commentary that can only go at the beginning or end of chapters and books. Grand statements, final words, the summing up of truth.

Tolstoy’s War and Peace: The Glory of War


I just read the first battle scenes. They end in a near-miraculous victory but all the glory is misplaced. Those who did the least celebrate with full bellies while the true heroes are left starving and dying outside in the mud.

Here are some battle descriptions.

The first time that Rostov finds himself at the front lines:

‘One step beyond that line, reminiscent of the line separating the living from the dead, and it’s the unknown, suffering, and death. And what is there? who is there? there, beyond this field, and the tree, and the roof lit by the sun? No one knows, and you would like to know; and you’re afraid to cross that line, and would like to cross it; and you know that sooner or later you will have to cross it and find out what is there on the other side of the line, as you will inevitably find out what is there on the other side of death. And you’re strong, healthy, cheerful, and excited, and surrounded by people just as strong and excitedly animated.’ So, if he does not think it, every man feels who finds himself within sight of the enemy, and this feeling gives a particular brilliance and joyful sharpness of impression to everything that happens in those moments.

After having his horse shot from under him, Rostov is dazed (I’m pretty sure this is one of the book’s most famous passages):

He looked at the approaching Frenchman 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. (pg. 189)

Rostov is wounded and sits out in the cold, alone with nothing to eat:

“Nobody needs me!” thought Rostov. “There’s nobody to help me or pity me. And once I was at home, strong, cheerful, loved.”

He looked at the snowflakes dancing above the fire and remembered the Russian winter with a warm, bright house, a fluffy fur coat, swift sleighs, a healthy body, and all the love and care of a family. “And why did I come here?” he wondered. (pg. 200)

Reading Notes for Tolstoy’s War and Peace



I started reading War and Peace yesterday. What I’m noticing about this and Dead Souls is the attention to minute details. People’s expressions, manners, language, clothing, and the perceptions others have of these. There is so much description of each character and how they communicate. Each line of dialogue is accompanied by a description of a glance, a face, a tone of voice, a smile, a flush of skin. This is all standard for a realist novel. It’s recognizable from contemporary fiction, but somehow in these 19th century Russians, it seems like the detail is all the more magnified and produced in amazing abundance.

I want to take extensive notes on my reading. Every time I try this it has never worked out. I can never form clear impressions while I’m in the middle of reading a book. I like to put myself completely in the hands of the author and let him guide my experience. Somehow in isolating parts of the whole from each other, I influence the experience into something different. I lose sense of the complete picture.


Tolstoy portrays how people are disengaged from the reality of war. The looming French army is just another topic of conversation. They regard it in conflicting attitudes of foreboding and irreverence.

I think he is challenging the myths that must have been commonplace in his time. There is no universal courage. The characters aren’t inspired by honor and selflessness but personal advancement.

In part one, volume one, which takes place in the societies of Petersburg and Moscow, the motivations of the characters is chiefly self-interest. The theme of these society chapters seems to be that status and social success is in direct contradiction with virtue. The relationships are either feigned or exaggerated. And those that are actually genuine seem to advance themselves at the expense of outsiders.

Even in part two, which takes place at the front lines, so many of the characters act as if they had no personal stake in the war. What they care about is their status in the army and what honors they will receive. Whether a battle ends in a victory or loss is inconsequential to them.

In a scene, where Prince Andrei witnesses this type of behavior, he says to another officer:

Understand that we’re either officers serving our tsar and fatherland, and rejoice in our common successes and grieve over our common failures, or we’re lackeys, who have nothing to do with their masters’ doings. (pg. 127)

I skimmed through my copy of Saul Bellow’s letters and found a mention of Tolstoy’s minute description:

I’m convinced that Leo was a somatological moralist. Eyes, lips, and noses, the color of the skin, the knuckles and the feet do not lie. The tone of Speransky’s laughter tells you his social ideas are unreliable. It’s not a bad system. I seem to use it myself, most of the time. (pg.256)

Napoleon is held in an awe of respect and hatred. He’s dismissed as a mere nuisance that has only gotten ahead due to luck and transgression. The old are appalled by his hubris. They are insulted that he dares to challenge their sacred greatness. That he is admired by the young is a contrast of the traditional with the modern. The young see him as a king who wins battles. His attainment of power, status, and glory by force is in keeping with their values. They can’t help but excuse his transgression as the proper destiny for a great man.