Hemingway's Reading List for a young writer

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14 books
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Anna Karenina


3.99 rating

Comment 1: As a daughter of a Russian literature teacher, it seems I have always known the story of Anna Karenina: the love, the affair, the train - the whole shebang. I must have ingested the knowledge with my mother's milk, as Russians would say.............My grandpa had an old print of a painting hanging in his garage. A young beautiful mysterious woman sitting in a carriage in wintry Moscow and looking at the viewer through her heavy-lidded eyes with a stare that combines allure and deep sadness. "Who's that?" I asked my grandpa when I was five, and without missing a beat he answered, "Anna Karenina". Actually, it was "A Stranger" by Ivan Kramskoy (1883) - but for me it has always remained the mysterious and beautiful Anna Karenina, the femme fatale of Russian literature. (Imagine my childish glee when I saw this portrait used for the cover of this book in the edition I chose!) **Yet, "Anna Karenina" is a misleading title for this hefty tome as Anna's story is just the tip of an iceberg, as half of the story is devoted to Konstantin Levin, Tolstoy's alter ego (Count Leo's Russian name was Lev. Lev --> Levin), preoccupied with Russian peasantry and its relationship to land, as well as torn over faith and his lack of it, Levin whose story continues for chapters after Anna meets her train. But Anna gives the book its name, and her plight spoke more to me than the philosophical dealings of an insecure and soul-searching Russian landowner, and so her story comes first. Sorry, Leo Levin.Anna's chapters tell a story of a beautiful married woman who had a passionate affair with an officer and then somehow, in her quest for love, began a downward spiral fueled by jealousy and guilt and societal prejudices and stifling attitudes. "But I'm glad you will see me as I am. The chief thing I shouldn't like would be for people to imagine I want to prove anything. I don't want to prove anything; I merely want to live, to do no one harm but myself. I have the right to do that, haven't I?"On one hand, there's little new about the story of a forbidden, passionate, overwhelming affair resulting in societal scorn and the double standards towards a man and a woman involved in the same act. Few readers will be surprised that it is Anna who gets the blame for the affair, that it is Anna who is considered "fallen" and undesirable in the society, that it is Anna who is dependent on men in whichever relationship she is in because by societal norms of that time a woman was little else but a companion to her man. There is nothing new about the sad contrasts between the opportunities available to men and to women of that time - and the strong sense of superiority that men feel in this patriarchial world. No, there is nothing else in that, tragic as it may be."Anything, only not divorce!" answered Darya Alexandrovna."But what is anything?""No, it is awful! She will be no one's wife, she will be lost!"*No, where Lev Tolstoy excels is the portrayal of Anna's breakdown, Anna's downward spiral, the unraveling of her character under the ingrained guilt, crippling insecurity and the pressure the others - and she herself - place on her. Anna, a lovely, energetic, captivating woman, full of life and beauty, simply crumbles, sinks into despair, fueled by desperation and irrationality and misdirected passion. "And he tried to think of her as she was when he met her the first time, at a railway station too, mysterious, exquisite, loving, seeking and giving happiness, and not cruelly revengeful as he remembered her on that last moment."A calm and poised lady slowly and terrifyingly descends into fickle moods and depression and almost maniacal liveliness in between, tormented by her feeling of (imagined) abandonment and little self-worth and false passions which are little else but futile attempts to fill the void, the never-ending emptiness... This is what Tolstoy is a master at describing, and this is what was grabbing my heart and squeezing the joy out of it in anticipation of inevitable tragedy to come."In her eyes the whole of him, with all his habits, ideas, desires, with all his spiritual and physical temperament, was one thing—love for women, and that love, she felt, ought to be entirely concentrated on her alone. That love was less; consequently, as she reasoned, he must have transferred part of his love to other women or to another woman—and she was jealous. She was jealous not of any particular woman but of the decrease of his love. Not having got an object for her jealousy, she was on the lookout for it. At the slightest hint she transferred her jealousy from one object to another."Yes, it's the little evils, the multitude of little faces of unhappiness that Count Tolstoy knows how to portray with such sense of reality that it's quite unsettling - be it the blind jealousy of Anna or Levin, be it the shameless cheating and spending of Stiva Oblonsky, be it the moral stuffiness and limits of Arkady Karenin, the parental neglects of both Karenins to their children, the lies, the little societal snipes, the disappointments, the failures, the pervasive selfishness... All of it is so unsettlingly well-captured on page that you do realize Tolstoy must have believed in the famous phrase that he penned for this book's opening line: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."Tolstoy is excellent at showing that, despite what we tend to believe, getting what you wanted does not bring happiness. "Vronsky, meanwhile, in spite of the complete realization of what he had so long desired, was not perfectly happy. He soon felt that the realization of his desires gave him no more than a grain of sand out of the mountain of happiness he had expected. It showed him the mistake men make in picturing to themselves happiness as the realization of their desires. "*And yet, just like in real life, there are no real villains, no real unsympathetic characters that cause obstacles for our heroes, the villains whom it feels good to hate. No, everyone, in addition to their pathetic little ugly traits also has redeeming qualities. Anna's husband, despite appearing as a monster to Anna after her passionate affair, still is initially willing to give her the freedom of the divorce that she needs. Stiva Oblonsky, repulsive in his carelessness and cheating, wins us over with his gregarious and genuinely friendly personality; Anna herself, despite her outbursts, is a devoted mother to her son (at least initially). Levin may appear to be monstrous in his jealousy, but the next moment he is so overwhelmingly in love that it's hard not to forgive him. And I love this greyness of each character, so lifelike and full.And, of course, the politics - so easily forgettable by readers of this book that carries the name of the heroine of a passionate forbidden affair. The dreaded politics that bored me to tears when I was fifteen. And yet these are the politics and the questions that were so much on the mind of Count Tolstoy, famous to his compatriots for his love and devotion to peasants, that he devoted almost half of this thick tome to it, discussed through the thoughts of Konstantin Levin. *Levin, a landowner with a strong capacity for compassion, self-reflection and curiosity about Russian love for land, as well as a striking political apathy, is Tolstoy's avatar in trying to make sense of a puzzling Russian peasantry culture, which failed to be understood by many of his compatriots educated on the ideas and beliefs of industrialized Europe. "He considered a revolution in economic conditions nonsense. But he always felt the injustice of his own abundance in comparison with the poverty of the peasants, and now he determined that so as to feel quite in the right, though he had worked hard and lived by no means luxuriously before, he would now work still harder, and would allow himself even less luxury."I have to say - I understood his ideas more this time, but I could not really feel for the efforts of the devoted and kind landowner striving to understand the soul of Russian peasants. Maybe it's because I mentally kept fast-forwarding mere 50 years, to the Socialist Revolution of 1917 that would leave most definitely Levin and Kitty and their children dead, or less likely, in exile; the revolution which, as Tolstoy almost predicted, focused on the workers and despised the loved by Count Leo peasants, the revolution that despised the love for owning land and working it that Tolstoy felt was at the center of the Russian soul. But it is still incredibly interesting to think about and to analyze because even a century and a half later there's still enough truth and foresight in Tolstoy's musings, after all. Even if I disagree with so many of his views, they are still thought-provoking, no doubts about it."If he had been asked whether he liked or didn't like the peasants, Konstantin Levin would have been absolutely at a loss what to reply. He liked and did not like the peasants, just as he liked and did not like men in general. Of course, being a good-hearted man, he liked men rather than he disliked them, and so too with the peasants. But like or dislike "the people" as something apart he could not, not only because he lived with "the people," and all his interests were bound up with theirs, but also because he regarded himself as a part of "the people," did not see any special qualities or failings distinguishing himself and "the people," and could not contrast himself with them."========================It's a 3.5 star book for me. Why? Well, because of Tolstoy's prose, of course - because of its wordiness and repetitiveness. Yes, Tolstoy is the undisputed king of creating page-long sentences (which I love, by the way - love that is owed in full to my literature-teacher mother admiring them and making me punctuate these never-ending sentences correctly for grammar exercises). But he is also a master of restating the obvious, repeating the same thought over and over and over again in the same sentence, in the same paragraph, until the reader is ready to cry for some respite. This, as well as Levin's at times obnoxious preachiness and the author's frequently very patriarchial views, was what made this book substantially less enjoyable than it could have been. --------By the way, there is an excellent 1967 Soviet film based on this book that captures the spirit of the book quite well (and, if you so like, has a handy function to turn on English subtitles): first part is here, and the second part is here. I highly recommend this film.And even better version of this classic is the British TV adaptation (2000) with stunning Helen McCrory as perfect Anna and lovely Paloma Baeza as perfect Kitty.


The Brothers Karamazov


4.28 rating

Comment 1: Note: This review was written on Nov 18th 2007, a week after my twenty-first birthday. Excuse the youthful clumsiness of my style.Matters of Life and DeathOften I used stop people in the streets, shake them frantically on the shoulders and slap them on the face, shouting again and again: “Is there a God? Is there a God? For God’s sake, just tell me if there’s a God!”You would be surprised at the results I gathered from this. One or two of them confirmed that there is indeed a God, and that his name is Jack Daniels, whereas the others fought me off and beat me to a pulp (which I interpreted as an emphatic no). This marked the beginning of my long period of agnosticism. I was fed up of the bruises, quite frankly.In The Brothers Karamazov, one of thee Great Russian novels, I found characters who shared my plight. For within this Herculean tome, I found discourses in which the author wrestles with notions of the hereafter, the supposed everlastingness of God, and the point of it all. It tackles the most impossible philosophical arguments that will visit each and every mortal on this earth at some stage, and offers the most incredible arguments for them all, proving universal to all types of being on this earth. All in a succinct and accessible 974 pages of literary delight.Historical FactsFyodor Dostoevsky wrote this book at a time when he had been lionised in Russia as one of the most important writers in the motherland. Not necessarily from a critical standpoint—his books were still unpopular among the status quo—but within the academic and greater reading public, he was tantamount to an emperor. He should have been a megastar within his lifetime, in this reviewer’s opinion, but no one was ever going to warm to an author as uncompromising and academically volatile as he was. Except perhaps his stenographer.In 1880, after this (his final book) was released, he made a speech to mark the erection of a monument to Aleksander Pushkin, celebrating a milestone in the progression of Russian literature. One year later, he passed on at the solid age of 60, leaving a canon of work more sensational than one-hundred free trips to Glasgow’s Water World. His swansong novel was quite a note to bow out on. An often quoted but scarcely read masterwork, it made the biggest impact of all his novels on the world at large, and pushed him into the echelons of literary immortality with 19th century contemporaries Dickens, Balzac and Tolstoy.On top of this, Sigmund Freud was his biggest fan. Not bad, eh? That nefarious little wench Susan Sontag also likes him. Which is less impressive in comparison.Themes & PlotFor those unfamiliar with this work, it is an accessible and none too unmanageable text to read. The conceit is that the Karamazov brothers, Dmitri, Ivan and Alyosha are all to some extent dependent on their grudging old scrote of a father in the small village of Skotoprigonyevsk. These three brothers are used to symbolise the tripartite nature of man: body, mind and spirit. Each also harbour opposing teleological views which puts them at odds with one another throughout the entire duration of the text. When Dmitri, a hedonistic wastrel (representing sensual pleasures of the body) asks his father for three-thousand roubles with which to support himself, he is refused and is unable to find another benefactor. Here we have the setup.What transpires is a murder mystery yarn, the crux of the plot to the novel, where Dmitri is incorrectly arrested for the murder of his father following a dark night of carousing. The action in The Brothers Karamazov takes place over four days, and is centred (for the most part) around the interactions of these brothers and additional characters, most of whom sink to various levels of despair, confusion, helplessness and sorrow over the course of this short time. The continual themes of deceit, abandonment, torture and suffering are never far from the narrative, and the dialogue is very much in the melodramatic tradition of the era.Central to this basic narrative are the discourses around God and the Devil, whose presences cast a continual shadow over the narrative. In this desolate and rather awful village in North Russia, the characters wander through their miserable lives with uncertainty, seeking examples of God’s existence and to prove their individual theories of life just so they can understand the absurdity of the world around them. It is a place of petty tortures and brutal co-dependence, where the follies of man are shown for what the stupidities they are, and the sad desperation of life is rendered almost transcendent.CharactersOne suspects, given Dostoevsky’s own faith, that he intended Alyosha (the spiritual and naive brother) to be the real centre of this piece. It was easier for me to empathise more with this character, one of the few gracious, forgiving and angelic presences in the novel, and without his voice the book would lack a hopeful presence. He is taken on a journey that tests his faith in a proper John Bunyan idiom, forced to contemplate the idea that the monk Starets Zosima was not as pure and divine as he trusted him to be. We are also shown the extent of his knowledge and wisdom with an exceptional sub-narrative revolving around a precocious child and a group of troublemaking schoolchildren.The brothers Dmitri and Ivan are destructive and irascible characters, seldom likeable and halted in their lives through their mutual dislike of both their father and one another. We are forced to watch these brothers scold one another and fester in hatred, and for their views and desires to drive them apart. The Father Fyodor (while he is still alive) is also intolerable, and it is only through religious voices such as Starets Zosima whom we can take some kind of solace.The object of the feuding brothers’ affections is the more well-to-do “lady” of the village Katerina Ivanovna whom is torn between her hateful relationship with Dmitri and her uncertain affections for Ivan. Grushenka is the “local Jezebel” of the village with whom the brothers are also besotted. It is clear that part of their mutual downfall has to do with the indecision, torment and deceit these women place upon the brothers, but this is more in relation to the untrustworthiness they have placed upon them. Alyosha expresses affection for Lise, a secondary character who also occupies the one home in which these women reside. He is unsure of his affections in the novel, however, and his love goes unresolved within the narrative.The purpose of these characters is to torment one another. It is rare that a character within this text is not breaking down into a hysterical outburst at one moment or another. Barely five pages have past before a Karamazov is tearing someone apart in a moment of feverish excitement. The shame of asking for money (for grovelling and sacrificing dignity) seems to hang over the brothers at all times (especially Dmitri), and there are procession of niggling villagers such as Miusov, the bothersome theology student Rakitin and the dangerous epileptic Smerdyakov (who is roundly abused throughout the novel) to fester their lives.Style & LengthThe Brothers Karamazov does require a few weeks of consistent reading and demands those who undertake it to be prepared for all manner of devious arguments pertaining to the existence of God. The author was a devout believer in He Above (meaning there are Bible quotes aplenty to be found) but presents the opposing arguments in a lucid and accessible manner through Ivan’s own atheism and Dmitri’s agnosticism. Given how the two non-believers are forced to confront their own demons to an extreme degree, and to follow through on their godless decisions in times of great strife, it would seem the sensible people are those on the side of God in Dostoevsky’s opinion. Ivan is forced to confront the Devil towards the end of the book, and in contemplation of a life without love, he is driven to delirium.Critics often liken the long-windedness in the text to the structural principals Dostoevsky derived from music. It is thought that the development of the novel thrives on the extended use of subordinate themes and variations of these themes. Victor E. Amend argued that, similar to the dialogue between piano and orchestra in Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, the development is accomplished by the alternate presentation of the themes until the dominant one prevails. While his style is an oral, often freewheeling and “unedited” it is a very readable and thoroughly accessible style.Some might quibble about the extended time spent dwelling on inappropriate scenes, such as when the schoolchildren gather around Alyosha or the 70-odd pages spent on legal speeches towards the end, but these all contribute to this musical “theme and variation” style that makes Dostoevsky such a fulfilling author. To trim material as psychologically prodigious and insightful as this would be akin to chopping out the last ten minutes of a Beethoven Concerto or losing that extended guitar solo in Stairway To Heaven. It must remain as it stands. However, I should confess for the sake of honesty that I did find myself restless towards the end. This does not diminish the flow and brilliance of his style, in fact—it seemed appropriate to bring such a mighty work to its conclusion.Translation & Other WorksThe finest version of this book is the translation from Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, who also did a stellar job on Crime & Punishment. It is available in Penguin Paperback. This version, alas, was an Oxford World Classics print, translated by Ignat Avsey. This Latvian louse converted a great deal of the text into Present Day English, incorporating phrases that seem inappropriate to the time period of the novel. He also had the audacity to change the title to The Karamazov Brothers instead of the original title on the proviso we don’t say “The Brothers Marx” when referring to a brethren. Pah! His introduction is also littered with erroneous observations (such as that the town name of the text is said once – it is in fact said twice in the text). His translation is to be avoided at all costs.The oeuvre of this great Russian author is to me vitally important. What I take from his novels is this profound sense of redemptive catharsis; that there is nothing so awful from which a person can never return. His novels, in all their unrelenting gloom and Russian thickness, present a vision often of a world in squalor-filled chaos, but from this chaos he shows us that the solution for all our problems lies in our own collective freedom as individuals. This makes him timeless and cherished in the eyes of this reviewer, and I have yet to find a novel to match the incredible Crime & Punishment or a novella to equal Notes From Underground. Both are also recommended to those unversed in his canon.ConclusionThe Brothers Karmazov achieves that rare feat in 19th century literature in that it remains infinitely readable, gripping and vital to readers to this very day. Even those intimidated by its considerable size will be surprised just how immersed in this magnificent masterwork they will become. As a rule, I avoid these mammoth doorstoppers when making book choices, but this one had me entranced from beginning to end—despite those indulgent moments of excessive erudition. I recommend this to all readers prepared to tackle its complex subject matter and who wish to put themselves at the hands of a master.The rewards are abounding.


Madame Bovary


3.63 rating

Comment 1: Oh, Emma. Emma, Emma, Emma. Darling, why must you make it so easy ? No, dear, (for once) I don’t mean for the men. I mean for everyone else in the world who goes into this book just looking for an excuse to make fun of you. I would say that most people don’t know that much about France, but they do know a few things: that they like their baguettes, their socialism, Sartre, dirrrty dirrty sexy lurrrve and they despise this thing called the bourgeoisie. This book doesn’t really do a thing to disprove any of this (though I can’t say baguettes had a prominent place in the plot), and I expect that it had a great deal to do with starting the last two stereotypes. Emma, my dear, Desperate Housewives isn’t your fault, but you can see why some people might blame you, don’t you? Your constant, throbbing whining about how your (plentiful) food isn’t served on crystal platters, how your dresses(of which you have more than a typical country doctor’s wife) aren’t made of yards of spider-spun silk, and most of all how your husband dresses wrong, talks wrong, thinks wrong, WEARS THE WRONG HAT (!!), and is so offensively happy with you that he enjoys coming straight home to tell you about his day and relax in front of his fireplace every night instead of going out drinking- well, there’s a saying about the smallest violin, isn’t there?It makes it easy for people to plausibly dismiss this story with things like this:(If it makes you feel better, dear, you are hardly the only one.. Your other compatriots in 19th century repressed female misery receive similar treatment: )It is easy to despise you, Emma. You and your seemingly shallow priorities, the unthinking selfish harm you did to your husband AND your baby girl, the endless excuses you had for your, frankly, off the charts stupid behavior, the fact that you didn’t even try and communicate how unhappy you were to the guy who loved you who might’ve done something about it (since all the evidence shows that he is willing to COMPLETELY CHANGE HIS LIFE whenever you ask him to) and, finally (what can seem to be) the incredibly coward move you made in finding a way to not face the consequences your childish sense of the world couldn’t believe would eventually come up. What goes around comes around ,as the wise chanteur sayeth. (Perhaps the alternate cover above should substitute ‘Justin Timberlake’ for Sassy Gay Friend.)That’s pretty much how I felt about you for about 150 pages after you made your entrance, Emma. While you started your endlessly copied, endlessly bastardized fall from Angel in the Home Grace, and while you tried to make a saint out of yourself for not having sex with a young clerk who couldn’t have supported you anyway. You were simply the grandmother of Lady Chatterley, an extended protest letter to a dead king I couldn’t care less about.But in the end, you won, Emma. I couldn’t escape you. Seriously, y’all, this book would not leave my head alone, for days, and I thought… many different and contradictory things about it. In the end, though, I kept coming back to one thought: the most terrifying thing I can think of is getting caught in Emma Bovary’s eyes. Did everyone read that profile about Dan Savage this weekend about infidelity and marriage? I did. Emma is the literary incarnation of Savage’s argument. Her eyes are on the cover of this book, and the more I looked at them, the more disturbed I got. Those eyes are the reason that marriage is so frightening, why ‘commitment issues’ exist. This is a novel about how reality can look just the same to you from one day to the next, but to your partner, it can have turned into a hell or a heaven, even if it is the same Tuesday routine as the last one. Emma’s gaze, how each time she fixes her eyes on some scheme of happiness and how those eyes transform everything they see. She shows how unstable marriage is, how thin the foundations are- resting on nothing but the words- “I love you.” Words that just need one more word to dissolve the entire thing. That’s it, you guys. One word and someone’s will to speak it is all that stands between a solid marriage and one that is over- no matter how much paperwork you sign, how many kids you have, houses you fill with furniture. You never really know what the person across from you is thinking. How do you really know what motivates someone? Are they with you because they have made a resolution to be? Are they there with you because the stars shine in your eyes? Are they perfect to you because they are about to leave? Marriage, for better or worse, no matter what people say, adds so many complications. It is the commitment that people twist and bend over and around in so many different contortions to try to make it work- because it is a marriage, because it means something. How difficult is it to trust that people are simply what they say they are? Charles is simple and straightforward and rather sweet- and Emma hates him for it. She smiles and smiles and smiles… and then cheats on him, bankrupts him, tries to prostitute herself and kills herself rather than spend another day with him. This is the most anxiety inducing book I have ever read about marriage. It’s the 19th century where you have to make a vow for life that you can't get out of, not really, in order to test the idea that you might want to be with someone. If you're wrong, that's it. You've failed. It’s all-or-nothing. Emma is the incarnation of the expectations of the institution at the time- all-or-nothing. Madame Bovary is destroyed because she tries to put her all into Charles, then Rodolphe and then Leon, and none of them can withstand it. Each of them are good for different things, and only for a little while, and she can't accept it. That is not the ideal. She won't accept less than the ideal. You guys, she's nothing more than exactly what she is told is available to her- granted, she's after the best of what she's told is available: the ideal. But why do we hold that against her? As long as we live in a society where we’re told to strive after the ideal, to never give up, you will have people who destroy themselves and everyone around them to get it. Savage’s discussion of what the “ideal” means in real life is enlightening and pertinent here, I think. He talks about how you have to be willing to change a lot and make a huge effort to keep the deal of monogamy alive. Of course everyone has their limits, and in many marriages, the trade offs of one person’s limits for the others (I won’t do this, and you won’t do that- I won’t do that, but I will do this) end up making the deal of monogamy work. But you have to be honest about it, you have to be able to say things that you’ve never said out loud before. You have to admit that you won’t be happy unless you live a life where you have crystal knickknacks on your fireplace, and you get off from pies being thrown in your face. But it’s not that easy- Emma was on her deathbed, writhing in agony from eating arsenic, and she still couldn’t tell Charles what she wanted from him.I can’t blame Emma, ultimately. It actually made me think, of all things, a bit about Planet of Slums. That book talks about the millions of people who have been born outside the system, in illegal settlements to parents who are illegal themselves, and who are not, in fact, ignored by the system. They never get into the system in the first place- a system that is not built to cope with the mind-blowing poverty that arises from its excrement. The system can’t acknowledge it and justify itself. At the risk of sounding like I think relatively-well-off white lady problems bear any resemblance to the horror of someone living on the outskirts of Kinshasa in a lean-to, Emma is just trying to get in to a society that can't acknowledge her and go on. She’s trying with all her might to buy into the fairy tales she’s been told (just like the revived, and growing belief in magic in some slums), and does whatever she has to do to get her hands on it, even if only for a little while. She saw that fairy tales are real (or so she thinks) at that ball that one time- she SAW it, mommy- and can’t handle the fact that they exist on this earth and she can’t be a part of it. And in case anyone finds her head-in-the-sand refusal to face the world overly childish or impossible to relate to: The endless line of irresponsible credit she takes out from the scam artist down the street in order to feed her fantasies about the way she believes her life should look has obvious immediate relevance to America in the pre-2008 financial crisis era. In some ways, the existential crisis Flaubert is trying to outline here: between a solidly practical, profit-and-advancement outlook on life and a sensibility that at least tries to aspire to something higher, even if it is unaffordable or impossible, is the distilled essence of the push and pull of American partisan politics. Monsieur Homais would have done very well on Wall Street. Emma can be read as being more American than French, really. Emma is a true believer. She doesn’t just want attention from men, or shiny things. I didn’t really believe that until the part where she tries to renounce the whole world for fervent religious devotion. Failing making it into her fairy tale, she wants to escape where she is- to somewhere else, anywhere else. By the end, I felt like I was suffocating right along with her. Virginia Woolf said that the “present participle is the devil” . Emma adds the present place, the present time, the present person you are with. She really is willing to try anything to escape. On her deathbed, as she pleaded to die, my heart was racing along with hers and the whole finale read like a blockbuster last action scene with explosives and severed limbs flying. I didn’t enjoy the journey I had with her, but I had made it and lived in tiny spaces with her, spaces that got ever smaller as the book wound down. Every chapter there was less and less light until she was curled up in a ball in solitary confinement with no hope of escape. In the Count of Monte Cristo, we root for the hero to get thrown over the side of a cliff in a body bag because it is his only hope of escape. How could we do less for poor Emma? She deserves her chance to make it to the place she always hoped for- even if priests and businessmen argue whether she got there over her corpse. If she can’t be buried in ‘blessed’ ground, well, at that point the priest’s God is just another man telling her she has to stay in the woods with the witch and her oven rather than try to find the path home, like she was always taught to do. Flaubert handles his prose deftly, precisely, and with a deceptively commonplace hand. He doesn’t try for smart metaphors and delicate similes, but rather has characters say what the mean in an effectively believable way that makes Emma a character who can impact the lives of real women. Parts of this novel are spine-tinglingly sordid, others wrench out your gut, most of it can be drearily, boringly, mind-numbingly quotidian, and every so often, a gem shines through that makes you turn around and look at someone you had thought you were done being interested in. In other words, it’s like last Wednesday. And the Tuesday before that. And today. And probably next Monday. The morning when you woke up vowing that today it was all going to be different, that afternoon when you just wanted to die, the evening when you forgot it all making dinner and laughing about that thing you saw on the internet.Flaubert can’t get it all, or say it all right, but he knows that. In fact, he’s willing to tell his readers that. But he does it in such a way that you just want to punch him in the face like you do that size 0 model who complains that she’s too fat:“Whereas the truth is that fullness of soul can sometimes overflow in utter vapidity of language, for none of us can ever express the exact measure of his needs or his thoughts or his sorrows; and human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.”Aw, come on, Gustave. Why do you want to make those of us with irrevocably not-size-0 rears, who can’t get from Q to R, cry? Yet, even your complaining makes me want to hug you.I guess what I am saying is why are you so awesome, Monsieur Flaubert?


Of Human Bondage


4.09 rating

Comment 1: It doesn’t take much effort to decipher a point of distinction in one’s existence when the naiveté jolted out of its lugubrious slumber, shaken into reality groped for a meaning and a reason, previously un-conceived and unexpected, aided by a book, ideas that shook the very base of a citadel made-believe to have deeply entrenched roots only to be found suspended merely over fictional clouds floating in ether of one’s prejudiced and over-rated mystical, idealistic imagination. ‘Of Human Bondage’ by Maugham is a personal event for me that represented the very deflection point in consonance with several other books.This book first came into my hands on a birthday via a friend and got munched with urgency and alacrity because of love and respect for the source and the paeans that were sung. It marked me irreversibly. Over the years in the haze of Phillips dabbling with the world and life, I remembered distinctly, "But are you under the impression that men ever do anything except for selfish reasons?"At the time of its first mention, the revulsion and repulsion, the first reaction of anaphylactic shock withered away very slowly but left an unending quest and desire to know more, proverbially, to know it all. Amidst life’s shocks and travails it left a deep dent on the susceptibly malleable mind ground and in its wake generated several other un-resolved ideas of much greater significance. It was imperative from then on to quench that thirst even to merely survive. The talk of killing self on account of life’s bestiality and arguing that it is the lack of money ultimately that makes one to end one’s existence seemed precisely trivial when first encountered yet made impossible to ignore with the query, what if its true? The fear that what would remain if at heart life proves to be a base and trivial occurrence governed merely by ugly events of common place nature? Then it was the vivid ending of Philip’s journey which surprised and confounded along with strengthening the desire to discover, to know, to understand, to make amends, to fail, to grow, to wilt, to fight…… above all to LIVE. This book has been among the ones that pushed and shoved me into the realm of reading that is not just supercilious, transitory but a deeply enriching lifelong love. Re-visiting it now, expectedly unveiled itself so much more, on being seen through a prism shaped by the years that came along, that might have lost itself in the haze of surprise, awe and shock of the first time. I will be one among so many to say that in Philip’s account I saw my life laid threadbare, hammered by the travails of penury and loneliness, pangs of desire and desire of love, the shock, the pain, the relief and then epiphany. To the question of meaning of life, Philip learns and tells me that;“The answer is meaningless unless you discover it for yourself."Which encompasses all that is of any significance in any life, a life that represents an endeavor towards meaning can only find its own meaning. The potency of this simply worded sentence dawns in the form of liberty and freedom it ensconces in itself and reveals to an insignificant traveler with significant intentions and gumption of a vanguard discoverer.This is a poignant tale of very poignant and sentimental yet un-mistakenly rational and pragmatic individual in Philip who thus represents a marriage between obviously irreconcilable traits which becomes the nature of the book also. A philosophical account of life and yet akin to Philip does not confine or biases itself to a single philosophy, which makes our protagonist both an actor on the stage and yet a mere reporter narrating from the outside as an observer who is constantly forming and rejecting opinions, dabbling with realities and beliefs unceasingly. As a matter of course is Maugham’s silken writing and dexterous control that endears us to Philip and his character or the lack of it, proximity of his struggles, their humaneness, freckles and ultimate freedom, liberation owing its allegiance to the very chains that bound. “We shall not cease from explorationAnd the end of all our exploringWill be to arrive where we startedAnd know the place for the first time.” (TS ELLIOT)A reticent, introvert, sentimental child, Philip, devoid of his parents and overly albeit naturally sensitive to his disability fiddles around inanely in the world unknown when;"Insensibly he formed the most delightful habit in the world, the habit of reading: he did not know that thus he was providing himself with a refuge from all the distress of life; he did not know either that he was creating for himself an unreal world which would make the real world of every day a source of bitter disappointment."Thence began his jaunt with ideas, questions, views, opinions, acquired through incessant reading and put to ceaseless churning in his mind but with limited, almost nil backdrop of reality. Brush with real life and reality strikes by tumultuously un-rattling, befuddling on discovering the unsure footing which appeared so very well entrenched previously. His quest for life, its meaning and his calling carves his meandering path. But Philip presents a very funny conglomeration of principally incompatible peculiarities of nature where he is so hopelessly emotional on one occasion or at one moment and mathematically practical even brutally cruel on others;“Philip had cultivated a certain disdain for idealism. He had always had a passion for life, and the idealism he had come across seemed to him for the most part a cowardly shrinking from it. The idealist withdrew himself, because he could not suffer the jostling of the human crowd; he had not the strength to fight and so called the battle vulgar; he was vain, and since his fellows would not take him at his own estimate, consoled himself with despising his fellows.”"Philip clamoured for life as it stood; sordidness, vice, deformity, did not offend him; he declared that he wanted man in his nakedness; and he rubbed his hands when an instance came before him of meanness, cruelty, selfishness, or lust: that was the real thing. In Paris he had learned that there was neither ugliness nor beauty, but only truth: the search after beauty was sentimental." This marks an epochal revelation to him about himself, "He could not be positive that reason was much help in the conduct of life. It seemed to him that life lived itself. He remembered very vividly the violence of the emotion which had possessed him and his inability, as if he were tied down to the ground with ropes, to react against it.""He thought of what he was going to do and, when the time came to act, he was powerless in the grasp of instincts, emotions, he knew not what. He acted as though he were a machine driven by the two forces of his environment and his personality; his reason was someone looking on, observing the facts but powerless to interfere..."It’s the writing that matters always for me along with the essence of the tale but beyond this point to narrate the glimpses of actual events would lead on an unending quest owing not less to my own poignancy for the work, rendering it an act of outright fiendish meaninglessness. I wish the reader or a re-reader to unravel or re-unravel Philip’s life in its intricate detail but I shall point out a figment from among a plethora of moments (most of which appeared in updates) which live eternally in the humdrum of colossal chaos of my (our) mind as fluorescently highlighted oasis in the desert of existence.Obsessively self conscious and guilt-ridden Philip;"Philip knew by now that whenever anyone was angry with him his first thought was to say something about his club-foot. His estimate of the human race was determined by the fact that scarcely anyone failed to resist the temptation. But he had trained himself not to show any sign that the reminder wounded him. He had even acquired control over the blushing which in his boyhood had been one of his torments."Philip’s doomed tryst with hopeless love;"He had thought of love as a rapture which seized one so that all the world seemed spring-like, he had looked forward to an ecstatic happiness; but this was not happiness; it was a hunger of the soul, it was a painful yearning, it was a bitter anguish, he had never known before.""Love was like a parasite in his heart, nourishing a hateful existence on his life's blood; it absorbed his existence so intensely that he could take pleasure in nothing else."Philip’s tryst with ‘his meaning’ of life as it unveiled;“The answer was obvious. Life had no meaning. On the earth, satellite of a star speeding through space, living things had arisen under the influence of conditions which were part of the planet's history; and as there had been a beginning of life upon it so, under the influence of other conditions, there would be an end: man, no more significant than other forms of life, had come not as the climax of creation but as a physical reaction to the environment.”“There was no meaning in life, and man by living served no end. It was immaterial whether he was born or not born, whether he lived or ceased to live. Life was insignificant and death without consequence. Philip exulted, as he had exulted in his boyhood when the weight of a belief in God was lifted from his shoulders: it seemed to him that the last burden of responsibility was taken from him; and for the first time he was utterly free. His insignificance was turned to power, and he felt himself suddenly equal with the cruel fate which had seemed to persecute him; for, if life was meaningless, the world was robbed of its cruelty. What he did or left undone did not matter. Failure was unimportant and success amounted to nothing. He was the most inconsiderate creature in that swarming mass of mankind which for a brief space occupied the surface of the earth; and he was almighty because he had wrenched from chaos the secret of its nothingness.”“As the weaver elaborated his pattern for no end but the pleasure of his aesthetic sense, so might a man live his life, or if one was forced to believe that his actions were outside his choosing, so might a man look at his life, that it made a pattern. There was as little need to do this as there was use. It was merely something he did for his own pleasure. Out of the manifold events of his life, his deeds, his feelings, his thoughts, he might make a design, regular, elaborate, complicated, or beautiful; and though it might be no more than an illusion that he had the power of selection, though it might be no more than a fantastic legerdemain in which appearances were interwoven with moonbeams, that did not matter: it seemed, and so to him it was.”"Philip thought that in throwing over the desire for happiness he was casting aside the last of his illusions. His life had seemed horrible when it was measured by its happiness, but now he seemed to gather strength as he realised that it might be measured by something else.Happiness mattered as little as pain. They came in, both of them,as all the other details of his life came in, to the elaboration of the design"Maugham’s semi-autobiographical, down-right honest work is a magnificent effort at unraveling the mystique of life in a manner that is far removed from hardcore, matter of fact, brutal philosophizing and yet the marrow is an intricate gossamer formed out of the vivid fabric of life’s revelations heaped in philosophy. Not one of those books that one can treat merely objectively and has something to offer to everyone, provides solidarity if not any concrete meaning. Needless to say, its an excellent read, a beautifully well written work and even if I forget my emotional association for one second, a book for everyone and especially for those troubled by life’s questions or life that asks them.


War and Peace


4.09 rating

Comment 1: I tried for five months to write something more polished, less rambling. This is all I've got:"While he is alive, the morning is still fresh and dewy, the vampires sleep. But if the sun sets, if father Tolstoy dies and the last genius leaves - what then?"-Alexander Blok, as Tolstoy lay dying at Astapovo***"[War and Peace] is positively what might be called a Russian Illiad. Embracing the whole epoch, it is the grandiose literary event, showcasing the gallery of great men painted by a lively brush of the great master... This is one of the most, if not the most profound literary work ever.-Ivan Goncharov“Anna Karenina is sheer perfection as a work of art. No European work of fiction of our present day comes anywhere near it. Furthermore, the idea underlying it shows that it is ours, ours, something that belongs to us alone and that is our own property, our own national 'new word' or, at any rate, the beginning of it.”- Dostoyevsky"[War and Peace] is the greatest ever war novel in the history of literature."-Thomas MannAnd of course: "If the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy."-Isaac BabelDamn, right? Intense. These are just some of the glowing, adoring quotes that I have drawn from the absolutely glittering gallery of homages that have been written to Tolstoy. On the one hand, it’s hard not to get caught up in the high, especially if you’ve experienced any of it first-hand yourself. But on the other hand… it kind of makes you want to kick back at it, doesn’t it? It makes me understand muckraking tabloid journalism. This is definitely the sort of moment where we could all use a cooling off article about the tax fraud he committed for years or some pictures from a bar fight he started. Here’s the thing, the wonderful thing about Tolstoy: I think that he feels the same way.One of the many reasons I love the movie version of The Last Station (which covers the last year of Tolstoy’s life) is the way that it frames Tolstoy’s struggle to control his own identity. The movie brilliantly explored the grand old man standing at the same crossroads over and over again as people tried to force him to take one path or another: either to buy into his own mythical propaganda, or at least to use it to some good purpose and become the sort of icon that Russia needed to begin to undertake serious reforms, that is, to act the part of the pure saint that he often wished that he was and live the way that others felt he owed it to them to live or whether he could simply be and live as the complicated, imperfect, sometimes silly, sometimes angry, loving man that he actually was. At that point, was his life really his own any longer to decide what to do with? What did he owe to the millions who knew his name and thought they knew what he stood for? Did he have the right to be less than what he was constantly told people needed him to be?I think that Tolstoy struggled with the issue of Great Man syndrome long before he became the purported saint/icon that he was made into at the end of his life. War and Peace is, as so many have noted, about a lot of Serious Ideas and Movements. And here’s the thing, he’s really, really good at writing about them. Although some of his ideas can seem silly from the vantage point of the 21st century, the process that is put into them does not seem so. And at the time, there seemed to be no one who could come up with the words to refute him in any satisfying way. I’m sure that his reputation had a lot to do with it, his place in the social-political fabric as much as his literary talents, his extraordinary position that seemingly allowed him to speak out under an autocratic government. But nonetheless, whatever you might say about the legitimacy of how he got there, it doesn’t change what ultimately happened, which is that both Tolstoy and his ideas ended up elevated into a rarefied sphere where criticisms were fairly ineffectual or easily dismissed.Under all the rage about Napoleons and Alexanders, it seemed to me that perhaps the major underlying theme of War and Peace was just this: The search for that Great Man (or equivalent idea) that could make Tolstoy stop seeking and asking and live content. It seemed to me that Tolstoy would give anything if he felt he could give up seeking and rest in full trust. This whole book has his thinly veiled author proxies searching for something to give themselves over to, wholeheartedly and without regrets. The read I got was that Tolstoy wanted to find this Great Man, be his servant, follow his dictates and trust that when the day comes that he questions them, the Great Man will be able to justify what he tells him in a way that admits of no argument. He wants to be able to go home satisfied and feel that when he comes back the next day the Great Man’s next set of instructions will always be just as wise, just as inarguable, and just as moral in statement as well as action as they were the day before. More than this, he wants this Great Man to be able to change him and purify him of what he sees as his petty enjoyments, loves, hatreds and cynicisms, and make him into a perfect vessel of love and generosity to those around him, who is only inspired by the greatest of good-doings and rejects worldly pleasures.So, you can see where this is going, right? Tolstoy isn’t looking for a Great Man, or perfect human or amazing idea at all: he’s looking for God, incarnate. This was the heartbreaking thing about this book for me, watching him try to find this impossible ideal, because it seems like he really thought that this was possible, in his heart of hearts. He never could get rid of the thought that The Ideal, the Utopia, the Perfect Heaven, existed somewhere and he was just missing out on it.Tolstoy’s two most direct author proxies, Pierre and Prince Andrei, spend this whole novel seeking what I can only call with a capital H, their Happiness, some platonic ideal of Heavenly Bliss in which their souls will no longer question or feel discontent or dissatisfaction. Between them, these two men place their hopes in, respectively: Napoleon, carousing and living for the moment, money and societal success, the quasi-Christian cult/society club that was the Russian Freemasons, and finally Love With That Girl Who Was Too Good For You (Pierre) and the army/war, the Emperor(s), familial obligations, meritocratic success and professional heroes, The Love of A Fresh, Pretty Young Girl, the Army Part II, and, finally, the forgiveness and redemption of Jesus (Andrei). Other members of the vast cast show up to take over the baton for a few moments and chime in about the glories of the Emperor(s), God, the brotherhood that can be found in the army or idea of The Fatherland, and, on the part of the women, religious obsessions, the love of children, and the perfections of a man who deigns to marry them.It’s rough to watch these people’s hopes get shot down that many times. This book is a thousand pages long. It happens a lot of times, and to almost all the characters that we have any sympathy for. It’s hard to watch these characters put their 110% into something or someone because we know that there’s just nothing in this world that can withstand that sort of pressure. It’s tragic, to think what some people expect of others, and, I think, one of the most powerful insights to come out of this book: there are no ideals, and those who spend their lives trying to find them will be inevitably disappointed. This is something that Tolstoy clearly struggled a lot with. But God was always the out. It happened in W&P and in the “oh holy shit, I feel like a bad person,” screeching brakes of an ending on Anna Karenina. But of course, this ideal is unknowable and insubstantial in many ways, it’s mysteries therefore customizable and different for everyone who encounters them. God allowed him to hold onto the idea that the Ideal existed and allowed him a vessel into which to pour all his hopes after everything else, inevitably, disappointed him.It’s really unfair, of course, for Tolstoy to have expected mere humans to do anything different if he’s going to put that kind of insane expectation on everyone and everything around him. It’s almost laughably arrogant to expect that the world will live up to the way that you think that it should be and that it should change itself to suit you. Sometimes I felt like I was the Cary Grant character in The Philadelphia Story, wanting to face down Katherine Hepburn and tell her that she needed to have some regard for human frailty. If Tolstoy was like that, it would be easy to dismiss him. His rage would have no power. It would be simply a delusion, not an ideal. But he does understand it, is the thing. To his great despair. Tolstoy is afraid of that frailty and spends this whole book running from it. This was some of the great power of Anna Karenina for me, as well as this book. He can’t sustain that fire and brimstone condemnation of the sinful for long. He understands the flaws far too well. In the same way, he can’t sustain his belief in a system, a person, or even a religion for too long. He keeps having to find something else to believe in, something new to try, in just the same way that his characters keep having to “renew” themselves after doing something that they feel is sinful. Tolstoy’s protagonists are always too active in their minds and hearts to settle down to something forever, state their belief and call it good. They keep changing and evolving for a very specific reason: because they keep living. It reminded me of something something he wrote in Anna Karenina about the blissful period after Anna and Vronsky run away together:He felt that the realization of his desire had given him only a grain of the mountain of happiness he had expected. It showed him the eternal error people make in imagining that happiness is the realization of desires. At first, after he had united with her and put on civilian clothes, he felt the enchantment of freedom in general ...but not for long. He soon felt arise in his soul a desire for desires, an anguish."People who keep living don’t get to live happily ever after. They get to keep living, and that is all. Tolstoy’s metaphor for this in this novel is Natasha. Natasha, like Anna, is a unique female figure for this time period in literature in that she gets to live, think and love very much as a male protagonist would do. She gets her own inner soul and feelings and Tolstoy is very firm about protecting that, no matter what ideals the men want to project on her from the outside. Natasha is flighty, self-involved and changeable in her feelings depending on the moment or situation. Natasha loves acting the part of romance, but finds that she cannot sustain her feelings long enough to make it worth it. This puts her in sharp contrast to most of the other women in this novel: her childhood friend and cousin Sonya, who remains self-sacrificing and self-effacing and loyal as a dog to the man she declares she loves (in ways that are often humiliating), being one example, and the religious, blushing, pure Princess Marya being another. Natasha’s joys and worries are the simple, straightforward, predictable and all-too-recognizable feelings of a teenage girl: ”Natasha was going to the first grand ball of her life. She had gotten up that day at eight o’clock in the morning and had spent the whole day in feverish anxiety and activity. Since the morning all her powers had been directed towards getting all of them-herself, mama, Sonya-dressed in the best possible way...”“Natasha was interested neither in the sovereign nor in any of the important persons that Mme Peronsky pointed out-she had one thought: “Can it be that no one will come up to me, can it be that I won’t dance among the first, can it be that all these men won’t notice me, who now don’t even seem to see me, and if they look at me, it’s with such an expression as if they were saying: ‘Ah! it’s not her, there’s no point in looking!’ No, it can’t be!” she thought. “They must know how well I dance, and what fun it will be for them to dance with me.”Natasha hasn’t a single thought about the greater good of Russia, God, or, really, her family. Natasha wants to be young and admired and have a wonderful time every day of her life. It makes her selfish (she doesn’t want to hear ANYONE’s opinion if they contradict a desire of hers). It makes her heedless and reckless. It also makes her at least the temporary desire or deep love of almost every man that comes into contact with her in this novel. She is another one who throws herself into every moment of her life 110%. But she’s just much more honest about the fact that what makes her happy changes frequently. People judge her for this constantly, which gradually gives her a self-conscious complex which I think has a lot to do with why she agrees to marry Prince Andrei under the worst idea-ever-in-the-world circumstances. Is anyone surprised when the engagement fails? Anyone? You can say what you want about the repentance afterwards, but the way that Tolstoy sets it up, it is difficult to judge Natasha for the way things go down. She’s sixteen and has been abandoned by her much older fiancé for reasons she hasn’t a prayer of understanding involving the passive aggressive fights of fathers and sons that never end. As far as she knows, she's been told not to live or love for a year, and girl does not play like that. Natasha tries her best, but she’s living proof that we keep on living and being people and having to get through the day no matter how many oaths we swear or how many good intentions lie on that road paved to hell. This is like people who think that Bluebeard’s wife should be condemned for going inside the secret room or that Pandora is the worst for opening the box. You put her in a situation that was completely incompatible to her temperament and personality, made her undergo a test to prove something that you don’t really want her to be anyway and all because YOU got cold feet and realized that maybe you weren’t ready for the reality of marrying a beautiful, passionate sixteen year old who loves society and is probably being set up for Anna the Sequel to happen, especially if you are going to insist on your tortured, strong-and-silent thing continuing, which I am fully sure it would have.Natasha is loved and adored because she symbolizes passionate, uninhibited, it-goes-on- Life. She hasn’t got a single complex to speak of. Natasha is almost the only one in this book who deals with her feelings honestly and doesn’t hide behind philosophies or false generosity to make herself feel better. She even throws herself fully into the passion of the guy she’s cheating on Andrei with. If she feels bad afterwards, it’s because of pure, human guilt, not because Jesus told her that doing that was bad. She doesn’t like hurting people, especially not the person that she had made her Romantic mind up that she was going to marry and live happily ever after with. Again, human love. When she collapses when she finds out the guy she loves is already married, it’s not out of a feeling of sin, it’s out of grief for the love she feels. Like every other protagonist, she wants forgiveness and purification for her sins before she is able to be well again. But she wants forgiveness from a man, from Prince Andrei, not from a philosophy or a religion or a government. She wants to be able to love and have her love be worth something in her eyes and anyone else’s. Love is at the center of her own sense of self, and if she is not allowed to give love she feels that her life is not worth anything.Natasha’s erstwhile fiancé, Andrei, is allowed to find peace and purity before he dies. He is allowed to give himself entirely over to Jesus and find the serenity that he has always lacked. But here’s the thing, he only does it through feeling inhuman: “Yes, love.. but not the love that loves for something, for some purpose, or for some reason, but the love I experienced for the first time when, as I lay dying, I saw my enemy and loved him all the same. I experienced the feeling of love, which is the very essence of my soul and needs no object… To love everything- to love God in all His manifestations. You can love a person dear to you with a human love, but an enemy can only be loved with divine love.”All this and martyrdom too so that he can somehow find a way to express and get over what he feels is his unacceptable anger at a woman who betrayed him. But she’s around and he suddenly starts to feel human, not God-like love again. He starts thinking about the man who she cheated with and how he wanted to kill him. He thinks constantly about how near she is in the room. He starts to hope and negotiate with death. But life is too scary for him to do that. He ends up retreating away from confusion into death.Seriously, screw the men in this novel. If there’s a hero here, I think it is Natasha. I would argue that the gauntlet thrown down to all these characters at the start of the novel is to find their way to honesty and peace. Natasha is the only character who consistently tackles the world with honesty, so she is the only one who can lead us to peace. Draw your wider metaphors for the implications for world affairs.Which, you will notice, I did not touch on in this review. This is because they could not possibly matter less, except as a manifestation of everything else I am talking about here, just on a bigger and more impersonal scale, for those who can only recognize Truth when it is stated to them in a titanic voice with pomp and circumstance attached.Partway through the novel, Tolstoy puts these words into the mouth of the Freemason who converts Pierre: ”Look at your inner man with spiritual eyes and ask if you are pleased with yourself. What have you achieved, being guided by reason alone? What are you? You are young, you are rich, you are educated, my dear sir. What have you done with all these good things that have been given to you? Are you content with yourself and your life?Tolstoy’s never done asking these questions, which is why he was never able to find that Great Man in reality and lay down his burdens. It’s sad, in a way. From reading his two great works of fiction, it seemed like the one thing he always wanted. But on the other hand, he already told us, implicitly, that if he ever found the ideal he always said he was seeking, he would be dead inside. He would no longer be human. He would be God. Nirvana. Whatever you want to call it.Is this really what he wanted? Or did he want to want it? Did he want that feeling of wanting it… that intense passion that only a human could feel? That desire for desires that never went away. There’s no way to know.But for God’s sake, if these thousands of pages have taught me anything, it’s this: We’re pretty much stuck with being human. So we’d better make the best of it.Find joy where you can. And realize, in a quote by Stoppard that I will never tire of repeating, “It’s the wanting to know that makes us matter.” I wish Tolstoy could have found God in that ideal, if he had to have one. I feel sure that that is perhaps the one way he could have avoided being disappointed.Tolstoy is two for two on breaking my heart with words. And yet I feel sure that I’ll be back again for him to break my heart a third time.

Description of list:

Ernest Hemingway Creates a Reading List for a young writer,1934.