I first wanted to read this book seven years ago. Perhaps I would have appreciated pointless existential angst better at 17 than I do at 24. UnfortunaI first wanted to read this book seven years ago. Perhaps I would have appreciated pointless existential angst better at 17 than I do at 24. Unfortunately, I got round to reading Herman Hesse only this year, when I no longer believe in intellectual snobbery.
This book had a strangely soporific effect on me. I've read much drier literature but I couldn't get past the first 20 pages for three days because it - honest - kept putting me to sleep. Ploughing on wasn't exactly entertaining either. Hesse seems an intelligent man, which is why I cannot understand why he insists on populating his books with such toerags like Harry Haller and Siddhartha. Haller is Siddhartha, if Siddhartha were German and actually more infuriating. He alienated me from the beginning with his misplaced intellectual pomposity even when I could relate to his troubles. However, when you vandalize other people's houses after being fed there because they are bourgeoisie incapable of understanding the awesomeness of Goethe like you do, it doesn't mean you are tragically misunderstood. It means you're an ass.
Haller trips into the world of sex, drugs and rock and roll jazz. He takes dance lessons, but hates them. He is introduced to his opposite, Pablo and can't like him because he won't listen to his sermons on music. He also mistakes what is essentially a physiological reaction for enlightenment, proving that the majority of Harry's miseries come from not getting laid as often as he'd have liked. A juvenile rebellion against the social and sexual mores of the day is less meaningful and path-breaking than people think it is. If Haller were a puberty-stricken adolescent, I could have still understood but he is not. And there's some truly awful writing here, desperately aiming for the 1927 equivalent of a Bad Sex Award.
What irritates me most about Haller is how utterly useless he is. He makes me feel I was unduly harsh on Stephen Dedalus, who's positively admirable compared to this man. Haller would rather spend his time moaning over the bastardization of "art" and make up some waffle about the wolf in him than do anything to remedy the situation. He idolizes Goethe and Mozart and yet he is nothing like them - he has no real passion to work on, apart from a few lines of bad poetry. He writes but runs off the moment he receives a bit of vitriolic criticism. If he'd man up and go do an honest day's work, it would have solved half his problems. Nut up or shut up, Harry, nut up or shut up.
This could have been a good book had Hesse done away with Haller and some of the more pointless subplots with Maria and Hermine. He captures well the loneliness and alienation. Pablo was the one character I could somewhat like and his explanation on the importance of performing music instead of spewing hot air is something I can definitely understand - it's the reason why I stopped caring about high-brow, pseudo-intellectual fakery. The Magic Theatre in the end and the interesting portrayal of Mozart redeemed the book slightly. He says what I wish someone said much earlier to Haller - chill. Unfortunately, by then it was too late and I cared far more about finishing this tiresome book than on hoping that Haller redeems himself by acting on the one piece of sensible advice. ...more
This was a difficult read for me because the protagonist, Siddhartha is an extremely unlikable character. In his youth, he is supercilious; in his midThis was a difficult read for me because the protagonist, Siddhartha is an extremely unlikable character. In his youth, he is supercilious; in his middle age he is weak and in his old age he is obtuse. I understand that it was Hesse's intention to show his as human and fallible but it is frustrating and tiresome to see him fail over and over in his quest.
Siddhartha receives a burst of inspiration after meeting the Buddha and makes grandiose plans towards enlightenment and all of it basically goes flying out the window when he meets a beautiful woman five seconds later. He believes himself above all the people he considers childish and animalistic, even when he becomes one of them. When he finally realises this, he goes off and has another epiphany but wait, this time it's his son come to shatter any hope for inner peace. And when he finally does find contentment, it falls magically into his lap in a few minutes pow-wow with the wise old ferryman Vasudeva. Yes, all his years of suffering and screwing up brought him to this point but his redemption is ultimately unbelievable. It doesn't help matters that in the end he goes back to his holier-than-thou preachings with his friend Govinda as the usual hapless victim.
On the positive side, the philosophy does make you think - the absence of time, the necessity of learning from one's mistakes and the dual nature of everything. However, these are established spiritual principles and stand out despite Herman Hesse's characters, not because of them. I admire Hesse's quest to make Indian transcendental philosophy more accessible, but this book was not the best way to do it....more
The best thing about War and Peace is the feeling of unmitigated relief once the book is done with. I read it with a savage determination to finish thThe best thing about War and Peace is the feeling of unmitigated relief once the book is done with. I read it with a savage determination to finish the thing without skipping a word. It has left me fatigued, with a headache and scrambling for something calm and soothing, Debussy's Clair de Lune, a cup of tea, maybe, or a walk. And yet it isn't a simple sort of hatred at bad and boring writing that I feel. My frustration with this book stems from the fact that there is so much good in it, and so much that could have been improved.
It wasn't this bad in the beginning. I bought this book the day I had managed to finish my JLPT exam rather well within three months of first starting to learn Japanese and I was feeling confident enough to tackle it. I had always meant to read War and Peace to see what the fuss was about. That was in December 2008. Afterwards, I read it intermittently when I could, after work, always managing to delve into the story without hesitation and read large tracts of it, thanks to the fairly readable translation. I was disinterested in most of the characters but they merely annoyed me then. The battle scenes were engaging and I found it easy to ignore Leo Tolstoy's over-opinionated monologues.
A few weeks ago, when a friend mentioned someone who used War and Peace as a pillow, I thought I might finish it now that I have the time. I had already read 600 pages and found it easy to get back to the story. I don't know when interest turned into frustration. By the time I reached the second epilogue, I wanted to grab the book and tear out handfuls of it. It's not the length that is so dreadful but what is in it. If you must write a thousand pages, make sure those pages say something. I believe that when a writer creates something that he or she means others to read, he or she embarks on a contract with the reader. Tastes do vary, but the writer must at least attempt to give the reader something to make it worth the while. Tolstoy seems determined to punish his readers for the considerable time and energy they need to invest in his meandering tale.
To begin with, Tolstoy creates some of the most unsympathetic characters possible. He talks of history as an organic, human process without "heroes" but his chief characters all come from a narrow aristocratic millieu; all other classes are mentioned in passing. It is true that he does give us two engaging peasant characters in the form of Platon Karataev or the guerilla Tikhon but they merit few pages; the rest are all occupied by over-fed gentry and their petty soirees and intrigues. I would have liked the book a great deal more if it were free of such pointlessness. With the exception of Petya, the Rostovs are singularly unlikable from the grasping Countess to the vapid Natalya. I would feel sorry for Sonya and the "sterile flower" bull that Tolstoy throws at us if she weren't such a pathological masochist, or if the flighty Nicholas were actually worth being married to. I cannot understand why Natalya merits being one of the principal characters. She is bland and fickle with no further ambition than having a husband, as Tolstoy himself informs us in the epilogue. Hélène and her blissfully ignorant amorality and Marya's spiritual strength are at least more interesting. Pierre is too much of a dilettante to be genuinely likable and his touristy getaway to the Battle of Borodino doesn't help. It is only when he is captured that I got an idea of what he was meant to be.
The only character that I liked was Andrew Bolkonsky. His mistrust of the pretentiousness of aristocratic society, his relatively progressive ideals, even his emotional detachment made him real and admirable. His revelation at the Battle of Austerlitz is particularly memorable: "He opened his eyes, hoping to see how the struggle of the Frenchmen with the gunners ended, whether the red-haired gunner had been killed or not and whether the cannon had been captured or saved. But he saw nothing. Above him there was now nothing but the sky--the lofty sky, not clear yet still immeasurably lofty, with gray clouds gliding slowly across it. "How quiet, peaceful, and solemn; not at all as I ran," thought Prince Andrew--"not as we ran, shouting and fighting, not at all as the gunner and the Frenchman with frightened and angry faces struggled for the mop: how differently do those clouds glide across that lofty infinite sky! How was it I did not see that lofty sky before? And how happy I am to have found it at last! Yes! All is vanity, all falsehood, except that infinite sky. There is nothing, nothing, but that. But even it does not exist, there is nothing but quiet and peace. Thank God!..." Even his death has more honesty of feeling than any interactions between the others.
Although it isn't fair to compare two different writers, I couldn't help but think of Dostoevsky and why I like his writing so much more than Tolstoy's. I think it's because Dostoevsky doesn't seem to be afraid to throw himself into his characters and their lives and to make them real. With Tolstoy, I always get the feeling that he shies away, there's always a barrier between author and character and so they never seem as genuine.
The ending is disappointingly anti-climactic. There are two epilogues (doesn't this miss the point of having an epilogue in the first place?). One depicts the thoroughly uninteresting lives of the Rostovs and Bezukhovs. The second is twelve chapters of torturous drivel. Tolstoy merely reiterates his theory of history, the same thing he shoves in through the novel ruining the pace and narrative. The first seven chapters are an extended tirade against historians. The subsequent four do have some interesting points on free will and inevitability but the language is so self-satisfied and alienating, I didn't have the patience to dwell on them.
There were things I did like. I liked the battles, especially the earlier ones at Schöngrabern and Austerlitz and the guerilla warfare at Smolensk. Other parts that I found engaging were the war council as seen through the eyes of the child Malasha, the burning of Moscow, Vereschagin's death and Rostopchin's use of the old lie - "le bien public" - to condone his actions, Petya's naiveté, particularly his concern for the "feelings" of a French prisoner and his death, Pierre's understanding of freedom ("They took me and shut me up. They hold me captive. What, me? Me? My immortal soul?").
I can appreciate the undeniable hard work and dedication involved in writing a book of this magnitude. Tolstoy might have alienated me as a reader but he evidently feels strongly about what he writes and I admire that. When I liked War and Peace I really liked it. The parts I didn't, I disliked ferociously. "Du sublime au ridicule il n'y a qu'un pas", Napoleon says. I can't help but think that the gap between a classic and a glorified rant is equally slim....more