timeless truths

In high school English class, we learnt about the idea of a “classic” novel, and discussed what made something a “classic”. One characteristic that might not have stood out for me back then, but certainly stands out for me now, is the notion of “timelessness” — that a novel becomes a classic because it is timeless in its themes, ideas and moral messages.

Part of me thinks that it was probably a bit pointless for the teachers to discuss timelessness with teenagers. I mean, we weren’t daft, but we were young, and as much as we probably believed we knew everything about the world, there was undoubtedly a lot that we didn’t know the half of. Besides, even back then, there was a quick succession of crazes and fads and fashions — there’s not much appreciation of “timelessness” when one day everyone’s watching this show, and playing this game, and then next month these things are barely a memory.

Even so, I’d like to think that I had some grasp of this idea of “timelessness”. In high school, I began reading a lot of “classics”, particularly Charles Dickens. It was also during high school that I discovered I really like Jane Austen’s writing. To my younger self, these books were classics because they were beautifully written, the stories and characters were exquisitely constructed, and they were simply captivating. Then there is all the usual stuff about love and friendship and family — the things that people throughout history have always valued.

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war and peace and everything

I finished reading War and Peace on Tuesday (that’s more or less an entire year spent reading it). I then spent Tuesday night and the greater part of Wednesday alternately wondering how I was going to blog about it, and procrastinating from thinking about how to blog about it.

I typed out some notes and ideas on Tuesday that I could use as a starting point, or perhaps form into some sort of outline. But the more I thought about it on Wednesday, the more I felt like there was no real point in writing anything about something for which so much has already been written.

Yet, at the same time, I felt like there was so much that I wanted to write about.

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a simple life

When I read Anna Karenina, the character that stood out the most to me, and that had the most impact, apart from Anna Karenina herself, was Konstantin Dmitrich Levin. I think all of the characters were constructed and explored really well, but Levin in particular was given a lot of depth.

One of the main things I remember about Levin, even several years after reading the novel, is how, despite being a well-off landowner, Levin yearned for a simple life of honest labour. There is one part of the book where he helps his muzhiks with the harvest, wielding a scythe alongside them in his fields. To him, it was satisfying work, but not only in the physical sense of “a good day’s work”, but also in a psychological or spiritual sense.

I’ve heard that Levin was the character that Tolstoy most identified with, or that was most closely modelled on his own thoughts and beliefs. In War and Peace the equivalent most Tolstoy-esque character is Pierre Bezukhov. It is not surprising then, that this yearning for a simple and honest life is also experienced by Pierre.

[Warning: spoilers ahead. Please note, also, that I haven’t quite finished War and Peace yet, so please don’t spoil the ending for me.]

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an opinion on decision-making

This morning on the news, there was an interview with a small business owner. The news I watch is fairly objective and informative, but they seem to really like doing these random interviews with random people. Usually I see these at the start of lockdowns in different cities around the country. 

There was one time they interviewed a celebrant to ask her about how many weddings had to be postponed because of lockdowns. Another interview I saw was with a winery owner who talked about the impact of reduced tourism on his business. The other day they spoke with a bakery worker who was willing to give up his savings in order to help save the business.

In these interviews, the interviewer asks the usual questions about how the people are dealing with the situation, whether they had been able to receive government support, what their outlook for the future is like, and so on. I sort of get the feeling that these are just fluff pieces to break up the dreary headlines.

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war, peace and philosophy

This week I got up to Volume III, Part II in War and Peace, and at the start of this section, Tolstoy enters into a bit of philosophising — or I should say re-enters, as he sort of went over this in an earlier section. In this part of the novel, Napoleon is invading Russia. His army is far superior to that of the Russians, which appears to be in comparative disarray as they are lacking a strong leader.

Tolstoy posits that everyone involved in that war believed they were acting for themselves, according to their own will, but, in reality, they were all “involuntary instruments of history”. In an earlier part of the novel (I forget where, and the book is much too big to go searching for this one particular chapter), Tolstoy wrote something about the great cascade of events that must take place for a war to start, and claims that it cannot be pinned on any one event or person.

If I remember correctly, the main gist of it was that no matter who insults who, or who wants to go conquesting where, there cannot be a war if great masses of people don’t enlist to become soldiers, and there is a great deal that must happen to lead to that.

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cease and desist

I reckon most people who read novels, watch films, or watch television shows will eventually come to a moment in a novel/film/show, in which a character is doing something that is, to us, very obviously wrong and might ruin their life. At these moments there is a strong impulse to yell “NO!!” at the character, even though it will do nothing to stop or deter them from their course of action.

The easiest example (and maybe the simplest) is when Wile E. Coyote sets a trap for Road Runner, and when it fails, he investigates the trap in the least safe way possible, and invariably ends up the victim of his own contraptions.

Anyway, despite watching cartoons like this a lot when I was a kid (or maybe because of it?) I’ve never really experienced this extremely strong feeling of wanting to stop a character from doing something. I mean, I’ll probably watch things that other people react to, and think “oh, they probably should not do that”, but it’s generally nothing to get worked up about.

Probably a better explanation is that I tend to read or watch things without thinking too far ahead. I’m not someone who tries to calculate what the ending will be as I read/watch the story unfold. I think it’s better to stay in the moment, and experience the full force of emotions as they happen — be it joy, despair, fear or relief.

However, reading War and Peace last week, I found myself screaming “NO” at one of the characters (not out loud, of course — just in my head), and also getting rather worked up about what was happening. At this point, I must include a warning that there will be spoilers, so please do not read on if you don’t want to know what happens.

Also, I haven’t read much further on after this part, so if something happens that reverses what I just read, please do not tell me.

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