War and Peace: One more sleep to go

Hi all,

Well, we’ll all kick off tomorrow, hopefully. I just wanted to say a brief word about the chapter and book numbering convention. Depending on which version of War and Peace you’ve got (assuming you haven’t got an abridged version), different authors number the books in different ways.

I have one version (an old translation by Constance Garnett) and it’s divided into Books I through to XV, plus the Epilogue which is in two parts. But then I have another version (the Penguin classics version by Rosemary Edmondson) and it has a different system. It’s divided into four books, and those four books are divided into a number of parts.

To avoid all confusion, regardless of what version you have, I shall refer to the books and chapters with a simple decimal system. So Book II, Chapter XIII will be 2.13, Book VIII, Chapter XII will become 8.22. Etc.

Hopefully you’ll be able to work out for yourself which is which.

DVD Review: Operavox

OperavoxOne of the more unusual DVDs I own in my collection is this DVD (which is now unavailable in Australia).  There’s not a lot of background information available on the internet about this TV show, and there’s no extras on this disc, so all I can work out is that it was made for BBC TV in about 1993 or so and has six episodes.

The idea was pretty straightforward.  Take an opera, cut it down to half an hour long and then create an animated cartoon version of it.  Most of the singers and the orchestra (most of them Welsh) are unknowns.  The only singer whose name I recognised was Jane Eaglen, who sang Turandot – however, her English diction was so terrible, that I could barely make out anything she sang – so I’d actually give more credit to the unknown singers than to her on this.

Every one of the six operas (The Magic Flute, The Barber of Seville, Carmen, Das Rheingold, Turandot and Rigoletto) was handed over to a different group of animators, so the styles are widely different.  In fact, for the most part, the different episodes succeed or fall based on the animation.

Here’s my thoughts on the different episodes:

The Magic Flute – This is a bit of a silly opera to start with, but the animation style they chose was a hand-drawn style very reminiscent of The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine (for those who can remember that far back).  It’s fun, but all the characters look weird, so it doesn’t quite make for a magical experience.

Carmen – This was rotoscoped, i.e. it was performed by real actors, and then the scenes were painted over to make it all animated.  Because of that, you’re quite aware that you’re watching real people.  Some of it works quite well, but it’s not quite as otherworldly as some of the other episodes (but then again, the Carmen story isn’t quite as otherworldly either).

Rhinegold was based on the first opera in Wagner’s Ring Cycle.  Being a short opera (by Ring standards – only 2 1/2 hours normally), it worked okay being cut down to 1/2 an hour.  This one is hand-drawn.  Some of the ideas worked really well and certainly Wagner’s fantastic music is perfect for an animated fantasy film – but other parts of it were just bizarre. What’s with Freia wearing a string bikini?  What crazy animator came up with that?

Turandot – I’m not really entirely sure what this opera was about because of Jane Eaglen’s diction (mentioned earlier) and the fact that there were no subtitles, so it was difficult to work out what anyone was singing about.  However, the hand-drawn animation (done in the style of Chinese silk screen paintings) was quite effective, and the ancient Chinese setting comes to life really well.

The Barber of Seville – The only comedy opera in the whole lot is a lot of fun and it’s in the stop-motion animation style we all used to watch in the 80s.  Starting with a bunch of liveried servants who wander around adjusting the “sets” throughout the opera, the animators managed to capture all the craziness of the opera, plus throw in all the good arias, to make for half an hour of fun animation.  I quite like this one.

Rigoletto – Another stop-motion animation and, without doubt, the strongest of the lot of them.  Rigoletto, by Giuseppe Verdi, is a strange opera.  It has, without doubt, some of the catchiest of all Italian opera music (remember the “Leggo’s Authentical” ad?) and if you heard the music and knew nothing of the story, you could be forgiven for thinking this story is rather light and fluffy.

But it’s not.  Rigoletto is dark as dark can be, and the animators went to town on it – the story is about a jester, Rigoletto, whose master, the Duke of Mantua seduces many young women.  Rigoletto gets a great laugh from making fun of the anguished fathers whose daughters have been ruined – until the Duke makes a move on Rigoletto’s own daughter – thus unleashing a chain of events that have disastrous and bloody consequences. Everything, from the ugly hunchback jester to the rotting, creaking sets are amazing to behold.  It won’t make your day happy, but it’s a spectacular example of what can happen when you combine classical music with animation.

So, yeah, an interesting experiment – not on the level of Disney’s Fantasia, but certainly worth a look.

War and Peace – The Advantage of Reading it Slowly

As I said in the original post, there is a lot to be gained by reading War and Peace slowly.  So I thought I would explain a little bit about why I think that is.

A lot of novels are plot-driven – so the conversations and events that are recorded in the novel all contribute to the plot.  Anything else is usually cut.  So if the scene was the opening soiree and War and Peace was plot-driven, you wouldn’t need to know who everyone is at a party – you only need to know about the two or three main people.

Other novels are character-driven.  The characters are going on an internal journey.  That’s more the case with War and Peace, but even then, a character-driven book might only deal with one or two characters.

By contrast, I believe that War and Peace is life-driven.

What I mean is that its focus is on the everyday details of life – as if you were living through it.

Think about it – if you were at a party (as we all will be on 1 July), you don’t know who is going to play a significant part in your life or not.  There might be an enthusiastic, vivacious person there that you’ll never see again, or a quiet person who says barely a word but goes on to become your best friend.

The only thing you can notice, from moment to moment, is – the details.  The mannerisms. The conversations. The little happenings.

Our memories, in real life, are made up of thousands of these little details of moments in our life.  They may not be very important, and you’d leave them out if you were making a movie of your life – but these little details and moments make up your life and memories.  The older you get, the more of these memories you collect.

And that’s the magic of War and Peace.  By focusing in on the small details of life, at first it appears that Tolstoy is a bit all over the shop, just writing about whatever comes into his mind.  But, chapter by chapter, book by book, all these little details come together to form a vast picture of Russian life during the Napoleonic wars.

So, the benefit of reading this slowly is that the more time you revel in the little details and allow them to soak in, the more amazing will appear the final tapestry when you eventually close the book.

Maybe if you read it fast, you would grasp the whole plot better and keep track of the main characters – but life isn’t made up of “main characters” and “taut plotting”.  It’s made up of details – infinite, tiny details.  Welcome to the world of Leo Tolstoy.

War and Peace: The Least You Need To Know

Those of who grew up in the 20th century watching films are kind of used to historical epics beginning with some sort of title card:

“It is 1432. Mankind considers that the world is flat. But one lone Spaniard thinks differently. His name is Christopher . . .”

Etc. Then launch into some opening set piece (rolling hills, a battle scene, whatever).

Leo Tolstoy, however, didn’t know about movie conventions. So for those of you not ready for it, it can come as a bit of a shock that the world’s greatest novel begins quite simply at a party – right in the middle of a conversation.

So you’re left to kind of work out the background. Most of it can be picked up in the first few chapters, but I thought it might be helpful to give a little bit of background.

I’m not going to write a title card, but these bullet points will hopefully give you the least information you need to know to get what the book is about:

  • The War parts of the book are usually set out in various Russian country towns.
  • The Peace parts of of the book by contrast, are usually set in one of the two big Russian cities of the day: Moscow or St Petersburg.
  • The book opens in St Petersburg in 1805, at a dinner soiree.
  • Most of the book deals with the Russian aristocracy. For some reason that I’ve never understood, it was a lot easier to be a Prince in Russia than in England (where you have to be born to a Queen or King), and so there are a lot of Princes and Princesses in this book.
  • At the time the story opens, while there is peace in Russia, in other parts of Europe, Napoleon Bonaparte is starting to make himself known and he is invading and taking over other countries.
  • Prussia and Russia (yes, there is a difference) have joined forces to stop Napoleon.
  • So while there is peace in Russia, elsewhere, Russian soldiers are assembling for battle against the French.
  • Despite all of this, the Russian aristocracy consider French a cultured language, and spend a lot of their time speaking in French. So much so, that 2% of the original Russian version of War and Peace contains French dialogue.
  • If you have the latest translation which just came out last year in America, you’ll find all the original French put back in, and you can give yourself a crook neck from jumping between the French and the footnotes.
  • The rest of you may be happy to know that most versions available in Australia have the language in English, with only a little bit of French here or there.

Okay, that’s it. That’s all you really need to know. The rest you can enjoy finding out for yourself as the novel progresses.

And we still need one more reader . . .

War and Peace: The Challenge Guidelines

Well, now that we’ve almost got a full contingent, I might as well set down the guidelines for the challenge.

I was going to call these the Challenge Rules, but I thought that might be a bit harsher than was necessary.

So instead, it’s the guidelines.

1.  We’ll all read one chapter of War and Peace a day.

2.  I’ll blog about it, and you can all chip in with your comments (if you have any) and we can discuss the chapter.

3.  If you have read the book before, please don’t spoil things by posting about things that are yet to happen in the book.  In fact, I might just have a play with the blog settings so that I can moderate all comments on the blog.

And that’s it, really.  I’ll post tomorrow the “Least You Need To Know” stuff about the novel (and there’s not much of that).

War and Peace: And that makes FOUR!!

Thanks, Damo!  BTW, how are you guys?  I haven’t spoken to you in ages (or met your wife, for that matter) . . . how have you been?

Okay, surely we have one more person??

Somebody who has that dust-gathering copy of War and Peace hanging over their head, looking at you, as if to say, “You bought me to show you had culture . . . but really it was all for show, wasn’t it?  I’m just going to sit here on your shelf and never do anything.”

Anyway, enough of that . . . if you’re in, you have SIX MORE DAYS TO STEP FORWARD.

One Year War and Peace: Two Down, Three To Go

Well, it’s all hotting up.  I have two volunteers now to try reading War and Peace in a year . . . what will the rest of the week bring?

The only thing I’ll comment on at this stage is that some people have been asking me if there’s any particular version they should be reading.

The main thing to avoid is getting an abridged version.  Generally, you can tell if you’ve got an abridged version straight away, because it will cut out the last twelve chapters of the epilogue (which are all philosophical, not fictional).  While it’s not essential to have this, the problem is I don’t know how many other chapters in the middle of an abridged version would be likely to be cut as well, so I wouldn’t read one.

Actually, why do publishers abridge classic novels?  . . . I’ve never gotten the point of that.  If they think it’s because we’re not likely to like a classic book if it’s unabridged . . . well, why are we going to like it if it’s abridged?

Hmm . . .

Anyway, back to War and Peace.  If you don’t have a copy, I’d recommend that you pick up the Wordsworth Classics edition, which you can get at a lot of bookstores in Australia (especially those bargain basement type ones) for only $5.95.  Yes, that’s right – less than $6 bucks, and you can have yourself a whole copy of War and Peace.  The translation that Wordsworth puts out is an old one by Louise and Alymer Maude.  It was the one I originally read (back when it was even more of a bargain at $4.95), and I got sucked right into it, so I think it’s a pretty good translation.

I might try a different one this time around, but the Wordsworth cheapo Maude is the one I’d recommend for beginners.  After all, what’s $6?  You can’t even rent a new release DVD for that much – and for that price, you can own yourself a brand new copy of War and Peace.

So, do we have three more takers? (Granted, if somebody – like my sister – actually goes out and buys herself a copy, I’d feel obligated to begin it anyway – but let’s see if we can get us some more readers . . .)

Read War and Peace – in just 10 minutes a day!

This year, as I do on occasional years, I am reading through the Bible in a year. Anyway, a couple of days ago, the thought crossed my mind: “There are so many one-year Bibles out there, and different plans to get you to read the Bible in a year. I wonder if anyone has thought of doing that with War and Peace?”

So this led me to do a bit of internet research to see whether there was such a reading plan – believe it or not, I can’t find one. (Well, at least not on the first two pages of Googling “war and peace” one year Tolstoy. And let’s face it – if it’s not there on the first two results page, it might as well not exist.)

So then this left me with the next question – does War and Peace lend itself well to this sort of one-year treatment? So, in a moment of sheer nerdiness, I decided to count the number of chapters in my copy of War and Peace.

You know the result? Three hundred and sixty-three chapters.

Amazing! I had long suspected that if you just read one chapter of War and Peace a day, you’d probably knock it over in about a year, but I was never exactly sure. Now, I’m positive. (However, I might have miscounted by a chapter or two, but that won’t make a huge difference.)

Anyway, after making this discovery just this morning, I thought to myself – this would make a good New Financial Year Challenge – to read one chapter per day of War and Peace between 1 July 2008 and 30 June 2009.

So I was talking to Rachel and I said, “You know what? I reckon if I posted this online, and asked other people to take up the challenge, there’d be a bunch of people that would take me up on the offer.”

She said, “Like who? I don’t think you’d get anyone to read War and Peace in a year.”

So here’s the challenge, dear readers . . . if I can get five volunteers who are willing to have a go at the One Year War and Peace, then I’ll turn it into an internet event, and I’ll put up posts about the chapters as we read through it and we can post our thoughts, comments, discussions, etc. You can either buy your own copy of the book or read it online for free at Project Gutenberg.

If I can’t get five, then I’ll owe Rachel a Gloria Jeans coffee and I’ll hang my enthusiastic little Tolstoy-loving head in shame and slink off into the corner of my blog for a while. What’s there to lose?

For those of you sitting on the fence (especially if you’ve never read the book before), then let me give you five reasons why it’s worth a try:

1. It’s the greatest novel ever written. No, seriously, I’ve already read it once, and it really is.

2. Whether you agree with point 1, you’ll have an amazing feeling of accomplishment if you read the whole thing.

3. The chapters are really short. You should be able to knock over a typical chapter of War and Peace in 5-10 minutes. Some might take a little longer, but on the whole, you could finish this whole challenge really easily just by having a copy of the book sitting in your bathroom next to the toilet.

4. The book is really easy to read. I like classic books, but I do find that I have to steel myself up to get used to all the old language (especially people like Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, Shakespeare, etc.) But not with Leo Tolstoy. His language is very simple to understand, and yet there is a real depth to his writing that gives you lots to think about.

5. There’s a lot to be gained by reading War and Peace slowly. I know a lot of you who are novel-readers like to go nuts through books and read them all really fast, and that’s certainly how I read W&P the first time. But Tolstoy puts so much effort into his characterisations and descriptions, that it would actually be a really eye-opening experience to just read the book at the rate of one chapter a day and enjoy the world of the novel unfolding gradually.

So, yeah, what do you think? Write a comment if you want to be part of it. (Or your thoughts on the validity or otherwise of the idea.) If we do get it up . . . then we only have 10 days to go before we’d start reading.

As I said: What’s there to lose?

Further Comments on Atheism


Just wanted to follow up on my last post, because I’ve been mulling over the issues raised for the last couple of weeks. First off – thanks, Dave, for the recommendation on the Blanchard book. I was eyeing it off last year and forgot all about it, but I’ll keep it in mind to read at some stage.

Also, thank you, Kushal, for your comments – and for not going into the kind of unhelpful mocking that I too often see on these kinds of discussions.

However, you’ve raised an interesting issue which I wanted to draw attention to, because it’s been floating around in my head the last couple of weeks.  The following comments in particular are the ones I’ve been thinking about.

There are probably four quotes that I’m thinking about:

1. “We want to create a code of life that will help us sustain and enhance life.”

2.  And a bit further down: “The only obligation one man has to another is make sure never to infringe on anyone’s life, liberty or property.”

3. “This respect for others’ rights is all that a man is obliged to offer to the society.”

4. And, finally: “Of course, there are a lot of questions about ideal conduct in public or in personal lives, but religion is not the place to seek answers. If we simply build up on this foundation we have before us, we’d be just fine.”

The problem I have with these statements is that I fail to see how these statements arrive out of a rationalist/atheist mindset.

Unless I’m missing the point somewhere, the atheist believes there is no God, no afterlife, no life beyond what we can see and experience here.  Therefore, all holy books (the Bible, the Koran, etc) are just ancient dogma which religious fanatics (or religiously naive people) try to live by.

So, let’s grant that this is correct.  If, then, we have a world with no God – and, more importantly, no book or other absolute standard of truth handed down – then, on what basis does the atheist believe that the point of existence is to sustain and enhance life?  For instance, those good folks over at the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement actually believe the complete opposite. They believe that the planet would be better if human life was not sustained and have plans to just phase themselves out.

As far as I can see, atheism may demonstrate that a God is either impossible or extremely unlikely. But all that gives you is a bunch of thinking creatures called humans on a planet called Earth.  Atheism just tells you that they’re all alone.  But saying that there isn’t a God doesn’t in any way give you a system for determining right and wrong.

I believe that, if there is no God, right and wrong becomes a completely arbitrary concept.  We may appoint legislators to make laws for us, under the current system, but a quick glance over the number of legislation changes and new introductions to legislation reveals quite quickly that man-made laws change on a frequent basis.  So 10 years ago, it was legal to drive through suburban streets at 60 km/h in Australia.  Now it’s illegal to do so, and you have to drive at 50 km/h.  Were we secretly doing the wrong thing 10 years ago?  No, they just made a new law.

So I’m quite happy for atheists to say, on a pragmatic basis, that they believe society can be governed by an arbitrary set of laws that they make up.  However, on a philosophical basis, I am completely unconvinced that atheism gives man any set of principles whatsoever to go towards forming standards of right and wrong.

Whether it be Onfray arguing for utilitarianism or Kushal arguing for the sustaining of life, quite simply, these things do not follow from rationalism.  Rationalism simply says that there is no rational evidence that God exists, and therefore He doesn’t.  But that simply states that religion, as a source of truth and ethics, is not correct. It doesn’t put forward an alternative system.

So, as far as I’m concerned, atheists have two options as far as ethics are concerned:

1. They can admit that they have no ultimate standard of right and wrong, and that they have a few agreed-upon conventions that they decide to accept on faith in order to have a working ethical system.


2. They can derive from first principles their set of ethics.

I know they’ve never done 2., because there’s always a set of principles underlying the first principles that can’t be proved scientifically (things we shouldn’t do harm to one another or humans should try to sustain life).  So there’s always something underlying everybody’s system of ethics that can’t be proved rationally and scientifically that the atheist accepts blindly.

However, if they’re not going to do 2., then I think, to be consistent, they have to agree that they’re doing number 1.  If they’re doing number 1, then I think, considering their own ethical system is built around an adherence of faith to some first principles that undergird their ethical conventions, which cannot themselves be proved – they should outright admit that they don’t have an absolute standard for ethics, and give up being commentators about ethics.

You see, Michel Onfray, in his book, spends a good half the book making ethical calls about the monotheistic religions (and Christianity in particular).  Christianity is stupid because it only has sex within marriage.  Christianity is stupid because it supports capital punishment.  Christianity is stupid because it opposed abortion.

But these are all ethical/moral claims.  These are issues to do, not with any sort of rationalism, but simply what conventions do people agree to live by.  And, as I think I’ve already explained, atheism doesn’t have a set of absolutes itself.  So where do they get off complaining about sex within marriage, capital punishment and the pro-life movement?

I think all that atheists who oppose these things are trying to do, is score a few Brownie points with similar-minder readers living in this current age of the Western world.

So, unless I’m missing something in all of this, from now on, I think atheists can stick to asking their little rationalist doubt questions about the facts of Christianity and stay out of ethical matters.  Complaining about sexual mores, capital punishment, and other such issues just proves that they don’t like Christianity, but that’s not really an argument.

Now, having said that, I think there are sensible questions by atheists that remain to be answered, such as, can the universe start without a God?  Why are there apparent contradictions in the Bible?  Could miracles really happen?  Why are there clashes between science and the Bible?  I’m happy to keep looking into these issues and try to answer these questions, but as far as the issue of ethics goes, I don’t see how atheists have a position at all.