I went to a reading and book signing for Doctorow's The March. During the question and answer period he mentioned that he conceived of this book as written in the mode of the big Russuan novel. He didn't mention names but War and Peace and Dr. Zhivago immediately sprung to mind.
Having read and reviewed the book I can see what Doctorow meant. A large cast of characters and a series of different story lines does have a Russian feel to it.
I may have been influenced by Doctorow's comments. Did anyone reading it get that impression?
It would be great hearing everyone's views on this or any other aspect of the book.
Well, I just replied to this and had my reply vanish.
So again, Hi, Len. I didn't see this as a particularly Russian novel, other than in the fact that it's a big novel about a big war, as are the Russian novels you mentioned. In the Russian novels, we see war over an extended period of time as it affects one family or several families or repeating sets of characters. Here Doctorow is emphasizing something else, I think--the fact that in times of war people come and go, may have brief connections to other characters, and then disappear. The transcience of life and relationships during wartime, and the changing focus, which he emphasizes, is quite different from the emphasis on continuing characters and their ties to each other in the Russian novels. I see less emphasis on developing characters in Doctorow's novel than in the Russian novels. Just my two cents. Mary
I think that is a very good point about there being less character development in The March. As much as I liked the good, and I did enjoy it, the characters were not so fleshed out that any of them left a lingering impression.
I agree with Mary. While The March attempts the sweeping scope of the Russian novel, it doesn't have the same attention to detail. I think of Anna Karenina's wedding, with all the lanterns, and how completely Tolstoy painted the moment with words - and I just don't see it with Doctorow.
Doctorow once said when interviewed about another book, "We're all hopping around buzzing from information. The whole culture is full of that. If I write a book that gets its tension from discontinuities, I've found a template for the way we're thinking." To me, that describes The March better than the Russian model does. Doctorow is a novelist for the short attention span of our culture.
"Doctorow is a novelist for the short attention span of our culture."
Good point, and something else I hadn't thought of until you brought it up. Seems similar to the difference between a 12-hour miniserie and a 60 minute drama. Everything is compressed and there is less time to develop subtlety and nuance.
I've just asked mostlyfiction.com for the review copy of Widow of the South by Robert Hicks. That has reviews that are all over the place (1 star to 5 stars), and it'll be interesting to see how it compares to The March. So far my favorite Civil War novel ever is Thomas Keneally's Confederates, about the Shenandoah Valley campaign--with an incredible picture of Stonewall Jackson in action! Maybe Civil War expert Dennis Phillips will weigh in. Mary
As it happens, I've never been a 'fan' of Civil War fiction. Apart from reading Red Badge of Courage in ninth grade I cannot remember the last Civil War related fiction I've picked up. My brother swears by Shaara. I will check out the Keneally book. Thanks!
I'm not a fan of the genre, either, Len, but Keneally's book is a wonder, and knowing that he is a writer from Australia makes his Civil War research even more wonderful. You might want to look at the reviews of this book, however. I loved it, as did Stephen A. Haines (the bunyip), but not all readers have loved it as much as I did. Mary
I'm not a fan of war fiction in general - unless, I guess, it's in a different land. I have a copy of Cold Mountain which I've never opened, mostly because it's a Civil War novel. I know it's supposed to be excellent. I just can't bring myself to read it because of the subject matter. With Doctorow, however, I'll read anything he writes.
I liked The March less than you two, Len and Mary. Now that you've gained some distance from it, do you feel that you like it more, or less? The same? Sometimes my opinion of a book changes as I look back on it.
I liked it a lot, Debbie, and it will probably be on my list of Ten Favorite Novels of 2005, but it won't be at or near the top. I think Doctorow's focus on the group of civilians which accompanied the march was fascinating--gave a real sense of the disruption, both to humans and the economy (!), as a result of this war, something that seems impersonal when one reads about it in history books. (Top of my Favorites list this year will probably be The Work of Wolves by Kent Meyers, BTW.) Mary
I saw your comment about "Cold Mountain". If you haven't read it yet, please try it. We always hear about the slave owners and the generals with their flashy uniforms and feathered hats. The people who did the real fighting and those who continued to bear the weight of the defeat were the ordinary people. A lot of Cold Mountain takes places in the western hills of North Carolina and shows what was going on back home. This includes "bosses" who wouldn't go fight, but who took advantage of the lack of young men to defend their homesteads.
I ran across "The March" at my local library and came to read it without having any preconceived notion of the gist of the story line. I had not read any reviews of the book. I am not a fan of Civil War novels in general but "The March" spoke to me of the futility of this and any other war. I grew up in the "old South" and thought at first I would not be at all interested in a book that featured General Sherman as one of the main characters but after the first few chapters I came to realize "The March" is not a one sided view of the war but a multi dimensional glimpse of how this war changed the lives of those involved on either side. Great historical fiction. And today I see that Doctorow has won the Faulkner award. WTG
Your problem is that you are trying to equate The March with War and Peace. Just can't be done. Doctrow did not give his characters the depth that Tolstoy was able to do. It as never Doctrow's intent to do that. He gives us figures who appear, are complete enough for his ( and our ) purposes) and then he moved right along - as did the March itself. There was no time to reflect, to put things into perspective, to ruminate on the ramifications of what was happening. One must conclude that the soldiers and private citizens of both sides caught up in these events, simply did not reflect on them very much. For one thing, most of these people were probably not really capable of it in depth reflection under such circumstances. For another, it is only in retrospect and usually long after the events, that allow us to reflect upon what we have seen, done, and what we have done to others and what has been done to us. Also, I disagree with the various writers here about whether Sherman was crazy. Certainly he was early in the war. But It seems clear that by this time in the war Sherman was as clear minded as he could be - his "craziness" early in the war largely arose from his recognition of the great changes, horrors and struggle which were actually coming to pass with this war. Sherman knew and had trouble accepting what he could see developing all around it. Increasingly, Sherman and Grant, the real geniuses of this war, were the prophets of the kind of warfare which came to be "modern" warfare. It was their ability to recognize what would have to be done and the ability to accept that and to bring it to pass in spite of all roadblocks hindrances which distinguishes them from the other generals of their time. One more thing, from this novel and in point of fact, Grant and Sherman knew what it would take to win this vicious struggle - and, eventually, so did the enlisted fighting men. They first recognized and put into effect many of the tactics and survival techniques which now are just an accepted part of warfare. Had Doctrow expended a thousand pages in giving us in depth profiles of the primary and several secondary characters, his book would not have achieved what it did, in fact, achieve - conveying a sense of the horror modern warfare took to new heights, and the necessity of that escalation. And a portrait of one of the men who understood it best of all.
There are many examples of excellent Civil War fiction. Unfortunately, I do not find either Shaara, Jr, or Keneally among the great practitioners of the genre. Michael Shaara, was fine, but the son has never quite risen to the challenge of carrying on his father's banner. But back to what you said, the problem is to find a writer who is a fine novelist to begin with. The American Civil War provides a sweep and canvas that can hardly be matched. The fact that "The Red Badge of Courage" even exists should indicate to you that the problem is not the subject (the time, place, the struggle) but in finding authors good enough to deal with the subject.