First Posted: March 20th 2020
It’s an unpredictable and difficult period for us all. Self-isolation (for those of us lucky enough to do so) isn’t easy. And we’re only just getting into it. This will extend for weeks. Cabin fever will soon take hold! So let’s take care of ourselves.
People are using social media to stay connected, support each other and to suggest good ways to spend this time. Looking to the positive, we now have the unique time and mental-space to read (or re-read) a book that we’ve long had “on the list”. So rather than just scroll and watch screens, why don’t we read “that book” and share our thoughts on it?
I first read War and Peace 20 years ago and I’ve been meaning to go back to it for at least two years. Something always got in the way. 300 pages into re-reading it, here are my five thoughts for those who might be interested in Tolstoy’s classic.
- Give it a chance (it’s a gripping read)
It’s up there with the classics everyone knows but few of us have read – or at least have got no further than chapter two. Who gets past the “snot green sea” Stephen Dedalus describes from the martello in Ulysses, or the tilting at windmills in Don Quixote, or – for the more adventurous – beyond Swann’s Way in Proust’s enormous tome?
The challenge for most people about War and Peace is not its length (my copy has 1,345 pages!) but its panoply of characters. They seem endless! But just remember that the three central characters are Pierre, Andrew and Natasha, and that the Rostovs and the Bolkonskis are the most important families. That way you can’t go too far wrong.
Because like other lengthy Russian masterpieces – Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment or Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate – once you get into it War and Peace it really is a page turner.
- Life is unpredictable (and it always has been)
If my house ever goes on fire, there are only two books I’d save. My collected Yeats, signed for me by his daughter, Anne, and son, Michael and my 1942 US edition of War and Peace.
I picked up my copy from one of the wonderful second-hand bookshops in Berkeley when I lived in San Francisco in the late 1990s/2000s. What makes this 80 year old Simon and Schuster edition so special is when it was released. In November 1941, months before the Battle of Stalingrad, nobody (including the publisher) knew if the Germans would, like Napoleon, succeed in driving and destroying all before them to reach Moscow.
Maps of both campaigns – Napoleon’s and Hitler’s – literally bookend the edition. The backcover map shows the terrifying “Farthest Line of Advance” in red to indicate Hitler’s position by the time of the book’s release.
It seems to say: “We don’t know how these tumultuous events they will turn out. But similar experiences have happened in past centuries.” Illustrating how calamitous events were experienced in the moment by those in the past, helps us to endure in the present.
Isn’t that one of the values of great literature?
- You’re in for a treat (if you’ve never read Tolstoy)
And on that note….if you have never before read Tolstoy, a huge experience awaits you.
Tolstoy doesn’t “write”. Everything in his books gleams with “realness”. It’s as if his hand reaches out from the tome and drags you in real life.
Tolstoy served as a soldier in the Crimea. He knew war. He brings it to life. Even when he does use literary artifice, it never seems contrived. Think of the very first military salvos in War and Peace where he inserts an accountant on the battle scene. Through the accountant’s unmilitary eyes, in just a single page Tolstoy creates the disorientation and fear of war for the reader who has almost certainly never experienced battle themselves.
But War and Peace contains more than army campaigns. While slightly more a “man’s book” than Anna Karenina, it’s also “a woman’s book” too. It tells of courtships, marriages, friendships, enmities, deathbed manipulations and family relationships. It shows life and human-interactions with blinding intensity and in a way that is wholly real for the world we know today.
Anna Karenina, written after War and Peace, is often seen as the more perfect novel. I’ve read it twice and I agree. But to my mind War and Peace contains the finest prose passage in all of literature. Turn to Book 3, Chapter 13 (after reading the chapters with the characters’ meditations in advance of the conflict). This passage describes Prince Andrew’s sensations as he lies severely injured, gazing at a translucent sky, hovering between life and death, on the bloody field of defeat after the Battle of Austerlitz.
It’s an epiphany. It’s wondrous. Read it. Read it!
- Countless ordinary people really shape the world (not just the leaders and politicians)
War and Peace deals with the lives of many men and women of all ages over a period of more than a decade. It is however centred on one “great event”, Napolean’s 1812 invasion of Russia. The French Emperor swept across Austria, Poland, the Ukraine and Russia to capture an abandoned Moscow. Ultimately the Russian winter and an army under General Mikhail Kutuzov routed the French on the famous retreat from Moscow. Arguably, just as in the Second World War, it was the Russian campaign that defeated this powerful invader threatening the world’s peace and prosperity.
Perhaps one reason for the enormous scope – and length – of War and Peace is how the author believed history is shaped. The decisions and personalities of “Great Men” (Napoleon and Kutuzov) may influence human affairs. But for Tolstoy, events are predominantly dictated by chance and the individual actions of many ordinary courageous people.
In our own time of less than stellar international political leaders and often strident, false reporting, it is something for us to think about. Once again, many brave ordinary citizens are quietly battling for those around them. There really is still great humanity out there.
- Time passes (we endure)
The Corona virus will “ground” us for weeks, if not months. It will be a time of many concerns and busy households. We could do a few jigsaws, watch endless Netflix TV, take up a new hobby or worry ourselves endlessly. Or we could let a few great writers show us wider vistas – and just how vivid and extraordinary the world and its people can be.
That’s why I will be reading War and Peace during the Corona virus.
What about you?