Thursday, July 7

Considering Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”

I finished it. I have now read the unabridged War and Peace from beginning to end.

I never had any particular interest in reading it. Though I enjoyed “The Death of Ivan Ilych” and some others of Tolstoy’s short stories, I was not that impressed with Anna Karenina. Really, it was a matter of efficiency more than taste that drove me to read the Russian novel. This return to Africa includes a week in Kenya and another eight in Malawi and over fifty hours of sitting in airports and flying. I needed something that would last me, and hauling one elephantine tome made more sense than five books of a reasonable size.

The Signet Classic edition’s 1455 pages of small type and no line spacing took me roughly four weeks to complete. Assuming I read every day, which I totally didn’t, it’s an average of just over fifty pages a day. For the expressed purpose of taking a while to read, it succeeded. As a demonstration of my reading speed and actual interest in reading it, that’s not so great, but who can blame me? Something like a third of the novel is Tolstoy taking a break to explain his theory of history and its ultimate inscrutability. Napoleon was a twit because he thought he made the decisions and was important. Kutuzov was a genius because he realized he was merely an expression of the people’s will. We get it. We got it the first time you brought it up. Get on with it. That said, I would still rather read Tolstoy’s theory of history than another scene of Levin on his estates marveling at the peasant spirit and hunting. Shut up, Levin.

But, really, get on with it because the parts that aren’t that, the stories of the Rostov and Bolkonsky families and Pierre, are pretty great, a lot better than most everything else I’ve read this year. They’re good characters. They’re conflicted. They’re driven by their impulses and responsibilities. They’re making the effort to be good people. I liked reading about their lives. One hundred fifty years later they were still interesting and compelling. No doubt I missed a great deal of the nuance and subtleties in the interactions of the early 19th century Russian aristocracy, especially when the most shameful villain only sought to marry a girl without her father’s permission, but there were still some great moments. I felt more than a little sympathy and understanding with Pierre as he tried to liberate and improve the lives of his serfs but his every move is undermined by rampant corruption without his awareness.

For such a monument in the Western canon it seems like backhanded praise to just say of War and Peace, “I liked it,” but it’s true. It didn’t prompt any revelations, but I enjoyed most of the four weeks I spent in Tolstoy’s world with Prince Andrei and Princess Marya and Pierre. That’s something.

No comments: