Thursday, January 22, 2009

At Last...

War and Peace
by Leo Tolstoy

Well, friends, thank you for your patience. War and Peace was a long haul, but absolutely worth the time and energy. This is such a sprawling yet interwoven cast of characters and events, that is is impossible to narrow it down to one (or even a few) theme(s) or primary emphasis. Tolstoy moved easily back and forth between the familial and relational dynamics of the principal characters and the strategies and mechanics, successes and failures, of the Napoleonic wars. Me being who I am, I was more taken with the interplay between the characters (that will surprise no one who knows me) than with the battle scenes or the interminable tension leading up to the battles. However, it was clear that Tolstoy did his homework (the book is heavily footnoted). He was able to bring the battles to life in a way that constantly reminded the reader that people taking bullets or being bayoneted is not an abstract concept. Nicholas Rostov's pricking of conscience after he slices through a Frenchman rang true - I wondered how many soldiers experience that regret after "doing their duty to the fatherland."

I actually finished the book the night before Inauguration Day, and the timing seemed significant to me. There are many issues with which Tolstoy struggles that are still relevant today, nearly two centuries later. We are all hoping that our new president can level the playing field for all races and classes of people, and the strained relationship between peasants and nobility that shows itself in War and Peace reminds us that an unacceptable gap between those who have (whether they have money, education, opportunity, or whatever) and those who have not is not something new. The gap is just, if at all possible, even wider now than it was then. Likewise, Tolstoy elegantly points out the futility of warfare as a means of resolving disputes between nations or sovereigns. He does not do this in a didactic way, but just through the story line we come to see how unproductive fighting is. Surely we can find a better way.

As I said in a previous post, I think some members of the Russian nobility joined the military out of sheer boredom. It is astonishing, really, how little these people had to do. Pierre/Count Bezukhov is the character who evolves the most in the story - he is really transparent in his restlessness and his quest for some sort of meaning in his life. When he is released after being a prisoner of war, he articulates the epiphany he has had about how little one needs in the way of material things to be happy, the reader can tell that he will not be the same again, his life has been permanently transformed.

Oh, and Pierre's wife Helene - what is up with that? She is a sought after woman - everyone wants to be her friend and get invited to her soirees, yet it seems to be common knowledge in the story that she has numerous lovers, none of whom is her husband. I think of the ostracism that Anna faced from her own class of people in Anna Karenina when she had a long-term adulterous relationship. Helene has numerous adulterous relationships yet seems to be the epitome of the Moscow and Petersburg social circles. I don't get it. However, I think both these women (and others to a lesser degree) behave the way they do because they are so stifled by the conventions of their social class and of the time period in which they live. They have so few options. It strikes me as no accident that both Anna and Helene wind up essentially alone and commit suicide.

I cannot even begin to guess how many times I read certain sentences or paragraphs in War and Peace and was stunned by the truth that I found there. This is especially true for Tolstoy's musings (sometimes through the thoughts and voices of his characters, others through the voice of the narrator) about death and our fear of it, spirituality, our ongoing quest for meaning and purpose in life, and the question of whether or not we as humans are dependent on free will more or less than on divine guidance. That is not to say that I agreed with all his conclusions. Tolstoy clearly does not have a high opinion of women, and there were a few off-the-cuff comments about women's depth of character or intelligence that he would never get away with now. I just chalked it up to the times in which he lived.

And yes, I cried when Prince Andrei died.

As much as I enjoyed the book, I thought Tolstoy ended it strangely. He ends with about a 40-page philosophical historical treatise that reminded me of something John Locke would have written - all about how no one individual, regardless of how powerful (he specifically is referring to Napoleon Bonaparte) they think they are, really has any more power than anyone else. He makes the argument that Napoleon only thought he was giving orders for all these invasions and conquests. Tolstoy says these things happened because "they had to," and millions of tiny decisions from people significant and not-so-significant converged to make things unfold as they did. I am still mulling all that over in my mind, and am not sure I totally agree with Tolstoy, but whether we do or not his ending the book with this extended essay on the subject was an odd choice. He had made the point numerous times throughout the narrative, and the long-winded treatise at the end felt anti-climactic - like he was beating a dead horse. I'm sure if Tolstoy were still alive he would listen to my suggestions and go right away and make changes (NOT!).

It's a terrific book - it will make you think, and it will stay with you for a long time. I already want to read it again, but not anytime soon. I've got a huge stack of other things waiting, and I need to knock off some quick ones to get my momentum back.

Stay tuned now for more frequent postings now that the trek is completed!

Reverent Reader


At 1/23/09, 4:38 PM , Blogger LeAnn said...

Wow!!! I am thrilled that you have accomplished this quest, and thank you for giving us a gleaning of the fruits of your labor. To quote a less literate fictional character... "most excellent, dude!"


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