Thursday, January 8, 2009

*Midpoint Musings


War and Peace
by Leo Tolstoy

One of my reading pals recently said "What in the world is that about?" when I told her I was reading War and Peace. I really have to give Michael Dirda from the Washington Post Book World a lot of credit for getting me interested in classics. As a liberal arts major, I had to read a fair amount of the "old dead white guy" writers in college, and had sort of written them off as the type of boring thing you would only read when someone was making you write a paper about it. Several years ago I read Dirda's memoir An Open Book, in which he describes books that had a major impact on him. His enlivening discussions of several books that had been important to him made me think that I really should give some of the classics a chance.

A little over a year ago, I read Dirda's review of the latest translation of War and Peace in the "Book World." He made it sound so intriguing AND entertaining that I decided to plunge in and see what made this tome so well known and so acclaimed. Okay...I didn't exactly plunge. I read some other Tolstoy stuff as a warm-up and was surprised by how much I liked it. I have decided that reading this stuff is a whole different experience when you are doing it just for fun, or just out of curiosity, and not because someone with the power to influence your GPA is making you read it.

So...have been reading the book for about two weeks and am a little more than halfway through. I like it a great deal - I find with these long suckers that you just kind of have to settle in and not rush. The advantage to an epic style like Tolstoy's is that the characters can become so real to the reader, and they have time to evolve just like live people. I liken reading War and Peace to settling down on the couch with a thick blanket - you just get immersed in it and it can be difficult to reemerge into the "real" world. Tolstoy has created a world with so much nuance and detail that (trite as it may sound) you really feel as if you are there.

I have read enough about Tolstoy to know that he himself struggled mightily with the mystery of death, the purpose of life, our relationship to God, and the delicate dance of relationship with other people. Tolstoy uses his characters to articulate and live out some the dilemmas that he wrestled with. And, if we are honest, I think we all have questions about these major parts of life. Tolstoy gives us a lens through which to examine our own questions of faith, our doubts, and our search for meaning in our existence. War and Peace is a big fat tome - you practically need a forklift to haul it around. But it is worth the time. It is not a book that comes easily to the reader, but it also is not as hard to follow as I had been led to believe. I think we have made this book into something of a myth, but it is not nearly as difficult as I would have supposed.

Three quick thoughts that I will try to unpack some in a later post: 1) War and Peace, as well as being an incredible novel, packs in a lot of good history. Before reading it, I knew zilch about the Napoleonic wars. Now I know a little more than zilch. 2) Along those lines, it is painful when soldiers in the novel witness posturing and self-aggrandizement and ignorance on the part of their superiors, and when they become disillusioned with war (as they find out it really does not resolve much. You wonder if these kinds of things still go on in modern armies. Wouldn't be surprised. 3). Tolstoy seems to absolutely nail the stifling vapidity of life in the Russian nobility. I might join the military too if my life was as lacking in direction as some of these poor creatures.

That's all for now. Stay tuned...

Reverent Reader

*Ed, my darling, I know you hate the word "musings" in a blog. I was just going for an alliterative effect!

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