I’ve never done anything but dream. This, and this alone, has been the meaning of my life. My only real concern has been my inner life. FERNANDO PESSOA

Monday, 13 December 2010

War And Peace

The one thing necessary, in life and in art, is to tell the truth. TOLSTOY

With the temperature hovering around the freezing mark here in the UK, it may seem masochistic of me to be reading about Russian winters - but that's what I'm doing. I'm five hundred pages into War and Peace. I've been wanting to read it for a long time but somehow have never got round to it. Tolstoy wrote his master work between the years of 1862 and 1867 and, of course, it's considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest, novel ever written. I would not disagree. It's an extraordinary book.

In War and Peace Tolstoy paints a huge canvas depicting Russia in the early years of the nineteenth century, the time of the Napoleonic Wars. There are three main foci in the book: the households of the Rostovs and the Bolkonskys, and the figure of Pierre Bezuhov. (You can clearly see Tolstoy himself in this character. Like Pierre, Tolstoy had led a dissolute life of drinking, gambling and womanizing until, at the age of thirty four, he married and transformed his life into one of helping others, and striving towards the infinite, the eternal and the absolute.)

Tolstoy's psychological penetration into all his characters is remarkable; he explores moralistically their foibles, delusions and idiosyncrasies - as well as their bravery, compassion and common humanity - with skill and insight. Yet he never rushes to condemn, and remains the objective, dispassionate novelist, portraying life in all its chaos, misery and glory.War is a major theme in the novel, and he writes realistically about war and its horror, describing it as the vilest thing in life. In the introduction to my Penguin Classics' edition the translator, Rosemary Edmonds, states: War and Peace is a hymn to life. It is the Iliad and the Odyssey of Russia. 

I wonder if you have a book, or several books, you've always been intending to read, but have never taken down from the shelf? Classics, perhaps, which you feel you really should read one day, but in your bones you know you probably never will? Sometimes the prospect of a long, what we may perceive as a 'heavy' classic, may seem a little daunting, so we turn to something shorter and more contemporary. What I would say is this: dive in! In my experience the perceived 'difficult' books, those formidably towering landmarks of literature, are often the most rewarding, readable and engrossing of all books. (I found this with Cervantes' Don Quixote. Edith Grossman's 2003 translation reads like a dream. Even my daughter read the book in one go, and she doesn't normally read major classics.)

I'll end with this sobering, yet strangely liberating quotation from War and Peace. Pierre Bezuhov, at a turning point in his life, says, All we can know is that we know nothing. And that is the sum total of human wisdom. (I often feel myself that the more I know, the less I know, and the more there is to know. In our lifetimes we can only ever absorb, in the vaguest and most inadequate way, one millionth of the total sum of knowledge.)    

10 comments:

Ruth said...

Robert, I love this post.

Sadly for an English major to say, I have not read War and Peace. I will now, thanks to you, and after reading short story recently, "The Death of Ivan Ilyich." He was criticized in his day for being moralistic, and I got that from the story. But I say we can use more ideology these days. And that final piece of wisdom you quote is enough to clinch the deal.

There are many books I'd like to read, Don Quixote among them.

I read The Ambassadors by Henry James last year, the first James I'd read, and not the easiest to begin with. It literally took me a year of reading to finish it. (I tend to read in short spurts.) But it was worth it, though very dense. He packs a trunk for a long journey in every paragraph. But the depth of feeling I had, connected with Strether throughout the book was extraordinary.

George said...

On more than one occasion in my life, I have started "War and Peace," read several hundred pages, and then became distracted by other books. It requires a commitment, I think, and, thus far, my commitment has not been strong enough. That said, I'm sure it would be greatly rewarding. I have read some other, shorter Tolstoy works and found them very satisfying and enlightening.

Loren said...

As an English major with great intentions but too many obligations, I still have a library of books I started reading when I retired 10 years ago that I still haven't gotten through.

I bought sets of books in great anticipation, and far too many of them, including a four-volume set of the Classic GreeK Plays, DHLawrence, and Joyce still await me.

Timecheck said...

So far, once is enough for War and Peace. Time may change my attitude, though. As I reread some books, ten, twenty years later, my insights are totally different, still maybe not those of the author, but a revelation to me. I'm just delving into Michener's Iberia for the third time and finding it a whole new book.

Gleaner said...

I've tried and thought many times about reading "war and peace" but have failed.

Rather than specific books I have now decided that I need to read more Russian literature. Naturally many of the books that I have longed to read are included then in this list.

Recently I was drawn to reading some Chekhov short stories as I was interested in his writings exploring the idea that "the greatest disasters are happening because of our disregard for the little deeds that we commit" and his focus on the consequences in everone's life. His short story 'A Malefactor' resonated with me and has enabled me to remind myself (and laugh) that I'm having a 'Chekhov moment'when I'm outraged by similar stupidity in the world today -just one of the gifts of literature!

Bonnie said...

Like George I think several of the great and long masterpieces require a dogged commitment to read. I usually am reading two or three books at one time and if one is getting dense and laborious I revert to the others. The problem then, is that I have to go back and reread several pages to re-situate myself in the story ... and so it proceeds, three steps forward and two back ...

Thanks for this inspiring nudge Robert.

Tramp said...

Before the 2 Antarctic winters I expected to read War and Peace, Lord of the Rings ... I couldn't get into them. There has to be the state of mind as well as time, perhaps one day. At times I read profusely, mainly travel books.
...Tramp

The Solitary Walker said...

Ruth - Don Quixote is fab. Try it in the Edith Grossman translation.

George - apart from a few short stories the only other Tolstoy I've read in 'Anna Karenina', which is wonderful.

Loren - DHL is one of my very favourite writers. I just love his stuff - novels, short stories, poems, travel writings, criticism, maverick philosophy.

Timecheck - yes, our reaction to and understanding of a novel can change enormously when rereading it in a different period of our life.

Gleaner - nice to hear from you. Love the idea of a 'Chekhov moment'!

'Three steps forward and two back' - sounds like life itself, Bonnie!

I read a lot of travel books too, Tramp. As for Tolkien, I've never been able to get into him at all.

Dominic Rivron said...

I've a list of doop-stopping books I mean to read, too. War and Peace is on it. I'm currently ploughing through another - Middlemarch - otherwise I'd now feel inspired to pick up Tolstoy.

We've talked about Joyce, I think. Another book that's not too long but which I found hard to read was VW's To the Lighthouse - I tried a few times when I was younger but always ground to a halt. Then one day, I started and couldn't put it down. An incredible book.

The Solitary Walker said...

Dominic, I think 'To The Lighthouse' and 'The Waves' are wonderful, wonderful books. Yes, Joyce I think we've talked about - I love 'A Portrait Of the Artist', and to some extent 'Ulysses', but I've never braved 'Dubliners'. (I must admit 'A Portrait of the Artist' is my favourite.)