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.)