I have been reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and had found it truly a slog. Before, Anna Karenina had swept me off my feet, and I truly looked forward to War and Peace. Until I started reading it. The Russians have for decades mesmerized me with their novels, particularly Dostoyevsky, and I often wish I had been born in the nineteenth century, before TV and movies, before the computer, and before the 10-second rants on CNN that nowadays pass as ‘political discussion.’
For weeks now, I have only been able to read War and Peace at night, at home, the book (the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation) too heavy to carry around the frenetic streets and subways of New York City. It’s 1,215 pages long! War and Peace is certainly a book out of time, and perhaps today out of mind. Books, for me, have always been a reflection of how I think, or how I want to experience the world, or how I imagine it. But what happens when the world thoroughly commercializes time, and reading, when storytelling is reduced to two hours on a movie screen, if that? Our mind changes. What our mind expects, wants, gets accustomed to, changes. And perhaps many of us don’t know what to do anymore with this massive doorstop called War and Peace.
So I felt guilty as I read page after page of Tolstoy’s ‘historical novel’ about Russia during the Napoleonic war at the beginning of the nineteenth century. I thought perhaps that I was becoming too modern, my mind needing that fix of another Seinfeld rerun, or the mindless quick-talking of television pundits. Had I been irretrievably poisoned by this modern world I have no choice but to inhabit?
I was also angry at Tolstoy. What happened to the wonderful plots and subplots of Anna Karenina? To the type of characters whose obsessions, jealousies, insecurities, and rivalries drive the action of a novel? The first 600 pages of War and Peace, to my mind, were a blur of fancy soirees and half-hearted descriptions of the war, a fox hunt, and proposals to marry among the elite.
I even skipped ahead to the end of the book, to an 1868 note the translators reprinted, where Tolstoy discussed his intentions for War and Peace. What is power? What force produces the movements of people? What is man’s relationship to history? To what extent does man have free will in the history of his time? With these questions in mind, perhaps, I thought, I myself had no free will anymore, and could only read snippets of prose and listen to ditties selling chocolate. I was about to quit this book, and move on to something else. The character Pierre Bezukhov, a good man trapped in an immoral world, seemed my only reward as a reader.
Now, at about midpoint in this gargantuan novel-like experiment, I have met Natasha Rostov. She has actually appeared before, but now Natasha is thrust into the plot front and center. She’s betrothed to the indecisive Prince Andrei Bolkonsky. Indeed, Pierre Bezukhov also loves her. But at this point in the novel, a scoundrel by the name of Prince Anatole Kuragin, who is secretly married, is attempting to seduce Natasha. Now the novel seems to have life in it, and I look forward to reading it every chance I get. I have even started lugging it around, to steal more reading time here and there. I don’t know why it took 600 pages for me to get into this novel, whether it is the novel itself, and how the characters and plot change, or even perhaps how I changed as a reader by forcing myself to keep reading, to keep hitting that book even though I wanted to quit.
Perhaps that, in a way, is one of Tolstoy’s points. We are set in our time, in our place, puny atoms in a great historical maelstrom, amid this unprecedented financial crisis, the slow decline of America as the sole center of international power, and an overly commercialized world that prizes glib intelligence, great visuals, and a trashy popular culture. Yes, we are set in our time, but with enough willpower, with perhaps a crazy stubbornness and a bit of luck, we may reach beyond our historic trap to make the best of it.