Cross-Country Book Club: War and Peace

Leo Tolstoy at age 20, in 1848
Leo Tolstoy at age 20, in 1848

For a few years my son and I have conducted a cross-country book club in which we simultaneously read a book, periodically touching base for comments, impressions and the usual book club-wonderfulness–especially wonderful because it’s my son who is my book club partner.

Since about February we’ve been reading Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. We’re both into the Epilogue now, which, in War and Peace fashion, is 86 pages, two parts and 28 sections long. At a total of 1215 pages, the book is going to put a crimp in even this fast-reader’s “Books I Read in 2015” list. 200 pages in, I’m quite sure I wouldn’t have continued but for the shame of telling my son I was giving up. We didn’t give up. We kept going, and in the end I found I loved War and Peace. And Leo Tolstoy, too.

The war parts are a lot of Tolstoy’s thoughts about war (horrible, amoral, chaotic) and the chance elements of history:

In historical event the so-called great men are labels that give the event a name, which, just as all labels, has the least connection of all with the event itself. Their every action, which to them seems willed by themselves, in the historical sense is not willed, but happens in connection with the whole course of history and has been destined from before all ages.

The peace parts are an early 1800’s-era soap opera, finally whittling down to five or six characters I couldn’t (even in 1200+ pages!) get enough of. We’ve got love and romance and betrayal and a marriage in which one character says to his wife, “Wherever you are, there is depravity and evil.”

At one point, Tolstoy does a pretty funny take-down of his fellows on the battlefield:

Pfuel was one of those hopelessly, permanently, painfully self-assured men as only Germans can be, and precisely because only Germans can be self-assured on the basis of an abstract idea–science, that is, an imaginary knowledge of the perfect truth. A Frenchman is self-assured because he considers himself personally, in mind as well as body, irresistibly enchanting for men as well as women. An Englishman is self-assured on the grounds that he is a citizen of the best-organized state in the world, and therefore, as an Englishman, he always knows what he must do, and knows everything he does as an Englishman is unquestionably good. An Italian is self-assured because he is excitable and easily forgets himself and others. A Russian is self-assured precisely because he does not know anything and does not want to know anything, because he does not believe it is possible to know anything fully.

What’s not to like? Well, women and muzhiks (Russian peasants) take a few knocks. Two particularly hard to read passages are toward the end of the book. In one, Tolstoy expounds on the differences between a good woman and an intelligent woman. In the other he illustrates a main character’s magnanimity by “…neighboring muzhiks asking him to buy them…”

You have to be able to give Leo a pass for his old white maleness, but if you can, you’ll be treated to passages like these:

Pierre was struck for the first time…by the infinite diversity of human minds, which makes it so that no truth presents itself to two people in the same way.

He frequented every possible society, drank heavily, bought paintings, built, but, above all, he read.

…human dignity, which tells me that each of us is, if not more than certainly no less, of a human being than the great Napoleon.

In order that you don’t misinterpret this out-of-context quote about Napoleon, here’s one (yes, it’s only one) of the most powerful sentences in the book. I like it because I can’t quite figure it out: a treatise against war, nobly conducted or otherwise? And/or a critique of that proud and “contemptuous” Russian psyche?

And blessed is that nation which, not like the French in the year 1813, saluted by all the rules of the art and, turning the sword hilt first, graciously and courteously handed it to the magnanimous victor, but which, in the moment of trial, not asking how others have acted according to the rules on such occasions, simply and easily raises the first club that comes along and hammers with it until the feeling of outrage and revenge in its soul gives place to contempt and pity.

Thank you, Leo Tolstoy, for your candor, your wit, your forgiveness, your doubtful and yet dawning faith. Thank you for my twenty-six favorites of  your 500,000+ words:

People have eternally been mistaken, and will be mistaken, and in nothing more so than what they consider right and wrong.

Love awoke, and life awoke.

And you, dear reader: if you want to read a daunting book, maybe up the classics in your “I have read” list, take my advice: read it with a friend. Better yet, read it with your son or daughter.



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