On Tolstoy’s War and Peace

How many times have you read the novel War and Peace?

My own answer is: Once.

It was one of the milestones and great moments in my life as a reader. Some of the other ones being ‘What if to be done?’ by Chernesvesky, ‘Das Capital’ by Marx, ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ by Marquez and ‘The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta’ by Mario Vargas Llosa.

It took me 18 hours to complete Resurrection but 6 months to read War and Peace. One reason of course is that I was in college and read Resurrection at a single stretch overnight.

But another was that I liked reading it slow. There was no particular plot in the novel, it was episodic- meaning I could leave off at any point and come back and continue after a few days without a break in continuity.

The characters that were sketched on paper also got sketched in the mind, slowly and imperceptibly. Prince Andrei, Levin, Natasha and General Kutzov, four of the nearly 1600 characters that populate the novel.

Tolstoy’s canvas is large but also intense, he exemplified the Russian trait of writing the novel as a medium for philosophical if not psychological and sociological discourse. The novel is about 1500 pages long. The Russians always had a propensity for writing long, very long novels.

The reason might have been that the writers used to get paid by the number of words that they wrote. In the case of Dostoevesky this can be easily understood, he wasn’t an aristocrat and struggled hard all his life to earn, even his,umm diversionary hobbies, gambling, for an example, were geared towards that noble and necessary end.

But the explanation sounds a bit dubious in case of Tolstoy, who was after all an aristocrat, a well- off count.

There has even been a lesser known ‘sequel’ to War and Peace, it was the novel Life and Fate by Vasili Grossman. The novel was secretly published outside Russia in the sixties and created quite a sensation. It is certainly one of the great Russian novels of the 20th century.

One of the discussions in the novel is on the classical Russian writers including Chekov and Tolstoy. Chekov, one character in Life and Fate remarks, was a man born in a working class family and went to be a part of the middle class while qualifying and later working as a doctor in the smaller towns and villages of Russia, while Tolstoy, with his aristocratic upbringing as part of the ruling class, was more concerned about the ‘big questions’ of the times and sought to create a ‘world view’ using the novel.

Chekov is a far more ‘democratic’ writer who sought to show the human strengths and foibles in his short stories. Tolstoy, the character concludes, is far more useful for the Soviet appartchik ruling class, which probably explains why the Soviets gave so much of importance and publicity to his works, besides a whole lot of nearly cost free translations throughout the world.

Incidentally, the historian Orlando Figes Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia is not only titled after one of the characters in the novel, but also uses the novel to trace the development of Russian culture in the 19th century. It is a must read for anyone who has grown up reading and admiring the great Russian masters.

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