Want to read with me? Follow this link to view the list and pick a book (or a few!) to read along with me. I'd love for this project to be collaborative, and will post anyone's thoughts beside my own.

Monday, July 18, 2011

I am convinced that we Russians must die or conquer.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Dear blog-lovers,

Sorry for the extended absence! I've been busy applying to grad school and finding a place to live in DC, but now that I've got most of my ducks in a row, I thought I'd finally type up the blog for War and Peace, which I finished a few months ago.

I decided to include my handwritten notes, as well as my extremely complicated character web, rather than type up a plot summary. Enjoy!

True confession - my copy of War and Peace is a stolen library book. My grandfather, Gail Rose, borrowed it from the Fort Shafter Library in 1942, during World War II, and he read the book while he was stationed in East Asia. My aunt told me that her father told her there were a lot of lines to wait in on the boat. ;)

I find it delightful and somewhat ironic that my copy of the book was read by someone who was actually in a war at the time. Not that I think wars are delightful (quite the contrary) but I think it's interesting from a literary standpoint.

I'm going to share a few quotes that I really enjoyed, but first, here are a few of my random thoughts.

-I was surprised at how much of War and Peace is still painfully relevant today. The themes of death and love are pretty obviously timeless, but the power play between countries, the quest for dominance, the overwhelming patriotism, the importance of family, and the effects of class difference on everyday life are all nestled into the story as well. Tolstoy truly made characters that feel like they could exist three hundred years in the past or three hundred years in the future. Sure, their trappings would be somewhat changed, but their souls, their essences as characters, would remain unchanged.

-The advantage of writing such a very long book is that you really get to see the characters grow and change. Too often we read books with one-dimensional heros and heroines, who go through (at most) one major event in the course of the novel. But here, we see the characters grow up, we see them make mistakes and fall flat on their faces, and we watch them find the courage and the strength to remake themselves and begin anew. Almost nothing in the book turns out as you think it will.

-I found a lot of familiar themes from Anna K in this novel. Lenin's transformation is quite similar to Pierre's, and Natasha's trajectory is not so very far from Anna's. There is the same wild passion that borders on the brink of imminent danger, and the quick tugs of characters pulling each other back from the edge.

-I felt a very soulful connection to my grandfather while reading this book. I never met him, but I've heard many stories, and particularly during the section where Pierre decides to become a gentleman farmer, I wondered if that passage put a tiny bug in my grandfather's ear to have a farm one day. Perhaps it was just in his genes - his family were country folk to begin with, but it's wild to think that a book could have changed the course of his life and mine, and now I'm reading the book 69 years later and sharing that experience with him.

-Tolstoy truly is a marvel. He marries careful prose with delicate descriptions and an inner momentum that keeps the 1300+ page novel propelling you to the last page. In glancing back through my copy, I remembered my feelings for each character, my constant hope that Pierre would find true happiness, that Natasha would grow up and see life for what it really is, that Mary would stand up to her nasty father and make herself happy for once. Unlike in 100 years of Solitude, where the characters grow old and die and the next generation (renamed for the first generation) continues the story, this novel identifies a handful of characters (there are many on the web, but only a few that really count) and it sticks with them, through thick and thin.

Here's a nugget:

"Just as in a clock, the result of the complicated motion of innumerable wheels and pulleys is merely a slow and regular movement of the hands which show the time, so the result of all the complicated human activities of 160,000 Russians and French - all their passions, desires, remorse, humiliations, sufferings, outbursts of pride, fear, and enthusiasm - was only the loss of the battle of Austerlitz, the so-called battle of the three Emperors - that is to say, a slow movement of the hand on the dial of human history."

- I was also amazed at how close (and yes, I know it's dramatized some, but still) Napoleon came to taking over the entire continent and all of Russia. I'm learning more and more about Napoleon through these novels, and he was clearly a very influential man.

-Tolstoy digs into philosophy quite a bit in this novel, which was again reminiscent of Anna K. "Who is right and who is wrong? No one! But if you are alive - live: tomorrow you'll die as I might have died an hour ago. And is it worth tormenting oneself, when one has only a moment of life in comparison with eternity?"

-"What is bad? What is good? What should one love and what hate? What does one live for? And what am I? What is life, and what is death? What power governs all?" Just like the themes of love and death and strife, these philosophical questions probe at ideas we still haven't resolved or come to any common ground on.

At one point, a soldier says, "Our business is to do our duty, to fight and not to think! (And to drink, another soldier adds)." The soldiers were marched around like puppets, and the Emperors were the puppeteers. Today's wars are drastically different from war in the 19th century, but there are still and always will be the puppets and the puppeteers.

I really loved reading this book. There were times where I wasn't sure I would finish it, but I knew when I did it wouldn't let me down. The pages are falling out, and my grandfather's copy has been bandaged with some duct tape, but I plan to pass the book on (scribbled notes and all) to another generation, for the themes, the characters, and the story will be relevant for a long time to come.

Onwards to the sorrowful. Or is the Joyous? Oh, that's right, it's Les Misérables.