Travels With Tolstoy

This summer, I chose for myself a lofty goal: I was going to read a few classic literary works from the Russian canon, beginning with the big daddy of them all; Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I honestly didn’t know much about this epic tale except that it was really long…about 1200 pages, and had to do with the Napoleonic invasion of Russia. I anticipated a struggle with both the high brow material and my commitment as titles like “The Help”, “Mudbound”, “The Forever War”, and “Brooklyn” stared anxiously at me from my to-read stack, but I promised myself I would stay true.

Not typically classified as a “beach read”, Leo and I became close friends despite his size. He made quite a nice traveling companion, albeit a cumbersome one, as we made our way around northern Michigan. Indifferent to the raised eyebrows and stares we received from curious bystanders, he remained composed and dignified as complete strangers rudely inquired why I would choose to read such a heavy tome.

Well, I decided to read War and Peace because I felt that as a reader I needed to understand why this novel, and Tolstoy for that matter, have weathered the test of time. What is it about this particular work that gives it such staying power?  I wanted to know what psychological draw a book written in the 1800’s could possibly have on the readership of our contemporary culture. And, until I achieved this personal frame of reference, I simply felt that I couldn’t engage in the Russian conversation.

I’m not going to lie and tell you it was all peaches and cream. I stalled out at around 900 pages. I just couldn’t accompany Andrei into another battle seeing as I had already completed two tours. Although I was heartily pushing for peace over war at this point, I must say I was dumbstruck by Tolstoy’s astute reflections on religion, economics, politics…and war. As our current talking heads jabbered through June and July, Leo would wink and prove that the more things change, the more they stay the same…

-The more we try to explain sensibly these phenomena of history, the more senseless and incomprehensible they become for us…man lives consciously for himself, but serves as an unconscious instrument for the achievement of historical, universally human goals. An action once committed is irrevocable, and its effect, coinciding in time with millions of actions of other people, acquires historical significance. The height a man stands on the social ladder, the greater the number of people he is connected with, the more power he has over other people, the more obvious is the predestination and inevitability of his every action.

-… we must assure a preponderance of virtue over vice, we must try to make it so that the honest man already attains in this world the eternal reward for his virtues.  But we are very much hindered in these great intentions by present-day political institutions. What are we to do in such a state of affairs? Are we to favor revolutions, overthrow everything, drive out force by force?…No, we are very far from that. Every violent reform is blameworthy, because it will not set evil to rights in the least, as long as people remain as they are, and because wisdom has no need of violence…

Though some 300 odd pages still await me, and I never made it to Nabokov, I now deem War and Peace a true reader’s privilege. Read slowly enough, I was allowed to savor Tolstoy’s deeply personal passages and absurdly modern insights which add to the wonder of dating back almost 100 years. Now as I gaze at my battered copy, I realize by the wine stains, sun-screen smears, and flagged edges that War and Peace was in fact, the perfect summer read.

– Post by Megan Shaffer