27 May 2011

Looks Like We Made It...! ...or.... Reminiscings Upon the Completion of "War and Peace"

"There was always a provocative side to Tolstoy's genius, and it was most often what spurred him to write."
- Richard Pevear, from his Introduction to Anna Karenina

Day Count: 147
Page Count: 12--

Last week, on Monday, May 16, 2010, at about 6:00am - 136 days after I started my journey through War and Peace - I read the final sentences of Tolstoy's epic and joined the ranks of the people I consider to be among the "literary elite." I feel very accomplished - like I can (and very likely will) read anything and everything I set my mind to. No book is 'off-limits' or 'too difficult'... because I have waded into the sparkling waters of Tolstoy's Russia and emerged glistening from the other side.

In the weeks preceding my finishing of the book, my pace began to slow considerably as the stresses on my life became more and more demanding. Since my last post on April 17 (and even in the days preceding that), a lot has happened that kept me away both from this blog and War and Peace. In the last month, I've lost my job, started looking for a new one, attempted to finalize my end-of-the-school year things, auditioned for a play, gotten cast in said play, and begun attending three-a-week rehearsals.

While some of this has been great (play stuff) and some has been most unnerving (job/school situation), I felt myself drifting from Tolstoy with only a scant 120 pages to go. Determined, I rallied my resolve and managed to plow through over a hundred pages in a single weekend (besting even my most impressive early reading schedule of 100 pages in a week) and finished that morning while waking up to get ready for my last two weeks of school.

Some reflections on my time spent in War and Peace:
  • Tolstoy's prose is absolutely captivating. He inspires your imagination and pulls you into his confidences as he invites you into his world. In many ways, you are his guest - a fellow traveler on the road of life who he welcomes into his home and, as he feeds you with a peasant meal of hearty kasha and strong vodka, regales you with a story that is at once timeless and universal, while still very much a product of its own time and place. When you finish, he sends you on your way, sated, fulfilled, and ready for the journey ahead.
  • To call Pierre Bezukhov, Natasha Rostova, and Andrei and Marya Bolkonsky some of my favorite literary characters seems like a disservice both to them and to Tolstoy. They have, over the course of these last few months, become closer than that to me.

    Pierre has become a good friend and stalwart companion, in many ways a mirror in which I see myself, and an inspiration and hope for my own future. In Natasha, I see a feminine ideal - joyful, encouraging, so full of life and energy that it is contagious and all who encounter her, from the most virtuous to the most vile and debased, love her instantly. Andrei is a close friend and something of a hero, but a tragic hero whose longing for something more fills me at once with sadness for his plight and guilt for my knowing that I have often felt the same. Marya is a rock, a woman whose piety and grace have led her to become so much stronger than she might have been without her faith. Because she is moored in the steadfastness of Christ's love, she remains an anchor for her father, for Andrei, and for Nikolai.

    To call Tolstoy's characters 'characters' demeans them. They are people. They age and grow and mature and gain wisdom and understanding and break right in front of you. You see them at their best and at their worst. Even the best of Tolstoy's characters is deeply flawed. Even the worst of Tolstoy's characters is made to have redemption, even if in some small way. By the end of the book, they are no longer vague, fledgling caricatures, such as those that emerge from most novels I've read, but fully-formed people with thoughts and hearts and lives all their own.

    And you relate to them! When they mourn, you find yourself in tears. When they are jubilant, you cannot help but grin from ear to ear. When they are heroic, you heart begins to pound in your chest as you begin to read of their exploits, swelling with every action they take. When they are peaceful and content, you suddenly forget that the world around you is falling to pieces and rest in their serenity.
  • Even after spending four-and-a-half months inside the world of War and Peace, I'd be hard-pressed to tell you exactly what the book is about. I know that some would answer briefly with "the Napoleonic Wars" or "life in Russia in the early 1800s" or (perhaps more ironically and with a healthy dose of sarcasm) "war and peace," but I don't think those answers are adequate enough. While, on some level, this book is certainly about both of those things, it is so much bigger than just those minute descriptions.

    War and Peace is an epic - perhaps one of the greatest epics ever written. It is certainly about war, but it is also about heroism, violence, depravity, redemption, loss, consequences, and coping. It is absolutely about peace, but it is also about life, brokenness, love, longing, growing up, forgiveness, joy, and mistakes. And it is about so much more than just that! This book speaks to the subject of life, touching on every aspect of the human experience and expressing it in the most genuine and honest terms. Tolstoy very rarely tells; he shows! And it is that fact that separates War and Peace from other books - his ability and willingness to show you just how human you are by showing you just how human he is by showing you just how human they [his characters] are.
It has been a difficult transition to make after stepping out of the world of War and Peace. Life just seems a bit less adventurous, a bit paler, and a bit more dull without the joyous smile of Natasha, the brilliance of Marya's glance, or the resolute objectivity of Andrei. To attempt to recapture some of that, I have read one of the short stories in The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories, 'The Prisoner of Caucasus,' which was written in the period of time between his writing of War and Peace and Anna Karenina.

Written as a part of a children's reader for a group of students Tolstoy had been teaching, 'The Prisoner of Caucasus' tells the (semi-autobiographical) story of a young hussar officer taken prisoner by the Tartars during the Crimean Wars. While in captivity, he plots his escape as he befriends a young girl and attempts to gain the trust and acceptance of his captors.

What interested me most about the piece is Tolstoy's treatment of the relationship between Zhilin (the titular 'Prisoner') and Dina (the thirteen-year-old girl he befriends). Despite the fact that Zhilin is imprisoned by the Tartars, never once does his relationship with Dina seem disingenuous or false. Never once during the course of the story does Tolstoy suggest that Zhilin is using Dina to gain the upper-hand over his captors, to use the girl as leverage, or - perhaps most horrifyingly of all - beginning some sort of romantic relationship with her. The audience can feasibly see any of these outcomes if he is reading the story with honesty and earnest.

However, Tolstoy not only never even breaches the possibility of these outcomes, he makes the relationship between the two - a relationship of good nature and good humor, in which Zhilin makes the girl laugh by fashioning dolls for her out of old rags and Dina providing the prisoner with extra food whenever possible - seem like the only plausible relationship these two can have. Herein lies the magic of Tolstoy - he does not go in the direction you would expect, but instead takes you in one that is better just for the way he tells it.

This weekend, I'll be beginning my reading of Anna Karenina and am looking forward to it immensely. I read Richard Pevear's introduction last night before bed and it managed to fill me with the same level of profound excitement I experienced before reading War and Peace! This time, I am thrilled to be joined on my Tolstoy adventure by two of my colleagues - my department head whose reading of War and Peace inspired me to begin my literary journey and the first place, and a new friend and fellow-teacher who has been meaning to read Anna K for a while now. I am excited to share this literary journey with the two of them (and, of course, with you, gentle reader)!

Keep checking my Twitter feed (@TweetingTolstoy), as I will be updating it as I begin reading through Anna K with great quotes and my own brand of insight! ;)

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