Really, what’s the deal with Russian writers? What do they feed them back in Mother Russia? And how do I get some? What’s the secret that allows them to peek into our mortal souls and turn the stuff they find into something above and beyond everyday literature? It’s got to be the vodka.
Today I want to tackle a classic, the Classic, one of the most wonderful and awe-inspiring novels I’ve ever read, and that’s where the Russians come in. The plot of Tolstoy’s War and Peace is well known, a genre-bending historical fiction dealing with the lives of five aristocratic families during the Napoleonic Wars. Tolstoy’s novel encompasses everything: from the intimacy of family life to the great battles against the French, from the perspective of a young girl about to debut in society to that of Napoleon himself. Attempting a summary would be pointless, so I’d rather deal with what makes War and Peace so great.
I’ve always had the funny feeling that, whereas Dostoyevsky was the writer of the mind, -its dark corridors, cul-de-sacs and eternal loops-, Tolstoy was the writer of the body, let me explain. Tolstoy’s style has gravity, a unique intensity that goes beyond the weak frame of a book. Tolstoy’s world can be felt, almost caressed. Natasha’s joy seems to echo through your body, like the remnants of a smile you didn’t notice was blooming on your face. The stolen caress between two young lovers can be felt, just like an inexperienced soldier’s fear before his first battle. Don’t get me wrong, both Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy share an uncanny understanding of human nature, it’s just that their methods are different. Dostoyevsky carves his way painfully through the human mind, while Tolstoy just takes you to the crime scene and turns you into a witness of the facts.
Reading War and Peace is a challenge full of rewards, you’ll meet Pierre, who might not be the brightest cookie in the batch, but who’s also the soul of the party -he wrestles bear cubs, for Pete’s sake! – and has a kind and inquisitive soul. You’ll also meet Prince Bolkonsky, a man hardened by life, a cynical who’s finally swept by a new love; and his father, a liberal thinker that’s established a tyranny in his own home. I can’t go through the full cast of characters, it’s too long and intricate, but I promise that when you’re done reading War and Peace you’ll feel like you’ve met your second family. Now get on with it, you have a long and exciting journey ahead of you!