The American author and literary critic Henry James infamously described Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace as a ‘big, loose, baggy monster.’ James’s disparaging comment from 1908 couldn’t be further from my 2020 reading. The only commonality found in James’ viewpoint is perhaps the text’s monstrous size. Coming in at a whopping 1200 pages, Tolstoy’s work of historical fiction is no light read. Indeed, War and Peace is not for the faint-hearted either.
Chronicling the French invasion of Russia during the Napoleonic wars of 1805 to 1812, Tolstoy’s masterpiece is a sweeping tale of love and loss, which examines the reaches of human happiness and depths of deprivation. As Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky aptly describe it in their introduction, War and Peace is not only the most famous and successful of Tolstoy’s literature, it is renowned as ‘the most daunting of Russian novels, as vast as Russia itself and as long to cross from one end to the other.’ They importantly add, ‘if one makes the journey, the sights seen and the people met on the way mark one’s life forever.’
The character Pierre Bezukhov and his lifelong quest for contentment and humility created the most profound impression upon me. Born one of several illegitimate sons to a count, the awkward and unrefined Pierre struggles to fit into the bourgeois circles of St Petersburg and Moscow. But, when he is incidentally left heir to his emotionally distant father’s fortune, drunkenness and debauchery soon wreak havoc on the young count’s new life as one of the richest men in the Russian Empire. Continually disappointed with his own lack of self-will, and becoming trapped in a loveless marriage to the beautiful fortune-seeker, Helene Kuragin, Pierre soon finds himself desperately lonely and discontented.
Tolstoy illustrates the directionless Pierre turning from Freemasonry, obsessive patriotic commitment to the war and then eventually God, with harrowing realism and emotion. In a moment of epiphanic reflection Tolstoy writes, ‘Pierre now felt unexpectedly that he had a centre of gravity which he had not had formerly.’ It isn’t until Pierre is taken prisoner by the French that he truly begins to understand the meaning of life, and with it, love and humanity.
In the same way that the events surrounding Covid-19 have made us re-examine that which is important in life, Tolstoy makes clear that it is only when one’s liberty becomes threatened that we can truly learn how to live. Reading War and Peace during lockdown has been an act of self-discipline and a transformative experience. For me, with little to do other than exercise my own introspection, 2020’s enforced quarantine has been a blessing.
Tolstoy is correct in thinking that, ‘once we’re thrown off our habitual paths, we think all is lost; but it’s only here that the new and the good begins. As long as there’s life, there’s happiness.’ Initially I told myself that this period of isolation will be a once in a lifetime opportunity. As we potentially near its end, I can’t help but preemptively mourn the days, weeks and months of stillness and introversion. Never again will the following words resonate so profoundly: ‘“Well, if someone said to me right now, this minute: do you want to remain the way you were before captivity, or live through it all over again? For God’s sake, captivity again!”’
Image: V ic to r i a, on instagram @_lifelongreader