Starting War and Peace reminds me again of the huge advantage books have over movies and television. The daunting effort required to recognize and connect the marks on the page, to configure vocabulary and grammar into a convincing narrative full of people and conflict and weather is in fact fiction’s secret weapon. Your very engagement with the writer, your collaboration in the manufacture of your particular War and Peace, provides a far richer experience than the passive IV drip of television, or the carnival ride of a typical summer movie. It’s the difference between moving into a house and helping to build it.
With a writer as great as Tolstoy, the act of completing his suggested world has a kind of giddy presumption.: Leo describes Pierre Bezukhov … I see Seth Rogen in John Lennon granny glasses. I half expect a howl of protest, but Leo doesn't complain. It goes on -- we build a common Petersburg, a common Moscow, a common Bald Hills (Prince Bolkonsky’s estate) together. None of it may resemble the real places or even the places Tolstoy imagined in his study at Krasnaya Polyana … but they belong to me as much as him; they form the essence of our bond.
I remember my first glimpse of the real Pamplona, Spain; it in no way resembled the hill town that Ernest Hemingway and I had constructed together. So I did what any good reader would do: I forgot about the actual town and never looked at another photograph of the place again. The Pamplona of The Sun Also Rises is a prized possession, my true ‘intellectual property’.
I have no interest in imposter towns whose only claim is that they’re ‘real’
Real is overrated.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.
Anna Scherer’s soiree.
I think Tolstoy may have invented this idea of throwing all the characters together at a party and peppering the reader with a dozen little scenes that would have been cumbersome and time-consuming to set up separately. Everyone is introduced and so are the major themes – not just War and Peace, but war and money. After reading Jane Austen I’m no longer surprised by the overwhelming venality of the characters in classic literature.
But the desperation of Anna Mikhailovna Drubskoy to secure her son Boris’ military position and get the dough to outfit him properly feels sadly familiar. This is the evergreen universality of these nineteenth century masterpieces: the never-ending scramble for cash. I admire Anne Mikhailovna: she’s relentless, shameless. Her self-flagellating maternal determination that makes it easier, in the end, for a Prince Vassily to give her what she wants. Anything, if she’ll just go away and shut up. There’s a lesson there for desperate parents. I used it when I was trying to secure a co-signer for my son’s college loan.
Humiliate yourself and persevere: that’s what Tolstoy taught me today.