Archive for Sunday, July 29, 2001

War and Peace’ a literary commitment

July 29, 2001


I was fishing about for something to read when my eyes fell fatally on a worn copy of "War and Peace." That was almost exactly one year ago.

Don't open a book of this magnitude 1,386 pages in my edition, 2 pounds, 12 ounces avoirdupois casually. It exacts a commitment, a significant slice of one's lifetime.

After the second or third page, however, any chance of turning back had been lost. By the miraculous conveyance of words on a page I'd been transported to a 19th century Russian word that seemed more alive, more real than my own.

I listened in on calculating courtships, heard bullets buzzing around my ears. I wandered among the dancers at glittering balls and among dead soldiers heaped "like ridges of dung on well-kept plough land." I came to know a handful of characters better than I know my best friends.

It was a form of captivity, the kind you don't want to end. "War and Peace" is on almost everyone's list of the top 10 novels of all time. I'd read it once before in my college days and remembered almost nothing, so the journey had a quality of newness and discovery.

Like Achilles' shield, it comprehends life in all its extremes the labyrinths of love, the mysteries of happiness, the flukes of fate, the bloodshed and harvests, violence and compassion. Among its riches: battle scenes in Homer's league, one of the most powerful death scenes I've every read, the evocation of a hunt rivaled only by Faulkner's "The Bear."

Among its curious sideshows: a discourse on Freemasonry, a theory of the causes of history and a diatribe against Napoleon an effete narcissist in Tolstoy's view, a pawn of history rather than a genius, "a child, sitting in a carriage, pulling the straps within it, and fancying he is moving it along."

A recent summer reading article urged readers to, "Put Away Tolstoy," as if his work were too highbrow for the beach. Nonsense. Tolstoy is serious, but not difficult. He's first of all a great story-teller.

In his famous essay, "The Hedgehog and the Fox," Isaiah Berlin identified Tolstoy as a fox who knows many things rather than a hedgehog who knows "one great thing." Tolstoy's Shakespearean grasp of the complexities of the human personality and experience overcame his quest for a single unifying philosophical system.

In "War and Peace," he assumes the shapes of men and women, young and old, peasants and aristocrats. He makes the blood pump through them, shows us how they think, act, love, fight and die. He depicts war between nations and the parallel wars within the self. One of his characters, Pierre a rich man who finds peace and happiness as a lice-covered prisoner of war belongs in the company of Hamlet as one of literature's great soul-searchers.

Tolstoy writes with expertise about subjects as diverse as military strategy and beekeeping. He wields a poet's wand, as when a comet frolics like a great fish in the black sky, "vigorously tossing up its tail, shining and playing with its white light among the countless other twinkling stars." Flames creep "like golden fish-scales over the walls" when Moscow burns, the city deserted "like a dying, queenless hive."

Tolstoy's rendering of Prince Andrey's death seems like the work of someone who's experienced death himself. It offers more than any sermon I've heard towards the understanding and acceptance of death.

I remember evenings last summer when a breeze would tear a page from my disintegrating book and send it gliding among the circling bats into the night. Were more fertile seeds ever sowed, more noble litter? By December I was within 10 pages of finishing the book when a sudden inhibition made me put it down.

Jorge Borges wrote about the time in life when we realize that we may be seeing someone or something we love for the last time. Perhaps I sensed that I wouldn't be reading "War and Peace" again and didn't want to finish it.

It's a book that quickens the pulse and reminds you that life is precious. How an anyone spend a minute in front of the television when "War and Peace" remains unread?

George Gurley, who lives in rural Baldwin, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.

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