Random Russian Reading List

Russian reading listLeonid Andreev, The Abyss (1902)
Svetlana Alliluyeva, Twenty Letters to a Friend (1967)
Anna Akhmatova, Requiem (1963)
Vasily Aksenov, Generations of Winter (1994)

Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita (written between 1928 and 1940; published in 1967)
Andrei Bitov, Pushkin House (1978)
Boris Bugayev, Andrey Bely (1880),  The Silver Dove (1910)
Ivan Bunin, The Village (1909)

Anton Chekhov, Ward No 6 (1892)
Anton Chekhov, The Darling (1899)
Anton Chekhov, Duel (1892)
Anton Chekhov, My Life (1896)
Anton Chekhov, Peasants (1897)
Anton Chekhov, In the Ravine (1900)
Anton Chekhov, The Lady with the Dog (1899)

Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment (1866)
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Brothers Karamazov (1880)
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Double (1846)
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Idiot (1869)
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes From Underground (1864)
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Possessed (1872)
Fyodor Dostoevsky, White Nights (1848)
Sergei Dovlatov, Affiliate (1990)
Sergei Dovlatov, The Compromise (1983)
Sergei Dovlatov, Craft: A Story in Two Parts (1985)
Sergei Dovlatov, Demarche of Enthusiasts (1985)
Sergei Dovlatov, The Foreign Branch (1989)
Sergei Dovlatov, A Foreign Woman (1986)
Sergei Dovlatov, The Invisible Book (1977)
Sergei Dovlatov, March of the Single People (1983)
Sergei Dovlatov, Notebooks (1990)
Sergei Dovlatov, Ours: A Russian Family Album (1989)
Sergei Dovlatov, The Performance (1987)
Sergei Dovlatov, Pushkin Hills (2014)
Sergei Dovlatov, The Reserve (1983)
Sergei Dovlatov, Solo on Underwood: Notebooks (1980)
Sergei Dovlatov, The Suitcase (1986)
Sergei Dovlatov, The Zone:A Prison Camp Guard’s Story (1982)

Vsevolod Garsin, Red Flower (1883)
Nikolai Gogol, Dead Souls (1842)
Nikolai Gogol, The Night Before Christmas (1832)
Nikolai Gogol, The Nose (1836)
Nikolai Gogol, The Overcoat (1842)
Nikolai Gogol, Taras Bulba (1842)
Ivan Goncharov, Oblomov (1859)
Ivan Goncharov, Same Old Story (1847)

Aleksander Herzen, Whose Fault (1846)

Vladislav Khodasevich, Heavy Lyre (1922)
Vladislav Khodasevich, European Night (1927)
Vladimir Korolenko, Makar’s Dream (1885)
Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Quadraturin (1926)
Andrei Kurkov, Death and the Penguin (1996)

Ivan Lazhechnikov, The Ice Palace (1835)
Leonid Leonov, Russian Forest (1953)
Leonid Leonov, The Thief (1927)
Mikhail Lermontov, A Hero of Our Time (1841)
Nikolai Leskov, The Enchanted Wanderer (1873)
Nikolai Leskov, The Cathedral Folk (1872)
Nikolai Leskov, The Sealed Angel
Kotik Letayev, The Memoirs of a Crank (1923)

Vladimir Nabokov, Glory (1832)
Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)

Vladimir Odoevskij, Russian Nights (1844)
Yuri Olesha, Envy (1927)

Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago (1957)
Liudmila Petrushevskaia, The Time: Night (1994)
Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby (2009)
Aleksei Pisemsky, One Thousand Souls (1858)
Andrei Platonov, Foundation Pit (1951)
Andrei Platonov, Chevengur (1951)
Alexander Pushkin, Eugene Onegin (1825)
Aleksander Pushkin, The Queen of Spades (1834)

Valentin Rasputin, Final Term (1971)

Aleksei Remizov, Pond (1903)
Aleksei Remizov, Olja (1927)

Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, Gospoda Golovlevy/ The Golovlyov Family (1876)
Mikhail Sholokhov, Quiet Flows the Don (1934)
Vasily Sleptsov, Hard Times (1865)
Sasha Sokolov, School for Fools (1977)
Sasha Sokolov, Palisandriia/ Astrophobia (1985)
Sasha Sokolov, Between Dog and Wolf (1980)
Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, Cancer Ward (1968)
Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962)
Vladimir Sorokin, The Queue (1985)
Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Roadside Picnic (1971)

Aleksei Tolstoj, Peter the First (1945)
Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877)
Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilych (1886)
Leo Tolstoy, Kreitserova Sonata (1890)
Leo Tolstoy, Resurrection (1899)
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace (1869)

Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Sons (1862)
Ivan Turgenev, Home of the Gentry (1859)
Ivan Turgenev, On the Eve (1860)
Yuri Trifonov, Time and Place (1981)

Lyudmila Ulitskaya, The Kukotsky Case (2001)
Lyudmila Ulitskaya, Little Sonya (1995)

Aleksander Veltman, Wanderer (1832)
Aleksander Veltman, The Deathless (1832)
Vladimir Voinovich, The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin (1975)

Evgeny Zamyatin, We (1924)

 

Random Interesting Quotes:

Evgeny Grishkovets: “I insist that what I write is literature based not on observation, but on emotional experience.”

Eduard Limonov: “These are reports from a hot spot – my life.”

Victor Pelevin: “Reality is any hallucination you believe in one hundred percent.”

 

Pushkin Hills

Pushkin HillsBy Sergei Dovlatov, translated by Katherine Dovlatov, Counterpoint Berkeley, @1983, translation@2013, 163 pages.

So it’s like this. I started reading this book a few months ago and it didn’t reach me. I wasn’t feeling it. I was about 50 pages in and not tremendously impressed. I wasn’t hearing Sergei’s voice in my head like the books that were translated by Anne Friedman, and I started to think maybe it was the new translator’s fault, Katherine, Sergei’s daughter. Maybe, well maybe, she just wasn’t capturing his voice. This depressed me. So I was already a little depressed, and this didn’t help—and my Russian, while it is good enough to get me food, shelter and a bus ticket, is not good enough to allow me to read Dovlatov in the original, though this is sort of an emerging goal.

Well, I was kind of giving myself a hard time about, well, was it Katherine’s translation, or maybe was it that I didn’t like Dovlatov as much as I thought? Was I possibly influenced by whomever it was who first gave me his name? Maybe my love of Dovlatov was a passing thing, you know, not real.

So I was just sitting around today, waiting for my rice to get done and not doing anything in particular but being stuck in the kitchen, and I picked up Pushkin Hills again. And there he was, Sergei, his voice, everything—and then he made me laugh—again and again and again. And I decided that I do really like him after all, and that Katherine did a fine job in translating him into English, and that it was just me. Just me being depressed and unreachable—before.

Lines like: “…I am simply horrified. You called Pushkin a crazed ape…”

and the story about Mitrofanov, p. 46, and what a complete genius he was and how he was completely lazy too. I hate to say it, but it reminded me of someone very close to me. “His tours were twice longer than the average. At times, tourists fainted from the strain.”

I also liked the story about Stasik Pototsky, the man who decided to become a writer of literary best sellers after reading 12. “A reliable armour of literary conventionality protected them from censorship.” And I started to think, hmmm, how far away is capitalism from communism?

Things changed when Pototsky left the provinces and went to Leningrad: “A complete absence of talent did not pay, while its presence made people nervous….What was forgiven in a provencial novice affronted in a cosmopolitan writer.” Well, anyway, Stasik came to a bad end. And knowing Dovlatov’s difficulties getting published in the USSR, you get why.

But best of all was this: “The more I got to know Pushkin, the less I felt like talking about him.” This is said by a Dovlatov’s character, as a tour guide at Pushkin Hills. And you get the significance of this if you understand how revered Pushkin is. And that’s when I knew. Yes, I do really like Sergei, and I’ve missed him.

Fathers and Sons

By Ivan Turgenev, Modern Library New York, @ 1961 for the English translation by Bernard Guilbert Guerney; first published in 1862, 281 pages.

I don’t know what it is, but if someone tells me to read a book or an author, I automatically resist. The more they rave, the more I resist. So way back when, I asked someone to make a list of must-read Russian authors, and Turgenev was on this list. So, some 20 years later, I am picking up Fathers and Sons.

Turgenev_Oxford
Ivan Turgenev

Or Fathers and “Children”—but maybe this is just me overly concerned with the correct translation—and accuracy. The topic is nihilism (am I a nihilist?) and this is what I should be concerned about. As explained in the novel, a nihilist is “a man who does not accede to authority, who does not accept a single principle on faith, no matter how great the aura of respect which surrounds that principle”), but my mind is struck more with the situation the father is in. Nicholai Petrovich Kirsanov (aged 40 ish) has taken up with his servant girl (Theodosia or Feodosya or Phenechka aged 20 ish) and fathered a child. This sends my mind into a tailspin and derails me from any sophisticated discussion of nihilism to come.

The story begins on May 20, 1959 as Nicholai Petrovich awaits his son’s (Arcadii’s) return from Saint Petersburg as a university graduate. Arcadii has brought home a friend, Evgenii Vaselivich Bazarov, a medical student and a nihilist.

Since Bazarov isn’t too taken with Arcadii’s uncle Pavel, Arcadii explains his uncle’s early life and heartache. It’s a sad tale and told well by Turgenev—sad, because love hasn’t changed over time. Pavel is brokenhearted—I won’t rob you of the story, but Bazarov, our nihilist, remains unmoved:

“…I would say that a fellow who has staked his entire life on the card of woman’s love and who, when that card is trumped, goes all to pieces and sinks to such an extent that he’s not fit for anything—a fellow like that is no man, no male.”

I saw this in my mother (for my father), and it makes me sad to read it here. She would say it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. But is it love to have loved a phantom? One’s own illusion, someone with no more basis in reality than a character in a book?

I found Turgenev’s insight on aging interesting:

“Pavel…was…on the threshold of that troubled, twilight time, a time of regrets that resemble hopes and of hopes that resemble regrets, when youth has gone by while old age has not yet arrived.”

It’s a hot night as I write this. The television has been off. All the windows are open. A light cool breeze blows gently through. It’s summer here, like in the story. The crickets are chirping and once in a while a car goes by. It’s quiet as I read about Bazarov’s family. I feel I have met this family before. I have met his mother before. I wax nostalgic about this for a while. Tonight, after walking around town, appreciating the rolling hills and the setting sun, feeling the cooling of the night, I’m not so very sad. I wish for this lifestyle every night. This routine of coming home, eating dinner, studying Spanish, walking around town, and sitting down to read.

Authors love to torture their characters, so of course, Bazarov has to fall in love. He is quite wretched, probably more so because he thought he was immune to such things. It’s interesting for the reader to watch him squirm. We know that having love in his life would be good for him and we want to see him get it, but he’s in his own way. Oddly, he declares his love to the woman he cares for because he gets so worked up about it. She doesn’t respond, yeah or neah. And this given all of his pride and self conceit is difficult for him to take.

Turgenev captures youthful restlessness well. When Bazarov cuts his visit to his parents short, his father and mother are very sad. Children can’t help but mistreat their parents, without meaning to. And a long married couple who weathers the various storms of life ends up rather like this:

“It was then that Arina Vlassievna drew near to him [her husband] and, placing her gray head against his gray head, told him: ‘What can a body do, Vassya! A son is a slice cut off the loaf. He’s the same as a falcon: he felt like it, and he winged back to the nest; he felt like it, and he winged away. But you and I are like brown autumn mushrooms that grow on a hollow tree: stuck there side by side and never budging from our places. I alone will remain unchanged for you through all time, just as you will for me.”

This is a beautiful and apt way of putting marriage, I think.

[SPOILER ALERT]

But who is this guy Bazarov? Is Turgenev trying to tell us that he’s bizarre? And his first name, Evgenii (Eugene), a reference to Eugene Onegin, the bad boy of Russian literature? (Although for bad boys, I like Pucharin.)

But that’s just it. Bazarov isn’t bad. He’s just lost. And when he finally is lost, we feel sad. It was a waste, ridiculous, preventable, but a good thing for frogs, no doubt.

 

 

 

 

War and Peace Book Review: Part II

War and Peace Russian 1By Leo Tolstoy, originally published in 1869, Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, 1408 pages.

I can’t seem to move on without finishing up my thoughts on War and Peace. There is so much in this book, so many quotes that provoke thought that I wanted to record some of them here. But first, a few general comments.

The members of my book club complained that there were too many character and plot loose ends. I think that is because throughout the work, Tolstoy was trying to imitate life, real life. And in real life people form new relationships and move on. There isn’t always closure and there is often disappointment.

Because of this, War and Peace can be read in several ways. It can be read merely for its story. It can be read for Tolstoy’s philosophy regarding historical science. Or, it can be read for the many details of human nature and interaction that Tolstoy provides. Clearly Tolstoy understood the Russian aristocracy and the politics of the drawing room. I think it’s interesting to ponder how the drawing room of the 1800s and the social norms observed there can still be found to some extent, though somewhat altered, in places of social interaction today—such as the office. If you think about it, for many of the aristocrats of the 1800s who did not have to work and therefore did not have the cubical madness we embrace today, the drawing room very well may have been their equivalent of our office.

Another thing that makes this book so interesting is that it was written approximately 150 years ago about events that happened approximately 200 years ago. The details that we get transport us back in time. I have to say that I am so sorry for the poor horses. Taken into battle, wounded, killed, starved, eaten. War itself is a suffering, blind mess, and Tolstoy provides vivid details:

“Prince Andrey turned his scornful gaze on the endless, chaotic mass of detachments, wagons, supply vehicles, artillery and more wagons, wagons, wagons of every size and shape, overtaking one another and blocking the muddy road three and four abreast. On all sides, right up front and way behind, as far as the ear could strain in every direction, you could hear wheels rumbling, carts rattling, wagons creaking, gun-carriages groaning, horses trampling, whips cracking, drivers shouting and everybody swearing, soldiers, orderlies, and officers. The roadsides were littered everywhere with fallen horses, flayed and unflayed, broken-down wagons with solitary soldiers sitting by them just waiting, other soldiers separated from their units, heading in little groups for the next village or carrying loot from the last one—chickens, sheep, hay, or sackfuls of something or other. When the road went uphill or downhill, the crowds squashed together even closer, and there was an endless hubbub of shouts and groans. Soldiers floundering knee-deep in mud heaved guns and wagons along with their bare hands while the whips cracked, hoofs slithered, traces snapped and the air rang with the most heart-rending cries.”

Do I like Tolstoy? Well, yes and no. I don’t like that Tolstoy is trying to push his agenda on me. Every writer does this, of course, but Tolstoy has a heavier hand than I like. One book club member said that after Tolstoy, she didn’t think she would read any more Russian authors. I was stunned. What a statement and from a world traveler no less. Are all Russians the same? Everyone of them? Now, yesterday, and forever? What?????

Sorry, I’m going to have to digress here. These are the kinds of statements I’m having to make lately: Not all Russians are the same. The USSR is no longer in existence. The USSR consisted of 15 republics that dissolved in 1991, not in 1989 when the Wall fell. The Wall was in Germany. Russia was one of those republics. Russians are not all atheists! There are many deeply religious Russians. Notice the incredible eastern Orthodox churches. Russians do smile, and they do smile in public. Yes, yes, I know. We were all victims of Cold War propaganda, but we don’t have to continue to be victims. We can open our eyes! There are good and bad people everywhere. We are all a mix.

Ok, well that said. I like (love) Tolstoy—in parts. I love the way he captures little bits of human nature that ring so true to us that they remain relevant after more than 100 years and across thousands of miles. The following are some examples of what I’m talking about.

A severe criticism of society:

“Just as a skilful head waiter can pass off as a supreme delicacy a cut of beef that would be inedible if you’d seen it in the filthy kitchen, Anna Pavlovna served up to her guests that evening first the viscount and then the abbé as if they were supreme delicacies.”

On the way some men talk to women:

“His face changed instantly and assumed the sickly sweet, patronizing air which he obviously reserved for conversations with women.”

On women who forget themselves:

“She had obviously forgotten her age, and habit had told her to let go with all her ancient womanly wiles.”

The sometimes painful sincerity of Pierre:

“His smile was not like theirs—theirs were no real smiles.”

First thoughts of Napoleon:

“If I were fighting for freedom I’d understand it. I’d be the first to enlist, but helping England and Austria against the greatest man in the world—that’s not right.”—Pierre

Makes you say, hmmm:

“‘If everybody fought for nothing but his own convictions, there wouldn’t be any wars,’ he said.”

On marriage:

“‘Never, never get married, my dear fellow…But tie yourself to a woman and you’ll lose all your freedom, like convict in fetters. And all the hope and strength there is in you just drags you down and tortures you with regret…If you only knew what these fine women are, or let’s say women in general…Selfish, vain, stupid, totally vacuous—that’s what women are when they show themselves in their true colors.”—Prince Andrey

Social graces:

“Even in the very warmest, friendlist and simplest of relationships you need either flattery or praise in the way that you need grease to keep the wheels turning.”

Before Pierre received his inheritance he was received “like a corpse or a plague victim.”

On Prince Andrey’s father:

“…the prince was brusque and always demanding so that without actually being cruel he inspired the kind of fear and respect that the cruelest of men would have found it difficult to achieve.”

The Way a Man Can Shame a Woman:

“On the way to his sister’s room, in the gallery connecting the two parts of the house, Prince Andrey came across Mademoiselle Bourienne who smiled sweetly at him. It was the third time that day that she had happened on him in out-of-the-way passages, always with a nice beaming smile on her face.

“‘Oh, I thought you were in your room,’ she said, blushing for some reason and looking down. Prince Andrey glanced at her sharply, and a look of bitter displeasure came over his face. He glared at her in silence, not at her eyes but at her forehead and hair, with such contempt that she turned bright red and walked off without another word.”

On Crossing Lines:

“The enemy held their fire, increasing the sense of that dark menacing, mysterious, and intangible dividing line that exists between two warring armies. One step across that dividing line, so like the one between the living and the dead, and you enter an unknown world of suffering and death.”

Later when Pierre is trying to ask Helene to marry him, he mentions a line that he must cross and his inability to cross it.

On Fear in War:

“He grabbed his pistol, and instead of firing he hurled it at the Frenchman and dashed towards the bushes as fast as his legs would carry him.”

Well anyway, I could go on and on, and maybe I will at some point later. The book is a hefty tome, no doubt about that. I can’t believe it would ever be assigned to a high school student. That seems preposterous and a way to kill a love of literature in anyone. But if read without a deadline and for pure interest in the subject, War and Peace has a lot to offer.

War and Peace: Book Review Part I

War and Peace Russian 2By Leo Tolstoy; first published in 1869; Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition; 1408 pages (Notes begin on page 1359).

Around page 1350, I began to wonder, just what is Tolstoy trying to do here? Obviously an intelligent guy, definitely no radical, what is going on with the structure of this book????

[Spoiler Alert]

It seems odd to put a spoiler alert on a book that was published more than 100 years ago, but still, I realize many people haven’t read it and I don’t want to interfere with Tolstoy’s intent by saying: hey watch out for this, especially for those puritans out there who want to experience the work as it was meant to be experienced.

If, however, you are one of those “walk on the wild side” kind of people, here’s what I think is going on.

The whole work is a demonstration of two types of historical thought:

  1. Stories of individuals, descriptions of the lives of people (the drama experienced by specific characters, Pierre, et. al.)
  2. Historical movements of peoples and humanity (the French invading Russia and the Russians chasing them back into Europe)

Tolstoy’s point is that you can look at history in these two ways and these two ways lead to conclusions that are at odds with each other. In the first way, when examining history as though it depends on individual leaders and the multitude of causes performed by individuals, the concept of free will comes under examination. Individuals have free will, they choose their actions, and history results. In the second way, when you look at humanity in more general terms as a unit and think that we are all affected by the natural environment in which we live. We are all affected by space and by time, by our environments, etc. And all of these situational constraints keep us from ever truly being free. For example, we have to eat; therefore, we may be compelled to do things to satisfy this need. The more needs we have to fulfill, the less free we are.

So let’s look at the two points again:

  1. Stories of individuals (the plot) is used to illustrate the concept of free will
  2. Mass migration of armies east and then west (the historical backdrop of Napoleon invading Russia) is used to illustrate the concept of historical laws (in this case the law of necessity)

Tolstoy seems to be saying that historians of his time hesitate to examine this phenomenon of historical laws, in this case the struggle between the law of necessity and that of free will.

“And now…a hard struggle is being conducted between old and new attitudes to history, and in just the same way theology, guardian of the old, calls the new attitude an offense against revelation.”

“…it now seems that once we accept the law of necessity we destroy all concepts of the soul, or good and evil, and all the towering political and ecclesiastical institutions founded on them….the law of necessity in history, far from destroying the foundations on which political and ecclesiastical institutions are constructed, actually strengthens them.”

If you read Part II of the Epilogue, you’ll find this discussion. Reading this before reading the whole book from the beginning is what I suggest to get the most out of Tolstoy’s argument. It won’t ruin the plot for you at all. But it may rob you of that “ah ha” moment—which if you think about it, I am robbing you of right now.

It is very interesting. Perhaps more interesting than any of the preceding pages. I think Tolstoy was trying to prove his point throughout his novel. By the time we get to the Epilogue, we see him pulling these strands together.

In the final analysis, I believe that Tolstoy was saying that we are never completely free. We believe we are free, but by virtue of being alive and all the necessities that state of being brings about, we do not have the free will we think we do.

I got the feeling he was saying freedom and necessity are in constant flux. And some people have their lives set up so that they have fewer needs and greater freedom, whereas others don’t.

Very interesting concepts, indeed.

War and Peace: Tips for Reading

War and Peace Russian Poster

I’m still in the process of reading War and Peace, but since I had such a hard time breaking into this novel and because my friends have had the same experience, I thought I would share some dos and don’ts that I have discovered.

Don’t:

  • Be lazy like me and buy an Audible book version of this masterpiece. I tried that thinking that I could multitask while listening to the book. This was a big mistake. The tone and inflection of the reader put me off to such an extent that I started to hate the book and all of its characters.
  • Give up…until you’ve reached page 250. If you don’t like the book by page 250, you probably won’t, so it’s safe to stop at this point. As for myself, I was very interested in the book by page 100. I enjoy Tolstoy’s observations and interpretations of his character’s innermost thoughts and feelings.

Do:

  • Go online and find a summary of the five families of this book, their members, and their relationships to each other. This is not cheating. Figuring out who’s who is the central challenge of this novel. It takes about 100 pages to nail it down.
  • Make notes in the margins of your book. This could be hard with an eReader. Since my debacle with the Audiobook, I went back to the old style paper version. Whenever something interesting happens, I make a mark in the margin or underline the text. When I notice that one part of the book relates to another, I write the associated page numbers in the margins. This has helped immensely.
  • Pay attention to when and what characters are speaking French versus Russian. I found it very interesting that while Russia is under attack by the French, its upper class snobbishly prefers to speak French—at home. Why wasn’t Russian good enough for them? Tolstoy even goes so far as to give one of his main Russian characters a French name: Pierre.
  • Read this in the wintertime when it’s cold outside but there’s no snow and no snow sports.
  • Accept that this is a really long work and pace yourself. I set myself a goal of reading 100 pages per week. Sometimes I read more, but I don’t allow myself to read fewer than 100 pages. That comes to 10 pages a day (on workdays) and 50 pages over the weekend.
  • Read Part II of the Epilogue before reading anything else. This will set you up nicely for what is to come.

Happy Reading!

War and Peace: Reader Preparation

War and Peace 1

By Leo Tolstoy; Translated by Anthony Briggs; Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition; @ 2005; originally published in 1869; first appeared in 1865–66; 1408 pages.

War and Peace is known for its massiveness. At 1,408 pages, reading War and Peace is like reading five novels. I don’t think Americans are typically required to read it. I wasn’t, not even at The University of Texas where I majored in Russian and East European Studies. So why read War and Peace now—since I’ve already escaped it once?

It’s a common question. The members of my book club are asking themselves this too. What have we gotten ourselves into? Is this book still relevant? Is it worth it? Might this a book be better put off until old age when we have absolutely nothing better to do?

Well, we say, it’s got to be a classic for a reason. It’s got to be good. Otherwise, it wouldn’t still be around. Right?

Were it not for my persistent feelings of inadequacy which spring largely from possessing a Russian Studies degree and never having read this book, I might have been able to worm myself away. But, there it is. My personal and psychological makeup require that I drag my eyes over these 500,000 words.

There is some solace. The introduction promises me that:

“Above all, War and Peace will move readers by virtue of its beauty as a work of art. It is a triumphant affirmation of human life in all its richness and complexity. That is why one can return to it and always find new meanings and new truths in it.”

In 1865 War and Peace was released serially in the magazine The Russian Messenger and was titled The Year 1805. It wasn’t until 1869 that it was first published as a single unit. So the first readers weren’t handed a tome that resembles an attractive door stop. Instead, they were spoon fed bits of story. War and Peace must have been like a soap opera or a telenovella.

Lots of pressing issues had to be on the Russian mind at this time. Twenty three million serfs had just been liberated (1861). This was a big change for Russian aristocracy. The price for labor had just gone up—way, way up! In effect 23 million people now had the full rights of free citizens, could finally marry without having to gain consent, could own property, and could create and own a business. And, they could buy land. Shocking. Simply shocking!

So perhaps, part of the contemporaneous appeal of War and Peace was a nostalgia for the past. The time when the power and significance of Russian society was unshakable. There were ways one had to act. A foreign language one needed to know (French). People one needed to know. Connections one had to establish or face the consequences of a harsh life, or worse.

And at the time of the book’s publication, we are 52 years from the 1917 revolution, which would change everything. Revolution seems to weak a term for what happened in 1917. But its the word we’ve got.

So picture yourself on a cold night in 1865. Downton Abbey has yet to be written. Television has yet to be invented. In fact, I’m pretty sure you’re not living with electricity, and there’s no Facebook. The latest issue of The Russian Messenger has just arrived. Thank goodness for this Leo Tolstoy chap, you think to yourself in French. Wonder what ol’ Pierre has gotten up to now. How is Prince Andrey?

Settle back into your easy chair and prepare to be transported back to an earlier time. You’re in the drawing room of the wealthy 40-year-old Anna Scherer in 1805. She goes by Annette. The year 1812 is still a ways off. There’s a prince who is having trouble with one of his sons, Anatole. The solution is simple. Marry the boy off. Annette will see that it’s done.