#7 War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy

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If we were looking to crown One Classic to Rule Them All—the ultimate, quintessential, indisputable classic that comes to mind whenever we hear the word—War and Peace (1865–1867) would be a reasonable candidate. Classics don’t come much bigger, broader, bolder, or better than Tolstoy’s masterpiece of realism. It tops British readers’ literary wish lists and spawns relentless adaptations. It’s about literally everything. And it’s hailed, time and time again, as one of the Greatest Books of All Time.

Which is exactly why I’m here.

Tolstoy insisted that War and Peace

is not a novel, still less an epic poem, still less a historical chronicle.

But the latter comes, in many ways, closest to reality. Tolstoy wrote his 600 characters against the backdrop of the French invasion of Russia in the early 1800s. And, according to Shmoop,

Tolstoy’s research didn’t just involve reading some history books and calling it a day. No, he dove into the archives, getting his hands on actual letters sent by Napoleon and the Russian and French generals and figuring out the personalities involved from the way they wrote about their activities. Even more impressive, he traveled to the actual battlefields, compass and surveying tools in hand, to map out for himself where the troops were stationed and how they attacked and defended.

War and Peace, then, was Tolstoy’s attempt to rewrite history—and, hopefully, correct it. In his mind, history was a product of diverse forces across time and place, from the greatest general and the most decisive battle to the smallest, most “insignificant” contextual detail. People don’t make history; history makes history. What came before determines what comes after.

But Tolstoy’s version of the Napoleonic era is more than a little subjective, with more than a few fictional events and characters. The main cast is made up of:

  • Pierre Bezukhov, a socially inept party-boy-turned-heir-turned-Freemason-turned-politician-turned-prisoner who acts as a stand-in for Tolstoy himself
  • Natasha Rostov, an “enchanting” teenager-turned-fiancée-turned-adulteress-turned-wife-and-mother whose selfish streak shifts into a self-effacing one
  • Andrei Bolkonsky, an intellectually-minded soldier and father who almost marries Natasha despite being twice her age
  • Nikolai Rostov, brother to Natasha, soldier for Russia, and gambling disaster with a scalding temper
  • Marya Bolkonsky, Andrei’s sister, and frequent bully victim of her father and her circumstances
  • Hélène Kuragin, Pierre’s beautiful wife, who may or may not be an idiot but is definitely unfaithful

With an omniscient third-person narrator at the wheel, perspective turns on a dime. And while Tolstoy can be seen and felt in the philosophy of War and Peace, he is startlingly neutral in his character depictions. These are people who aren’t always likable, who make mistakes both large and small, and who often act without explanation. It’s disorienting, in my experience. But it’s equally intriguing, on a good day.

War and Peace is best known, of course, for its size. The edition I read was 1,215 pages. If we could make one collective request of Tolstoy, we’d probably ask him to get to the point a little bit quicker—and he probably could. In what outrageous literary universe does an author need a two-part epilogue? One is usually bad enough. Two is perverse and sadistic, if you’re a) me, and b) 99 books in to The 100 Greatest Books Challenge.

Excess and all, War and Peace is an extraordinary achievement, and it’s easy to see why it has stood the test of time. But if I’m being totally honest (and what else is this blog for), I preferred Anna Karenina. I preferred many books on The List, actually, to the illustrious War and Peace. I would go so far as to say I’m a little disappointed by it. If War and Peace is a panorama, then I prefer a close-up. If it’s a boundless, restless ocean, then I prefer a bath tub. And if Tolstoy asks me ever again to sit back, relax, and admire the glaze on the world’s tastiest doughnut, I’ll tell him No: I’d rather sink my teeth in.

Because that’s where things start to get really good.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time? 

War and Peace is Great with a capital G, but I didn’t Love it with a capital L.

Favorite Quotes:

War isn’t courtesy, it’s the vilest thing in the world, and we must understand that and not play at war. We must take this terrible necessity sternly and seriously. That’s the whole point: to cast off the lie, and if it’s war it’s war, and not a game. As it is, war is the favorite pastime of idle and light-minded people.

In captivity, in the shed, Pierre had learned, not with his mind, but with his whole being, his life, that man is created for happiness, that happiness is within him, in the satisfying of natural human needs, and that all unhappiness comes not from lack, but from superfluity.

I’ve noticed that being an interesting person is very convenient (I’m an interesting person now); people invite me and tell me about myself.

Pierre’s insanity consisted in the fact that he did not wait, as before, for personal reasons, which he called people’s merits, in order to love them, but love overflowed his heart, and, loving people without reason, he discovered the unquestionable reasons for which it was worth loving them.

Read: 2017

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(Repost) The Book I’m Saving for Last—and Why

Reposting this soul-baring, teeth-gritting tell-all from April 2016 to mark my arrival on the doorstep of The 100 Greatest Books Challenge. Closing out Ulysses last Sunday means I’m just two books away from the end of my book-venture. It’s about to get all War and Peace up in here—my penultimate classic encounter—and I couldn’t be more thrilled.

Happy Wednesday, and happy reading!

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For a long time now—years, actually—I’ve known exactly which classic I’ll be reading dead last for The 100 Greatest Books Challenge. And I swore to myself that, one day, I’d reveal the book I’m saving for banishing to #100—and why.

But first, I’m going to tell you about #99.

For my penultimate triumph in The Challenge, I’ve chosen War and Peace. My reasons range from the logical and practical to the emotional and whimsical:

  • I’ve been spreading out the longest reads from The List as I work my way through them, and War and Peace fell to the final rankings in my sloppy algorithm. But I refuse to end The Challenge on a notoriously long and inevitably gratuitous epilogue, so I tucked another book behind it.
  • War and Peace is known to be formidable, an Everest or a Moriarty of a book—but it’s also the most quintessential and iconic of classics. You don’t get any more classic than War and Peace. And as a classic among classics, War and Peace feels like a satisfactory climax to what has been a very long List indeed. (#100—I’ll get to it in a minute—will, I think, serve as a suitable denouement.)
  • Much to my surprise, I enjoyed Tolstoy the first time around and would like to honor him in parting with an (almost-)victory lap.
  • I’ve spent much of the Russian portion of The List with award-winning translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (a married couple—how cool is that?) and am finding it hard to say do svidaniya.
  • Given its reputation, I’m preeetty sure War and Peace is entitled to its shelf space among The 100 Greatest Books of All Time, and I want to end on (or near) a good note.

And, most essentially:

  • I have yet to buy a copy.

And so it is that War and Peace will bow humbly before me at #99. (Or maybe the other way around. The book does have six hundred characters, after all.)

And now, the Big Reveal. The Moment of Truth. The Unmasking of #100. Ladies and gentlemen: My very last book for The 100 Greatest Books Challenge, the crowning jewel on my classic library, just 11 books from now, will be…

Faust.

“Why Faust?” is a perfectly reasonable question with a slightly manic answer. If you’re already bored by this post, and/or disillusioned by what seems like an anticlimactic climax, I can sum up my rationale in one word:

GRUDGE.

For seven long years, I have sustained a heartfelt grudge against Faust. And now I’m here to tell you its origin story.

Many moons ago, a sparky young college student put on a new pair of Toms and walked to the first meeting of what would be her final Literature class ever.

At Purdue University, the class was known as Comparative Literature 267, or “World Literature from 1700 to Now.” It followed the previous semester’s CMPL 266 (“World Literature Until 1700”), taught by a wonderful and engaging grad student who said “Woof” every time his wit went over our heads. In CMPL 266, we read a total of five novels, all of them short, and wrote exactly three papers to finish out the semester. One of our favorite reads, naturally, was Inferno, because who doesn’t love rivers of boiling blood and cannibalistic torture?

Anyway, the class kicked ass.

CMPL 267 would be taught by another grad student—but a decidedly less engaging one. Marta (or so we’ll call her), on the first day of the new semester, greeted us all by passing out a syllabus. And as the syllabus arrived on my desktop, my jaw (I think it’s safe to say) literally dropped. It was the longest syllabus I had ever seen. It was ridiculously long, unfathomably long, unjustifiably long. Marta wanted us to read 500 pages of material every week, write up reflective essays for each class period, turn in analyses twice a month, take regular quizzes, give two oral presentations, and submit three 20-page research papers. In four months.

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At least, that’s how I remember it. But even if my memory has distorted the exact size of the workload expected by Marta in CMPL 267, the story’s preface boils down to this: It was my last semester of college, I had seen plenty of syllabi, and this one was a monster.

I had a mild heart attack in my new Toms, went home, reread the syllabus, and had another mild heart attack. It was impossible. It was absurd. It was inhumane, practically—at least, by the privileged standards of a middle class American college student. So the next time the class met, two days later, I raised my hand and asked Marta if the syllabus was negotiable. And when she asked what I had in mind, I told her. “Less… everything” was the gist of it.

And she said yes.

But my moment of #winning did not last long. Marta did lighten the workload by a tree or two, but that still left a hefty to-do list behind. I ground my way through it, reading what I could and writing what I had time for, but the effort was moot from a big-picture perspective. Between the overblown homework and Marta’s lack of teaching experience, the class and the reading material added very little substance to my long-term knowledge stockpile. The only reading assignments I recall from that fateful semester—out of dozens—are “Bartleby the Scrivener” and “A Madman’s Diary.”

Well, and Faust.

Marta assigned Faust on a Wednesday, to be read (and reflected upon, in 600-800 words, double-spaced, with one-inch margins) by Friday. But when I opened up The Norton Anthology of World Literature and saw Faust staring back at me, exhausting from just a cursory glance, I simply said No.

Now, Faust is not long. It’s actually quite short—under 200 pages. But it is long enough to be a preposterous overnight reading assignment. It invalidated my conscious efforts to maintain a healthy work-life balance, and it felt like a slap in the face to the hardworking student I was and always had been. Haven’t I done enough? I thought. Haven’t I devoted much more time and energy to this silly, introductory-level Literature class than reason warrants?

I had. I had. So I refused, on principle alone, to read Faust that night. I didn’t read it the next night, either, and come Friday, I left The Norton Anthology of World Literature at home. I marched to class in my Toms, and I took the 0 for the reflective essay I didn’t write for the play I didn’t read. And I thought that would be the end of it.

But Faust came back to haunt me. Questions about Goethe’s famous drama cropped up on quizzes for the rest of the semester. The subject of each literary analysis was, inevitably, a comparison between Faust and “Bartleby the Scrivener,” or Faust and “A Madman’s Diary,” or Faust and… whatever else we read for Marta. I really can’t remember. We were expected to include references to Faust in two of our three major research papers. Our oral presentations were—you guessed it, you clever thing—Faust-focused.

Still, I refused. Marta couldn’t make me read Faust, not if I didn’t want to, and I DID NOT WANT TO. My stubborn and childish streaks expanded to military stripes, and I wore them proudly. I read just enough of Faust—excerpts here and there—to write my papers and give my presentations. But a grudge was born that bygone semester, never to give up its ghost if I had anything to say about it.

It was only a year or so later that I decided to take on The 100 Greatest Books Challenge and saw, hovering at #94 just inside the bottom rankings, Goethe’s fierce and unforgiving Faust. The grudge is obviously mutual. And while committing myself to The Challenge leaves no room for compromise, I can still relegate it to last place. So even if that means Faust triumphs in the end, at least—at the very same moment—I will, too.

Also, it is pretty short. On the heels of War and Peace, reading Faust will be as easy as selling my soul to the devil.

Oh, wait…

Quick Reviews: Greatest Hits

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With just 11 books to go, I am closing in on the home stretch of The 100 Greatest Books Challenge. For better or for worse, that home stretch is War and Peace, to be followed by Faust at the finish line.

And yet a number of unwritten reviews of those classics I have read stare up at me with wide, somber eyes from their cold and lonely Google spreadsheet, as if I am neglecting them on purpose.

And OK, they might be right. But today, finally, is their day. Today, all eyes are on them. Today, they receive their standing ovation.

Today, by the power vested in me as a casual lit blogger, I crown them kings among books. 

I’ve always found it much more difficult to review books I loved than books I hated—at least, in a way that satisfies my #1 customer (me). Most of the time, I prefer snark to sentiment, and comedy to sincerity. And when I love any book, but especially when I love a classic, there’s never much room for a) teasing, or b) original insight. Straight-up rave reviews of the classics aren’t exactly hard to come by, and most of them indulge in wanton levels of snootery.

So, of course, the reviews left in my lineup are largely books I adored. And I’m struggling to find something to say about them other than “I’M SO IN LOVE WITH THIS BOOK THAT I WOULD GLADLY BEAR ITS CHILDREN. AND I DON’T EVEN WANT HUMAN CHILDREN”—basically, the book review equivalent of That Couple Those Couples on Facebook. (You know the ones I mean. #Barfing.)

Here’s what I’ve settled for: a Greatest Hits edition of my Quick Reviews series, in which I list all the most subjective reasons I can think of for Why You Should Read Them All. You already know the basics of my reaction to each (i.e., I was so engrossed in it that I stopped breathing from pages 7 to 443; it more than deserves its ranking on The List, by which I mean it should definitely be moved up above anything Hemingway or Lawrence ever wrote; I would eat my own hand if the author asked me to, and both if they asked politely), so this post is about urging you to read them, too. No matter how huge or how cluttered your TBR already is.

Consider this your formal invitation to read some of my own personal favorites among The 100 Greatest Books of All Time. (And if you RSVP “Maybe,” I swear to God I will FEED YOUR FACE TO A PAPER SHREDDER.)


#9 Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

Published: 1873–1877

Why You Should Read It:

  • This book offers not one but two protagonists, with largely separate story lines, to broaden the scope of this Russian masterpiece.
  • The eponymous Anna’s love life is filled with the kind of drama that only a drama queen can summon. And she is that, if nothing else. Not only is she married, with a kid, but her lover Vronsky is already courting her relative (and friend) Kitty Shcherbatsky when things start heating up.
  • Levin, our second protagonist, wins Kitty’s heart even after an initial rejection and proposes to her in a word game reminiscent of Hangman. But the story doesn’t end with their marriage; instead, we get to see the nuances of post-nuptial love.
  • Not only that, but Tolstoy based much of the Levin-Kitty narrative on his own romance with Sophia Andreevna, whom he married in 1862.
  • It is, in the words of Dostoevsky, a “flawless work of art.”
  • The Pevear and Volokhonsky translation manages to tame this wild beast of a novel into a supremely readable text.

Favorite Quotes:

In his Petersburg world, all people were divided into two completely opposite sorts. One was the inferior sort: the banal, stupid and, above all, ridiculous people who believed that one husband should live with one wife, whom he has married in a church, that a girl should be innocent, a woman modest, a man manly, temperate and firm, that one should raise children, earn one’s bread, pay one’s debts, and other such stupidities. This was an old-fashioned and ridiculous sort of people. But there was another sort of people, the real ones, to which they all belonged, and form whom one had, above all, to be elegant, handsome, magnanimous, bold, gay, to give oneself to every passion without blushing and laugh at everything else.

I think… if there are as many minds as there are men, then there are as many kinds of love as there are hearts. 

The terrible thing is that it’s impossible to tear the past out by the roots. 

I’ve always loved you, and when you love someone, you love the whole person, as they are, and not as you’d like them to be. 

Read: 2014


#15 Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison

Published: 1952

Why You Should Read It:

  • Invisible Man is the first-person narrative of an unnamed African American, spanning his youth as a model student in the South to his work for a political organization known as the “Brotherhood” in Harlem, New York.
  • There’s a famous battle royal scene in which the narrator is stripped, blindfolded, and forced to fight for a college scholarship in a boxing ring.
  • By the end of the book, the narrator is living underground on electricity he stole from “the Monopolated Light and Power Company.” Just for good measure, he burns 1,369 light bulbs 24/7 while listening to Louis Armstrong on a radio-phonograph.
  • Invisible Man was meant to give a voice to the invisible (that is, the socially invisible or oppressed), and that voice is a song. Inspired by the imagery in T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” Ellison infused the liberal, improvisational features of jazz music into his writing—to great effect.

Favorite Quotes:

Like almost everyone else in our country, I started out with my share of optimism.

But that (by contradiction, I mean) is how the world moves: Not like an arrow, but a boomerang.

I remember that I am invisible and walk softly so as not to awaken the sleeping ones.

For now I had begun to believe, despite all the talk of science around me, that there was a magic in spoken words. 

My world has become one of infinite possibilities. 

I’m invisible, not blind. 

Read: 2014


#53 The Call of the Wild, Jack London

Published: 1903

Why You Should Read It:

  • The Call of the Wild may be narrated by a dog and ring in at just under 120 pages, but this is as far as you can get from the sort of schmaltzy, juvenile, cloying book you might buy in a zoo gift shop for your grandmother. This is a sharp and graphic narrative of a sled dog, and the humans who use and abuse him.
  • It’s also a novel of survival, and the kind of teeth-gritting (and teeth-baring) determination it takes to endure.
  • London proves there’s no need for fancy prose, complicated plot lines, or tender sentiment to pen a beautiful novel.
  • The book’s Yukon setting was chosen by London based on his own experiences in the region during the 1890s Klondike Gold Rush, where, he says, “I found myself.”
  • E. L. Doctorow called the book “fervently American.” And even if I’m not sure what that means, he’s maybe probably somewhat totally right.

Favorite Quotes:

For two days and nights he neither ate nor drank, and during those two days and nights of torment, he accumulated a fund of wrath that boded ill for whoever first fell foul of him. 

So that was the way. No fair play. Once down, that was the end of you. Well, he would see to it that he never went down. 

There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive. 

And when, on the still cold nights, he pointed his nose at a star and howled long and wolf-like, it was his ancestors, dead and dust, pointing nose at star and howling down through the centuries and through him. And his cadences were their cadences, the cadences which voiced their woe and what to them was the meaning of the stillness, and the cold, and dark. 

Read: 2014


#30 Catch-22, Joseph Heller

Published: 1961

Why You Should Read It:

  • Like all the best war novels, Catch-22 doesn’t glorify war. It calls out its absurdities. The book is Heller’s seeming attempt to deconstruct the senseless and arbitrary nature of war, and patriotism, and death itself.
  • The book is both hilarious and not at all funny, and apparently intended as such.
  • While it pissed off the Americans who viewed World War II as heroic and righteous, it also anticipated the disillusionment many of those same Americans felt during and after the Vietnam War.
  • Yossarian is an utterly identifiable narrator—baffled by bureaucracy, something of an outsider, and terrified to die.
  • The New York Herald Tribune described it as “a wild, moving, shocking, hilarious, raging, exhilarating, giant roller-coaster of a book,” and I couldn’t agree more.

Favorite Quotes:

Appleby was a fair-haired boy from Iowa who believed in God, Motherhood and the American Way of Life, without ever thinking about any of them. 

“What would they do to me,” he asked in confidential tones, “if I refused to fly them?”
“We’d probably shoot you,” ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen replied.
“We?” Yossarian cried in surprise. “What do you mean, we? Since when are you on their side?”
“If you’re going to be shot, whose side do you expect me to be on?” ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen retorted.

History did not demand Yossarian’s premature demise, justice could be satisfied without it, progress did not hinge upon it, victory did not depend on it. That men would die was a matter of necessity; which men would die, though, was a matter of circumstance, and Yossarian was willing to be the victim of anything but circumstance.

“I’m afraid.”
“That’s nothing to be ashamed of,” Major Major counseled him kindly. “We’re all afraid.”
“I’m not ashamed,” Yossarian said. “I’m just afraid.”

More than anything else, he was embarrassed. He felt awkward because she was going to murder him.

The night was filled with horrors, and he thought he knew how Christ must have felt as he walked through the world, like a psychiatrist through a ward full of nuts, like a victim through a prison full of thieves. What a welcome sight a leper must have been! 

Read: 2015


 

#96 Dangerous Liaisons, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos

Published: 1782

Why You Should Read It:

  • It’s all about sex, and love, and revenge.
  • The narrative is entirely constructed out of the letters written between the major cast members of this decadent drama.
  • It is thought to be either a robust indictment of France’s extravagant Ancien Régime or an enthusiastic salute to libertinism. In either case, it’s a huge success.
  • The story’s villains, the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil, receive their comeuppance in the form of a fatal sword wound and disfiguring smallpox, respectively.
  • It spawned two incredible feats of film-making: the Academy-Award-winning 1988 adaptation starring Glenn Close, John Malkovich, and Michelle Pfeiffer, and 1999’s showy teen melodrama Cruel Intentions starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe, and Reese Witherspoon.

Favorite Quotes:

Don’t you remember that love, like medicine, is only the art of encouraging nature?

Love, hatred, you have only to choose; they all sleep under the same roof.

Read: 2014


#46 All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren

Published: 1946

Why You Should Read It:

  • The New York Times called All the King’s Men “the definitive book about American politics.”
  • Set in the South in the 1930s, the novel follows the rise and rise (and rise) of Willie Stark—a charismatic lawyer-turned-governor who bears a suspicious resemblance to Huey Long—through the eyes of his “sort of secretary” Jack Burden.
  • Jack is an exceptional narrator, and an endearing one in spite of his flaws. A self-described “student of history,” he tells his own life story alongside that of Willie Stark, and it’s arguably much more interesting.
  • All the King’s Men confronts some Big Issues face to face without batting an eye: How politics are a kind of black hole that sucks in anyone who ventures too near. How the truth has a way of making itself heard. How you always pay the price for your mistakes in the end—and, often, the mistakes of others. How each of us constructs an image of the world inside our heads, and are devastated when that image goes up in flames.
  • Warren won the Pulitzer Prize in 1947, and a 1949 movie adaptation of the novel won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Favorite Quotes:

I ought to have guessed that a person like her—a person who you could tell had a deep inner certitude of self which comes from being all of one piece, of not being shreds and patches and old cogwheels held together with pieces of rusty barbed wire and spit and bits of string, like most of us—I ought to have guessed that that kind of a person would not be surprised into answering a question she didn’t want to answer. 

I began to take a distaste to the friends Lois had. There was nothing particularly wrong with them. They were just the ordinary garden variety of human garbage. 

I thought how all knowledge that is worth anything is maybe paid for by blood. Maybe that is the only way you can tell that a certain piece of knowledge is worth anything: it has cost some blood.

The best luck always happens to people who don’t need it.

Read: 2015

Are They Six of the Greatest Books of All Time?

HAVEN’T YOU BEEN PAYING ATTENTION?

If you missed Quick Reviews: Part I, or Quick Reviews: Part II, you can find them here and here.

If you missed the premise behind the Quick Reviews series, you can find it here.