First, an apology. The idea for this book club stemmed from the reasoning that, with regular deadlines to produce posts about War and Peace, I would force myself to read the whole the book. Deadlines passed, though, and I didn’t write the essays.
However, I did finish the book. Not only that, I loved it. For a while, I could think of little else. It did for me exactly what I want a great novel to do: it transported me to another time and place. It swept me right into the chaos and romance of early 19th Century Russia. I fell in love with Pierre.
The book was more successful than the book club. Having a virtual book club is not the same as having a real book club, I discovered. In a virtual book club, you sit by yourself typing into a computer. Sometimes, other people, also typing into their computers, add some thoughts that will appear on your screen, which you might find meaningful. But this kind of communication is not the same as sitting around in someone’s living room, drinking wine, eating cookies and talking about a book you all read. If you look at the “discussion” (by way of comments) that followed my entries, you will see that, over the months of the club, they went from 34 to 7 to 0 (yes, zero). My “book club” dwindled down to nothing.
Hello? Are you there?
So, I settled down with Tolstoy by myself. Just me and Leo in a sort of conversation. He talked. I underlined. I put little Post-it notes next to passages I loved, many of which seemed to make human nature clearer and more comprehensible to me. Here’s one, for example, that describes that sense of disappointment that follows intense joy, when Nicholas Rostov, after a jubilant return to his family from war, settles into normal life: “Rostov was very happy in the love that was shown him, but the first moment of their meeting had been so blissful that his present happiness seemed too little to him, and he kept waiting for more, and more, and more.” (p. 299)
In such scenes, the fact that Nicholas Rostov is a 19th Century Russian nobleman—and a fictitious one at that—seems completely irrelevant. He not only makes sense to me; he could be me.
In an earlier post, I talked about E. M. Forster’s definitions of “round” versus “flat” characters, noting that Tolstoy makes even flat characters delectable and intriguing. But the round characters, because they are complex and capable of change, give us a sense that they don’t simply exist on the page; they exist beyond the page. I don’t know what Prince Andrei did during his time away from Natasha in Europe, but I somehow feel the slow passage of every single day that he spent there. Similarly, at the end of the novel, in the first part of the Epilogue, seven years have passed and Tolstoy offers us a window on the characters’ lives as they have transpired in the interim. By this point, over 1100 pages into the book, these “characters” have become completely real to us. We can almost see the lines on Pierre’s face, the stoop in the Countess’ walk. Their disappointments and joys could not have been wholly predicted, but they nonetheless make sense. Natasha for one, now happily married, “did not follow that golden rule preached by intelligent people, especially the French, according to which a girl, once married, should not let herself go. . . . Natasha, on the contrary, abandoned all her charms.” (p. 1154) This piece of information may come as a surprise, but we have watched Natasha change and grow throughout the novel. She is strong-willed and decisive, even to the point that we can see why she would abandon “her charms” once she no longer feels a need to maintain them. Tolstoy has made us feel we know her, and we can see the believable threads of life and experience that connect this matronly Natasha with the passionate young girl we first met early in the book.
So, I didn’t have a sense of community as I read this book, but I did feel a part of something huge and beautiful and bigger than myself. And I feel a part of the community of people who have read and loved this book for 150 years already, and a part of a discussion that will continue, I believe, for centuries more.
Happily for me, I do get to have some conversation, too. Andrew D. Kaufman, a literary scholar and Tolstoy expert at the University of Virginia, will join me for a Question and Answer session about the book. Andrew has recently published a new companion volume to the novel, Give War and Peace a Chance: Tolstoyan Wisdom for Troubled Times, and later this month we’ll talk about the book on this site. Then, on November 5, we’ll both participate in a LitChat discussion on the novel. Please watch this space for the Q and A later in October and mark November 5 in your calendar (4 to 5 p.m. Eastern Standard Time) to join us in conversation on Twitter.
DANA SACHS is an author and contributing editor of LitChat. Read her complete bio here.