War and Peace 1 - Don't Try to Remember Everyone

(Miss Amy, you asked for a logo, if this one will help, you're welcome to it)

When I was a senior in high school, I first read Anna Karenina. Alongside Les Miserables, and Grapes of Wrath, the book literally changed my life - it was from that year that I learned how I felt about other people, how to make moral decisions, how to think in terms of the suffering of others. Its where I learned about revolution, and its where I learned about love, and its where I learned about sin, and those three concepts have been defining pillars of the rest of my life.

Loving Anna so much, and because I had that wild hubris of the 17 year old, I figured - why not? I'll read War and Peace.

I. Did. Not. Get. It.

This isn't to say I didn't LIKE it. War and Peace is an experiential book. Its less like hearing a story about St. Petersburg, and more like, suddenly being forced to live in St. Petersburg. That experience - at once impersonal and immersive - was very seductive.

But I didn't get it.

I figured I was too dumb. I probably was. I probably still am, but nonetheless, I learned something I think - I don't know how universal this advice is, really, but I will give it, and any of the other people reading along in this book this year may take it or not take it, as they see fit. Its easy to sum up:

Don't worry about remembering everybody. It doesn't matter.

See, that's the thing I've learned about War and Peace. It isn't about the people. I mean it is. It isn't about SPECIFIC people. You know how in the Odyssey, there'll just be these characters that show up? And once in a while, you feel like, "Wait, seriously? Homer, this is obviously some dude you just made up for the sake of the plot!" And he probably did. Because the Odyssey is all about the journey (and all about Odysseus - in this way its more like Anna K than W&P, but the Iliad most people haven't ever had to read (a shame, 'cause its way better)).

Well, that's kind of how W&P is - it is an epic, and the story is not the story of Prince Volotscherduzhenbatskyariznia - its the story of Russia, and about the War with Napoleon, and about people living through that, about the battle between new absolutism and old absolutism. Its a novel about forces and ideas, not about people.

That makes it sound boring, and it makes it sound like the characters aren't very good. The opposite is true, though, because Tolstoy's whole central philosophy (in my mind) is that history is more than just Great Men moving the rest of us around on the chessboard like pawns. Its the story of a thousand tiny men, a story in which individual heroes are destined to fall eventually, because it is only the People who can do truly great and lasting things. Napoleon is such an ideal character to build this story around, because Napoleon is the epitomization of the Cult of Personality (if you want to read a REALLY good novel that presents this feeling, Read Jeanette Winterson's "The Passion" - its actually an AWESOME companion to War and Peace in a lot of ways). And the story of the Russian People, classically, is the opposite story. The Russians are the long-suffering people, the people who win in spite of their leaders rather than because of them. They're the people that won Stalingrad simply because they kept on living after they had been starved and the Germans didn't. They're the people that first beat Napoleon in spite of having the most incompetent military upper leadership of any European major power of the time arguably (I'm no military historian, so feel free to argue that with me). Britain and France do not tell the story of armies when they talk about Napoleon, they tell the story of Napoleon, and Wellington, and Blucher, and etc, etc, etc. The Russians tell the story of a people and a motherland. It is a victory of the Russian people, and that's how the book reads.

And its not just the war that reads that way either - its the peace too. The cocktail party that starts the whole book (I know, I know, they wouldn't have called it that) is a perfect example. The conversation in the room is not a number of people trying to develop the story of the novel. It is hardly composed of individuals - or if it is, it is composed of individuals int he way your body is composed of individual organs. The party is an organic whole, a single body, that drives and cares for itself as a single organism. And this is how conversation works in War and Peace - yes, it matters who says what, but eventually, you begin to recognize people not as Levyoshtroikan Albumitrovamiravich Horlitzborlityburlington. You recognize them as the White Blood Cell. Or the Pancreas. Or the Liver. In the end its a fascinating way to get to know a literary character, because if you GO to a party where you don't know everyone, you will find yourself (if its a well assembled party) doing the same thing - recognizing the current and vibration of the room, balancing, correcting, intensifying or exuding, as the room requires. Tolstoy does not write shouting parties. He writes parties that make you feel you are a part of something.

Now, again, the individual characters are all so human and so finely penned, that you might come read the book again in a few years, and pay close attention to who is who, learn to play the game of reading the underlying social currents and webs of connections that lie just beneath the surface of every interaction. But, that's the fun of dissecting something you already love. To FALL in love, step back, and just swim in it. Don't try to understand everything. This is a war - wars are supposed to be bewildering. Confusing. Maddening.


Bookworm1858 said...

I added this button to my post as well as the picture Amy posted-just so you know!

Thank you so much for your post-it is really reassuring me about not knowing the characters. After years of reading mostly YA, I'm used to connecting with one MC right off the bat and sticking with her (or him) throughout so W&P is a big switch. But I'm excited to read this and then to keep coming back to it over the course of my life.

Amy said...


you always have such good things to say and this really adds a good perspective for me in reading. Thank you for participating and taking time to write your thoughts and yes for making a graphic!

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Bookworm - I'm glad you like the button :). You're welcome to it. Yes, I think most of the reader's guides make you feel like 'its really important that you know these 75000 things' :D. It is a very different reading experience, because you're right, usually a novel encourages you to become attached to some protagonist. Its like Tolstoy wants you to sympathize with a people, instead of a person.

Ms Amy - Oh good, I'm glad you liked it! I'm looking forward to the rest of the read along :) Hopefully I'm a bit more mature now than the first time I read it :D.

Barb Riley said...

Hi Jason! Looove this panoramic viewpoint! What, are you like Tolstoy, Jr. in that you can be all omniscient in your understanding? ;-) Because seriously, this is awesome context for me to keep in mind as I make my way through W&P. And your analogy of the organism as a whole (i.e. the party = the pancreas, lol) is super helpful. Because I won't be remembering Prince Volotscherduzhenbatskyariznia(!) any time soon.

Thanks for the smile(s), and thanks for the Jeannette Winterson recommendation, too.

Btw, I am a long-time-reader-not-commenter on your blog. I enjoy your fresh take on life.

Barb Riley said...

p.s. Anna Karenina was life-changing for me too.

Amy said...

You are so completely right. War and Peace is more than the sum of its parts. That said, I could have done without the epilogues. Dammit man, I got the theme from your book itself, you don't have to explain it to me afterwards.

Iris said...

Oh, wow, this is such a thoughful post. I guess this teaches me to do better at my check-ins. I'm so glad you weren't afraid to share that you felt you did not get it in high school. I'm awfully afraid that I will not get it now, which might be why I need this read along to push me into reading it anyway. Thinking of it as an epic. And it is knowing that we will get his thoughts on history that had me interested in the first place. Thank you so much for this post, and the button!

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Riley - Pshaw. Anytime I can make a Jeanette Winterson recommendatino, I feel as if the universe has give me a gift. ;)

Amy - *laughs* I know what you're saying. In Tolstoy's defense: many people think that much of what he WANTED to say, he had to dance carefully around, because of the censorship laws at the time. Tolstoy was a radical, politically and morally, living in a nation that was ruled by a hidebound, absolutist monarchy, terrified of revolution (given the results of 1917, perhaps rightfully so). One of the stories he wrote in 'Nine Stories' was censored by the government before it could be published, I believe, for this very reason. So, in W&P, some of the things he WANTED to say, he couldn't. So I think he was frightened that his readers wouldn't be able to read through the lines, sometimes, and would do things like the epilogues not so much to tell you what he already said, as to sort of draw every part of the circle excpet the one little gap he's not allowed to, and hope that the reader will fill that gap in their mind. This is also why, later, the whole side plot about the freemasons feels so weird and out of place - because he was really fascinated by the idea of rebellion under the tyrannical czars, but couldn't says so, of course.

Ms Iris - Thank you! If my post helps - or just the company helps - I'm very glad :).

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Kerry M said...

I love this post! Wishing I had come to it sooner (I managed to post about the first part for the readalong, but never made it around to read others' posts because I am a baaaad readalonger). Seriously, though, I just finished Part II and I still can't keep track of the characters, but decided halfway through this section that I'd just go with it. Your post helps put that decision in some context, and I love that.

Looking forward to your thoughts on the next section!