So over the holidays I was holed up on a mountainside in Colorado reading Leo Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace (1869), which, at 1224 pages, is an undertaking. I felt compelled to read it as quickly as possible, lest the undertaking be superseded by the undertaker. My hardcover Knopf edition weighed in at five pounds, and although it is not the same as the James Michener novel Chesapeake—about which one wag (Jack Beatty) said, “My best advice is don’t read it; my second best is don’t drop it on your foot”—I still wouldn’t want it to plummet upon my toes. It took me about a month, and was the second time I read it. Imagine a human holed up in a room in this house below, hearing all those versions of Jingle Bells and “I Wanna Hippopotamus for Christmas” while reading Tolstoy. In a hurry, lest the reindeer be disappointed at my literary failure.
I coincidentally finished it just in time for the TV debut of the miniseries on A&E Network, a BBC production it seems, that started last Monday. That I actually even bothered to reread it was a bit of happenstance: I was telling a friend of mine he should read it, which prompted me to reflect, If he should read it, why not me? So I did. And am happy to report I loved it, was enthralled, and feel that somehow, someway, my life was a greater thing for having spent the time doing it. (As opposed to giving in to the Star Wars hoopla and wasting over two hours of my life in that cinema, crunching popcorn and giggling at all the bad lines, annoying the woman sitting beside me in the crowded theater.)
In the spirit of that old saw, “The book’s much better than the movie,” I can’t say much positive about the miniseries, though I am going to try to follow it. (The first two-hour installment was Monday, and I’m assuming the other episodes will follow on succeeding Mondays.) For Tolstoyphiles, there’s much to carp about: Paul Dano is too meek and mousy as Pierre, the sex-it-up scenes with Anatole and Helene have the effect of casting them as pervy villains (whereas Tolstoy does a great job of portraying their sometimes-awful behavior as really rather ordinary), but most damningly, those awful commercials every two minutes. I try to avoid network TV because of commercials, and this was one of the few times recently where I was subjected to such blather. It’s one thing to be contemplating the horror of warfare and the foolishness of Czar Alexander I at Austerlitz, but to have the battle scenes interrupted by ads for Duck Dynasty is a bit too absurd.
The novel itself, on the other hand, is another thing altogether: the dynasties it describes don’t belong to hillbilly duck hunters. The main characters are members of a few aristocratic families, and one thing that struck me is that no one really seems to work—at least not the main characters. Like, who washes the dishes or sweeps the floors? Not Nikolai or Prince Andrei, that’s for sure: The servants accomplish all the work for them. They do go off to work and fight battles, and suffer greatly in those wars, but they don’t really work, not in the sense that pervades American life and culture. At times I think we (and I) work too much, actually, and to read about people who don’t really seem to work at all is fascinating, a glimpse at a different world. But the great difference between reading War and Peace and watching the miniseries is that in reading you are really encountering and entangling yourself with Tolstoy’s mind (and perhaps the mind of every writer you read, but for some, it’s a keener experience than with others), while the movie just seems some pretty costumes, pretty people, and pretty landscapes—even the battle scenes are in some ways pretty. And while I suppose pretty is fine, it’s also superficial and fairly meaningless, compared to the novel. Tolstoy has a great touch for the sublime and the banal at once, the great idea and the human touch. Much of the book wrestles with the tragedy of Napoleon’s march into Russia in 1812 (Tolstoy uses the term “the year twelve” often), the Battle of Borodino and the burning of Moscow, and the haunting deaths of many hundreds of thousands of soldiers—virtually all of Napoleon’s Grande Armee of 800,000 soldiers was destroyed. Much of it resonates for our moment in history as well: Why did so many soldiers follow Napoleon to their death? Why are so many people enthralled with Donald Trump? He goes on to the questions of free will and power and the will of one person over another, and it’s a fascinating world view. I won’t go on at length about the merits of the book, but I do repeat my advice of recommending it to all who enjoy great literature, with an addendum not usually noted: It’s a fun read. And here’s a photo of the great man himself:
But speaking of meaningless and “pretty,” the same weekend I finished War and Peace I took my daughter to see the new Star Wars. Dumb lines, dumb scenes, coated with a thick layer of ridiculousness and special effects. Welcome to the 21st century!