In this Coronavirus season, existing dystopian novels have suddenly become “prophetic”. The world may be grinding to a standstill, but Generation COVID can’t while away that time with the same “aimless dissipation” and extravagances that our post-war predecessors did. It’s a lot harder to love in the time of Corona, and a look at the pasta shelves of the nation’s supermarkets reveals that the phrase “Hunger Games” is hitting closer to home than anyone would like. How are we to pass the time, and tear our eyes away from the constant morale-breaking news that does nothing but feed us the same information several times a day?
The answer is reading. To some, the thought of reading will be hard to stomach after eight weeks of study. For others, reading for pleasure may be a welcome relief. Even then, the thought of reading for pleasure can feel too indulgent, when surely we should be revising for next term. But these are extraordinary times, and we have no idea what the next few months will bring. So, as we embark on what is already a generous vacation, and look forward indefinitely to the prospects of self-isolation and social distancing, I think if we’re going to commit to anything, it might as well be a good novel. Times like these call for more than a desultory pastime, so cast away the pool-side paperback, and pick up the life-changing experience that is Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
To read Tolstoy’s classic is to be thrust into moments of life and to be absorbed in a reality so vivid that it feels almost like your own. In fact, when I look back on the summer after my final secondary school exams, I think of it as “the summer I read War and Peace.” We were inseparable – I read on the sofa, in bed, at my desk, carried it to various parks, Monaco, the Italian Alps, and barely had strength to hold it on the beach when I was struck by serious illness. I found myself invested in and identifying with so many of the characters, despite the novel taking place two centuries ago.
The spiritual and intellectual journey of Pierre Bezukhov from confused debauchee to prisoner and finally wise family-man is particularly touching, as is Natasha Rostova’s enduring vitality or Princess Marya’s obsequious meekness, which made me cheer her on towards the happy ending she deserved. The most poignant moment for me is when Prince Andrei learns what ‘divine love’ is, and finally realises that even under the most extreme conditions he can love all humans indiscriminately, even Anatole Kuragin.
In reading the novel I not only experienced the beauty of the transient everyday, with its infinite moments of fleeting emotion, but also I saw something greater – individual life as part of the universal web of history and humanity. And that is the kind of living into which readers of great literature have the privilege to be immersed – life heightened beyond ordinary comprehension.
And when it was over, I felt numb, like I’d lost a friend.
If it is your first time reading it, you really ought to go from cover to cover and let the whole effect wash over you, though of course some will be more taken by the eventful domestic lives of the Rostovs, and others intrigued by what really happened at the battle of Borodino. Indeed, War and Peace has immense historical value as well as literary, for Tolstoy himself was a meticulous historian, to which much of the novel and his research for it attests.
Don’t be intimidated by the size and weight of the novel – read it in little chunks; there is no need for it to be burdensome if you regularly devote reasonable amounts of time. Nor should it interfere with your studies, and it can take you through all six weeks or more if you wish. I loved the Peaver and Volokhonsky English translation, which conveys the simple, homely eloquence of Tolstoy’s style, but any decent one in your native language will suffice, although the original Russian is of course preferable if you are lucky enough to speak the language.
In short – read it. Or read it again. It is a gift that keeps on giving, and one that we could definitely use at a time when we are so paralysed that it feels so hard to just live. And if I learnt anything reading this novel, it is that you really can live through literature. We will get through this pandemic. And until then, know that every cloud has a silver lining – just ask War and Peace.
Feeling inspired? War and Peace can be read for free on Project Gutenberg and is available on Audible. The writer Yiyun Li has also started a virtual book club – Tolstoy Together – aiming to finish War and Peace during the period of isolation, as a community of like-minded people. You can check it out here.