So, it is done. After several months, I can start a new bedtime book. I can put my great task down. I can live the rest of my life knowing that it is done.
I have read War and Peace.
I finished it two nights ago, and haven’t started a new book yet. It would be like going out to a restaurant for breakfast the night after the richest, most filling meal imaginable. Though not necessarily the most delicious.
There are a few works of literature for which the question ‘did you like it?’ seems entirely inappropriate. Their greatness is a pointless thing to debate. War and Peace has topped so many lists of the greatest ever novels that to ask whether it’s any good or not is to ask whether Mount Everest is pleasing to the eye. It’s just there. It’s unavoidably part of the world. You either climb it, or you don’t climb it.
Did I learn much about the human condition reading this novel? No, I don’t think so, particularly. The characters in the story seem to be subject to enormous external changes which are out of their control, such that their impulses are almost secondary. They are objects on which something operates. And it is that something which, I think, the book is about.
What is this something? It’s most obvious, perhaps (God, I’m being tentative here), in Tolstoy’s lengthy, repetitive and vigorous debates on History and Historians. His thesis is that History is not the result of the actions of great individuals, that these individuals, like all of us, are subject to enormous social and cultural forces beyond our understanding. So Natasha is as in control of her destiny as Napoleon. The only way of navigating through human existence is through acceptance and love. It is a profoundly hippy worldview.
Is this profound? Yes, I suppose it it. Is it useful? In some ways, perhaps. Does it make for a good read?
Ah, well, there’s the rub.
Reading War and Peace is like spending some time in the presence of a great mind, or perhaps a great soul. A soul at peace with its universe and its way of thinking, but at the same time contemptuous of lesser souls. A mind with little patience, preaching love. A snappy paradox. I’ve never encountered a work of art of such majestic achievement which has demanded so much of me and yet which has remained so oddly unlikeable.
A glorious hair shirt, then, rather than a brilliant read. A book to climb up onto and look down from, as its author seems to have done.
Did I like War and Peace? The question has no purpose.
But I loved Anna Karenina.