A Year-Long War and Peace Readalong

war_and_peace_read_along

 

Staring a 1455 page book straight in the eye, so to speak, is incredibly daunting. I wonder if it is realistic that I will stick with it? Like many classics, War and Peace is a book I have always felt I needed to read at some point in my life. And while I greatly enjoyed Anna Karenina last year, this book beats that one by many, many hundreds of pages.

Russia

At only 4 very short chapters in, though, I know what will sustain me throughout this year-long readalong and it is what I remember from Anna Karenina: the way Tolstoy describes his characters intentions, their inner thoughts as well as their outward appearance. I am a visual person. It’s how I learn things. I need to see and do a thing to make it stick, to make me understand it. Tolstoy’s descriptions of the myriad characters that populate his books allow me to see them visually creating a life for them in my head, which is how I have experienced reading since childhood; descriptions of time, place and intimate surroundings rounding off the pictures I need in my head.

Because there are 361 chapters in this book the readalong host Nick Senger has created a ‘chapter-a-day’ reading schedule and my expectations are high that I will finish. The character list for War and Peace is a page and a half, but I know I will ‘see’ them all. It is early yet, but the characters have drawn me in with their appearance, their humor and their thoughts.

russia3

 

Some characters we are introduced to so far:

Prince Vasily always spoke listlessly, like an actor repeating a part in an old play…like a wound-up clock, saying by force of habit things he did not even expect to be believed.

Anna Pavlovna was brimming with zest and animation, despite her forty years. To be an enthusiast had become a social attitude with her, and sometimes, even when she did not feel like it, she became enthusiastic in order not to disappoint the expectations of those who knew her.

[Prince Andrei Bolkonsky]…it was obvious that he not only knew everyone in the drawing room but was so thoroughly bored with them that he found it tedious either to look at them or listen to them. And among all those faces he found so tiresome, none seemed to bore him so much as that of his pretty little wife.

Princess Ellen smiled; she rose with that same unchanging smile, the smile of a perfectly beautiful woman, with which she entered the drawing room….Ellen was so lovely that not only did she show no trace of coquetry, but on the contrary, appeared to be almost embarrassed by her undeniable, irresistible, and enthralling beauty….[She] leaned her plump bare arm on a little table….The whole time the story was being told, she sat erect, gazing now and then at her beautiful round arm resting lightly on the table, or at her even more beautiful bosom, on which she readjusted the folds of her gown…

Ippolit struck one not so much by his remarkable resemblance to his beautiful sister, as by the fact that despite this resemblance he was surprisingly ugly. His features were the same as hers, but while his sister’s face was lit up by a perpetually beaming, complacent, youthful smile, and her body was of a singularly classic beauty, his face was overcast by an idiotic and invariably peevish, conceited expression, and his body was thin and weak. His eyes, nose, and mouth all seemed to be puckered into a vacant, bored grimace, and his arms and legs always fell into unnatural positions.

WandP.jpeg

It’s rather unwieldy to read this in mass market form!

Have you read War and Peace? What did you think?

We are using this hashtag on Twitter for daily quotes from the book if you want to see what we’re up to! #warandpeacereadalong.

Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy (1878)

I feel that I am flying headlong over some precipice but must not even try to save myself. And I can’t…I have no wishes at all. . . except that everything were at an end.

 

annak.jpegOne of my biggest accomplishments this year is reading my first Russian novel. I am not sure what I feared all of these years, but it was unfounded. At over 800 pages Anna Karenina is full of unforgettable characters and their stories of triumph and tragedy. Though there were parts that felt a little tedious, especially the politically philosophical sections discussing the responsibility of land-owning aristocracy over the peasants, I was so engrossed I don’t think I skipped one word. That one of my favorite characters was part of these conversations, I plowed through.

While the action centers on three couples and includes the rites of courting, marriage and infidelity, the book is also about other kinds of relationships. The elite of the novel divide themselves into the city elite and country elite with high passions defending the perspective of each. There is the relationship some have with the Church and some who are disbelievers.  And in each character whether rich or poor, man or woman, government official or country land owner, they are fighting the relationship with the inner demons of their personal truth.

The action takes place during the 1870s and centers around the extramarital affair annak1between Anna Karenina and a young cavalry officer, Count Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky that scandalizes the community of Saint Petersburg when Anna makes the decision to make public this liaison by leaving her husband. The pair to flee to Italy and try in vain to live a normal life. Happiness eludes them and they return to Russia, where everything gets worse.

There are several parallel and revolving stories including Anna’s brother Prince Oblonsky and his wife, Dolly who themselves are dealing with an extramarital affair, his. Kitty, Dolly’s sister, is of marriageable age and is being courted by Konstantin Lëvin, a wealthy country landowner. Kitty has to work through her attraction to Vronsky, before she is able to accept Levin’s marriage proposal. Levin has issues with the management of his estate, because he is caught between the traditional feudalistic aspect of the landowner/peasant relationship and the new reforms that see workers as autonomous beings. He is also plagued by his struggle to accept Christianity, a necessity in order to marry.

There is so much going on in this novel that held my interest whether it was watching a character’s journey or enjoying the details of daily life; even the descriptions detailing the bureaucracy of the system of government at that time kept my attention.

In my edition, the front matter includes a three-page character list, with Russian names that are themselves long! I found that extremely intimidating wondering how I would keep everyone straight, but due to Tolstoy’s very well drawn characterizations and the themes that make up this book I needn’t have worried. And the struggles the characters go through hold interest in their universality: love and marriage; infidelity that is expected for men, but scandalous for women; the power of the Church in matters of relationships, raising of children and divorce; the issues of peasants rights at a time when a feudal society is changing.

I did not like Anna at first, because she had no guilt about her feelings toward Vronsky and how this affected her husband or child, especially after their affair came to light. But in a system that gives only the wronged party the power to divorce when feelings change in a relationship, leaving with your lover may be the only recourse. And as the pair try to live a normal life as a couple, it is clear they will never be free to do so, because her status makes her a pariah within the Russian expat communities in which they socialize.

Vronsky is able to move more freely through society. He considers Anna his wife and wants her to be treated as such. But in a society where female agency is not recognized, the act of leaving a husband and living with another man is shameful and their peers react accordingly. Vronksky sees their kind of relationship as a modern construction and believes in the sifting progress of “public opinion” regarding such relationships.

But he very soon noticed that though the great world was open to him personally, it was closed to Anna. As in the game of cat and mouse, the arms that were raised to allow him to get inside the circle were at once lowered to prevent Anna from entering.

Anna’s inability to move freely causes her great mental and spiritual pain, in part because her forced seclusion keeps them from forming a social life as a couple. Vronksy spends time with his friends and she fears he will tire of her, something his mother would like to see. As the months in this liminal state drag on, Anna’s anxiety over Vronsky’s willingness to stay with her reach a breaking point. After a heated argument, Anna is convinced he will leave her and as her mental state breaks down further thinks of suicide as her only relief. As one of the world’s classic novels and as the subject of many films Anna’s fate is well-known, but her end is still shocking.

Tolstoy illustrates his themes against a backdrop of a changing Russian sensibility in all areas of life. Levin, the land owner, is caught up in the new land reforms developing throughout Europe and there is a considerable amount of discussion over whether these reforms would work in Russia. Levin wants to understand the people who work his land and some poignant scenes include his working alongside them, experiencing the celebratory effects of physical labor and working communally. How different is his life compared to his friends in the city.

Levin: You can’t imagine how strange it all seems to me who live in the country…We try to get our hands into a state convenient to work with,…but here people purposely let their nails grow until they begin to curl,…we try to get over our meals as quickly as we can, so as to be able to get on with our work, here you and I try to make our meal last as long as possible….

Oblonsky: Of course, the aim of civilization is to enable us to get enjoyment out of everything.

annak2Levin is my favorite character, especially as he wrestles with his questions about the existence of God, a disbelief which concerns Kitty. The other characters seem to take the Church for granted whether they believe or not participating in its rites because ‘that’s just what one does.’ Levin is an agnostic struggling honestly with his disbelief. After a lightning storm catches Kitty and their son when they are outdoors their safe deliverance causes in him a change of heart in that he understands that he does believe at least in the goodness of God even though he will always have questions and may never feel as righteous as others. He understands that his belief cannot be reasoned out, but “I shall still pray, and my life, my whole life, independently of anything that may happen to me, is every moment of it no longer meaningless as it was before, but has an unquestionable meaning of goodness with which I have the power to invest it.”

My Thoughts

There is no adequate way to write a blog post about this novel. From all the details of daily life–there is a lot of eating and different kinds of food in this book which I particularly enjoyed!–that show the corruption of those in government jobs, to the differences in the way city people live against those in the country who work the land, to the role of established Christianity in major life-cycle events and with those who struggle to believe.

It is easy to invest yourself in the outcome of each character’s story, because their struggles feel very present; they transcend time and place. Tolstoy manages to show the major issues that plague the personal, the political and spiritual are really universal and concern 21st century folk as they did in the 19th.

 

____________

Title: Anna Karenina
Author: Leo Tolstoy
Publisher: Wordsworth Classics
Device: Paperback
Year: 1878
Pages: 806

Challenges: Readalong, winter 2019