Alt. Title: Another Apology To My Parents
Have you ever requested something specific, and then received it, and then been so disappointed by it that you wanted to apologize to your benefactor? That’s the story of me and War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy (first published 1869).
In 1995, I was nearing the end of my dozen-year fascination with all things Russia. A child of the Cold War, I feared the menace of the Soviet Union as much as anyone else, but — perhaps more than the average student — studied the USSR and Russia itself intensely. For a 1985 seventh-grade English assignment, I turned in a tongue-in-cheek paper titled “Why We Should Surrender To The Communists”. In a 1988 pre-calculus course, when assigned to write a biography of “any historical figure related to the fields of math or science”, I chose Vladimir Kosma Zworykin — the inventor of the color television. The same year in English II, I wrote “The Soviets’ Conventional Weapon Superiority”. A year later in Advanced History, my research paper was “Modern Nuclear Missiles”, much of it a comparison between the stockpiles of the U.S. and the USSR.
By the early ’90s, I was toying (pretty seriously) with the idea of being a preacher in Russia — with the breakup of the Soviet Union, the evangelical churches that had remained secret in the USSR for so long were finally getting a chance to practice in the open. Outside my normal college studies, I learned the Russian language, courted friends who knew of Russia, and listened intently to stories from any who had been there.
Someone (I forget who) suggested that if I was really serious about going to Russia then I should read her great novels. War and Peace was at the top of that list. Being strapped for cash and far from a public library in 1995, I told my parents that it would make a great birthday present. So they bought a hardcover edition (published by Barnes & Noble Classics) and gave it to me on Sept. 20, 1995, for my 23rd birthday.
Not long after, I made a half-hearted attempt to read it, but struggled with boredom after a few pages. I set it aside as I moved and changed jobs not long after. When things settled down in 1996, I started it again but met with the same end. It ended up collecting dust on my bookshelf for nearly a decade. In the early 2000s (’03 I think), I read the first few paragraphs and put the book back on my shelf.
Then, in late 2012, my wife was looking for something to read and I suggested it to her, half in jest. She took it to work with her and read it in two days (our edition is 696 pages). A little embarrassed, I determined once and for all that I would read War and Peace. Finishing the American history book I’d been working through, I put War and Peace on my nightstand and began reading it before bed each night. In a week, I’d only made it to page 50 — my furthest foray yet.
And then I quit again. This time it’s for real. I’ll donate the book to Good Will next time we take a load over there.
If the rest of the book is incredibly fascinating, heart-rending, exciting, or informative, someone will be sure to let me know, but here’s my synopsis of the first 50 pages:
In 50 pages, the author has succeeded only in describing the appearance and personality of about a dozen characters, while listing the names and relations of about four dozen others. Aside from one (Pierre), very little emphasis has been placed on any of them so it’s difficult to tell which will be important later. In traditional Russian style, each character has various names they are called, depending on context and who’s speaking; often the author will switch names without warning and so I think he’s introduced yet another character until context makes it obvious he’s referring to someone already mentioned.
Tolstoy switches back and forth without warning from the third-person omniscient to the third-person objective voice — part of the time the narrator knows what the characters are thinking and feeling, but other times simply describes their expressions or gestures, from which you’re supposed to guess what they’re thinking or feeling. He often describes characters reacting with anger, embarrassment, or surprise, but without saying what’s caused these emotions; the preceding words certainly don’t merit such reactions.
By the 50-page mark, the author hasn’t set any background for the story — except to note the time period (1805) and that Napoleon is oft-discussed by the characters. Without a working knowledge of that specific time period in Russia and indeed Europe, the reader will feel a little lost.
One review describes the novel as “gleefully experimental”, going on to describe Tolstoy’s “novelistic innovations” which are apparently interesting only to students of the way novels are written (rather than readers of novels).
For me, the efforts to read this book have been a waste. If there’s something interesting later on, perhaps Tolstoy should have discovered the “novelistic innovation” of hooking the reader within the first few pages. I don’t know if I’ve ever read more boring opening lines, or indeed more boring opening 50 pages.
So, to my Mom and Dad: I apologize for requesting this book. I hope it didn’t cost you too much.