Welcome. I am Charles, the host of this forum on War and Peace, and the creator and general administrator of this whole site.
With War and Peace, we begin a formidable book, “a loose and baggy monster”, to borrow the well-know epithet from Henry James. In some ways, perhaps it would have been wiser to begin with a more modest work. This monster, however, will hopefully give me the time and experience needed to help improve everyone’s experience, should I attempt another such undertaking. Besides, I very much wanted to reread War and Peace, and this way seemed a promising way to do so.
I first read War and Peace in the summer of 1979. I was twenty one, and it made a deep impression on me. I was interested in nearly everything the book touched upon. For months afterwards, I looked at things as if I were under some sort of Tolstoyan spell. As I have grown older, I have sometimes wondered whether I would again find War and Peace so compelling. Is it more a young person’s book than one that would have similar but more mature appeal to an older and somewhat more jaded reader? If I were to reread the book, would I now find structural and artistic faults instead of new meaning? While these considerations worried me somewhat, at the same time I thought that it is probably foolish to imagine that I had outgrown the charms and insights of one of history’s greatest writers. So I have been looking forward to rereading War and Peace for years now.
Some months ago, as I was tossing and turning in bed before sunrise, I turned on the radio, for a distraction, and heard an interview that got my attention. I heard Andrew D. Kaufman discuss his book Give War and Peace a Chance. Here is a link, so you can hear it yourself. The part on Tolstoy only takes the first 15 minutes or so. (Skip the rest.) Andrew Kaufman understands Tolstoy, and provided me with added motivation to reread the book. From Kaufman’s interview, I sensed that Tolstoy’s art can be renewed, but not outgrown. I want to reconnect with the aspects of Tolstoy’s art the Kaufman discusses. It’s a bit like missing an old and favorite piece of music that we then get the chance to hear again. I ordered Kaufman’s book, which sold for a few dollars on Amazon, and I ordered the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace. I hope to read Kaufman’s book as we make our way through War and Peace.
After reading War and Peace, those many years ago, I went on to read much more Tolstoy. Finally, I read Anna Kerenina, Tolstoy’s other epic masterpiece, about a year later, in 1980 or 81. I have not reread either since. Anna is clearly the more mature work. It is better structured, and has fewer excesses than the earlier work. Tolstoy had grown as an artist, and his interests had become more focused. Yet War and Peace is more passionate, with all the strengths and weaknesses of a younger mind. War and Peace is Tolstoy’s breakthrough work. Can one understand the later Tolstoy without understanding War and Peace? I think not. Many writers, such as Vladamir Nabokov, in his Lectures on Russian Literature, in their praise of Anna, almost seem to dismiss War and Peace. I understand their appreciation for Anna. However, I suspect that in their admiration for Anna’s artistic merits, they loose sight of War and Peace’s spiritual and somewhat different artistic strengths. Sure, the earlier work has its defects. The later work also lacks some of the life-affirming vitality of the earlier. So let us not be too quick to judge which is better. Instead, for the time being, let us just open ourselves to the experience Tolstoy offers us with War and Peace.