In my experience, no one likes Tolstoy. Not ordinary people, at any rate. Some people like Dostoyevsky, and the rest daren’t confess to never having read Crime and Punishment. But Tolstoy, like Homer, is a persona non grata at the average middle class dinner table. If you like Tolstoy or Homer, you’re in the category of a weirdo, or, if you live in England, where they pride themselves on their tolerance, you’re an eccentric.
So imagine my delight when the other day I read an opinion piece by Mario Vargas Llosa in El País about the lessons Tolstoy teaches us in War and Peace and found out that Vargas Llosa not only read War and Peace but actually loves it. I swear he’s the first person in the world I came across who does. Everybody heard of War and Peace but I don’t think I actually ever met anybody who read it, apart from my grandmother whose copy I still have on the bookshelf.
My grandmother was not an educated person. She only completed five years of primary school because her family were poor and she had to go to work; she never wrote anything longer than a post card and her spelling was a bit erratic. It was one of my aunts who gave her War and Peace (although I doubt very much that she herself had read it) and in winter, when it gets dark after 4 o’clock and there’s nothing much to do in a village, my grandma used to read it before putting out the lights at 8. They “rise and go to bed with the hens” in rural Hungary (meaning they get up and go to bed early, for those of you agriculturally challenged 🙂 ), or at least they used to, when I was a kid.
I once asked her whether she liked War and Peace. She thought a little and then she said it was four volumes and it made the time pass nicely in winter. I think she read it two or three times over the years. I don’t know what she made of the lives of these Russian aristocrats who spoke French in preference to their mother tongue. I think she might have liked the balls because I remember playing with her when I was small when she would give me “lessons” in aristocratic behaviour: “And a countess curtsies like this… dances like this… talks like this…” I would copy her exaggerated gestures and then we would both fall over laughing at the very idea that people might behave like that. She told me she knew this because she had been a maid to a countess; I think she was pulling my leg but then I was too young to realise and in any case, I wouldn’t have minded.
I read War and Peace three times before I was 18. Each in time in her house during the long summer holidays: I remember the cloudless blinding blue skies, the faded yellow grass under the scorching sun, the cracks in the dusty ground wide enough to lose a peanut in. In the oppressive heat of the afternoon even the animals were quiet. Not a soul moved in the village during the hours of what the Spanish call the siesta, although there would be men and women out in the fields surrounding the village working the land. The only sound you’d hear on those sweltering afternoons was the sonic boom as the Russian fighters passed low overhead on their training exercises. Then you felt the ground shake under you, and the glass rattled in the window frames. I sheltered under the apple tree with my book and watched the sun make its way across the sky. Like my grandma said, it was four volumes and made the time pass nicely.
I was an unsophisticated reader when I was young, and went straight to the stuff that I found best. Not for me persevering with a book that didn’t make me turn the pages. So the first time, when I was about 12, I read the war and skipped the peace. The second time, when I was 15, I read the peace but skipped the war. Finally, when I was 18, I read it cover to cover; obviously, finally I had grown up. But it is four volumes, and I never had the time to read in full since. I thought about it, time and again, but life is short and my bookshelves are long: deep down I knew it wasn’t going to happen. And then this article by Mario Vargas Llosa.
Vargas Llosa first read War and Peace half a century ago. In the article he talks about how, at that time while he was writing his first novel, he was obsessed with the idea that in novels, “the quantity was an essential ingredient of the quality”; that great books were also big, that is, long. Well, if any book can be cited to support this view, it’s certainly War and Peace. Obviously I completely disagree with the thesis itself: some of the best books I read were pretty damn short.
Halfway through the article you find out why Vargas Llosa is writing about War and Peace: after half a century, he’s reading it for the second time. He remembers the book, from the distance of 50 years, as a grand, sweeping novel of Russia during the Napoleonic Wars, from its elegant salons of French speaking aristocrats with their balls to its great battles. Just like me. And he says how now, in this second reading he came to understand that the first time round he missed the point altogether: that “the spiritual dimension of the story is much more important than what happens in the salons or in the battlefield”. He goes on to explain why War and Peace is a great novel.
I’m not even going to try to match his eloquence. I would translate the whole article instead but I’m deterred by the copyright notice which makes a clear reference to press rights in every language. I can’t be bothered to look up what exactly press rights cover so a quote will have to suffice:
“It is really extraordinary how in a such a vast, diverse novel of so many characters, the narrative plot is conducted so perfectly by this omniscient narrator who never loses control, who gauges with infinite wisdom the time dedicated to each, who advances without neglecting or ignoring anyone, giving to everybody the time and required space so that all seem to advance as life advances, sometimes very slowly, sometimes at frantic leaps, with their daily dose of happiness, misfortunes, dreams, loves, fantasies.”
Well, he convinced me. It’s time I read War and Peace for the fourth time.
It’s also time that I read some Mario Vargas Llosa.