The World According to Tolstoy (El mundo según Tolstói)

Over a year ago I read an article by Mario Vargas Llosa, who was at the time engaged in re-reading War and Peace by Tolstoy. It was so damnably well-written that not only it made me re-read War and Peace myself but it also made me to read Mario Vargas Llosa.

El año pasado leí un artículo por Mario Vargas Llosa (enlace al final del post), quien en aquel momento se dedicaba a releer la Guerra y paz de Tolstói. Y estaba tan condenadamente bien escrito, que no sólo me causó volver a leer Guerra y paz, sino también me animó leer el propio Mario Vargas Llosa. 


A false idea

One of the things that delighted me in the article was that Mario Vargas Llosa and I coincided on what War and Peace was about (it’s gratifying to rub shoulders with a Nobel-prize winner).

Una idea falsa

Una de las cosas que me di placer en el artículo era que Mario Vargas Llosa y yo estabamos de acuerdo sobre de que se trata Guerra y paz (es una experiencia grata codearse con un ganador del premio Nobel).

….if one had to sum up War and Peace in one phrase, one might say that it is a great epic mural about how the Russian people repelled the imperialist attempts of Napoleon Bonaparte, “the enemy of mankind” and defended their sovereignty…

…wrote Vargas Llosa, and by and large I considered this a fair summary.

The problem was that he prefaced it with, “I had the false idea that…”.

…si había que resumir Guerra y paz en una frase, se podía decir de ella que era un gran mural épico sobre la manera como el pueblo ruso rechazó los empeños imperialistas de Napoleón Bonaparte, “el enemigo de la humanidad”, y defendió su soberanía…

…escribió Vargas Llosa y por lo general, eso me parecía un resumen justo. 

El problema era que él prologó aquello con: «Tenía la falsa idea de que…»

It did make me pause for thought. I don’t know how old Mario Vargas Llosa was when he first read War and Peace but I was 18, and when you’re 18, you know everything. I knew what War and Peace was about because I read it. Specifically, in the past 30 years or so, I knew two things:

  1. War & Peace is one of the great masterpieces of world literature.
  2. War & Peace is about the life of a handful of Russian aristocrats, set against the background of the Napoleonic wars.

Well. I re-read War and Peace last autumn and I still uphold the first one.

De verdad, aquello me causó hacer una pausa para reflexionar. No sé cuantos años tenía Mario Vargas Llosa cuando leía Guerra y paz por la primera vez, pero yo tenía 18 años, y cuando tienes 18 años, ya sabes todo. Así que claro que yo sabía lo de que se trata Guerra y paz, porque lo he leído. Específicamente, sabía dos cosas:

  1. Guerra y paz es uno de las grandes obras maestras de la literatura del mundo.
  2. Guerra y paz se trata de la vida de un puñado de aristócratas rusos, en un contexto de las guerras napoleónicas.  

Bien. He releído Guerra y paz en el otoño pasado, y sigo defendiendo lo primero.

But if War and Peace is not the life story of a handful of Russian aristocrats (as I had thought), nor is it about the heroic defence of the Russian homeland (as Vargas Llosa had thought), then what exactly is it about?

Pero si Guerra y paz no es la historia de un puñado de aristócratas rusos (como yo había pensado), ni se trata de la heroica defensa de la patria rusa (como Vargas Llosa había pensado), pues, de qué, exactamente, se trata?

Good question.

Such is the scope of this novel, however, that even after four readings I’m not sure what the answer is. The only thing that I am sure of is that I can’t possibly sum it up in one phrase, one paragraph, one blog post. War and Peace puts me in mind of a painting I saw: The Battle of Lepanto by Vicentino which takes up much of the wall in one of the bigger halls of the Doge’s Palace in Venice – so big and complex that you cannot take it in all at once. You can stand back and have a general impression of the whole, or you can approach to focus on a smaller detail. But you can’t do both at once. At least I can’t.

The Battle of Lepanto by Andrea Vicentino / La batalla de Lepanto por Andrea Vicentino [public domain] via Wikipedia
The Battle of Lepanto by Andrea Vicentino / La batalla de Lepanto por Andrea Vicentino [public domain] via Wikipedia
Buena pregunta.

Pero tan es el ámbito de esta novela, que ni siquiera después de leerla cuatro veces estoy segura cuál es la respuesta. La única cosa de que sí estoy segura es que no puedo resumirla en una sola frase, ni en un párrafo, ni siquiera en una entrada de blog. Guerra y paz me recuerda a una pintura que he visto: La Batalla de Lepanto  por Vicentino, que ocupa la gran parte de una pared en uno de las salas más grandes del Palacio del Dogo de Venecia – tan grande y complejo que no puedes absorber todo de una vez. Puedes alejarte y ganar una impresión general, o puedes acercarte para concentrarte en un detalle. Pero no puedes hacer ambos juntos. O, al menos, yo no puedo.

Incidentally, it is entirely possible to read (and enjoy) War and Peace merely as the story of the main characters’ quest for happiness… or on a slightly different level, as a historical novel about Russia in the time of the Napoleonic wars. Film adaptations invariably stop at one or the other of these interpretations, presenting us with scenes set in elegant salons and on gory battlefields… and nothing much else. The first three times I read War and Peace I certainly never moved beyond this level: it’s very easy to get lost in the minutely detailed thoughts and feelings of the characters, marvel at Tolstoy’s insight into human nature and get swept along by the unfolding events. But this is merely scratching the surface. It’s ignoring, for example, all of Tolstoy’s philosophical musings (and the further you read in the book, the more of these you’ll encounter).

Por cierto, es totalmente posible leer (y disfrutar) Guerra y paz simplemente como la historia de la búsqueda de felicidad de los personales principales… o, en un nivel un poco diferente, como una novela histórica sobre Rusia en la época de las guerras napoleónicas. Las adaptaciones cinematográficas invariablemente se contentan con una u otra de esas interpretaciones, sólo presentándonos escenas en salones elegantes y en sangrientos campos de batalla… y nada más. Yo tampoco nunca pasé más allá de este nivel por las tres primeras veces que yo leí Guerra y paz: es muy fácil perderte en los pensamientos y sentimientos, minuciosamente detallados, de los personajes, maravillarte con la perspicacia de Tolstói sobre la naturaleza humana, y ser arrastrado por los sucesos. Pero esto no es nada, sino quedarse en la superficie. Es ignorar, por ejemplo, todas las reflexiones filosóficas de Tolstói (y cuanto más progresas en el libro, más de ellas te encuentras). 

The World According to Tolstoy

Mario Vargas Llosa said:

In this rereading of War and Peace I notice something that I did not understand the first time: that the spiritual dimension of the story is much more important than what happens in the salons or on the battlefield.

El mundo según Tolstói

Mario Vargas Llosa dijo:

En esta relectura de Guerra y paz advierto algo que, en la primera, no había entendido: que la dimensión espiritual de la historia es mucho más importante que la que ocurre en los salones o en el campo de batalla.

Tolstoy poured into this book all his thoughts on the purpose and meaning of life, on happiness, on morality, on the movers and shakers of history, on mankind, on civilisation and not the least, on Russia. War and Peace is, quite simply, the world according to Tolstoy. Definitive, like the Bible, although obviously you don’t have to agree with it. (You don’t have to agree with the Bible either.)

Tolstói introdujo en este libro todos sus pensamientos sobre el propósito y el significado de la vida, sobre la felicidad, sobre la moralidad, sobre los hombres que tengan influencia en historia, sobre la humanidad, sobre la civilización y, no menos importante, sobre Rusia. Guerra y Paz es, sencillamente, el mundo según Tolstói. Definitivo, como la Biblia, aunque obviamente no tienes que estar de acuerdo con él. (Tampoco tienes que estar de acuerdo con la Biblia.)

tolstoy_portrait_tolstoy-ru

And because War and Peace is such a masterpiece, we all tend to assume that Tolstoy wrote it towards the end of his long life – and the experience of this long life is what makes the book. I mean you all saw this picture of him, right? This is Leo Tolstoy, the way we think of him: this Russian sage, who looks like an Old Testament patriarch. If he wants to tell us the meaning of life, the universe and everything, well, we’ll take his word for it. But this picture was taken decades after he wrote War and Peace. Tolstoy was only about forty when he wrote it, and he lived for another forty years. In other words, he had plenty of time to reconsider his view of the world.

Y porque Guerra y paz es una obra maestra, todos nos inclinamos a imaginar que Tolstói lo escribió hacia el final de su larga vida – y la experiencia de esta larga vida es lo que hace el libro. Quiero decir que todos aquí vieron esta foto de él, ¿no? Este es León Tolstói, en la forma en que pensamos en él: este sabio ruso, que parece un patriarca del Antiguo Testamento. Si quiere decirnos cuál es el significado de la vida, del universo y de todo, bueno, vamos a aceptar su palabra. Pero esta foto fue sacado décadas después de que escribiera Guerra y Paz. Tolstói tenía sólo cuarenta años cuando lo escribió, y vivió otros cuarenta años más. En otras palabras, tenía mucho tiempo para reconsiderar su visión del mundo.

In fact, if his biographers are to be believed, some decades later he did exactly just that.

De hecho, si se puede creer a sus biógrafos, algunas décadas más tarde hizo exactamente aquello.

You might also like / Quizás también te gusta:Lecciones de Tolstói por Mario Vargas Llosa en El PaísWar and Peace: The 10 Things You Need to Know (If You Haven't Actually Read it) in the Guardian
⇒ Tolstoy, Mario Vargas Llosa, My Grandmother and Me (On War & Peace)
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14 thoughts on “The World According to Tolstoy (El mundo según Tolstói)

  1. What an original concept–the two languages intertwined!

    I haven’t read War and Peace in 40 years…it might be a good time for a re-read. I think it’s fascinating that a book can speak so differently to us at different times in our lives. As an undergrad, I read a future-utopia type book written in the late 1800’s, Looking Backward, and loved it. Fifteen years later, I read it in grad school and had trouble slogging through…and other books that were tough going then are wonders to read now. We’re different people and read things differently…kind of like never stepping in the same river twice…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. As for the two languages, I’m still experimenting how to do a bilingual post; this way it eliminated having to duplicate the pictures on the page as I would have had to if I put the Spanish text in one block below the English… I don’t do all the posts in both languages either but it was logical to do it with this post because Vargas Llosa’s article was of course in Spanish to begin with.

      As for War and Peace, yes, I think it’s worth re-reading! Like you say we change over the years and that’s not just to say we mature but also our taste changes. So books you didn’t enjoy before might become favourites this time round. Funnily, I think I enjoyed Tolstoy more when I read him more superficially – this time I had to work harder and the 2nd epilogue downright bored me! Nevertheless it was well worth it because I gained a lot of new insight, considered a lot of ideas that I might not have otherwise stopped to think about – and of course it is actually a really great book!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I like the cadence the format provides..very nice! I am trying to be much more mindful about my reading, although I do use lurid mysteries as palette cleansers in between heftier works! I am going to aim for reading what’s on my shelves and then revisit War and Peace…

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I did wonder actually if it made it tedious for both English and Spanish readers… to have to keep having to scroll past the other version, if they felt their reading kept being interrupted. I’m glad to hear you didn’t feel that way!

          Re. the lurid mysteries… 🙂 They’re not my genre but I know exactly what you mean! I read the likes of Terry Pratchett and Alistair MacLean or C.S. Forester myself between more challenging reading but I have been known to descend (and not infrequently) to self-published science-fiction even!

          Liked by 1 person

  2. I love that! War and Peace is basically The World According to Tolstoy. And very true too. It’s my all time favourite novel and I doubt that I shall ever grow tired of it!
    Thanks for sharing your interesting thoughts on it.
    Happy reading 📚😊

    Liked by 1 person

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