Monday, September 5, 2005

War and Peace ... what is it good for, huh?

Insofar as history is the record of events awash in a sea of personages and insofar as biography is personages awash in a sea of historical events, _War and Peace_ is both. This is, I believe, why Tolstoy said the work possessed a singular, and singularly Russian, place in literature.

Now, let me state quite plainly that I am inveterately skeptical of "the great books" since literary fanfare can often be mere "pop hype" in a sophisticated guise. All the same, _War and Peace_ really is a *great* book. It is worth the effort -- the true effort -- to forge through its hundreds of pages, plot turns, character names and observations. The length of reading it is itself a vital dimension to "the _War and Peace_ experience". It becomes a part of your life for at least a few weeks -- and I spent six months on it. Its epic size adds an immersive texture to the book, as if you are synchronically entering and experiencing the story's progress. _Les Miserables_, another huge-but-worth-it book, has the same capacity for pressing itself into your life, but I find its otherwise compelling pathos is, unfortunately, sometimes tainted with operatic bathos[1], such that it simply doesn't have the same "existential traction" as _War and Peace_.

This "immersive traction" is noticeable in the reading of a good number of any "big book," but I think _War and Peace_ really is in a league of its own in terms of its holistic vision, in terms of its historical scope and narrative detail, in terms of its ability to draw you into its own world. Karamazov's _The Brothers Karamazov_ does, however, have a similar immersive grip as _War and Peace_, but at a psychological and spiritual, rather than a philosophical and historical, level of transformation. Yes, both books are lengthy and profound enough to *transform* you, albeit in different ways. _War and Peace_ enables you to see the world in a different way. _The Brothers Karamazov_ enables you to see yourself in a different way. (And if I may be a little cheeky, _Les Miserables_ enables you to see the Parisian sewer system in a whole new way!) The first two books' transformative power lies, I believe, in their fundamentally Christian worldview.[2] Tolstoy arrays all things historical, from war to peace, in the benign but mysterious eye of divine Providence, whereas Dostoyevsky arrays all things most deeply personal, from murder to mercy, from tears to laughter, in the benign but equally mysterious "infiltration" of the God Man, of the joyous light of the Divine Life, of Jesus Christ, into the otherwise gloomy, and all too somber fabric of humanity.

[1] Tellingly, it was made into a world-famous musical drama, which is the way most people think of "Les Mis" ("I saw it in *London*!") by far more than as a novel.

[2] In no way do I mean to disparage the transformative, and highly Christian, nature of _Les Miserables_. It's a great book, and I love it. But right now is Russian lit time. ;)

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