War and Peace Redux

Every decade or so I reread Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I have just embarked again on this pleasure. I don’t put the rereading on my calendar. Instead the need arises; I can’t say exactly why, but I find myself wanting to reread this great novel, often because of wrestlings in my own work or because of the need for an ordering of the universe of politics, history, art and spiritual quest. The return is always a homecoming, a touchstone.

Authors are often asked, what is your favorite book? Mine, modestly, is War and Peace. I admire Tolstoy’s ability to weave large historical and political themes with compelling personal dramas. I admire the surprises of character and circumstances that occur, to which one responds, “I didn’t see that coming, but of course, that is what he/she would do or what would happen.” This verisimilitude and recognition of the truth beneath the surface of events and personalities is one of the ingredients of great literature.

Recently, I was asked by an acquaintance for advice on how to lead a discussion of a novel in a book group. I wasn’t part of the group and hadn’t read the novel, but I offered what I look for both in reading and in writing. I consider three circles of narrative. The inner circle: the essence is the personal story and conflict of the main characters. That conflict is reflected in the story of the community around them–the second circle. And in novels with large templates and scope, the conflict will then be seen in an outer circle of narrative in the wider society and history.

At its simplest, the struggles toward love, individual choice and liberation are the story of Natasha, Pierre and Andrei in War and Peace, of Elizabeth and Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, even of Scheherazade in Arabian Nights as their societies also struggle towards change. This of course is the simplest of paradigms, but perhaps useful.

I reread War and Peace slowly. The pleasure of reading endures scene by scene—one scene a day—so that the language, the characters, and the story are a small serving of art to start the day. However one’s day unfolds, whatever successes or lapses, there is the evidence of this ideal achieved and the promise of beauty and order to be realized.
In this space I hope you’ll share the books and narratives that are your touchstones.

–Written at a bistro by the fire near the Grand Place in Brussels on a chilly October afternoon, looking at passersby bundled in parkas and strolling among the red and green stalls and the sand-colored buildings boasting flags at the onset of winter in Northern Europe.


  1. Frank on October 24, 2010 at 1:21 pm

    My favorite novel–one of the few I have ever re-read–is Les Miserables. I guess I’m just an incurable francophile.

  2. Maryann Macdonald on October 24, 2010 at 5:41 pm

    Just to say, I’m inching along in War and Peace now, too, on my Kindle! A great way to do it. But The Great Gatsby is the the book I re-read. It gets better and better.

  3. Leslie on October 25, 2010 at 9:49 am

    I also reread The Great Gatsby. And I like the image of the circles that you use here–very apt.

  4. Eugene Schoulgin on October 25, 2010 at 9:53 am

    This time you hit my weak point! I do the same as you, and I have done so since I was 12 years old! In Firenze in 1955 or was it 56 – I sneaked out from my hotel room in the middle of the night without my parents permission to see the film with Audrey Hepburn, Henry Fonda and  Mel Ferrer and as a result I was sent back to Norway in shame (alone in the train through Europe in the age of 14) Later on I saw Bundarchuks version which of course is much, much better in most ways – except they lack Audrey Hepburn! – but when I read the book it is the book and not the films, naturally, and I agree with you about his ability to weave the personal stories into history. Very personal stories really, since he painted Natasha over his sister in law! And Andrei Balkonskys´ rather unbearable father he painted over one of my own old relatives!
    Some of the famous scenes in that book are always very close to my mind! Pierre and Andre in philosophical discussions walking along the canal in foggy St. Petersburg in the beginning of the book! Andrei listening to Sonja and Natasha’s conversation on the balcony in the country manor? The visit to Natasha’s uncle in the country house with him playing the balalaika, but even the grandeur of the battle scenes at Austerlitz and Baradino. Do you remember the little artillery captain Tjukin I think he is called, with his pipe in his mouth who did not want to withdraw?
    Sometimes I like to think that when Leo Tolstoy was on his best, he forgot to be a historian or a preacher, he forgot himself totally and became like Alexandre Dumas, a part of his own book. –Eugene Schoulgin

  5. Marjorie Kehe on October 26, 2010 at 4:23 pm

    I love this blog! I re-read “War and Peace” at Christmas time two years ago. It was my first reading in decades. I cannot even tell you how much I enjoyed it. All day long I looked forward to the evening when I could hide away somewhere with my book – kind of like I used to feel when reading as a child. And I couldn’t believe all the things that spoke to me this time around, things that I had completely missed when reading it as a younger person.
    It is clearly something I need to revisit often – and I’m already looking forward to the next time!!
    Thanks for sharing.                        –Marjorie Kehe

  6. Bill on November 6, 2010 at 10:19 pm

    I had just finished reading the snuffbox and dinner scenes where Pierre and Helene become a couple when I opened and read your recent note. Good timing. The last–and first–time I read this book was about 10 years ago. Then I had to rip up the paperback into chunks I could carry on planes and hold comfortably in bed. I think the reason I started it again now is that I can have the whole thing on kindle and ipad–along with 6 volumes of Proust and of course the dragon tattoo woman and Thoreau and anything else I can
    I also love Belgium. Great food, very few tourists, especially in October and November, lots of elbow room in the museums, a fine train to the airport, good walking.

  7. Janine Felson on November 7, 2010 at 7:59 am

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