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.