Sunday, February 23, 2014

Re-Reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace in the Age of the Internet

 When considering a list of the greatest novels ever written, my mind immediately turns toward my all-time favorite books:  Cervantes’ Don Quixote or Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels or Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. 

 Books that attempt to capture that massive depth of human history, perspective, frailty, struggle, triumph, strife and death.  But the deeper I delve into the work of authors, I often realize it’s not just one writer’s book, but quite often two that astound.  Bookends, as it were, separated by years of artistic struggle and insight. 
 Therefore, masterpieces like Harper Lee’s To Kill and Mockingbird or William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, or Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, or Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being, books that rocked me, struck me dumb, altered my DNA, I omit from my list of greatest novels because...
 It's just one book.  
In this age, when copious amounts of information are available at my fingertips, it’s not enough to just read one single book and judge merit, one has the benefit to experience the breadth of an author’s life work through interviews, critic’s reviews, interactive displays, maps, charts, unpublished rough drafts, personal letters, etc.   I just want more.  So, this being said, here’s my list of greatest novels (combined) every written.  Take a look, email me what you think:
 1.  Homer’s The IliadThe Odyssey
2.  William Shakespeare’s  Five Tragedies:  Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, and King Lear (Richard III history for fun)
3.  James Joyce’s  Ulysses  & Finnegans Wake
4.  Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace  &  Anna Karenina
5.   Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged  &  The Fountainhead
6.  Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s  Karamazov   &   The Idiot (or Crime and Punishment)
7.  J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit  &  Lord of the Rings Trilogy
8.  Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s  One-Hundred Years of Solitude  &  Love in the Time of Cholera 
9.  George Orwells’ 1984  &  Animal Farm
10.  Mark Twain’s  Huckleberry Finn  &  The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
 It’s been quite an intellectual pursuit the last six months as I’ve been going back and re-reading classics from my youth.  Books I read years ago in my most formative years and applying to them a yardstick of time, to see if the books have changed, or if I have changed, if my understanding has broadened or differed, to discover something about art and life and myself.  Basically, I’ve been retracing my own literary past to see if I can truly fall in love with the same thing, a second time around.
 So, I re-read Herodotus and Plato and Aristotle and Boethius, Proust and Mann, Austen and Nabokov, Faulkner and Huxley, Woolf and Fitzgerald, but nothing prepared me for re-reading Tolstoy, and particularly War and Peace.
 When I first read Tolstoy, much like the bumbling character Bezukhov, I was a young lad laying prostrate on my college library second floor.  There was no internet, so finding anything about the Napoleonic wars meant filling out library request transfer forms or to scroll microfilm in the basement.  Truly…unsexy.
 Like most readers, my mind was ready for the internet long before it arrived.  I read War and Peace and daydreamed…what’s the average amount of snowfall in Borodino?  Have Russians always wrestled bears?  What does a Cossack look like?  How tall were Napoleon’s parents?  How can I learn the Kazatsky?  What music was played at Natasha’s and Andrew’s first waltz?  But there was no answer.
 But on this latest reading, I was able to discover so many things:  Battle plans for Austerlitz.  Rifle styles of infantry men.  Napoleon’s letters to Josephine.  Prussian maps.  Architecture plans for old Moscow.  Kutuzov’s portraits.  It was unbelievable.  There’s even video of Tolstoy himself cutting wood.  Tolstoy, on You Tube!  He looks like an adorable lawn gnome.
 I’ve often thought, that my most decadent pleasure is to read a book and then watch the movie.  I don’t even care if the movie is good or true to the story, I just love seeing it visually.  But now with the internet, historical fiction explodes with possibilities.
Speaking of movies, many of these classics need film updates for sure.  Recently I viewed Joe Wright’s amazing visionary Anna Karenina and was stunned.  The book is so moving and sad and the film only adds to the experience.  When Vronksy’s horse breaks its back and Anna leaps to her feet screaming, “Alexi!”
I had to turn the movie off.  Like so much hyperventilating from a wild book one must dog-ear and close, I was so overwhelmed I had to go outside for a walk and cool down.  I only wish there was a modern film adaptation of War and Peace.  I’m past the point of keeping that book only in my mind.  I want more.  More.  

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