War and Peace
It took me more than three months to read War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, but I finally did it, thank God. Growing up, I had heard more than once that the 19th century Russian classic was considered by some/many to be the greatest novel ever written, and as an adult I had toyed for many years with the idea of reading it. Doing so would allow me to boast at parties. But it might also enhance my insight into the human condition, my understanding of history and literary esthetics, my feeling of accomplishment as a human being, and also maybe just make me feel good, plain and simple. Long ago I bought a hard cover copy of the book to keep on my library shelves, without seriously picking it up to read. And over the years I had periodically paged through paperback editions (Penguin Classics) at the bookstore. But it was only when a new English translation hit the bookstore shelves in Tokyo in December 2006 that appealed to my eyes that I finally committed myself. I committed myself to the project not only because this new edition appealed to me, but also because in mid-life I feel that I have finally reached a level of maturity and stamina to read the book through and to appreciate it. I mean, if I was ever going to read it in my lifetime as I wanted, then this was the time. The same reasons contributed to my reading in recent years of other great classics - Anna Karenina, Les Miserables, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers, and some of Charles Dickens’ major works (as a younger person I had only read A Christmas Carol). Long ago I read The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, and I tried but failed to read Boccaccio’s The Decameron in high school, and Cervantes’ Don Quixote in university. I think I failed to read them because I tried too early in life, lacking the patience and fortitude to endure them. At a young age (junior high school) I read The Iliad and The Odyssey, and having done that I felt conditioned and ready to read something like Cervantes or Boccaccio. But no. Now, however, maybe I should reconsider those at this time in my life. I have read Hermann Melville’s Moby Dick twice, and the Bible from cover to cover (in more than one language) more than a dozen times, and The Koran twice, but for different reasons than those great works of secular fiction. And, I am considering Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, another Russian tome. But I don’t know if I will do it, because it seems like a categorically different and profoundly more complex book. I have never read Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, or Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time, but I think I might like to. I already own copies of both.
I am such a dunce that it took me until about page 500 of War and Peace - just a little over a third of the way through the book - to realize it was a love story, and to sort out who the characters were. And I only figured that out after taking a break to watch the Audrey Hepburn, Henry Fonda movie version of it (1955, directed by King Vidor, screenplay by Bridget Boland). Although I like books better than the movies that are made of them, sometimes watching the movie helps me make better sense of the book. That is the case with War and Peace, and it was also the case with the film version of Frank Herbert’s 1965 science fiction classic, Dune (1984, directed by David Lynch, starring Kyle MacLachlan and Sting among a cast of many others).
Now having read it, I don’t feel that it is “the greatest novel ever written.” But maybe that just means I fail to appreciate if properly, because I do not read Russian or French, the languages in which it was written. I am happy with myself for having done it, however, and feel glad that that is just one more thing I don’t have to worry about before I die. It feels like climbing a mountain. Read the book because it’s there and then revel more in the glory of the accomplishment than in the glory of the story.