Life and Death. War and Peace. A book that would forever alter the way I look at History. I don’t remember the precise date on which I started reading the book, but I do remember the month, the year, the conditions of life, in which I made one of the most courageous attempts of life – to read War and Peace – and the exact number of days it took me to read the book, 18 days, and to this day I still don’t believe that I had accomplished the book in those few days. Maybe the day I started it and ended is noted down in my 2016 diary, but I don’t have it with me right now in the university, I had parceled my diaries along with some books home as I don’t find them immediately necessary at the moment.
It was just after the first semester of my post-graduation during the winter break. I had the book in my hands for more than a week, and every time I opened the book to start, I was always defeated by a fear that I could never read such a thick book, not in this lifetime. Finally, to my ecstasy, there was the pond into which I jumped risking drowning myself only to find myself swimming with ease. It sends an ache in this heart that I am not able to re-enact the moment of courage I had taken up at that instant of starting to roll my eyes on the first page of the book, a book that brought me closer to the discipline of history, exposed my intellect to the realm of philosophies surrounding it, an essential that was never taught in those meaningless three years of history course in Delhi University.
It was a phase of seclusion and solitariness (a conscious act). I declined to go out, stopped meeting friends and had only stayed in the single room I shared with my twin brother. It was only reading, cooking, eating, smoking, and sleeping – the same cycle carried on for almost three weeks. When I finished reading the book, I felt as if life had no purpose to live, felt as if there were no more things to do in life; I felt so empty, yet so full of life that a book had just given me new meanings hitherto unmatched by anything.
A cousin gifted the book to me in 2015, a Penguin Classics edition translated by Anthony Briggs, told me to read the book, that the first 100 pages might bore me, passed that, I would be in the world of Tolstoy. He never explained to me why I should read it. It was only after I completed that we talked about it and Tolstoy in lengthy sittings and drinks. He is like that only, he never tells you in detail why you should actually read this and that, but once you do, he will be ready to talk about it at length. He is the guy who introduced me to Goethe, to Dostoevsky, to Bruce Springsteen, to Mark Knopfler, to Plato, to Schopenhauer, to Nietzsche, to, you know what? Kafka; in short, a person who saved me from a life consisting solely of a constant and perpetual degeneration and death. He is the only person who has gifted me with the greatest number of books, and I have never failed to read all of them.
The book embodies the greatest battle scenes enacted on written paper and is the largest canvas that portrays the complexities, subtleties, and richness of human nature and life, the larger existential questions that loom over the meanings and purposes of life. Impregnating itself with the domain of individual free-will as opposed to external forces that shape human actions and destinies, Tolstoy achieves what mankind has rarely, in an act of absolute triumph of human creativity.
The book has more than 500 characters, four volumes and 244 chapters, let me repeat, 244 chapters, and at times it is so confusing you literally want to give up, but “no, no, I have to keep going” I said to myself at multiple points of time, though mostly in the beginning. Once I reached the battle of Austerlitz where Andrey got almost fatally wounded I found my protagonist, the paragraph where he lies wounded collapsing on his back:
“’ What’s happening?… I think I am falling… my legs are going’ he thought, collapsing on his back. He opened his eyes hoping to see how the fight between the French soldiers and our gunners ended. Was the gunner killed or not? Did they get the cannons or were they saved? But he saw none of that. Above him was nothing, nothing but the sky – the lofty sky, not a clear sky, but still indefinitely lofty, with greys clouds creeping across. ‘It’s so quiet, peaceful and solemn, not like me rushing about,’ thought Prince Andrey, ‘not like us, not that yelling and scrapping, not like that Frenchman and our gunner pulling on that cleaning-rod, with their scared and bitter faces, those clouds are different, creeping across that lofty, infinite sky. How can it be that I have never seen that lofty sky before? Oh, how happy I am to have found it at last. Yes! It is all vanity, it’s all an illusion, everything except that infinite sky. There is nothing, nothing – that’s all there is. But there isn’t even that. There is nothing but stillness and peace. Thank god for that.’”
That is Price Andrey Bolkonsky for you.
Characters in fictions have inspired living persons as much as fictional characters are woven out of real living persons. Ah, Prince Andrey Bolkonsky, the atheist, handsome, intellectual and philosophical, is one of my favorite fictional characters. I still can’t figure out the precise reason for my enchantment with him. Is it his intellectual brilliance, is it his gradual belief in the futility of individual human as the commander of history, is it his acceptance of death as the most life-affirming moment in life, his constant encounter with sufferings and near-death experiences, or his final death?
On the other spectrum of characters is the “misfit” philosophical opposite of Andrey, Pierre Bezukhov, the “irrational” young man who somehow believes that he is destined as the sole assassin of Napoleon Bonaparte. Andrey and Pierre share an intimate relation in whose interaction is laid bare the deepest philosophical inquiries into life, death, and happiness. In both these central characters, though the book doesn’t recognize any as such, Leo Tolstoy enacts his personal self – the autobiographical fictional characters.
But wait, I haven’t mentioned Natasha Rostova. She is the kind of beautiful girl who is charming, lightens and mesmerizes everyone who is around, indecisive, and spontaneous, and, sadly, who is foolish and falls in love with every man she comes across, only to plunge herself into tragedy and into an attempt to take her own life. She is the passionate innocent easygoing girl with a blaze burning within, who wants to gulp all the joy of life in one go, who longs and yearns for love and attention. She is the ultimate perfectly created woman at times of chaotic war and tragedy.
War and Peace was published in 1869, more than 40 years after the Decembrist revolt against Tsar Nicholas I. The book, originally conceived and drafted as a novel about the Decembrists, is an unprecedented exposition of the widest chronicle of human details, and a historical narrative of the Russian aristocratic society, the class Tolstoy knew best, at a critical time for the entire European nations, written during the golden decade of Russian literature, the 1860s – Ivan Turgenev published Fathers and Sons in 1862, Fyodor Dostoevsky published his Notes From Underground in 1864, Crime and Punishment in 1866, The Idiot in 1867-8, and started to work on Devils in 1869.
Tolstoy’s personal engagement as an officer during the Crimean War (1854-6) gave him a profound edge to his narration of battle scenes, and his contempt for traditional writing of history and historians made him turn to literature. To him, historians fail to capture the truth, the elements that constitute the real complexities and possibilities of human uncertainties and beauty. As a masterpiece of art, Tolstoy was against all conventional understanding of the book, say, to call it historical novel or narration about the Russian aristocratic circle during the time of Napoleonic War. More than anything, it was an exploration of truth, and the conditions of human realities that have been spoilt by distortion, history and their creators, historians. And thus, he chose literature over everything.
There is this magic about books – the ability perfectly to take you to the days when you were reading that particular book, which month of which year, the new people that came to your life, the people who left you or you chose to leave, all the sorrow and joy, the taste of the lips you felt in a moment of solitude with her, the scent of the lotion or the perfume she was wearing that you always felt at peace at it; oh, 26 alphabets and a little play with punctuations, the world can be just harmoniously perfect.
It is worth reading again and again, when you are in your teens, had your first heartbreak, when you are in your thirties and is having the harshest of crisis in life, when you are in your fifties and is approaching the dusk of life, when you lie regretting on your deathbed all the things you could not accomplish in life.
Why does one need to read this book? I don’t know. Even if I knew I would not say, or I would not be able to put it in words if I knew, or even if I could and told them, they would not read. So that be it. Only a few are naïve enough to pick up a book that would smash their toes if the book slipped out of their hands. And yet, one day, when I am old and frail and is nearing death, I would read this book again and again, ask my progeny to read it. Because a wise man once said, “university students, especially literature students, who don’t read War and Peace are