“All happy families are alike,” writes Leo Tolstoy, the 19th-century Russian count who was never quite at home among the nobility, in the well-known first words to his novel Anna Karenina, published in 1877.
The opening words of Tolstoy’s most famous novel, War and Peace, which preceded Anna Karenina by a decade, are less memorable: “Et bien, mon prince, Gênes et Lucques ne sont plus que apanages, des estates, de la famille Buonaparte.” That remark, claiming the Italian cities of Genoa and Lucca for the Bonapartes, doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but it sets in motion a vast tale that resonates today, nearly a century and a half later, as one of the world’s hallmarks of literature.
How vast? Andrew Kaufman, who teaches Russian literature at the University of Virginia, totes it up for us: 1,500 pages, give or take a few; 361 chapters, nearly one for every day of the year; 566,000 words, give or take a few hundred.
Given the daunting bulk of War and Peace, along with the fact that big chunks of it are in the French that was favored by the Russian nobility of Tolstoy’s time, and along with the great lashings of history 200 years and more past that lie outside the usual textbooks, and it’s small wonder that not so many Americans have read the sprawling novel from cover to cover.
That’s something Kaufman aims to change, a program he sets forth in his new, winningly titled book Give War and Peace a Chance.
“What Tolstoy was all about,” Kaufman says, “was the idea that people live among great forces that can threaten to sweep us away at any minute. These great forces—social, political, economic—affect us all the time, whether we’re aware of them or not. In the time Tolstoy is writing about, one of those great forces was war, in the form of Napoleon’s invading French army. In our own time, other forces drive us, changing the world as they do.”
One of today’s forces, of course, is 9/11 and its tumultuous aftermath, social, political, and economic. It may or may not be a stretch to liken the events after the fall of the Twin Towers to the Napoleonic incursion, Kaufman writes. But just as the characters in War and Peace are forced by those events to alter their lives, so 9/11 altered the lives of many people around the world—Kaufman’s included.
As he recounts, where before he had considered himself a lone wolf, his own man, after the terrorists struck “I wanted to be somebody else’s man: a husband, a father, a son, a brother.” He adds, wryly, “In fact, I found a strange sense of comfort knowing that I was a member of what I’d always supposed must be the world’s most annoying family.”
Annoying, perhaps, but—Karenina again—happy. One of the lessons that Kaufman draws from War and Peace is the power of family in personal life. Princess Marya Bolkonsky, “a pathetic, innocent being” whose own life will not go untroubled by the French generalissimo whom the Russians call “the Antichrist,” looks around at her posh surroundings and realizes that things are none too well among her kin: cuckolded, her brother Andrei is set to a short fuse, while her father erodes in the bile of knowing that his glory days are passing away—and yet takes time, having for so many years made his daughter feel as if she were an unwanted guest in her own home, to thank her for having taken such good care of him.
That may be too little, too late, for the Bolkonskys, one of the five aristocratic clans who figure in Tolstoy’s pages, are within cannon shot of the French by that point. Andrei has reason to be irritated by the things life has served him up, but it just takes a good battle or two to put things in perspective. In one of them, life, as Kaufman puts it, “hits him over the head and knocks him into a new consciousness.” Suddenly blessed with a vision of the grand scheme of things, and not just his tiny corner of it, Andrei comes to understand that, to borrow from another classic, the problems of a bunch of little people don’t amount to a hill of beans, certainly not when all those grand, irresistible forces are running amok outside.
Leo Tolstoy’s considerable wisdom doesn’t come in spoon-sized bites served up cafeteria style. To get at them, as Kaufman writes, you have to make a mighty meal of the whole novel, vodka shots and all. “If you can make it to the end,” he writes, “you’re likely to feel an uncanny sense of satisfaction. If, however, you leave before your stomach would seem at the breaking point, and your head spinning, then you will have surely missed something essential.”
It’s a big meal, and a challenging one. Yet Tolstoy isn’t at all inaccessible. He figures prominently in a literature program that Kaufman runs for incarcerated young people in a facility near Richmond. Talking about the big ideas in books such as War and Peace and—yes—Crime and Punishment has been tremendously fruitful, Kaufman says, in getting the juvenile offenders to see the great forces at work in their own lives.
If plenty of readers can quote Tolstoy’s opening to Anna Karenina, comparatively few have found the nugget of War and Peace. Asked to recommend a few words to memorize, Kaufman pauses for a moment, then tells Kirkus, “Here’s what I think lies at the heart of the book: ‘There is no greatness where there is no goodness, simplicity, and truth.’ ” Never mind the all-you-need-is-love ethic of our time: If there are three things the world needs more of, Tolstoy pegged them just right.
Adds Kaufman, “Those words encapsulate the depth and humanity of this great book.” That’s just right, and with Give War and Peace a Chance, Andrew Kaufman does well to remind us of both the Count’s own greatness and his relevance for our time.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor at Kirkus Reviews.