Two years ago I finished reading War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, a masterpiece of Russian literature and one of the best books I’ve ever read. It was one of the first items on the bucket list I started making when I turned 40, and I was ecstatic to have completed it.
In the introduction to Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translation, Pevear both warns and encourages the reader:
War and Peace is the most famous and at the same time the most daunting of Russian novels, as vast as Russia itself and as long to cross from one end to the other. Yet if one makes the journey, the sights seen and the people met on the way mark one’s life forever. (Page vii)
It took me about a year and a half to finish the book, and I wholeheartedly agree with Pevear’s assessment. Long after I finished reading War and Peace, my heart ached as I missed being part of the characters’ lives.
One thing I noticed in particular was that Tolstoy was very good at showing exactly what the characters were feeling and thinking, making it easy to empathize with them. In a previous blog post (From the Land of Living Skies to the Lake of Shining Waters) I talked about Lucy Maud Montgomery’s talent for using words to paint a picture of outdoor landscapes. Well, I would venture to say that in the same way, Tolstoy was extremely skilled at using words to paint the internal landscapes of the mind, heart, and emotions.
Here is one of my favourite quotes – Tolstoy’s description of the change that occurs in Count Pyotr Kirillovich (Pierre):
Pierre’s insanity consisted in the fact that he did not wait, as before, for personal reasons, which he called people’s merits, in order to love them, but love overflowed his heart, and, loving people without reason, he discovered the unquestionable reasons for which it was worth loving them.
Another amazing book by Tolstoy is Anna Karenina. I love how this next quote shows Tolstoy painting a picture of both the outer and inner landscapes that define the character’s frame of mind:
The study was slowly lit up as the candle was brought in. The familiar details came out: the stag’s horns, the bookshelves, the looking-glass, the stove with its ventilator, which had long wanted mending, his father’s sofa, a large table, on the table an open book, a broken ash-tray, a manuscript-book with his handwriting. As he saw all this, there came over him for an instant a doubt of the possibility of arranging this new life, of which he had been dreaming on the road. All these traces of his life seemed to clutch him, and say to him: “No, you’re not going to get away from us, and you’re not going to be different, but you’re going to be the same as you’ve always been; with doubts, everlasting dissatisfaction with yourself, vain efforts to amend, and falls, and everlasting expectations, of a happiness which you won’t get, and which isn’t possible for you.”
I could go on and on, but I’ll leave this topic for now. If you haven’t already done so, I highly recommend reading War and Peace or any other treasures of Russian literature. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky have done a great job of translating almost all the classics in a vibrant way that stays true to the original Russian without sounding dry or stilted.
And what else is on my bucket list, you might ask? Well, I’d like to see the Calgary Flames win the Stanley Cup again, but that probably won’t happen this year… so in the meantime I’ll try to read a few more of the Russian novels on my list. 🙂