I finished War and Peace, but wish I hadn’t.
I thought I wanted to be done with it. As much as I loved Natasha and Pierre and Nicholas and Maria, as much as I admired Tolstoy’s eye for social maneuvering and bureaucratic absurdity, I resented the novel’s sheer size.
By the time I finished the book, spring school closures were definitive, summer plans were canceled, and fall was up in the air.
Crossing off W&P signaled the end of the Grand Project portion of my pandemic life. The media, social and otherwise, reassured me: It’s OK not to be productive. But I don’t need permission. I don’t make many lists anymore. If it’s sunny, I take a walk. If we need bread, I bake some. Spanish can wait, as I am waiting.
But War and Peace is not simply the last vestige of a more hopeful me. To read it is to revel in the idea of looking back.
It renders scenes of war in shattering, visceral detail, down to the prisoner who, before being executed by an ambivalent firing squad, adjusts the knot on the blindfold because it hurts the back of his head.
But it’s also about forgetting all that and moving on. It movingly relates Prince Andrei’s death and then finds his beloved years later, utterly devoted to a different man. The war is past, society is recovered; Moscow has been rebuilt. Characters with whom we’ve suffered the horrors and deprivations of war now find “reminiscences of 1812” to be a pleasurable topic of dinnertime discussion.
In War and Peace, people forget how bad things were. They romanticize the past and declare every decision Napoleon and/or Alexander made to be genius, even though it resulted in unthinkable carnage—and possibly wasn’t a decision at all. Tolstoy gently mocks the human need, in the aftermath of this or that battle, to have it all make sense. He’s right, but I don’t care. I can’t wait to embody such foolishness.
I want to be in the epilogue already, reminiscing about 2020. I want to say, “Well, that’s because of the pandemic, but it was all for the best, wasn’t it?” Better that one son’s study abroad was canceled! Better that the other started college remotely! Better that I didn’t get that job!
Obviously, we need some people to see the past clearly; that’s why we have great novelists. We’ll need someone to show us President Donald Trump the way Tolstoy shows us Napoleon. Maybe exactly the same way: “There is no act, no crime, no petty deceit which he would not commit, and which would not be at once represented on the lips of those about him as a great deed.”
The rest of us, inevitably, will forget some and rewrite most of this historical moment. But to do that, it has to be history first.
Print Headline: This war will end, too