1. It’s been a long time since you first read War and Peace, and this is your second book on Tolstoy. What made you decide to write this book, which seems to be aimed at a wider audience? What made you want to reintroduce people to a novel written 150 years ago?
War and Peace had been roaming in and out of my life for about twenty-five years—in almost a “When Harry Met Sally” kind of way. Each time I encountered the novel, it was a different book, evoking whatever was most alive inside me at that point. I happened to be rereading the novel in 2008, around the time of the financial crisis that was turning many peoples’ lives upside down— mine included. War and Peace became a new book yet again. I was able to clearly glimpse something I’d only vaguely understood in my previous readings: that whatever else this novel is, it’s a book about people trying to find their footing in an unstable, ever-changing world. How do you live in such times? Where do you find meaning and even joy in a troubled world? In 2008 these became deeply personal questions to me, and I sensed that many other people were—and are—struggling with them as well. I came to recognize War and Peace as the book for our times.
2. One of the things that really stands out in your analysis is Tolstoy’s persistence in grappling with life’s big questions. Do you think this is the key to War and Peace’s enduring power?
Yes, that’s certainly one of the keys to its enduring power. But for Tolstoy and his characters, the big questions are always personal questions. He was never interested in the sorts of abstract debates that have long fascinated academic philosophers—about, say, the existence or non- existence of God, the nature of good and evil, or how many angels dance on the head of a pin. What concerns Tolstoy is philosophy in action, in life. The Russian philosopher Vassily Rozanov put it well when he called Tolstoy a philosopher “through images.”
What gives War and Peace its enduring power is how Tolstoy grounds the “accursed questions”—Who am I? Why am I here? How should I live?—in concrete situations and characters that all readers can identify with. Few writers capture the texture of everyday life, the nuances and complexities of human behavior, the sounds and sights of nature as powerfully or precisely as Tolstoy. And at the same time, few writers go straight to the heart of life’s most fundamental questions as unabashedly as he does. That union of big ideas with the tiniest details of everyday life is one of the hallmarks of War and Peace.
It’s no coincidence that one of the most philosophically profound scenes in War and Peace— the conversation between Pierre and Prince Andrei, about life’s purpose (which I discuss in Chapter 5)—happens to take place in the luxuriance of a beautiful spring evening, on a ferry raft, no less. In fact, the natural surroundings become a part of the discussion itself as Prince Andrei hears in the waves gently bumping up against the ferry raft a solution to his persistent problem: an inability to believe. “It seemed to Prince Andrei that this splash of waves made a refrain to Pierre’s words, saying: ‘It’s true, believe it.’” Who other than Tolstoy would have one of his most important philosophical messages stream from the mouth of…the gently lapping waves?! Genius.
3. As a trained academic, what do you see as the crucial difference between the way academics and non-academics interact with literature like War and Peace? What are some of the advantages, and disadvantages, of academic training?
One of the things I appreciate about my academic training is that it’s taught me to question assumptions, to dig for facts, to find evidence and documentation confirming what I think I know. Most importantly, it’s taught me to look closely at the text itself. I’ve always been a proponent of the so-called “close reading” approach to literary analysis, both in my writing about and teaching of literature. Whenever I find myself getting lost in generalizations, or suspect myself of imposing my own ideas onto the work, I return to the text and let it guide my thinking, rather than the other way around. That’s an important discipline graduate school instilled in me.
But this sort of rigorous training comes with its limitations, as well. Academic literary study tends to prefer analysis over emotion. Yet we cannot leave our personal feelings and judgments at the door when we read, so why pretend otherwise? Doing so is not only disingenuous, but frankly, dangerous. One way or another, our personal truths are going to come out in our discussion of a work of literature. I prefer to bring them out in the open, rather than hide behind a veil of seeming objectivity or intellectual abstraction. Academia would be a kinder, gentler place if we literary scholars would all just acknowledge that we tend to prefer our own interpretation of a work because, well, it’s ours and we love it. There’s no shame in that admission. Rather than denigrating the personal dimension in the experience of reading, I’d like to make it a part of the discussion. I want to celebrate it.
Another faux pas in academic literary criticism—these days especially—is to talk about fictional characters as if they were real people. But when I’m immersed in War and Peace, Pierre and Natasha and Andrei are real to me, to Tolstoy, and to his readers. It’s a testament to Tolstoy’s power as a novelist. I encourage readers to suspend their disbelief. I want them to enjoy the magic of the reading experience even before exploring the hows and the whys. If you’re not going to allow yourself to first be seduced by a work, then you’re not likely to develop much of a meaningful, long-term relationship with it, either. T. S. Eliot once wrote: “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” Experience first, analyze later.
4. As you learned about Tolstoy’s life, and the composition of War and Peace, how did your relationship with it evolve? What affected or surprised you the most in your study?
When I first seriously encountered Tolstoy in college, he still had the Great Writer halo surrounding him. The first several years of our relationship were a kind of honeymoon period, in which he was the untouchable literary giant and I the eager disciple. But the more I learned about his life, and the more I was able to see him as a real human being, the more compelling it all became. When I was in graduate school, I enjoyed reading through all of Tolstoy’s letters and diaries from his twenties. It made me realize the extent to which he, too, was wracked with self- doubt, struggled with relationships, and didn’t have a clue as to his life’s purpose. In fact, Tolstoy lifts specific passages from those very diaries and plants them in the pages of Pierre’s diaries in
War and Peace. One of the most inspiring insights for me has always been the ways in which Tolstoy’s early failures became crucial sources of material for War and Peace.
By the time I was pouring over my third or fourth biography of Tolstoy, however, I’d say our honeymoon period was definitely over. I knew too much to be able to uncritically adore everything about him. I can’t condone how treated his wife in the later years. Nor do I agree with his wholesale rejection of capitalism, or his decision to give away the copyright on his earlier works. His preaching of celibacy in and out of marriage has always struck me as rather hypocritical for a man who sired thirteen children. And the career advice he gave his eldest son, Seryozha, upon graduating from the university—“Take a broom and sweep the streets”—is as dismissive as it is irresponsible. But, then, it’s all part of the man, and in order to understand Tolstoy and his fiction, I’ve had to learn to take the bad with the good. His shortcomings, quirks, and contradictions, after all, are what make his writing so real, so human.
5. Your love for Tolstoy’s characters really shines through in your writing—do you have a secret favorite (beyond Natasha, of course!)?
Another character I love is Konstantin Levin in Anna Karenina, an older, wiser version of Pierre Bezukhov, who has the same sort of searching spirit. But loving someone doesn’t always mean liking them. For example, there are moments I want to shake Pierre and scream in his ear: “Wake up! Can’t you see you’re being taken advantage of!” Frankly, Natasha can be insufferable at times, too, in her need to be the center of attention. As in life, though, it’s often the things that annoy us most about someone that endear us to them, as well.
What I appreciate is how Tolstoy brings out the full humanity in each of his characters. Nobody is all good or all bad in War and Peace. Even Napoleon, whom the writer positively dislikes, is, at least, interesting. There are even a few moments when Tolstoy allows us to glimpse into his soul and feel his pain, as when Napoleon surveys the corpse-strewn battlefield of Borodino, only to realize the full extent of his cruelty, as well as his impotence.
As a writer, then, Tolstoy follows his own injunction to “relate, portray, but do not judge.” I think that’s good advice for relating to people in life, as well. Tolstoy always gives us a wider context for understanding why people are the way they are. He’s respectful of all his characters, and I’ve tried to do the same in my writing about them.
6. You discovered War and Peace at a relatively young age, and have carried it with you since. Do you think that there’s a peak time to be introduced to ‘Great Literature’? Are the novels you read from age 18 to 22 destined to be the ones that remain with you?
I don’t think there’s any right age to introduce people to great books. I was introduced to War and Peace in college, but Russians read the novel in the tenth grade, where it’s part of the regular curriculum. Other readers tackle the novel for the first time later in life. What makes a great book great, in my view, is its capacity to meet and engage a reader, regardless of where they happen to be in life.
In general, I’ve found the college students I teach very receptive to the ideas and struggles captured by great books. College is a transitional time in which young people often face decisions that challenge their values and find themselves searching for their purpose in life. Literature can help them grapple with those issues in a way that is fundamentally different from the discussions they might have at home, with their friends, or in their places of worship. Reading and discussing great books provides us all with an education in life that is both intellectually and spiritually demanding.
7. You make a good case for the universality of Tolstoy’s work while also highlighting its ground in a particular place and time. What do you see as being distinctively Russian about Tolstoy’s work?
I’m always careful when answering a question like this, because discussions about “Russianness” can sometimes devolve into unhelpful generalization, or worse, nationalism, which Tolstoy vehemently opposed. Still, there is a very good reason that Russian soldiers during World War II found inspiration in War and Peace, and that Russians today still consider the novel their nation’s greatest epic. The fact is, War and Peace is a deepy patriotic work. It memorializes a key historical moment—the defeat of Napoleon in 1812—during which Russia established itself on the international stage. Where the rest of the world had failed to defeat Napoleonic France, Russians succeeded. And they did it in their own odd, unique, Russian sort of way.
It’s a message that would have resonated with Tolstoy’s readers in the 1860’s. And it still resonates today. Throughout history most Russians have been conscious of their political and economic backwardness in comparison to Europe. But War and Peace transforms that “backwardness” into a virtue. The reason Kutuzov defeats Napoleon is precisely because he doesn’t think like a French or German military strategist. Rather, he embraces change, welcomes uncertainty, and heeds his instinct. Pierre Bezukhov is happy and alive at the end of the novel precisely because he doesn’t play the game like all the socialites, who, it’s worth noting, wind up in the dustbin of historical irrelevancy by the end.
War and Peace achieves its distinctive place in the history of the novel precisely because it isn’t like any other novel. In response to early reviewers who criticized Tolstoy for breaking the rules of good (read: European) novel-writing in War and Peace, the author wrote: “From Gogol’s Dead Souls to Dostoevsky’s Dead House, there is not a single work of artistic prose in the modern period of Russian literature, rising slightly above mediocrity, that would fit perfectly into the form of the novel, the epic, or the story.” A uniquely Russian work, in other words, is one that doesn’t fit into any existing genre, and doesn’t kowtow to the literary models established by other countries. It is sui generis, or of its own kind, like Russia itself. In this respect, War and Peace may be the most Russian of all the great Russian novels.
8. Do you see Tolstoy’s influence in contemporary literature? How did War and Peace change the literary landscape?
War and Peace revolutionized the European novel as people knew it—so much so that the first critics were scratching their heads, wondering what this behemoth of a book was all about. It certainly was a very different book from anything they’d encountered before, with its formal oddities, mixture of different genres, and eschewal of literariness for its own sake. In short, War and Peace was a game-changer in the history of novel-writing. Yet what was avant- garde in the 1860’s had by the twentieth century become part of the literary establishment to such a degree that writers, whether they knew it or not, were already playing the game Tolstoy had invented a half century earlier.
Every Russian war novel after War and Peace—from Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry (1926) to Mikhail Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Dawn (1959) to Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago (1959) to Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate (1960)—would inevitably be compared to War and Peace. Outside Russia, Tolstoy’s influence could be felt on twentieth-century modernists ranging from James Joyce and Marcel Proust to Willam Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway.
More recently, the late Alexander Solzhenitsyn could be considered Tolstoy’s most direct literary descendent, because of the latter’s unadorned style of language, as well as his belief that art should serve a moral purpose. Though War and Peace is not a preachy work of the sort Tolstoy wrote later in his career, it is nevertheless deeply concerned with moral questions. And that’s an aspect of Tolstoy’s s legacy Solzhenitsyn inherited and brought into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
Yet Solzhenitsyn was essentially ignored in his homeland in the years leading up to his death in 2008. This is an indication of how out of step his literary world view (and by extension, Tolstoy’s) seems with the ironic, postmodernist mode that’s come to dominate contemporary life and literature in Russia. But as I’ve tried to show, Tolstoy is maybe the most important Russian writer for our times, in that he shows us not only who we are in all our modern confusion, but also who we can become. He invites us to widen our gaze beyond the neuroses and obsessions of the moment in order to see the bigger picture, to glimpse eternity. Other than Solzhenitsyn, I’m unaware of any contemporary writer who has openly picked up this Tolstoyan mantle in any conscious sort of way.
And yet…Tolstoy is always there. No Russian writer today could sit down and write two pages of a novel without War and Peace looming somewhere over his shoulder—as an inspiration or a provocation. For War and Peace remains to this day the standard-bearer of the Great Russian Novel. And I’m pretty confident that will be the case for many, many years to come.
9. If you had to condense it down to one lesson—what’s the most important thing you’ve learned from Tolstoy?
To “love life in all its countless, inexhaustible manifestions.”
10. What can fans of Give War and Peace a Chance look forward to next? Are you working on another book project?
I am. Five years ago I created a program at the University of Virginia called Books Behind Bars: Life, Literature, and Leadership. Undergraduate UVA students meet regularly with similarly- aged incarcerated youth to discuss classics of Russian literature. Recently, as an extension to this program, I spent a summer reading and discussing Crime and Punishment with a small group of these incarcerated youth. It was a life-changing experience for all of us.
These young men, clad in sanctioned khakis and polo shirts, their pens carefully counted as they were retrieved at the end of each class, devoured Dostoevksy’s book with a passion and urgency I’ve rarely encountered as a teacher. Crime and Punishment became a tool for them to confront their own most important questions: Who were they? Why had they committed their crimes? Were they worthy of being loved? How would they live their lives moving forward? As I explored these and other questions with teenage prisoners among my students, Crime and Punishment became a new book for me, as well, raising urgent personal and social questions I could no longer ignore. There’s something about discussing the world’s greatest novel of crime and redemption in a juvenile correctional center with seemingly irreverent incarcerated teenagers that makes the novel and the characters, well, come alive.
My next book, tentatively called Crime and Punishment Behind Bars: Conversations About Dostoevsky, His Work and His Wisdom, will tell that story. I hope to bring readers on a journey with me and ten incarcerated youth as we meet weekly in a prison classroom to listen, argue, laugh, and sometimes even cry our way through heated discussions of Crime and Punishment.
Moving back and forth between the bizarre and the beautiful, the gritty and the godly, these discussions re-introduce readers to a Russian classic, while bringing them into the discordantly antiseptic world of the correctional center—a world that, for all its strangeness, becomes, in the course of the conversations, strangely familiar. Readers will discover, as I myself have, how conversations about Russian literature become confrontations with real life.