Saturday, January 22, 2022

Reading War and Peace in the Time of COVID

This Charlie Brown special was how I first learned of Tolstoy

When quarantine began in the middle of March, 2020, I decided to order a couple of long nineteenth century novels I had been meaning to read for years. I love those old classic doorstops, which considering their serialized nature are like literary versions of a Netflix series. The more characters, the more side plots, the more philosophizing, the better. The two novels in question were Middlemarch and War and Peace. I started on the former and got over two hundred pages in, mostly because the start of quarantine coincided with my spring break. Then came the transition to fully remote teaching, which was so taxing and brutal that I could not spare the mental capacity for Middlemarch.

Months later, in the summer of 2020, I dug out War and Peace from my bedside book stack, and couldn't get into it. The same thing happened the next summer. It begins in the world of noble salons and drawing rooms, not exactly the most engrossing thing for me.

Fast forward to last week. My wife gave me a bunch of great books for Christmas, including Ruth Scurr's recent book about Napoleon telling his life through his experience with gardens (trust me, it really works!) I got into a serious Napoleonic mood after reading it, and the only relevant book readily available to me was Tolstoy's tome. 

This time it clicked with me, and after three days I am 150 pages in, despite my tired old eyes straining to read the small print of the footnotes whenever the French dialogue is being translated. This was partly because my mind was in the right Napoleonic frame to appreciate the world Tolstoy was recreating. However, it was mostly because I saw a connection between that once foreign salon world and myself.

As the two year anniversary of quarantine approaches, I have been getting extremely vivid flashbacks to the earlier days of the pandemic. I am especially remembering its strange mesh of emotions. I was scared and mentally dislocated, but I was also optimistic and energized by the challenge ahead. I had no clue, of course, what really laid in store for me. I had no conception that the pandemic would still be affecting my life two years later, one year post vaccine. 

That's what Tolstoy is showing us with the salons and all their partying and gossip as war with Napoleon commences. The characters are preparing themselves for something they think is important, but they have no way of understanding just how momentous and life-altering the coming changes will be. They can only talk about it in the abstract before the brutal reality smacks them in the face. It feels good to dip into the past and find people like me being tossed on the waves of history desperately looking for a lifeboat. 

It's a shame that the epic social novel is a relic of the nineteenth century. I sometimes feel like the United States of the past six years would be great fodder for such a thing. While I know the present will always soon be the past, the recent years have felt more like living through history than any time in my life, including during the end of the Cold War and the years of the War on Terror. All that is solid melts into air nowadays, as a wise man of the nineteenth century once said. I increasingly feel like my individual will has zero bearing on my fate in a world being shaken by forces well beyond my control. Reading a masterful epic novel of the past makes those feelings more bearable. Maybe I will get to Middlemarch, too.

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