Tolstoy’s Like a Bad Date Who Doesn’t Know When to Stop Talking About Himself

Bad Date

Almost exactly two years ago, I gave my mom and four siblings each a copy of War and Peace for Christmas. I’ve kind of been talking about it a lot lately.

The premise was to do a long-distance book group, at a nice and easy clip of 1200 pages in one year. That’s only 100 pages a month!  But I’ve since concluded that book group etiquette asks a commitment of at most 300 pages from each person at a time, preferably less. Although most of my family said they really wanted to read it, the execution itself was a little more… challenging. A year is a long time. 1200 pages is a lot of pages.

2009 came and went, but still I’d read only half. Then, in November of last year, with 800 pages under my belt, I decided enough was enough. And I finally finished, on Dec. 27, squeaking in just under the two-year mark.

And? It’s brilliant! Obsessed with the microcosm, Tolstoy deconstructs major historic events through the eyes of half a dozen characters whom we watch grow-up from childhood. He’s a starry-eyed romantic, yet he’s also one of the most weirdly hilarious guys I’ve ever read. Drunken frat boys wrestling bears, crabby old men with sneezing problems, Tsars throwing biscuits from balconies, anagrams of Satan’s name… When Tolstoy wants it to, the story really soars, and he’s the best drama queen that ever was a drama queen. He definitely writes from the perspective of a privileged 19th-century white guy, but I can forgive him that by thinking of it as a campfire story told by someone’s grandpa. Everyone knows Grandpa’s a little old-fashioned, but boy he spins a good yarn! And the toasted marshmallows taste great.

OK, so there’s your obligatory glowing review. But now I’m going to tell you how I really feel.

Guys, I’m completely traumatized! I’m not one to shy away from long or challenging books: Moby Dick, UlyssesThe Metamorphoses. But good god, what an old windbag! My problem is that Tolstoy gets too bogged down by the sound of his own voice; he waxes philosophic about his stupid theory of history and just doesn’t know when to quit. After 1200 pages, I feel like I’ve been verbally assaulted by one of those guys who thinks he’s the most interesting person you’ve ever met and won’t shut up for five hours. Or two years. His description of Pierre and Natasha’s courtship pretty much sums it all up:

“Now, as he told it all to Natasha, he experienced that rare pleasure which is granted by women when they listen to a man — not intelligent women, who, when they listen, try either to memorize what they are told in order to enrich their minds and on occasion retell the same thing, or else to adjust what is being told to themselves and quickly say something intelligent of their own, worked out in their small intellectual domain; but the pleasure granted by real women, endowed with the ability to select and absorb all the best of what a man has to show. Natasha, not knowing it herself, was all attention: she did not miss a word of Pierre’s, not a waver in his voice, not a glance, not the twitch of a facial muscle, not a gesture.”

Wait a second, I think I dated this jerk!

The thing is, I don’t think I would have minded 1200 pages of Pierre rescuing babies from fires, Andrei and Anatole dueling for the hand of Natasha, Helene trying to wriggle out of her marriage by flirting with church officials, Nikolai and Petya seeking glory on the battlefield, and juicy exposés on masonic rituals. Like I said:  when Tolstoy’s good, he’s really good. No, what got to me was the every-other-chapter of “Napoleon, he really wasn’t that great of a guy. Really. I mean it! Historians say he’s great, but really… he wasn’t so great. Really. And while I’ve got you here, let me tell you a thing or two about military strategy.”

I know Tolstoy was writing for a different audience — one that wasn’t supersaturated with media and information and might have actually appreciated the 700 pages of excess written into his epic masterpiece. He was also a revisionist and radical for his time, being one of the first to publicly question and criticize popular interpretations of the Napoleonic Wars. It’s brilliant, really; this guy’s a literary genius.

But still. Don’t call me, Tolstoy — I’ll call you.


2 thoughts on “Tolstoy’s Like a Bad Date Who Doesn’t Know When to Stop Talking About Himself

  1. You know, I think I dated that guy too. It’s comforting to be able to re-frame him as being Tolstoy-eqsue, and makes my appalling lack of standards seem a bit more lofty 😉 Excellent review–you have at last put on the interwebs the review I’ve heard from multiple people when describing this book.

  2. I, too, struggled, but mostly over the last 100 pages when the story was mostly over and Tolstoy was indulging his stream-of-consciousness ruminations.

    You many want to reconsider the quoted section about listening as a lesson on how everyone–women listening to men, men listening to women, women listening to women, and men listening to men–should behave at the appropriate time to show respect for the speaker. Do you think he was merely showing how well mannered the previously immature Natasha had become in her interactions with others?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s