While preparing for my children’s annual summer visit, I decided to revisit a novel I last read at the age of nineteen. War and Peace is not a page turner, and the war parts were especially boring to a young woman trying to figure out her own world. I picked the audio book this time, figuring I’d get some work done while listening. Undismayed by the sixty hour length of the novel, I was barely through the first week when the Libby app gleefully asked if I wanted to renew. Apparently there’s not a long lineup of people waiting for it.
As I worked in the garden, placed fresh sheets on the beds, made meals and tidied up the place, the British narrator droned on and on. I managed a few home repairs while listening; hanging by one arm from a sturdy spindle, replacing the missing ones on my deck, drill in hand, toes reaching for the top of the ladder. I did not want to die while listening to War and Peace, but I felt the book slowly sapping my will to live.
Tolstoy deserves his reputation as an amazing writer. His character descriptions are detailed and his control of the unwieldy novel is impressive. But he could have learned a thing or two from Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, all of whom were dead by the time he was published. Jane’s novels are magnificently descriptive. She satirizes her characters in such a way that you find yourself thinking, I know that person! Tolstoy does the same thing, but at a much…more…languorous…pace.
The gothic air of the Bronte sister’s work came from their circumstances. The average life expectancy in the village of Haworth, polluted by industry, was just 22, so a bit of gloom was called for and certainly delivered in both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. As much as I love them, I always pause in my reading of Jane Austen’s novels to admire her rich, witty takes on society. Whereas I just want Leo to get on with it.
It was difficult finding time to listen with my family visiting. Ten people packed the house for 11 days. Amidst the eating, drinking and traveling to and from the lakes to visit with other family members, there wasn’t a lot of time for war or peace. Trying to keep track of the many characters with similar names meant I had to rack my brain while pulling dandelions and fertilizing the lawn. And my brain just doesn’t need that. Also, I’m not good at multi-tasking.
War and Peace was serialized before being published as a novel. It must have been as exciting back then as A Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings. I would have enjoyed this book back in 1867, but I can’t say I’m loving it now. It’s become a duty read, like one of those book club selections that elicit excitement but end up letting you down. We’ve had a few of those over the years in our Number One Ladies Book Club. (Please see our shelf in the local library. We’re very proud of it.)
My family have returned to their own homes, now, so I’m listening whenever I can. Part of me is excited to revisit this novel. The rest of me wonders if I should be dedicating such a large portion of my life to it. I find myself falling into melancholia, whether from missing my children or from the cynicism/desperation/ennui of the characters. If you’ve read it, please let me know what you think. Don’t worry about the fabulous reputation of the novel, just be honest. After all, I still have 40 listening hours left. Feel free to talk me out of it.