Reviewed by Harold Henkel, Associate Librarian
“To love life is to love God. Harder and more blessed than all else is to love this life in one’s
sufferings, in undeserved sufferings.” (from Pierre Bezukhov’s dream in War and Peace)
Something must be in the air. In the past two years, three journalists and scholars have written books with the intention of convincing readers to tackle what are perhaps the three most formidable novels of the nineteenth century: Moby Dick1, Middlemarch2, and War and Peace3. The common thread in this approach to criticism is that reading great works of literature is not an exercise in self-abnegation, but a journey of discovery, and an enjoyable one at that.
The most recent of these worthy efforts is Give War and Peace a Chance: Tolstoyan Wisdom for Troubled Times, by Andrew Kaufman. Kaufman is Lecturer in Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Virginia. In 2009, he served as a sort of “scholar in residence” for Regent’s Big Read, conducting workshops and delivering the culminating lecture of the Library’s Tolstoy festival.
Give War and Peace a Chance comes three years after Kaufman’s scholarly monograph Understanding Tolstoy and is the fruit of the author’s desire to reach a wider readership. The book is quite a hybrid work, weaving elements of biography, critical analysis, philosophy, and memoir. In twelve chapters, Kaufman takes us on an excursion through the fundamental elements that form our lives, such as happiness, love, family, and death. He explains how these themes operated in Tolstoy’s life and how he gave expression to them in War and Peace.
Along the way, Kaufman also shares episodes from his own life to illustrate how works like War and Peace help us make sense of lives. Some readers might object to the author including his personal story into a book on Tolstoy, but for my part, Kaufman’s accounts of falling in love as a student with Natasha Rostova, or his grief as an adult at the death of a beloved kitten, illustrate the dual refraction that takes place when we read literature. Our temperament and past experiences combine to form our interpretation of a work, but books like War and Peace ultimately change us by enhancing our understanding of ourselves and compassion for others.
At the end of the introduction, Kaufman quotes Tolstoy’s explanation, written during the composition of War and Peace, of his philosophy of art: “The goal of the artist is not to solve a question irrefutably, but to force people to love life in all its countless, inexhaustible manifestations.” These words also appear movingly in Kaufman’s dedication of the book to his wife and son and encapsulate what he considers to be the ultimate reward awaiting readers who give War and Peace a chance.
1Nathaniel Philbrick, Why Read Moby-Dick? (New York: Penguin, 2013).
2Rebecca Mead, My Life in Middlemarch (New York: Crown, 2014).
3Andrew D. Kaufman, Give War and Peace a Chance: Tolstoyan Wisdom for Troubled Times (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014).