Before we get started today, I’d like to acknowledge the thunderous reception that greeted my previous essay on Melville’s Moby Dick. My secretary has been simply inundated with correspondence and advertising material, and it may be several weeks before I am able to respond personally to the tens of readers who wrote to me for clarification or to offer me a discount rate on my gas connection.
Today I would like to move on to another key work in the Western canon: Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
Our story begins with Anna Pavlovna Schera telling Prince Vasili Kuragin that there’s bound to be a war with Napoleon. And several weeks later, as you emerge grim and bleary-eyed from your reading room, you begin to understand that old Anna Pavlovna Schera isn’t half as stupid as she looks.
We soon meet our hero, Pierre Bezukhov, who is fat and clumsy and who probably doesn’t brush his teeth as much as his dentist would like. Bezukhov is the son of a very wealthy man, but alas, not the son of a very wealthy man’s wife. As a consequence, nobody except Leo Tolstoy takes him very seriously, until he suddenly and unexpectedly ends up inheriting his father’s vast estate, at which point everyone takes him very seriously, except for Leo Tolstoy, who promptly insists on turning his hero into a Freemason.
Bezukhov gets himself very mixed up in Masonic affairs, frees his serfs, marries a beautiful woman who is sleeping with her own brother, gets himself mixed up in a duel despite the fact that he seems never to have fired a gun in his life, and at this point, I regret to say, we aren’t even halfway through the novel.
The long and the short of it – by which I mean the long of it – is that Bezukhov goes off to fight against Napoleon, tries to assassinate him, gets caught, goes on a gruelling march, realises the futility of life, is rescued, and marries his best friend’s wife, Natasha.
And if you thought that would be the end of it, then I have some rather distressing news to impart: there are Epilogues. Plural. (As you may have realised, we’ve only really done War so far; several thousand pages in and we still haven’t even broached the subject of Peace.)
In these epilogues, Tolstoy declares that History is entirely meaningless, and come to think of it, so is his novel, and so really he’s sorry for making you sit through the entire performance, but by now, the bookstore where you purchased the novel has probably gone into receivership, and you’re left to find space, somewhere, for this epic monument to the power of human insomnia.