Well, who would have thought I’ve got a literary leg up on John Lahr, whose biography,
Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, has just been long-listed for the National Book Award? When asked recently by The NY Times what books he was embarrassed not to have read yet, Lahr replied, “Too many to mention, but War and Peace is the most egregious. I’m saving it for my fast-approaching old age.”
I’m 600+ pages into Leo Tolstoy’s weighty tome thanks to the incentive issued by Betty Burton, the adult programing guru at the Vineyard Haven Public Library. The library is currently offering a lecture series on W&P, anchored by the great Phil Weinstein, recently retired Engish professor at Swarthmore. Phil, who has taught Tolstoy’s classic, brings enthusiastic insight to this multi-layered 19th century novel.
True the 1,000+ page count turns many away from experiencing this work. But I’ve found once I got the dizzying number of characters straight, the battles more or less understood, W&P became my latest page-turner, especially with outside help. My friend Myra put me on to Andrew D. Kaufman’s Give War and Peace a Chance, a kind of primer for the novel that also highlights its relevancy in today’s world. Download it.
My first introduction to W&P was via the silver screen, the King Vidor-directed 1956 film. The cast included Audrey Hepburn as Natasha, Mel Ferrer as Prince Andre, Henry Fonda as Pierre and the voluptuous Anita Ekberg as Helene. I saw it the following year on a sweltering day in Paris. My brother and I had gone to the movies, of all gauche touristy moves, to escape the heat. This particular movie theater was one of the few air-conditioned spots. Even at 9, I was hooked by this truncated version.
Ironically, on the day of the first W&P lecture, The Times had one of its periodic advertising inserts, Russia Behind the Headlines. Normally, I don’t give a PR-slanted “newspaper” such as RBTH a read, skeptical about its content. But my eye caught a small item: Log on to Leo: Tolstoy’s Diaries and Notebooks go onto the Web. How fortuitous is this, I thought. I could hunt down Leo’s own words on W&P. I eagerly typed in rbth.com/39655, the link to this treasure trove. One big problem: It’s all in Russian. An English translation is in the works.
But my curiosity was piqued after spotting another link, tolstoy.ru, where one can find many photos of the master. Take a look…