Flinging Open the Doors of Perception: My Initial Thoughts on War and Peace

George Steiner, in his book Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, writes: “Great works of art pass through us like storm-winds, flinging open the doors of perception, pressing upon the architecture of our beliefs with their transforming powers.”  Having read the first few hundred pages of War and Peace, I can already tell that this epic will reshape how I view other authors and works of literature.  There will be a marked difference in my reading life before Tolstoy and after Tolstoy.  I have to admit that I was apprehensive because my experience reading Anna Karenina several years ago was not as pleasant as I had hoped.  In retrospect it was a matter of choosing to read a book at the wrong time.  But my foray into War and Peace could not be more pleasurable.

Prince Andrei, the first born son of a stern, wealthy, bellicose old man, has especially captured my attention.  In the opening scene of the book he is attending a party with his pregnant, young wife, referred to in the test as the “little princess” and it is evident that he has no real affection or patience for her.  The Prince is dignified, taciturn and eager for a military career and his wife’s incessant and trivial babbling about social gossip irritates him.  When the Prince’s friend, Pierre, visits their home this young husband has some shocking advice for his single friend about marriage:

‘Never, never marry, my dear friend! That’s my advice: never marry till you can say to yourself that you have done all you are capable of, and until you have ceased to love the woman of your choice and have seen her plainly as she is, or else you will make a cruel and irrevocable mistake.  Marry when you are old and good for nothing—or all that is good and noble in you will be lost.  It will be wasted on trifles.  Yes! Yes! Yes!  Don’t look at me with such surprise.  If you marry expecting anything from yourself in the future you will feel at every step that for you all is ended, all is closed except the drawing room where you will be ranged side by side with a court lackey and an idiot!…But what’s the good!’ and he waved his arm.

It seems that both Prince Andrei and his wife feel stuck in this marriage and have realized too late, already with their first child on the way, that they are ill-suited for one another.  The little Princess would rather be in Moscow or Petersburg, going to parties and balls, and visiting with her friends, but instead she is forced to live in the country with her crotchety, old father-in-law and her pious sister-in-law, while her husband goes off to war.  Although the little Princess is depicted as being shallow and insipid , I still sympathized with her as well as Prince Andrei; both are stuck in this marriage for the sake of family and propriety and neither one of them are getting their needs met.  It’s interesting that Tolstoy wrote these words when his own marriage—one that would prove to be rather tumultuous—was only in its first few years.

In the first few hundred pages alone we get thoughts about marriage, love, life, war and death.  I have not been this captivated by a work of fiction in a very long time.  It is difficult to capture the brilliance of the entire books with these posts, but I am hoping to update my blog every few hundred pages with a focus on particular passages, like the one above, that catch my attention.  I also feel so lucky to have come upon George Steiner’s book length essay on Tolstoy which I will read eagerly alongside War and Peace.

23 Comments

Filed under Classics, Russian Literature

23 responses to “Flinging Open the Doors of Perception: My Initial Thoughts on War and Peace

  1. Shigekuni - Book Blog

    ooh. I like these multi part projects of yours. It’s a privilege to see someone so well educated think through a text!

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  2. AnnieJ

    Oh! what a treat you have aged of you! It is indeed a spirit changing book, as well as, as you say, opening up your ideas about other authors and novels. Have a great time with it. Whose translation are you reading, by the way?
    Perfect Winter reading!

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  3. War and Peace is a life-changer, most definitely. And I should read “Tolstoy or Dostoevsky”, really, shouldn’t I? My way into Steiner, maybe… 🙂

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  4. Really cool to hear your houghts on this. My favorite early moment is in War and Peace (I’ve gotten about 100 pages in before I had to return it) is Peter figeting before anyone else appears in the room. Who else but Tolstoy would show that moment? My favorite Tolstoy quote (from the Boyhood trilogy) is about how there’s a legitimate physiognomy not in how we actually look, but in how we think other people think we look–what an amazing psychological insight!

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  5. As great fan of Tolstoy, I do understand when you say that Anna Karenina was probably not the best reading experience. I would even go to the point of saying that I might have found myself on the quite similar experience. However, War and Peace was a completely game changer. That’s when I really started to appreciate Tolstoy as a writer, which eventually lead me to appreciate Anna Karenina in a very different way. Tolstoy is a master on understanding how the human mind works. He dives, uses and understands how humans think and act, and how the smallest thoughts or desires might drive to much bigger actions that are presented in, for example War and Peace. And I do agree with you, the first 100 pages are overwhelming, you are fed with a lot of feelings from a large spectrum of characters, and that’s what makes this book amazing! Thanks for sharing your view on it! Cheers!

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    • I read Anna Karenina at the wrong time in my life, I think. If I read it now I would have a very different experience. War and Peace has completely captivated me. Thanks so much for your comments.

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  6. I’m a devoted fan of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and now I want to seek out Steiner’s book. Thanks for mentioning it.

    And I agree with the idea that some times in one’s life are not right for certain books; I’ve gone back with great pleasure and amazement to books I first encountered as a student, having to read them fast under deadline and hating every page; I’ve also found that upon rereading certain books 20 or 30 years later, they open out immeasurably and I see that, while I enjoyed it when I was young, most of it actually went over my head. You’ll find your way back to AK, I’m sure. W&P will whet your appetite for it.

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    • Yes, I suspect that I will want to reread AK after War and Peace and have a much different experience. When I read it years ago I think it was a matter of the wrong book at the wrong time in my life. Thanks so much for your comment. I hope you do seek out the Steiner book, his writing is fantastic.

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  7. Good luck with War & Peace – definitely worth it (have read it a couple of times at least) and you have started me thinking further about what makes a ‘classic’. I do actually think that now I prefer Anna Kerenina in some ways, particularly for the character of Levin. One recommendation – after you’ve done with W&P and had a rest, try Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate. It’s another doorstopper, set during the Great Patriotic War, and rated by many (me included) as the 20th century’s W&P.

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  8. Pingback: The Kingdom of This World: Why Men Fight in War and Peace |

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