War and Peace Readalong, Part 6: People Are Dying Now and I Don’t Care

I can’t exactly put my finger on when it happened, but I am completely checked out of War and Peace. With just two short sections remaining (and the epilogues) I am ready and excited to let this one go. Just two more weeks of slogging and this behemoth will be out of my life forever.

I’m selling my book on eBay.

I’m not watching the mini-series.

I’m not telling anyone to read it.

I’m developing a serious bias against 19th century classics.

I’m just…fucking…done.

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I Don’t Remember What Happened in the Books I’ve Read, and I Don’t Care

Since I started reading more than 50 books a year I stopped remembering what actually happened in them. Character names, plot points, who did what to whom and why, these things float into the ether within weeks of finishing a book.

Every single time. Without fail.

I read The Orenda when it came out a few years ago and absolutely loved it. I mean, I loved that book. It’s one of my favorite pieces of Canadian fiction. Now, I can’t even tell you the names of the characters. Not a single one. I could pick them out of a lineup, sure, but as for instant recall, I got nuthin’.

River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay is my third favorite book of all time. I can name two characters in it off the top of my head. That’s insane.

This is something that’s bothered me for quite a while. Am I reading too many books? Am I not absorbing them the way I should be? Do I need to read fewer books, more slowly, to really squeeze the juice out of them? I was starting to think so.

And then I listened to the August 21st episode of The Watch podcast, “Critiquing ‘Game of Thrones’ and Previewing the Fall TV Season”. On it, TV critic extraordinaire Andy Greenwald talked about how the details of a piece of art aren’t important, or, at least, they’re less important than the feeling that piece of art leaves you with.

Instantly, I felt better.

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War and Peace Readalong, Part 5: Comets Always Fuck Shit Up

Thanks to a bit of illness last week, I had to double up this week’s reading and cover Volume II, Part V, and Volume II, Parts I and II. If you’re interested in the domestic parts of these sections, please refer to my fellow #warandpeacenewbies‘ articles. For my purposes this week, I’m sticking to Pierre, the Great Comet, and the War that is now in full swing.


Pierre Finds His Morality

Up until this point, Pierre’s new lifestyle hasn’t allowed him many opportunities to claim the moral high ground. For the most part, it’s afforded him the chance to drink his face off, get into all sorts of high jinks, and fuck a bunch of people. Despite his Masonic leanings, he hasn’t exactly been virtuous up until this point. But when he refused to take advantage of a vulnerable, confused Natasha, he put virtue ahead of his own carnal desires for the first time in … well … ever?

Given that Pierre is essentially a simulacrum of Tolstoy, this moment felt more important than Natasha’s brush with disaster. Despite the fact that Pierre is only the focus of the section’s first and last chapters, his journey felt the most significant. In a way, Natasha’s challenges felt like a necessary interlude in Pierre’s story, a bridge that would take Pierre from one position to another. Her circumstance simply provides Pierre with the opportunity to be a moral man.

(I’m not sure if that’s sexist of me, or sexist of Tolstoy, but it’s probably sexist of one of us.)

The significance of this moment is further evidenced by Pierre’s experience with the Great Comet at the conclusion of Volume II.

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War and Peace Readalong, Part 4: The Quest for a Good Life

This week’s reading covered Volume II, Parts III and IV, in which we jump to 1809 (then back to 1808), Pierre becomes the head of the Petersburg Freemasons and agrees to remarry Helene, Boris and Natasha end their courtship, Andrew (Andrei) sets his sights on Natasha despite Pierre’s protestations, and Nicholas (Nikolai) vows to marry Sonya.


In parts III and IV of Volume II, there is very little of what I would call entertainment, but this is one of the more interesting sections of the novel due to the narrative being driven by a simple, yet complex, question: “What does it mean to life a good life?”

So far, we’ve seen almost every character’s attempt at success or happiness foiled. Pierre thought he would find existential peace through the Freemasons but he’s made little progress in his quest for spiritual fulfillment. Andrew has become disheartened with his forays into both the military and the government. Marya is desperate for religious belonging, but she still feels something is missing. Natasha’s impending marriage to Boris has fallen apart. Nicholas intends to marry Sonya, much to the disapproval of his family. And the list goes on.

There was an undertone of cynicism to Part III, a cynicism I was long expecting but haven’t quite seen yet. (I just assume that every big-ass Russian novel will be sad as fuck.) And maybe I’m just in a bitter place in my life, but I enjoyed it. Tolstoy seems to foreshadow that every effort to improve someone’s life will ultimately end up fizzling out. Things are doomed to failure.

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War and Peace Readalong, Part 3: Tolstoy Basically Started Tumblr

To follow along with our War and Peace Newbies Readalong, follow either the hashtag or our fearless leader, Laura, on Twitter. Pretty much everything the group posts will be found there.


1. What Went Down in Volume 1, Part 3

Now that Pierre is one of the wealthiest men in Russia, everyone in high society is fawning over him. Prince Vasili sets him up with a diplomatic job in Petersburg, and Pierre hates it. Anna Pavolvna Scherer encourages Pierre to marry Vasili’s daughter Helene, and Pierre hates that even more. He thinks Helen is vacuous. She is quiet, uninteresting, and concerned with little more than her beauty. But pretty soon, so is Pierre. Despite his misgivings, he can’t really help himself from staring at her … bounty. Oh, and there’s this little rumor that Helene and her brother Anatole have  an incestuous relationship. So there’s that.

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War and Peace Readalong, Part 2: War is Boring but 1-Star Reviews Aren’t

A Note on Names: Since I am reading the Maude translation, I will be using its version of certain names in the text: Andrew instead of Andrei, Nicholas instead of Nikolai, etc. I’m sure you will hate it, but this is the book I’m reading and these who they are to me. 


1. What Went Down in Volume 1, Part 2

In Part II we leave Petersburg high society and venture out to Braunau, Austria. General Kutuzov, the head of the Semyonovsky regiment, is so opposed to his men joining the Austrians in their fight against Napoleon that he makes them dress in rags, in the hopes that the Austrians will refuse their help. It matters not, since the Austrians surrender anyway, thereby clearing a path toward the Russians for Napoleon and his army. Despite Kutuzov’s attempts, the Semyonovsky regiment will soon see action.

Meanwhile, in the Pavlogradsky regiment, Nicholas and company are ordered to destroy a bridge that the French must cross before they arrive. A siege occurs, and the regiment succeeds.

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When Life Gets You Down, Keep Climbing

A good friend of mine is going through a pretty difficult time. He’s approaching his mid-30s and is saddled with two young children. He is the sole bread winner in his family, but he pays the bills with a job he hates. He is deeply in debt. He feels trapped, and scared, and entirely without options. He is not only laying down the tracks in front of himself, but the rest of his family, too. Meanwhile, he can hear the train coming. The sound never goes away.

I am equally close with my friend’s wife. The three of us were inseparable in college, thanks to the fact that she basically moved into our two-man dorm room five weeks into first semester. She texted me about my friend yesterday, and she, too, feels scared, and trapped, and alone. Her husband is deeply depressed, and she doesn’t know what else to do.

None of us do. This is a battle he’s been fighting for a long time.

I tried, as best I could, to give her some advice. I think it helped, if only for that day. Sometimes that’s all we need. Something to get us to the next day. But I haven’t stopped thinking about it, what I could have said.

Today, I was reminded about my favourite passage from one of my favourite novels, Skippy Dies by Paul Murray. While it doesn’t provide any answers in terms of what my friend can do to help himself, it definitely gives it some context: most of us get to the point he is at right now. Most of adulthood is about disillusionment.


“You spend your whole childhood watching TV, assuming that at some point in the future everything you see there will one day happen to you: that you too will one day win a Formula One race, hop a train, foil a group of terrorists, tell someone ‘Give me the gun’, etc. Then you start secondary school, and suddenly everyone’s asking you about your career plans and your long-term goals, and by goals they don’t mean the kind you are planning to score in the FA Cup. Gradually the awful truth dawns on you: that Santa Claus was just the tip of the iceberg—that your future will not be the roller coaster you’d imagined, that the world occupied by your parents, the world of washing dishes, going to the dentist, weekend trips to the DIY superstore to buy floor tiles, is actually largely what people mean when they speak of ‘life’. Now, with every day that passes, another door seems to close, the one marked ‘professional stuntman’ or ‘fight evil robot’, until as the weeks go by and the doors —’get bitten by snake’, ‘save world from asteroid’, ‘dismantle bombs with seconds to spare’—keep closing, you begin to hear the sound as a good thing, and start closing some yourself, even ones that didn’t necessarily need to be closed.”

— Paul Murray, Skippy Dies


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