Monday, April 30, 2018

Andrew Kaufman's Give War and Peace a Chance

Like this blog, Andrew Kaufman's book, Give War and Peace a Chance: Tolstoyan Wisdom for Troubled Times, offers up a sometimes awkward blend of personal reflection and literary criticism.  Kaufman's sole concern is that ordinary people do as his title enjoins by taking up Tolstoy's magnum opus.  Although many people are no doubted by the book's 1500 plus pages, Kaufman tells us that Tolstoy's massive tome is worth the time and effort.  Kaufman divides his book into twelve sub-themes.  According to the Russian literary scholar, each of these themes reveals one distinct form of Tolstoyan wisdom.  These theme include courage, love, imagination, success, and happiness. Overall, Kaufman seems to believe that Tolstoy's main strength as both a creative writer and a philosopher is that he had an almost existentialist approach to life avante la lettre.  That is to say, Kaufman is often most struck by the fact that Tolstoy seems to think that Tolstoy imaginatively blended any plot detail with ontological reflection.  For instance, Kaufman dwells upon Tolstoy's treatment of battle in War and Peace by describing how truly insightful protagonists can sometimes pause in the middle of the fray to dwell upon the frailty of human existence or the beauty of the universe.  To my mind, Kaufman's Tolstoy seems like an progenitor of Heiddeger.  But then again, Kaufman's Tolstoy also reminds me of Melville.  Tolstoy's striking originality seems to have been that he wanted to capture both historical themes and personal ones, alternating between the two modes of analysis in order to shed light on both of them.  The American author who accomplished something strikingly similar is Melville, whose Moby Dick captures a whaler's voyage even as it also attempts to wrestle with the nature of zoological life.  As Kaufman points out, many readers of War and Peace evince a definite preference for either the war or the peace scenes.  It's rare to find a reader who likes both topics equally.  It's probably even rarer to find the reader who truly understands the fact that the two topics are intrinsically intertwined.  But both Tolstoy and Melville had capacious minds and great empathy for their surroundings.  I think it was Gorky who said that Tolstoy seemingly understood the life of horses, so great was his capacity to see things from radically different perspectives.  Similarly, Gorky seems to have had the ability to understand the whale almost as well as he understood the whaler.

Of course, Kaufman's book is also a series of reflections about his own life.  He's a good role model for readers who will get more out of a nineteenth century novel if they can somehow find ways to link it to their present reality.  In any case, his approach reminded me of my own experience reading War and Peace.  Over thirty years ago, I was a recent graduate of college, down and out in Los Angeles.  I figured I would at least read a great classic while I was in the process of looking for a job.  I did that, and I felt a great sense of accomplishment.  I did, as Kaufman suggests is a common experience, definitely prefer the Napoleonic scenes to the love scenes.  But I suppose that if I returned later in life to the work I might realize that the history of personal or family life is no less important than the history of warfare and national strife.  In any case, I can't remember much about War and Peace, only that it probably led to my somewhat delayed obsession with Russia and Russian literature. 

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