War & Peace & Letting Go of “The Great Man Theory”

Chelsea Ennen in Avidly:

War-and-Peace-BorodinoOn a cold, snowy night in January of 2016, I sat curled up in front of a crackling fire at my childhood home in rural Ohio. Fresh from finishing graduate school in London, I’d only been back in the country for a week. Feeling heartbroken over leaving London, I was clinging to my fundamental desire to work that sometimes substitutes for a deeper sense of identity or purpose. This was around the time the new BBC adaptation of War and Peace was airing on American TV. Watching the lush series and struggling to recall the half of the novel I’d managed to find time to read as an undergrad, I had an idea that merged my newfound time for pleasure reading with my desire for a long-term writing project: I’d read War and Peace over the space of a year, and blog about it weekly. I’d experience the passage of time along with the characters, observing them and myself as specks underneath Tolstoy’s vast expanses of sky and history. 2016 was already looking to be an eventful year both for myself as an individual and America as a whole: I was poised on the edge of something new, and, it seemed, somewhat dauntingly, so was the nation. I’d be the Pierre to the United States’ Imperial Russia. What could go wrong?

If you’ve never felt a desire to slog through one of the heavier cornerstones of the Western canon, I regret to inform you that even the substantial and fully-formed, nearly three-hour-long musical adaptation of the novelNatasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812—only covers about 70 out of War and Peace‘s 1,000+ pages. The wider picture is part philosophy, part wartime epic, and part soap opera. The soap opera part, which is considered the plot proper by most, follows several aristocratic families as they navigate the Napoleonic wars and changing ideas of what it means to be Russian. There is much talk about Napoleon, who eventually appears as a character. His rise from cocktail conversation topic to looming tyrant is so gratingly relevant it puts a certain production of Julius Caesar to shame. Oafish Pierre, his father’s favorite of many bastard children, becomes Count Bezuhov when his father dies, inheriting a massive fortune and all the duplicitous leeches that come with it. Pierre is the stand-in for Tolstoy himself, and his journey to enlightenment embodies Tolstoy’s beliefs on religion, morality, and happiness.

More here.