Tolstoy Together
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Tolstoy Together

Reading War and Peace with Yiyun Li

Yiyun Li

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eBook - ePub

Tolstoy Together

Reading War and Peace with Yiyun Li

Yiyun Li

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About This Book

"You know how, very occasionally in your life, there's a 'before and after' reading experience? Well, reading War and Peace with Tolstoy Together has been that for me— a milestone not just in reading but in living." —Michael LanganFrom the acclaimed author of Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, a book about the art of reading. In Tolstoy Together: 85 Days of War and Peace, Yiyun Li invites you to travel with her through Tolstoy's novel—and with fellow readers around the world who joined her for an online book club and an epic journey during a pandemic year."I've found that the more uncertain life is, " Yiyun Li writes, "the more solidity and structure War and Peace provides." Tolstoy Together expands the epic novel into a rich conversation about literature and ways of reading, with contributions from Garth Greenwell, Elliott Holt, Carl Phillips, Tom Drury, Sara Majka, Alexandra Schwartz, and hundreds of fellow readers.Along with Yiyun Li's daily reading journal and a communal journal with readers' reflections—with commentary on craft and technique, historical context, and character studies, Tolstoy Together: 85 Days of War and Peace includes a schedule and framework, providing a daily motivating companion for Tolstoy's novel and a reading practice for future books.

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Tchaikovsky is the paterfamilias of Russian classical music. His symphonies, concerti, and operas set the standard for all Russian composers. In Tchaikovsky, we hear structure, solidity, stateliness, elegance, clarity, and intense beauty.
How can we not think of Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky’s contemporary and compatriot? He too gives us structure, solidity, stateliness, elegance, clarity, and intense beauty. The structure of the novel’s four volumes, with distinct subparts and chapters? A great Tchaikovsky symphony, almost all of them in four movements, each with subsections and themes. The clarity of Andrei’s battle-induced vision of a “distant, lofty, and eternal sky”? The reflective second theme of the first movement of the Pathétique (about four minutes in). The tender beauty of Pierre’s feelings for Natasha under a streaking comet? The gorgeous French horn theme in the slow movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth.
Tchaikovsky fused Russian musical themes with classical European art forms dating to Mozart and Beethoven. In War and Peace, we have European (French) language, a French-loving Russian aristocracy, even for a period a Russian protagonist’s admiration for Napoleon himself.
In Tolstoy’s characters, we almost hear the distinct melodies of Tchaikovsky’s twelve Seasons. The unrestrained, exuberant purity of Natasha (April as a young woman, January at the end). The quiet, inner tragedy of Princess Marya (March). The sadness of Andrei, only rarely feeling the joy and wonder of love and life (June). The carefree, dancing Count Rostov (July). The roguish gambler Dolokhov (August). The innocent youth of Sonya (December). And Pierre, always searching, questioning, and discovering, while living the sweep of history (November). Imagine if these melodies in the Seasons could speak to one another, befriend one another, fall in and out of love with one another? Tolstoy lets us imagine.
Rachmaninoff, like Dostoevsky, is another matter. Rachmaninoff is more passionate, obsessive, ruminating. The last movement of his Third Piano Concerto, its relentless, almost insane drive, recalls Porfiry’s pursuit of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. Rachmaninoff, like Dostoevsky, is also the darker of the great masters, murkier, more brooding, more “Russian.”
When Natasha visits her uncle, she abandons herself to the joys of dance, music, and the Russian spirit. In the worlds of these four geniuses, we can only do the same. ILANN M. MAAZEL
“And Tushin went over to
the general, putting three
fingers to his visor in a timid
and awkward movement,
not as military men salute,
but as priests bless.”
My favorite moment in all
of Part Two, though I can’t
say why, is this. I mean
obviously Tushin is the best,
but this gesture is absolutely
heartbreaking to me, and
I wish I could explain it to

DAY 11

Volume I,
Part Two, VIII
“The rest of the infantry”
Volume I,
Part Two, IX
“a long-past, far-off memory.”
He looked at the squadron that was moving toward him. The transparent sounds of hooves rang out on the planks of the bridge as if several horses were galloping, and the squadron, with officers in front, four men abreast, stretched across the bridge and began to come out on the other side.
Colors are sometimes “muted” or “loud,” but we don’t often see “transparent” used to describe sounds.
Rostov, sent with his colleagues to set fire to the bridge, could not help “because, unlike the other soldiers, he had not brought a plait of straw with him.”
One has to have a soft spot for a boy so bravely playing in a man’s game.
Two hussars wounded and one killed on the spot,” he said with obvious joy, unable to hold back a happy smile, sonorously rapping out the beautiful phrase killed on the spot.
The first death in the war, giving the colonel a chance to love his own words.


War literature is much more ranging and literary than a lot of smart book folk often allow. But if the “genre” needed to be pared to one line: “And the fear of death and of the stretchers, and love of the sun and of life, all merged into one feeling of sickening agitation.” MATT GALLAGHER
“They shoot not because they want to but out of expectation.”
I’m surprised (like so many of us) by how absurdly the war is depicted. Not many heroes. Several people have compared it to Catch-22 but something about this line brings Tim O’Brien to mind. RICHARD Z. SANTOS
What did people think about Nikolai’s epiphany on the bridge: “How good the sky seemed, how blue, calm and deep…” I couldn’t repress the feeling that Tolstoy was making fun of his dreamy idealism. ROBERT DEAM TOBIN
Just before the first battle: “A particular brilliance and joyful sharpness of impression to everything that happens in those moments.” Then, after the first time under fire: “It’s all over, but I’m a coward, yes, I’m a coward, thought Rostov.” MURRAY SILVERSTEIN
Something that amazes me in War and Peace is the range of affect in the narration—from the very moving tenderness with which it treats Rostov under fire (“but I’m a coward, yes, I’m a coward”) to the brutal objectivity of the panoramic summary that starts the next chapter. GARTH GREENWELL
Also did anyone else gasp to learn that “the sick and the wounded had been left on the other side of the Danube with a letter from Kutuzov entrusting them to the humaneness of the enemy,” or was it just me? GARTH GREENWELL
Tolstoy really knows how to capture scorn. FIONA MAAZEL
I’m enjoying the descriptions of the unconvincing expressions people adopt when speaking to others. ANSA KHAN
Today I learned Nabokov read War and Peace at age eleven. RYAN CHAPMAN

DAY 12

Volume I,
Part Two, X
“Prince Andrei stayed in Brünn”
Volume I,
Part Two, XIII
“women of their mutual acquaintance.”
His thin, drawn, yellowish face was all covered with deep wrinkles, which always looked as neatly and thoroughly washed as one’s fingertips after a bath.
I don’t understand Tolstoy today. Bilibin is thirty-five and lives comfortably. Who loans him this face?
Prince Ippolit needs only one gesture. His “examining his raised feet through his lorgnette” is as immortal an image as when he “stood beside the pretty, pregnant princess and looked at her directly and intently through his lorgnette.”
On the roadsides one constantly saw now dead horses, skinned or unskinned.
Anyone can write the horror of a dead horse in war; Tolstoy makes a dead horse deader.


With Rostov we saw war up close, as ordinary soldiers see it. With Prince Andrei we saw it as the generals see it. And now, with Bilibin, we see it as a diplomat sees it. The three views are completely different—and all are masterfully described. MARGARET HARRIS
His words “were of a transmissible nature, as if designed to be easily remembered and carried from drawing room to drawing room by insignificant society people.”...

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