I've finally been reading War and Peace, twenty years after I pretended to read it for a Russian literature class at Yale (being an artful bullshitter, I nevertheless earned a B). The book has been considered a masterpiece for so long that I feel reluctant to even blog about it. I can't share how much I'm enjoying this novel of novels without sounding like a guy running around town telling people about this delicious new food he discovered called pizza.
Well, War and Peace is a great book, even if holding it above your chest for an hour at a time feels like doing an extended bench press.
As a reader, I'm struck by all those things my Russian lit teacher tried to impress upon me long ago. I'm appropriately, if belatedly, awed by Tolstoy's insights into the broad range of human motivations, and I'm dazzled by the seeming effortlessness of his artistry. As a writer of fiction, I'm just humbled. Tolstoy makes writing a novel look so easy that I can understand authors around the world smashing their laptops in despair after reading War and Peace.
Then I stumbled across this quote on Wikipedia attributed to Anton Chekhov:
When literature possesses a Tolstoy, it is easy and pleasant to be a writer; even when you know you have achieved nothing yourself and are still achieving nothing, this is not as terrible as it might otherwise be, because Tolstoy achieves for everyone. What he does serves to justify all the hopes and aspirations invested in literature.
If Chekhov felt that way, it takes some of the pressure off us hacks, I guess.