Refuge and Connection: On “Tolstoy Together: 85 Days of War and Peace with Yiyun Li”
By Christine JacobsonFebruary 25, 2022
Tolstoy Together: 85 Days of War and Peace with Yiyun Li by Yiyun Li
The virtual book club’s pandemic-era spinoff is the “read-along.” As in a book club, participants read the same book together (but in this case, everyone actually reads the book). Participants commit to a schedule of a few chapters a day and discuss the text in online forums or over social media using a common hashtag. Popular pandemic-era read-alongs have included Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, Jane Austen’s Persuasion, and James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. The first and arguably most successful of these was #TolstoyTogether, a read-along of Leo Tolstoy’s 1869 novel War and Peace hosted by author Yiyun Li and literary magazine A Public Space between March and June 2020. Thousands of readers from around the globe took part, inspiring an encore the following year and a book that seeks to reproduce Li’s experiment in print. Tolstoy Together: 85 Days of War and Peace with Yiyun Li, edited by Brigid Hughes, is a convivial companion that infuses the experience of reading a long, difficult novel with joy and revelry, giving those not online a chance to find refuge and connection in Tolstoy — no social media handle required.
What is it about War and Peace that has made it appealing to so many in this moment? Yiyun Li cites its scope and size. “[A] long novel seemed what the moment called for,” she writes in the introduction. War and Peace is famously long — usually between 1,200–1,400 pages, depending on the translation and edition. To call War and Peace immersive might be an understatement. Starting in 1805, the novel takes up as its subjects the Napoleonic invasion of Russia (war) and several generations of aristocratic Russian families (peace). The novel boasts over 550 characters, but it centers on a couple of key figures: Count Pierre Bezukhov, the intellectually curious son of a powerful count; Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, a stoic officer whose illusions are shattered by the war; and Countess Natasha Rostova, the original manic pixie dream girl and Tolstoy’s embodiment of the Russian spirit. The characters fall in and out of love, are wounded in battle, marry, find redemption, survive, or do not survive the Napoleonic Wars. In short, it’s a panorama — the opposite of the narrow view afforded by our bedroom windows. Not everyone wanted a panorama in the pandemic — Deidre Lynch, who organized the Clarissa read-along, told me she preferred a novel whose themes of imprisonment mirrored her own sense of confinement. Another friend of mine committed exclusively to romance novels, clinging to their predictable endings in an uncertain time. Yet War and Peace appealed to me not just for its panoramic scope, but also for its depiction of a society enduring and emerging from world-historic calamity. I couldn’t make sense of the disaster I was living through, but Tolstoy offered a chance to get my arms around one that took place over two centuries ago. “We had been displaced from our usual world,” Li says, “and an immersion in a world elsewhere offered comfort.”
Tolstoy Together is a slim volume with a neat structure — an easy addition to one’s daily portion of War and Peace. The left-hand pages give the reader that day’s assignment, using the first and last sentences as guides (since some editions over the years have renumbered the chapters). This can give a tantalizing peek at what lies ahead. For example, on day 68:
Part One, XIV
“On receiving from Nikolai the news”
Part One, XVI
“solemn mystery of death that had been accomplished before them.”
The left-hand pages also include notes and selected passages from Li, while the right-hand pages reveal the discussion — remarks selected from the cadre of readers who participated in the original read-along in 2020. (The book doesn’t stipulate, but I assume these are mostly culled from #TolstoyTogether Twitter posts.) The group is a sparkling constellation of writers, editors, academics, and librarians, but also a retired bookkeeper, a beekeeper, a singer-songwriter, an oncologist, a housecleaner, a psychotherapist, a pastor, a community gardener, a retired dentist, a bookseller, and my favorite, “Miss Mainwaring […] a former playwright and hellbent old lady.” The overall effect is one of attending a giant dinner party, with Li as the consummate host, moderating the conversation. The back of the book helpfully includes some ruled pages for note-taking.
The planner diary and discussion elements work well together, motivating the reader to keep up with the reading each day and see where the conversation goes. To give you a sense of how this works: as the reader follows Countess Natasha to the Moscow opera or her brother Nikolai on a fox hunt, Li’s dinner guests chime in wistfully about missing live performances or discuss Tolstoy’s decision to write from the point of view of Nikolai’s horse. On slow days when the plot has stalled, the group debates questions like which War and Peace character they would choose for a lockdown companion. (Miss Mainwaring supplies the right answer: “Uncle. He knows how to live” — referring to a cheerful relation who lives with vim and vigor in the woods on the Rostovs’ estate.)
Occasionally, Tolstoy Together shakes up this format, peppering in short solicited essays or details from Tolstoy’s lifetime. A list of authors read by Tolstoy at different ages is a welcome bit of trivia, as are reproduced excerpts from letters between pen pals Gustave Flaubert and Ivan Turgenev, in which the two discuss War and Peace. (Flaubert to Turgenev in 1880: “What a painter and what a psychologist! The first two [volumes] are sublime; but the third goes terribly to pieces.”) Tom Drury provides a winning close read of minor character Alphonse Berg, an oaf who rises through the ranks of the Russian military by mimicking the sartorial choices of the tsar, while New Yorker staff writer Alexandra Schwartz convincingly defends her choice of Andrei as her favorite character in an essay that pits him against the usually favored Pierre. The vibe of these interludes is more cocktail fodder than criticism (if it’s criticism you’re after, there’s more than a century of it elsewhere). Unfortunately, because the essays are kept so short, some of them end before they can get anywhere. A contribution by Sara Majka revisits a compelling scene between Natasha and Sonya, who take opposite approaches in packing up the Rostov family heirlooms as they prepare to evacuate Moscow. I’m always struck by this scene because, like Majka, I identify with methodical Sonya yet envy chaotic Natasha, who exhibits an uncanny genius for forcing a trunk to its capacity. Unfortunately, the essay fizzles before it can come to an interesting explanation for our anxiety. Another essay by Carl Phillips veers into self-help, extolling the benefits of finding “some joy, even just a small one, in each day” and unconvincingly citing Tolstoy’s use of dogs in scenes as inspiration for his praxis.
If Tolstoy Together has another weakness, it’s simply that — through no fault of its own — the book can’t compete with the spontaneity of #TolstoyTogether. Li’s read-along created a new audience for Tolstoy, one that could talk about the novel in real time. Like a group text about a popular show, the read-along invited participants to pore over the details together between chapters. Before #TolstoyTogether, reading War and Peace was a heroic, solitary feat: man versus book. Li’s experiment invited us to think of it more like Mare of Easttown. I know this because while I missed the 2020 read-along, I joined its encore in the fall of 2021. Every morning, I’d read that day’s chunk of War and Peace over coffee, and in the evenings I’d scroll through Twitter liking or commenting on posts and getting to know my fellow Tolstoyans. Before bed, I read from Tolstoy Together. Though my Tolstoy Together companions were more carefully curated than those of #TolstoyTogether, the difference was, of course, that I couldn’t communicate directly with those on the page. My sparkling dinner party suddenly seemed a little static in comparison with the community I found online.
For instance, something I was eager to talk about with fellow readers was translation. Li doesn’t prescribe a particular version of War and Peace, encouraging readers to choose their own or find it in the public domain. This creates the perfect environment for casual comparison. Most people seemed to be reading Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s critically acclaimed 2007 translation, with the rest reading Constance Garnett’s from 1904, Louise and Aylmer Maude’s from 1922, or Anthony Briggs’s from 2005. A decade prior, I’d read Pevear and Volokhonsky’s, but this time I’d selected Garnett’s. Some reading Garnett’s War and Peace for the first time, like user @nic_doherty, disliked her translation and felt they were reading an entirely different book from the rest of the group. I disagreed, establishing myself quickly as a Garnett diehard (a camp, incidentally, that’s been forming a resurgence for some time), especially when I realized how much funnier I found Tolstoy than on my first go-round. Our daily discussions helped me appreciate the subtle ways in which Garnett’s translation choices shine. For example, readers were puzzled when they compared Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translation for Nikolai’s first word (“pear”) with the Maudes’ (“brush”) while we discovered Briggs had sidestepped the issue completely by omitting it; this prompted me to notice Garnett’s elegant choice to reproduce the Russian, “grusha,” a small but important detail I might have missed reading the novel alone. Later, in Tolstoy’s famous line, “To a lackey, no man can be great because a lackey has his own [lackey] conception of greatness,” Garnett doesn’t opt for the lazy cognate “lackey” for “лакей” but instead chooses the much funnier and punchier “flunkey.” (Go ahead and read that sentence back with “flunkey” in place of “lackey.” I’ll wait.) Though a few notes come up about translation in Tolstoy Together, the interactive element of #TolstoyTogether fostered a conversation I could dive into.
According to its back cover, Tolstoy Together aims to be “a template for the book club of the future.” This more accurately describes #TolstoyTogether, where readers find community in one another (literally) across space and time. However, the book is a successful facsimile with some convincing enhancements — one that should work well for those not “extremely online.” It also can’t be the book club of the future when it serves so beautifully as a time capsule, a record of what life was like between March and June 2020. On every page, readers draw connections between the novel and what’s happening around them — new peaks in the national death toll from the virus, the murder of Black men by police, or the simple ennui of missing a favorite bar. For some readers, these encounters with the recent past may feel too soon, like scraping up against a barely healed wound. I found a surprising catharsis in revisiting the painful moments of 2020 with my War and Peace companions. I had turned to the novel because I couldn’t wrap my mind around the disaster I was living through, hoping instead to make sense of one in the past. Tolstoy Together offers the chance to do both.
Christine Jacobson is assistant curator of Modern Books and Manuscripts at Harvard University’s Houghton Library. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. and tweets at @internetstine.
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