Growing up as a writer and reader, Tolstoy's War and Peace occupied a special place in the pantheon of books. It was the doorstop all other literature was measured against, often squatting atop "Best Books Ever Written" lists like some kind of fat, Russian toad. It was the yardstick against which all literary endeavors were really measured. "Well," someone would say, "it's not like you're writing War and Peace." Or you'd hear people say, "Someday, one of my life goals is to read War and Peace," and they'd say it in the same way that people talk about getting a colonoscopy.
So I'd always avoided War and Peace. I worked my way through Dostoevsky and The Man of La Mancha, then all those 18th century French translations, and of course many years spent with Dickens. I did 100 Years of Solitude and Faulkner. Heck, I even did Gravity's Rainbow. But never War and Peace. Even as a dedicated reader, I always figured life was too short for books like that.
Recently, my father-in-law bought the new Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace. I'd read about this translation in a few places, and most people who would know were saying it was the best translation of Tolstoy ever done. That it rendered War and Peace as close to the Russian original as any translation had ever come. Then not too long ago, we joined my in-laws on vacation, and my father-in-law happened to bring his book along, which is a pretty sure invitation for me to pick it up and thumb through it. I read the first page. Then the first 20 pages. And that was it ...
I borrowed the book.
I'm about 200-odd pages into the book now, and I don't know why I should be surprised by this, but I'm kind of blown away by how good it is. Tolstoy's sense of character is incredible, and the scope of each scene is so impressive. I've never seen a larger cast of characters handled so adroitly. It's not hard to keep track of the scores of people because each is rendered so individually. And even more surprising: Tolstoy is funny. Hard to believe, but he is. He has this really fine sense of humor; he frequently tells jokes at his characters' expense, and he sets up situations that are utterly believable but droll (there really is no other word to describe it). Finally, his description of impending combat, of armies lining up preparing to shoot and the feelings and thoughts that go through a person's head in the moments before the bullets fly, is just so authentic feeling.
You know Beauty and the Beast? If War and Peace is the beast, then I feel a bit like Belle (which is still infinitely better than a singing teapot). I expected this book to have fangs, to beat me over the head until I was senseless, but instead I found something else entirely. I guess generations of critics know a little something about books after all.
Anyway, you tell me ... have you ever been surprised by a book? Which one? Why?