“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”– Leo Tolstoy.
January is a curious month. December – perennially busy with the festive hype and excitement of Christmas – has faded away, leaving many with a mixture of feelings. There are those who revel in the fresh start, the first to embrace New Year’s resolutions and an energetic start to the year, while many feel a sense of anti-climax and uncertainty about the months ahead.
One constant, for me, is that January tends to be a quiet month. The year often takes time to click into gear, be it a slow start at work, or enjoying time off before the next term at school or university. It is a month of quiet, cold, grey days, filled with thought and reflection, before Spring, the season of rebirth and renewal, finally arrives. Most of my friends can be observed following ‘dry January’, so most social events are off the calendar until February. This can feel welcome, as it is a chance to catch up on creative projects, read all the books received over Christmas, or enjoy long walks.
At the same time, it can be hard to break through the fog of indecision and creative laziness that comes with the time of year. When so many wild creatures are hibernating, why shouldn’t you? Sadly, we humans do not have that luxury. We need something to kick-start our year in the best way, be it a favourite film, book or album which suits the season and always manages to inspire us creatively. With this in mind, I have chosen to share one of my favourite books that I have chosen to revisit this month. I first read this novel fifteen quiet Januarys ago. It has stayed with me since, influencing my own writing and philosophy in countless ways.
War And Peace
by Leo Tolstoy
There is never an easy time to approach reading such a titanic work of fiction. Tolstoy’s War And Peace comes in at around 1,225 pages – roughly three times longer than the average paperback. Yet for all lovers of history, epic characterisation and drama, there is no better work. It is something to be lived, not read.
The theme of this year’s festival is ‘Deconstructing the Self’, exploring how we can break down author’s influences when creating characters and narrative, often intending to present specific meanings and morals. I can think of no greater example than Tolstoy’s work, which went on to become a classic of Russian literature and a staple of its cultural identity.
Born into a rich, aristocratic background, Tolstoy was a man who experienced what he referred to as his own ‘moral crisis’. A proclaimed pacifist, he was often considered anarchistic and a free-thinking radical, with a long-established affinity for the trials of the poor. He also suffered from an acute fear of death and existentialism, until he experienced a spiritual awakening later in life.
All of these feelings are reflected in his book. This is one my favourite aspects of the novel, as the author seeks to manifest his philosophical thoughts on the purpose of life and human conflict through the rich characters who experience it. Despite the story centring around the grand subjects of Napoleonic warfare and nationalistic victory, it is in essence an anti-war narrative, with hints of strong moral ideas and deeper meanings.
Take Prince Andrei and Pierre Bezukhov, who both question their own inhibitions throughout their experiences. The prince, a general in the army, desires glory and fame while recognising the futility of death and conflict. Meanwhile, the aristocratic Count Pierre – who finds himself inevitably fascinated and enthralled by the invading Napoleon – seeks to escape his existence by clumsily stumbling into the front lines of battle and befriending soldiers from the lower classes. Complimenting these two characters is the beautiful Natasha Rostova, an impetuous youth who tries to find her way in a patriarchal world.
As a companion to the novel, I would recommend watching Sergei Bondarchuk’s 1966 film version of War And Peace. Created as a distinctly Russian answer to what they saw as the overly Americanised 1956 version starring Audrey Hepburn and Henry Fonda, this epic 7-hour version was commissioned with the near limitless resources of Soviet Russia. The Red Army provided over ten thousand soldiers and horses as extras for the astounding battle scenes, all created without the use of CGI. The director also employed ground-breaking, contemporary camera techniques for the time, leaving many scenes with a stunning, portrait-like quality.
After many years stuck within the figurative vaults of Russian cinema, the film has finally been restored to its original quality and is available through the Criterion collection.
With 2022 representing another uncertain year ahead for our world, there is something invigorating about escaping into the past, especially to the 18th century – such a complicated, romantic and ambitious era, so perfectly represented by Tolstoy’s work.
What do you think of my choice? Do you have your own book or film recommendations to start the year with a sense of escapism and an exploration of the self? Let us know in the comments below.
About the author
Alexander Comley is currently studying an MA in Creative Writing at Surrey University and holds a special interest in reading and writing ghost stories, fantasy, and historical fiction. You can also check out his gaming blog here. When he is not writing, Alex can be seen headbanging with his heavy metal band, Bangover.