Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Book #71 - War and Peace (Leo Tolstoy)

2020 is finally over and it is a truth universally acknowledged that the past year can be best described by the phrase "shit show". I have spent the year socially distanced in my home, seeing work colleagues and the people I love only through the grace of a company that calls itself "Zoom", and donning protective gear appropriate for cleaning up a Superfund site just to enter my local liquor store. And while I haven't ended up looking like the dude above (that's Leo Tolstoy, by the way) it sometimes feels like it, especially now that barbershops are all on lockdown again. And as further proof of a suck-ass 2020 I did not write a single blog post the entire year! No, it's not because I caught Covid19 (knock on wood) or because I drank myself into an alcoholic stupor on a daily basis (I have been quite responsible and have alternated days); rather it was due to (1) laziness and (2) the desire to read only crappy, distracting books so as not to remember that tens of thousands of my fellow Americans were struggling to breathe on a daily basis. At least, that's how my reading went until the past Autumn, when I decided to use this quarantine time to read a long, long book that maybe I wouldn't have time or motivation to read in normal times. So I read "War and Peace". Turns out this was a good book to read in such a terrible and trying year, since much of the book deals with the ordeals of the Russian people fighting Napoleon and the French army as they moved across Europe, eventually invading Russia and burning down Moscow.

And speaking of French, let's talk about booze! My latest discovery is Chartreuse. Before Covid19 shut down all the bars in town I had a drink called the Last Word at Stookey's Club Moderne here in San Francisco. This spectacularly good cocktail is an old recipe from the pre-Prohibition era, and contains equal parts gin, maraschino liqueur, green Chartreuse, and lime juice. It is an amazing blend of sweet, sour, and herbal good! Sometime in the spring, I was feeling down about the goddamn Coronavirus so to cheer myself up I suited up in my protective gear and ventured into my local liquor store to by some Green Chartreuse so I could make my own Last Word. Once in the store I discovered that it was about $50 a bottle, which threw me for a loop, but people were dying and I wanted to do my part to help so I bought a bottle. Green Chartreuse is a fascinating drink. First of all, it's the only liqueur with a completely natural green color. So there's that. And it's flavor I find comparable to nothing else...I can't even think of how to describe it except that I quite enjoy it. Plus it's 55% alcohol, so it will, as they say, "get you there". And apparently The Lord wants us to drink this stuff because it is made by monks living in the Grand Chartreuse monastery in France, where they've been making it since 1737 from a secret recipe that dates from 1605. Anything that sticks around for that long has to have something going for it. And by drinking it I'm helping support monks, which makes me feel good about myself. I'm all for drinking for a cause!

Anyway, France. After the French Revolution, Napoleon decided to spread the revolution throughout Europe in the name of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Plus he wanted to rule the world. And this is the period when "War and Peace" takes place. The novel follows the stories of members of three families, the Bezukhovs, the Bolkonskys, and the Rostovs as they live through a time of, you guessed it, war and peace. This is a huge sprawling novel and I don't even know where to begin discussing it, as if I could even add anything new to the discussion. But let me just drive this point home: it's GLORIOUS! God, I loved this book, as I did Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina". This guy was a true genius at capturing the essence of humanity. The characters are so vivid and human, you feel like you know them. Pierre Bezukhov is the illegitimate son of the extraordinarily wealthy Count Kirill Bezukhov. Pierre is large and fat and socially awkward, but when his father dies and leaves him his estate suddenly Pierre is belle of the ball in Russian society because everyone loves money. He marries the beautiful but vapid Helene Kuragin through the manipulation of her father who just wants access to all that damn money. Gold diggers, they're a constant throughout history! Pierre keeps searching for meaning in his life, especially after shooting his wife's lover. He tries freemasonry, he tries wandering around a battlefield during a battle between the Russians and the French, and at one point he decides his goal in life is to assassinate Napoleon. But that doesn't happen. His best friend is Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, another rich Russian dude, but Prince Andrei is very handsome and intellectual. He too is disillusioned with life and is searching for a greater meaning (aren't we all?). He becomes an officer in the army and goes off to war leaving behind his pregnant wife, gets wounded, meets Napoleon, becomes disillusioned with war and Napoleon, and comes back home just in time to see his wife die in childbirth. So he becomes more disillusioned. He eventually meets Natasha Rostov, who is vivacious and lively and brings a spark to Andrei. But his father disapproves and tells him to travel for a year before marrying her. So he does but in the meantime Natasha, who is not so worldly, falls in love with Anatole Kuragin, Pierre's brother-in-law. But Anatole is a rogue who just wants to fuck everything that moves, and besides he's already secretly married. Natasha is going to elope with Anatole, but is stopped in time. However when Andrei finds out about it all he can't forgive her and calls the engagement off. Tolstoy knows how to keep a story juicy! Eventually they reconcile, but only on Andrei's deathbed. Meanwhile Andrei's sister Marya and Natasha's brother Nikolai eventually get together. Marya is very religious and devout, unlike her brother, and Nikolai is also unlike her brother, being not at all an intellectual and much more warm and emotional. It's a parade of humanity!

One of the themes of the book is how history is not made by great men. Instead it is made by the sum of millions and millions of decisions and actions by "ordinary" people which all add up to great historical events. He drives this point home in some of his battle scenes where the generals, like Napoleon, don't know what the hell is going on on the battlefield because of "the fog of war" and instead the outcome of the battles are driven by a myriad of individual decisions made by regular soldiers on the battlefield. Tolstoy uses the plot to advance his theories but then, in case the reader doesn't get it, he goes all out at the end of the novel and just writes a long philosophical essay on these topics. I confess I glossed over this part because (1) the action of the novel is over and (2) Tolstoy is just ranting on and on about something I don't understand completely and don't care about so whatever. But the plot of the novel and its characters are so strong and so true to life that he didn't really need this coda. And the events of this past year (2020) make the novel all the more poignant to me. 2020 sucked donkey dicks but for one of the first times in my life I felt like I was living through history. Not just watching it on TV, like I did with 9/11 or Chernobyl or the fall of the Soviet Union, but actually living it. I stopped leading a "normal" life and was forced to wear masks and socially distance and give up bars and restaurants and travel, because of the pandemic. This year will go down in history, and I lived through it and participated in it. My parents' generation had that with the Depression and World War II, which were events that affected everyone's lives. And now it's my generation's turn. I'm not sure I changed the course of history with any of the decisions I made, but still it afforded me more sympathy to Tolstoy's characters whose homeland was invaded and who were called to war whether they liked it or not. In 2020 we've been called to war against the fucking Coronavirus, and it's going to take millions of individual decisions to mask up, be careful, and get vaccinated to bring this under control. Hopefully we will do out part in fighting this virus as Tolstoy's characters do fighting the French. I know I will do my part, as I stay inside or stay masked...and have another Last Word.

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