I probably could not have told you anything about Russian literature before I enrolled in college. But not long after I arrived, I began to hear my older classmates rave about a must-take course from Gary Saul Morson in which students read Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy and The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. A couple years later I finally took the class, and my life has never been the same. Through the eyes of these world-renowned authors, especially Dostoevsky, I began to gain deeper perspective on sin, relationships, world history, meaning, and much more. I went on to take another course devoted solely to Dostoevsky and continued even in private reading to seek out Russian insights that had thus far eluded my Western formation.
Not long after I graduated I determined to tackle the ultimate behemoth of Russian literature: Tolstoy's War and Peace. Weighing in at roughly 1,500 pages, this book inspires more jokes today than serious students. Yet scholars the world over continue to describe it as the greatest novel ever written. I finished, but without the aid of my trusted college guide, I did not learn or retain as much as I hoped.
You can understand, then, why I was so encouraged to see the new book Give War and Peace a Chance: Tolstoyan Wisdom for Troubled Times by University of Virginia professor Andrew Kaufman. I looked forward to learning more what I missed the first time reading through the fabled classic, and Kaufman did not disappoint. Full of fascinating details about Tolstoy's tumultuous life, the book explores his gift and aims as an artist along with his strong convictions that inspired the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Ghandi, and Nelson Mandela. Kaufman even dares to apply Tolstoy's views to today's troubles and thus shows why this 19th-century novel deserves contemporary readership.
Before you attempt to climb Mount Everest and read War and Peace, I recommend you grab a friend and use Kaufman's work as your sherpa guide. But as you'll hear in this interview, the book doesn't only help you navigate the baffling complexities of Russian names. Kaufman and I discussed what you can learn from a man so morally flawed as Tolstoy, who understood that it's easier to preach than to practice. In our one-click Amazon world War and Peace doesn't offer easy answers; it certainly doesn't supplant biblical wisdom. But it echoes Christian teaching on why pain is necessary for happiness and why more freedom doesn't necessarily mean more fulfillment. Listen in to understand the Russian saying that “in nature there is no bad weather” and learn why some readers prefer the tragic worldview of Dosotevsky to the more optimistic perspective of Tolstoy.