This is how we culturally illiterate Americans come to know great things--secondarily, and through some unremarkable artifact of popular culture. We'll never get it where we should get it--through our public schools, since they have largely given up on passing on the great things of the past.
War and Peace is a book that should be read by every literate Western person.
There are several things that strike me about Tolstoy after now having now read all his major works. The first is the sheer vitality of his stories. They are simply bursting with life. Seemingly without effort, he creates a world and peoples it with real people, people who, if they were any more real, would actually be real.
Only God creates characters more real than Tolstoy's.
Despite the vast canvas on which he paints, Tolstoy is able to draw you intimately into the life and thought of each character. Someone told me that when his wife had finished reading the book, she told him she would miss the characters. This was exactly my feeling.
Here I had just finished reading this thousand-page book and I just wanted it to go on. A part of my life ended when I had to leave Pierre and Natasha in the midst of theirs. I would have been only too happy to continue reading War and Peace for the rest of my life, if it only wouldn't end.
The second thing that strikes me about Tolstoy is his very explicit Christianity. It confirms once again something I have said before: An encounter with great Western literature is an encounter with Christianity. You wonder why our schools are engaged in the greatest cultural memory dump since the fall of Rome and rise of the Dark Ages? This may be one reason: The culture of the West is inextricably intertwined with religion—and one religion in particular.
Read Tolstoy. Read Dostoevsky. Read Flannery O'Connor--or, for that matter, Beowulf, the Canterbury Tales, and Shakespeare. In fact, even the authors who are not themselves Christian are reacting to Christianity and are incomprehensible if you don't understand it.
Teach Western culture and you teach Christianity. There is no way out of it.
The third striking thing about Tolstoy is his ability to create a real world. Sometimes I fall asleep while listening to a book on my mp3 player. But there are some books I can't do this with. I can't do it with a book that doesn't create a real world--one I would want to live in.
And the world I want to live in is this world.
I said this when I introduced Wendell Berry at a conference a couple of years ago: The authors who create a real world are the ones who don't create a different one from our own. They are authors who bring you, not into their own world, but into this one more deeply. Tolstoy is one of only a handful of authors who seem to be able to do this.
And of course one of the essential features of this world--the one Tolstoy recreates--is that it has a metaphysical and moral order: There is an moral "up" and an immoral "down." It is Homer's world; Vergil's world; and, in particular, Dante's world. It is everybody's world up until about the 18th century, when secularism hits high gear and begins to displace Christianity among the literary elite.
But this is the thing about Western secularism: It never can completely rid itself of its Christian origins. It would be like trying to create pure gold: It cannot exist unalloyed from religion--without, that is, turning to dust. It is--to vary the metaphor--like a branch cut off from a tree: it lives for a while and then withers and dies.
In all of Tolstoy's works there is space to morally breathe. And somehow he is able to do this (for the most part) without being preachy.
Like all his works, he creates convincing characters and a believable world. Dmitri Ivanovich Nekhlyudov, a young Russian noble and former soldier is called to jury duty where a young woman is charged with murder. At first he doesn't recognize her. She is a prostitute accused of poisoning a man. But Nekhludov realizes, in the midst of the trial, that the girl was a servant girl in his house as a young man. He had seduced her and, as he finds out, had born his child, which had died. The pregnancy he had helped to bring about had caused her to be cast out of their house, and she was forced into a life of prostitution.
The woman before him as a juror in her trial, was there because of what he himself had done.
It is a compelling and heart-wrenching story. Nekhlyodov is overcome with remorse and devotes the rest of his life to the girl, who is convicted and sent to Siberia, where he follows her. Unfortunately, Tolstoy creates a character in Nekhlyodov who is so idealistic as to be a bit of a boor. As a character, he ends up shouldering much of the pretentiousness latent in the characters of other novels, where they are always more than balanced by a certain concreteness and earthly vibrancy.
The down-to-earth Kitty in Anna Karenina has been replaced by the abstract and idyllic Nekhlyudov.
Unfortunately, this is Tolstoy at his preachiest and most Platonic. But the thing is, Tolstoy at his worst is better than most everyone else at their best. The ending is dissatisfying because of its pretentious high-mindedness, but it's still an engaging and enjoyable read.