WAR AND PEACE AND WISDOM
A DEAD, BEARDED RUSSIAN MAY NOT SEEM A LIKELY LIFE COACH, BUT THE BOOKS OF TOLSTOY AND CO CAN TEACH US MUCH, SAYS VIV GROSKOP IN HER NEW BOOK THE ANNA KARENINA FIX
The Russian classics are admittedly not the most obvious place to look for tips for a happier life. They’re full of gloomy people wondering how on earth they have ended up in the appalling predicament in which they find themselves, looking around desperately for someone else to blame and then realising that life really is extremely inconvenient and annoying and we are all just waiting to die. But they also teach us that it can, crucially, be survived. And it can be enjoyed, beautifully.
It is great works of literature that really change us as people by showing us the inner lives of others and by revealing our common humanity. These works allow us to imagine different versions of ourselves only without actually having to kill any old ladies ( Crime
and Punishment), have a friendly conversation with Satan on a park bench ( The Master
and Margarita), or throw ourselves under
trains ( Anna Karenina). These books can teach us about life without us actually having to live through the things described in the books. They are as good as showing us how not to live as they are at showing us how to live. In fact, they’re often better at the former.
HOW TO KNOW WHO YOU REALLY ARE
via Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy Although on the surface of things Anna
Karenina seems to be a morality tale about a doomed, beautiful-but-adulterous romance, really this is a book about identity, integrity and our purpose in life.
The lesson in the novel is that we must try to know who we really are in order to live an authentic life. Anna realises that her life with Vronsky is authentic but unachievable and so she feels she has no option but to kill herself.
Anna Karenina instantly regrets her suicide whilst she is in the act. Just as she is pulled under the wheels, she says, horrified: “Where am I? What am I doing? Why?” There’s not much point in her asking these questions now. She had her chance. She blew it. Tolstoy’s message? We need to make sure we ask these questions. But not quite so late. It’s all very well looking for answers but life is ultimately unknowable.
HOW TO FACE UP TO WHATEVER LIFE THROWS AT YOU
via Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak Of all the novels that explore Russianness in the 20th century, Dr Zhivago has marked itself out as the ultimate. What Pasternak seems to be searching for here is an answer to the question: “How can you be yourself when you are being blown in a million different directions you can’t control?”
Pasternak shows a Soviet-era hero caught up in the sweep of events, powerless in the face of fate. That said, what little moral power Zhivago does have, he does not exercise. He’s weak and sometimes incredibly silly. Is that his fault though?
Man is powerless in the face of destiny. And destiny is to be respected because it lets us off the hook. We spend our whole lives looking for things that are meant to be, hoping that fate will guide us rather than taking responsibility for our own choices. And yet. The novel shows that fate does not make us happy and give us what we want. Sometimes it brings a much-loved mistress 700 miles from Moscow and into the back of beyond where we just happen to be. But at other times it is just as likely to be cruel. Zhivago eventually dies of a heart attack.
The odds of something like this happening in real life are zero. But, then, real life is actually more ridiculous and full of coincidences than novels and so often we do feel powerless in the face of fate. How do you cope with that in life? You just keep going.
HOW TO KNOW WHAT MATTERS IN LIFE
via War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy Of all the Russian books, War and Peace is the most daunting, the most intimidating and the most full of pages. So many pages. Plus, there are more than 500 characters. Meandering and at times confusing, it is a bloated, blubbery Godzilla of a blancmange.
And yet. Isn’t that life? Full of non-sequiturs, unlikely coincidences, hundreds of characters who may or may not be significant? It could be argued that the structure of War and Peace is one of the most honest reflections of real life in literature. It’s sequential and chronological. It’s sometimes uneventful for ages and then suddenly far more eventful than you would like. There are few happy endings and even the endings that are happy are complicated and hard won. But if you can stick with it and sit through the dull bits and find people to champion and elements that you’re passionate about, it is a strange and wonderful thing. (You see? I could be talking about War and Peace. Or I could be talking about life. Clever Tolstoy…)
The great challenge of War and Peace is not only to extract the lessons from the story – enjoy every sunrise and sunset; know who your friends are; beware the folly of youth; have faith in your own future; be kind and humble – it’s finding the lesson about yourself in how you tackle reading it. Again, like life itself, it seems insurmountable. Sometimes it seems pointless. And yet if you can be patient and kind to yourself, it will slowly open up to you.
Although shacking up with someone else’s husband in rural Russia, or throwing yourself under a train is not recommended, there are still valuable life lessons to be gleaned from Russian classics