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 Simple Things - - ESCAPE | OUTING - Adapted from The Anna Karen­ina Fix: Life Lessons from Rus­sian Lit­er­a­ture by Viv Groskop (Fig Tree)

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

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