Coronavirus limbo is perfect time to finally read War and Peace – Laura Waddell

Under coronavirus, citizens are reminded our actions can be a matter of life and death, writes Laura Waddell.

The sheer length of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace can be off-putting to some readers (Picture: Cate Gillon)

There is an odd, slightly self-aggrandising trope that boredom is for boring people. The Russian author Leo Tolstoy described boredom as “the desire for desires”, but during cornavirus lockdown, not being able to satisfy our desires for simple things, the sort of everyday occurances we took for granted mere weeks ago, is proving to be deeply boring.

Recently I’ve taken part in an online reading group called Tolstoy Together, led by writer Yiyun Li, marching readers through the managable sum of around a dozen pages of epic novel War and Peace each day. The idea is that by the end of the book, summer will be arriving, and hopefully we will be emerging into a less fraught time – if not quite back to normal.

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American literary website A Public Space is running the project, with readers sharing thoughts on social media as they go, although engaging with others is entirely optional. I realise, as I anonymously scroll, that this is a draw for me. I don’t much feel at the moment like mustering up wit, but it is its own private comfort to do something pleasurable in step with others. And mercifully, for this time of diminished concentration, most commentary is brief and light. As is the way with such classics, I already had an unopened, dusty copy on the bottom of my bookshelves, one of many tomes I had optimistically carted about from flat to flat in my student years and which was still with me, waiting. If not now, when?

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There’s a belief the war sections of the book are less important than the peacetime scenes, filled with the knotty 19th century plots of extended family intrique, marriage woes between cousins distant and close, old men peering through lorgnettes at rosy-cheeked mothers to be, and, in all of the above, the aristocratic social status which must be jealously guarded lest it slip from poor finances or manners.

Really, of the two states of war and peace, each is a foil for the other, showing how the characters behave when the world around them is flipped. At this stage of reading, currently mired in the strategy and muck of war, it’s surprising to find foot soldiers filled with excitement as they charge the better bolstered enemy, almost certainly to their deaths, in boots that are falling apart. Tolstoy sketched these scenes from real reports of the Napoleonic war.

Wartime metaphors

But there is some truth to the suggestion the book’s wartime scenes are less intriguing as a whole, the internal lives of all involved more elemental in their need for fuel, rest, and bloodlust. I read them through with a touch more haste.

Under coronavirus, citizens are reminded often that our actions are a matter of life and death. As panic buying showed, nobody is taking food supplies for granted. Work and housing have become frought with uncertainty for many. It has taken such extreme conditions for the UK to reflect on society’s true necessities. Wartime metaphors are plentiful to describe our new normal – but what about before? Can a country with such rich-poor divide and mounting deaths linked to austerity really be said to be at peace, rather than at civil war with itself?

But for all the extremity of the current situtation, and the grave necessity of locking down, we are also experiencing new depths of societal stillness. Putting essential workers and voluntary schemes to one side, it is an irony and jarring to human nature that at a time our essential needs are under threat, we are facing this by staying at home, doing little, often deeply bored when not panicking. Those of us who are fortunate enough to stay healthy, at least. Efforts to distract ourselves can feel like an unsatisfying approximation of the way things were before. There are guides to travelling via Google Earth, through the screen. I did this kind of thing before coronavirus. It’s not relaxing, but a reminder of what can’t be.

Lost in my daily Tolstoy

In the mornings, at least, something has changed, if only increasingly abstract numbers on the calendar. Weekends, it turns out, only mean something when they differ from the week. Still, each new day is a new beginning and one day further through all this. Each day there are tasks to attend to, coffee to be made, responsibilities to meet. But I find the sense of purpose slowly drains away throughout the day, like a battery. After dusk, it is harder to push away the gloom, anticipating another day just like the last, and the one before that. I try not to dwell on how long it might last. Around midnight it’s calmer again. I drink some tea, read my daily Tolstoy, and forget for 20 minutes or so. I find myself yearning for middle ground, instead of veering between inner extremes – the pulsing, red alert of anxiety and, on other days, bouts of listless depression. From half a lifetime of managing my mental health, I recognise muscle memory in both. Tension in my face and shoulders from sleepless nights of prolonged panic and shallow breathing; the pain which blooms across my lower back from lying down all day. In more ordinary times, there is a greater sense of external normalcy to anchor to. At the moment, it is harder.

In my current fantasies I am more sociable than I have ever actually been, but what I want most is simply to walk down a street busy as normal, among others doing their own thing. Life is lacking motion, colour, and the unexpected that arises from everyday streets filled with strangers intent on their own unknown desires. That small, mundane chaos has been replaced with shuttling back and forth, when things are moving at all, two metres apart. But so it has to be for now.

Boredom is not the lack of desire – and besides, who lacks desires? Boredom is limbo, unable to move forwards or backwards, suspended in time.