Essays: David Gilmour on “War and Peace” |
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David Gilmour on “War and Peace”

Misleadingly sharing his name with a member of Pink Floyd, David Gilmour was not, at first blush, the ideal choice to write the best imaginable turn-on introduction to Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Based in Canada, Gilmour had made his reputation as the organizer of the Toronto film festival, as a film critic, as a TV star and as a novelist. His unblushing boast that it had taken him a long time to get around to reading War and Peace scarcely seemed a persuasive qualification for the job of writing about it. But after some characteristically self-dramatising opening paragraphs about himself, he went on to write an appreciation of  War and Peace that is hard to beat, and I post his article here in the certain knowledge that it will propel many another reader into doing what he did: starting at page one, and then holding on for dear life as the horse breaks into a gallop.

I was made aware of Gilmour’s article (for which he has won several prizes; a very commendable Canadian practice) by a young Korean woman called Lee Nan Young, who had been reading this website to improve her English. Judging from her letter to me, it didn’t need much improving, but I was thrilled to have gained her notice, because one of my long-term plans for the site is to make it a teaching tool for would-be learners of advanced English all over the world. I imagine that David Gilmour, also, will be pleased to have attracted her attention. He deserves to. His article is far from being a sober appreciation of Tolstoy, but sometimes the most sober thing you can do is to admit that you are plastered.

I might say that the old lady he refers to, who has read War and Peace three times, could have been me in disguise, except that I have read it more often, own half a dozen copies in various editions – my own tip for the English translation to read, incidentally, is the old one by Aylmer Maude – and that I share Gilmour's opinion that there is no book more wonderful in all the world. No wonder Turgenev was uncontrollably envious, to the point of saying that the book was a failure. But the facts say that the book was appreciated as a masterpiece quite early on. Matthew Arnold, when he read the first French translation, immediately pronounced it to be a classic. No other opinion is really possible, and nothing has every stopped sensitive readers reading it except its apparent length. But as David Gilmour, after an unconscionable delay, eventually discovered, it isn’t long enough. Students of literary journalism should be wary about copying Gilmour's personalised style – it takes restraint to get away with being that casual – but they should certainly try to emulate his fearless candour in registering an enthusiasm. If you love something, say so.

Read David Gilmour on Tolstoy’s “War and Peace