Review: Isabelle Lion Yiyun Li

Reconnection and Restoration

Nostalgia arises from a time and place of irrevocable loss. Remembering the days when my younger self sat in bed reading, shielded by the privacy of the pages, as the rest of my family made dumplings, circling around me like ocean currents, I feel a pang of nostalgia. The room and the characters within it still appear in my dreams, but the red villa where I grew up has been torn down, its original site lost in the forest of concrete blocks. The innocence of being easily captivated, of reverie, of reading without criticism is also long gone. So is the righteousness of prioritising reading over other responsibilities in one’s life. I haven’t stopped reading, but I would love to read better, to rediscover the passion and restore the openheartedness.

If I liken books to people, a crowd of them are always on the shelves commanding my respect and attention. But with whom should I be spending my time? This summer I listened to my first audiobook in English, War and Peace, an epic soundscape of 67 hours, a well overdue pilgrimage. My father had loved the novel, and years ago, we watched the Soviet film adaptation directed by Sergei Bondarchuk in the late 1960s, starring himself as Pierre Bezukhov. Bondarchuk also directed and starred in Fate of a Man of which my father often spoke emotionally, though I’ve never seen it. His favourite character in War and Peace was Pierre, but I was too young to spare any thought for the large, lugubrious man. Of the four film instalments totalling seven hours, the romantic scene of Natasha’s first dance with the handsome Prince Andrei in an opulent ballroom, and a moment before, her first tears of disappointment, have remained most vividly with me. Later my father and I watched the 1956 film adaptation directed by King Vidor and were both dissatisfied by its lightweight interpretation. Audrey Hepburn is gorgeous and spirited but she doesn’t have the softness and generosity of Ludmila Savelyeva, an embodiment of the womanly, yet almost childlike tenderness of Natasha. My best friend from high school nominated War and Peace as one of the ten books that profoundly influenced him as a person. The section that moved him most was the Battle of Austerlitz, an episode of human activity on the grandest scale in which the fate of its many participants progress inexorably towards disaster. My summer project is a tribute to our friendship despite the distance that separates us.

Adding to the excitement is Yiyun Li’s Tolstoy Together: 85 Days of War and Peace published by A Public Space Books in 2021. I’m a devotee of Li’s short stories, which have an intensity, a relentlessness, a singlemindedness that I find remarkable. I’ve also read and reread her memoir Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life. In the grip of suicidal depression, twice hospitalised following suicide attempts, Li gives an account of her continuous dialogues with writers who inspire in her a sense of kinship. Well versed in literary history, Li draws telling details from the works, letters, journals, and biographies of eminent writers, and in a meandering fashion, articulates her innate need to write and read. There is a dramatic scene on the hospital ward when her copy of War and Peace inadvertently becomes a prop. A fellow patient at the hospital ward is affronted by its sheer size of over a thousand pages and its potentially meddling effect, to the extent that she grabs it from Li’s hands and raises it up. ‘Has this fucking book ever made you laugh? No! It’s so damn heavy it could kill me.’ A fair question and an astute observation! Li’s fellow patient has assumed that only humour is healthy, while Tolstoy’s classic depicts a kaleidoscope of emotions that it is rewarding and cathartic for anyone to read in any psychological state.

Tolstoy Together is an unusual book. At the start of 2020, Li thought it would be delightful to be reading War and Peace with maybe a handful of friends. She hosted a virtual book club through A Public Space, an American publisher. To her surprise, three thousand readers joined her from across six continents. Each day Li prescribed a section for reading and the participants, including Li herself, shared their thoughts over Twitter. The book maps out the experience of this group of travellers as they navigate a shared journey at the height of a pandemic when many were under lockdown and in isolation. My copy took a long time to arrive due to the Delta wave delivery delays. Its mossy green hardcover is velvety to the touch, the front design an elegant system of framing and matting, with a lichenous green tablet in the middle like a slate monument. Tolstoy Together isn’t meant to be a standalone book but a companion to War and Peace, a prolonged conference of avid reading minds, a guidebook not for pre-reading but for reinforcement of the distributed memories shared among the travellers after each day’s exploration.

In ‘Taking Writing Lessons from War and Peace’, Li writes that ‘A simple structure will do just fine. For instance, War and Peace has the most straightforward structure: the novel alternates between war (characters in the military settings) and peace (characters in the civilian settings). A complex book doesn’t have to have a complicated configuration.’ With a simple chronological structure, Tolstoy Together testifies to the same truth.

As if attending Anna Pavlovna’s soiree in Petersburg where War and Peace opens, we hear Li’s distinct intonation among the murmuring voices, our prodigious guide gently directing the topics of the day, fostering conversations: ‘Dear Friends, let’s go – slowly, without rushes, without impatience, without fatigue, without weakness. With some random thoughts from me and many more from you.’ Li’s exegetic comments, neatly presented on the left palm of the book, are generally in response to text quoted from the assigned reading material of the day, a contemplative offering to honour the venerable author and the congregation of readers. Her voice is tender and sincere, persuasive in its humanly warmth.

Day 6

He went over to him, took his hand… and pulled it down, as if testing whether it was well attached.

Prince Vassily’s hands speak more eloquently than his words.

Li’s fellow patient would be surprised to learn that Tolstoy bestows plenty of humour upon his readers, and the novel has surely made many people laugh. This is the moment when the old Count Bezukhov is about to die and leave Pierre, his favourite illegitimate son, a huge fortune. Prince Vassily is mobilising allies and plotting to deprive Pierre of his inheritance. It’s Pierre’s hand that Vassily is pulling. A handshake that speaks a thousand words.

Day 14

Tushin in action: “He pictured himself as of enormous size, a mighty man, flinging cannonballs at the French with both hands.”

The difference between a man with an ego and a man without one: Prince Andrei’s superhero fantasy is joyless; Tushin’s, gleeful.

Li often draws our attention to minor characters. A cheerful small man, Tushin fights valiantly with cannonballs, his efficacy demonstrative only when he’s in action on the battlefield. I picture him as a hardworking hobbit feeding firewood to the stoves to keep his home hospitable.

Day 20

When the sun had fully emerged… [Napoleon] took the glove from his beautiful white hand, made a sign to the marshals, and gave the order for the action to begin.

Tolstoy gives some of the best gestures in the novel to Napoleon, starting with the shedding of a single glove as an historical beginning.

The way Li quotes from the book reminds me that I used to copy down my favourite passages for future reference. I had forgotten the joy of copying by hand, inking one’s admiration, claiming a memory by turning intangible text into physical existence in a notebook.

Selected thoughts from other readers are placed on the opposite page, often reflections of the individual reading experiences or commentary over the psychology of the characters, sometimes in consonance and harmony, other times in intriguing discordance. Being supremely sensitive to language, Li always chooses an exquisite subtitle of the day from the myriad of words and phrases: ‘The Weight of The Present Moment’ (Day 5); ‘All This Was So Strange’ (Day 14); ‘I Want with All My Heart’ (Day 25); ‘A Catalogue of Smiles’ (Day 26); ‘Linger with Me’ (Day 70). Slowly some of the other voices become recognisable, just like minor characters in the novel. One of the contributors is Miss Mainwaring, ‘a former playwright and hellbent old lady’, whose comments are heartfelt and hilarious.

Day 18

A professor in graduate school said there is nothing like reading a great novel for the first time. Once read, you can never regain the mystery. Don’t treat this slow unwinding thrill lightly, he told us … He was talking about the magic of unknowing.

Day 83

I’m not doing well with you guys criticizing my man Tolstoy. I know you’re cranky and all, but I’m sticking with him to the end. He’s infinitely better than my first two husbands and most men I know.

Many other voices stand out for their compassion – some of the contributors are authors themselves. It makes one wonder whether reading is not the best way to learn empathy because it transcends the boundaries of an individual life to allow partaking in numerous other lives.

The two melodies, Li’s and that of her entourage of readers, progress in parallel, with occasional appearances of old masters: Marguerite Duras, Isaac Babel, Stefan Zweig, Turgenev, Flaubert, creating a polyphonic ensemble. Like the soirée at the beginning of the book, many more attendees whose names do not surface onto the page are listening, occupying the periphery with their silent presence. Reading outside the group, I’m a latecomer following those predecessors’ itinerary, studying the signs and clues they leave behind, drinking from the Chinamen’s wells they have judiciously marked on my long march to the goldfield.

Tolstoy Together is a testimony to and a celebration of close reading when we afford literary text dedicated time and devotional attention. Li quotes an apt example from the novel in her Introduction: ‘The transparent sounds of hooves rang out on the planks of the bridge.’ The synaesthetic description makes Li pause, ponder, and recall hearing horses walking down the streets of her distant childhood in the predawn Beijing. Such is the magic of close reading, like Proust’s madeleine cakes made famous by its memory-inducing power. On Day 57 Carl Philips, an active participant, contributes his prose version of an ode to reading titled ‘To Make Space for Wonder’. Through the daily reading in small bites, a method ‘designed to make the monumental manageable’, Philips realises that he is ‘learning not just a new way to read but a new way to see and, by extension, a new way to understand the world around me.’ Amid the pandemic, he can ‘look at the small invitation of each day with its mix of responsibilities and pleasures.’ A random dog in a small scene makes Philips recall ‘an innocence that we’re all born with, but which tends to fall into the shadows of experience as we grow up and into the world.’ His sentiment resonates with my own desire to restore the innocence of reading passionately with an open heart.

Reading can anchor us, especially at a time when we ‘had been displaced from our usual world’ as described by A Public Space’s editor Brigid Hughes. Many readers find War and Peace a mirror of our time which Li summarises as ‘the man-made and natural catastrophes; the egomanias and incapacities in those designers of national and international schemes …’ Day 75 falls on May 31, 2020, a time when curfews were declared in Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Atlanta as nationwide George Floyd protests continued. In the day’s designated reading Natasha is mourning Andrei’s death while news of Petya’s death reaches the Rostov family. The characters and the readers are all grief stricken, inside and outside the book. By this stage the chorus has become longer, spanning three pages, and the second part of the communal commentary is titled ‘On This Day’. Miss Mainwaring says, ‘I survived my childhood, a gothic horror, by reading. Reading was hope; confirmation; escape. The day I read The Sound and the Fury, I knew it was my world that was crazy, not me. Today I can’t read. I cannot pick up the book.’ Not only world events are reflected in the reading, but personal events more so. On Day 74, the second part of the chorus is titled ‘The Most Memorable Segment’, which consists of a single entry by Andy Black, for his son, George, who was born the day before.

I can’t imagine that volume 4, part 3 is anyone’s favourite chunk of War and Peace: it’s cold and grim, but it will probably be the most memorable segment as I read it during quiet moments of her labor…

Thanks to Yiyun Li for giving us so much to think about. I’m planning to print out the entire web page and put it in a binder to keep in my book collection. A very memorable spring of reading – I’ll be forever grateful.

I can’t help wondering if this entry gave birth to the idea of Tolstoy Together.

Li calls herself one of those greedy readers who ‘crave more than a confirmation of experience: we want writers to articulate that for which we haven’t yet found our own words…’ A good book will always reflect more about the world and ourselves than we know, yet it meets us where we are. Day 68, and Prince Andrei is in the physical process of dying, his spirit departing and awakening from life. One of Li’s entries:

During the last time they themselves felt that they were no longer taking care of him (he was no longer there, he had left them), but of the nearest reminder of him – his body.

This line reads differently after one has sat with the dying and the dead. Sometimes a book is only waiting for us to experience more of life to understand it better.

Poignantly three years ago Li’s elder son, aged sixteen, took his own life.

Tolstoy Together is a rich handbook for writers with Li’s notes frequently pointing to the formal aspects of War and Peace. At a fundamental level Li teaches us to observe life and she quotes Zweig’s comment about Tolstoy: ‘One who sees so much and so well does not need to invent: one who observes imaginatively does not need creative imagination.’ She then steers our attention to Tolstoy’s storytelling techniques.

Day 2

A first encounter with a character in Tolstoy is an encounter with the character’s essence.

Day 3

The sound of several men’s and women’s feet running to the door, the crash of a tripped-over and fallen chair, and a thirteen-year-old girl ran in.

Tolstoy slyly puts a veil over the omniscience so we are the guests now, not knowing … and waiting to meet… Natasha.

Day 9

You are looking at the unfortunate Mack.

Tolstoy suspends his narrative omniscience when he wants a character’s entrance to be dramatic. Mack shows up as Natasha did, causing a gasp somewhere.

Like listening and understanding music, reading is a learnt skill that can be continuously cultivated, refined, and renewed. In an interview with a Chinese writer, Li says her teachers Marilynne Robinson and James Alan MacPherson have inspired her not by teaching her literary craft but the art of reading, the art of thinking. She does the same with her own students. As for herself, she spends most of her day, approximately ten hours, reading, and reads War and Peace and Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick every morning over coffee before breakfast. Her first advice to aspiring young writers is to read classics.

At the end of Tolstoy Together is a section for notes, with sixteen lined pages each titled ‘Date’ and ‘Pages read’. I haven’t written notes for War and Peace because I was listening to it, but I will use the format to read Moby-Dick with Li in A Public Space’s next virtual book club. The two books have become part of the rhythm of Li’s reading and writing. I’m glad the books Li loves so dearly are becoming part of my life which has been and will continue to be enriched by reading.

Works Cited

Yiyun Li, Dear Friend, from My Life I write to You in Your Life. Penguin Books: 2017.

Yiyun Li, ‘Yiyun Li on Taking Writing Lessons from War and Peace’. Literary Hub: 24 September 2021.

Yiyun Li, ‘Yiyun Li | Herman Melville’. A Public Space: 3 February 2022.

Qian Jianan, ‘正午回顾 | 李翊云:写作的两种野心’. Jie Mian: July 2016.

Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace. Vintage Books: 2009.