Often called the greatest novel ever written, War and Peace is at once an epic of the Napoleonic Wars, a philosophical study, and a celebration of the Russian spirit. Tolstoy's genius is seen clearly in the multitude of characters in this massive chronicle-all of them fully realized and equally memorable. Out of this complex narrative emerges a profound examination of the individual's place in the historical process, one that makes it clear why Thomas Mann praised Tolstoy for his Homeric powers and placed War and Peace in the same category as the Iliad "To read him . . . is to find one's way home . . . to everything within us that is fundamental and sane."
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The CCRAP TOP 10: In which I, Ilie Terate, having no qualifications, background, skills or experience other than an overbounding ego and love of self promotion, internet connection and the right to free speech and the belief that all opinions are to be taken seriously, especially mine on the grounds that I have the right to express my opinion coz it’s a democracy, and that what I think is equally valid coz otherwise it’s, you know, elitist and I also have a really gorgeous asshole which I have photographed extensively and which you can see in my new book “19 Pictures of an asshole” (cost $90 through CCRAP only) and you can also follow my incredibly interesting life on facebook where you can see pictures of every cappucino I’ve ever drunk every meal I have ever eaten every outfit I’ve ever worn and every shit I’ve ever had (this one’s for free) and see my 8 million friends, read for the first time Ten so-called "classics," then write reports on whether they deserve the label, coz you know, what do thousands of minds superior to mine throughout history really know about it, and a label is what, exactly?
Essay #1: War and Peace (1880), by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
So there’s this guy called Napoleon and he invades Moscow, everyone leaves, then the winter comes and Napoleon returns to his own country, on the way back lots of people die and get frozen in the snow coz they were not prepared for winter, there are a couple of battle scenes and that’s the war part. Then there’s the peace part, I mean the writer doesn’t separate them like this, but weaves them together, a good editor would’ve asked him to separate them so it’s easier to work out what’s going on, and in the peace part there’s this girl called Natasha who does a dance and falls in love with the Tsar and they have a sleigh drive through the snow and it’s all very romantic even though the pheasants are enslaved and don’t have enough to eat.
The argument for:
Most professors like it. It’s foreign, by an author with a really long name which ends in a ‘y’ and that always impresses people. It’s been constantly in print in every known language in the universe for about 100 years and everyone who loves reading reads it some of them more than once whoooooa radical right? and falls in love with it. But apart from that, folks, I really cannot see why this has classic status at all. I mean, where’s the relevancy? The writer based his story on that Hitler guy’s invasion of Russia in The World At War and there are lots of parallels which the careful reader can spot: snow, Russians, walking, stuff like that. Probably a good case for plagiarism here.
The argument against:
Ha, well this is really easy, it’s far too long!!! A good editor would have made sure it was much shorter and better organized. The battle scenes especially are waaaaaaaay too long and messy and it’s really hard to work out whom is fighting who and what’s going on, so that needs a bit of editing there’s also like this stuff about history and what it is which is really really boring like the writer never attended high school history classes or something coz everyone knows that history is what happened in the past duh! Right? Anyway, I really didn’t read those bits coz they are like too boring and difficult so I reckon they are not really part of the story and you can probably skip them anyway like a good editor would’ve cut them out anyway.
Another problem is the names. Everyone has like three names all ending in ‘y’ which is really weird, and then they have all these nicknames, like the names you give yourself on msn and youtube and facebook only not so easy why the writer couldn’t choose easy names like Jane or Dick Dick’s a great name, lots of really great guys called Dick Dick Nixon, Dick Cheney you can always trust a Dick, I’d love to be a Dick but I got lumped with this foreign name by my Romanian extraction parents whom fled to this great country from Europe which no one can pronounce so as I was saying the names are a real bummer.
Not a classic, dude.
(And don't forget that all my work is now available on the internet!)
I'll be honest: this was a slog. I love Dickens and gulp down Hugo. Collins has no terrors for me (well, besides his Gothic-y ones) and I've plowed through Radcliffe without a tremor. I didn't think War and Peace would be so hard to get through, but it was. I started well but then just lost interest. Finally, several months later, I picked it back up and began, determinedly, to make my way to the end. I was going to finish it or be finished by it. Just under a year later, I read the last page and found myself both relieved and a bit sorry to be leaving that world.
Resignation, a prominent virtue in some of the characters, is important in the reader as well. Indeed, for me the substantial enjoyment of the book only began once I gave myself up to it. By approaching the digressive sections with the same attitude as the narrative portions, I began to appreciate it and see why it has been hailed as such an important piece of literature. I feel a little foolish, actually... only discovering how to enjoy it in the last three hundred pages or so.
The story sprawls and spreads in all directions, encompassing a wide range of characters who are all made real to the reader via Tolstoy's omniscient narrator voice. We get inside their heads and are privy to all their thoughts, recognizing our own mental landscape in their often illogical, self-absorbed thinking. Natasha is one of the most vivid characters I've ever read. Pierre, Andrei, Marya, Sonya, Nikolai, Petya... they all come alive and I remember them almost as people I knew rather than characters I read about.
Tolstoy has a very decided opinion on historical figures and events, and expounds on it frequently! He believes that history is determined not by the decisions and actions of single figures (like Napoleon) but by the interplay of thousands and millions of individual wills. Again and again Tolstoy picks apart the historical analyses of critical battles and tries to demonstrate that success doesn't prove there was brilliant planning, and failure doesn't necessarily indicate ineptitude. He says that the ancients gave us a model of historical events that focused on the actions and personalities of hero-figures, and we can't get used to the idea of history without them — so we fashion historical protagonists and endow them with our belief in their power. He's eloquent and persuasive, but I found I had much less interest in his digressions than with Hugo's novel-length forays into the Napoleonic battles or Melville's detailed descriptions of whaling. Perhaps it's the repetition and the almost-petulant tone of his arguments?
About halfway through the book, I watched the three-hour movie version starring Audrey Hepburn (perfectly cast as Natasha) and Henry Fonda. It was surprisingly faithful and we enjoyed it quite a bit. Of course the movie can't show the spiritual transformations several characters experience, like Prince Andrei's moment of illumination in the surgeons' tent, Pierre's slow maturation, or the fascinating mind and vitality of Natasha. Nor did the movie delve into Pierre's experimentation with Freemasonry, which Tolstoy describes in great detail. I wonder if knowing the end of the story actually helped me to enjoy the latter part of the book, seeing it all unfold with the details that the screen version simply can't convey.
I read the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, which is reputed to be among the best. My expectations were probably too high. There are definitely some awkward sentences, especially when Tolstoy is describing a character's inner thoughts and motivations, but it seems to be more what he wrote rather than a translator's misstep.
Books have been written on this book, and a quick review will hardly do it justice. And with my experience of the story spread out over a year, I'm not going to capture all my thoughts about it. I will just say: I am glad I read it and learned the art of literary surrender.
But is it a perfect book? No book is perfect. War and Peace is a brilliant book that should be read and enjoyed at whatever age a person is. It truly is a book for every age and every person. Let yourself into a world that will enrapt you. And a little request: can we in 2000 stop using the phrase "is not perfect ..." when describing something. Nothing in life is perfect. No book, no movie, no age, no accomplishment, and so on. Consciously refuse to compare anything to perfection and instead just enjoy something for what it is. Comparing something to the unobtainable 'perfect' merely diminishes that something and our experience. Don't be put off by folk complaining about the philosophical bits. There isn't too much of that anyway.I reread “War and Peace” recently, in no rush and over three weeks and was amazed by its richness and the development of character. Make no mistake, this is a Russian epic and you will find few books in a lifetime of reading which are as memorable.
Take Pierre for example who goes from being a young buffoon worshiping Napoleon to become someone with a much more critical view, hoping at one point for the chance of assassinating him. This development does not happen overnight! He learns from his experiences in prison and through his relationship with Platon Karateyev. At the end you are left thinking that the story is not yet over. Pierre and young Nikolai Bolkonsky, patriots both - are thinking critically about society. Exile to Siberia is definitely a possibility if they get involved in anything too radical. Pierre is just one major character in this glorious book. Start when you can but don't rush it. Literature of this quality needs time.
Reasonable defenders of “War and Peace” at (one of) its current length(s) might absolutely agree with being anti-literary-flab, and simply argue that this book isn't actually flabby. For example, the "side-track stories" are not "padding" or "excess", but rather constitute the "pacing" intrinsically needed by the "content" itself- so goes a point of view which I think is more care-filled than that of a "fanboy". Take a look at vol. II, pt. 5, ch. VI (it's only a couple of pages). Natasha has accepted Prince Andrei's proposal, and has returned to Moscow to meet the prince's father and get ready to get married. She meets Marya Dmitrievna, a society dowager, who intrusively 're-assures' Natasha about "old Prince Nikolai" and his resistance to his son's getting married. A tiny moment, particularly in that nothing in the plot changes as a result of this vignette, but we are shown: the social realities that Natasha is growing to recognize and understand; and the ego-centrism, diminishing, that's still the dominant tone in her character (she really sees this man whom she loves, but she thinks she can marry and 'have' him without marrying his family and being his socially positioned and positioning wife). You see my point? The story of the story doesn't change because of this little chapter, but our alertness to what Tolstoy is showing us is colored, or deepened, or enriched, or nourished (or whatever old-fashioned metaphor you like!) by this small facet.
Not sure what, in "War and Peace", some people mean by "cliff-hangers" and "many-a-time abrupt endings" as I’ve read elsewhere. I don't think "serialization" works as either a fault-generator or a mitigation; the book in your hands either holds together as you read it or it's de-coherently "over-long". Think of cricket. If you savor the pace of the game as it is, a five-day Test, or seven-game series, isn't 'too long'-- it unfolds at just the length it needs to. If you can't stand the sport, each batter's innings or team's at-bat is already an eternity of boring nonsense; forget about a match or game. Either way, it isn't the length itself that's guilty of generating one's antipathy. I can't see which 'thousand lines' of War and Peace one would 'blot'...
I have always been vehemently anti-literary-flab. The lack of an author's ability to distinguish what is essential and what isn't and to pare away the flab has always seemed in my eyes a weakness and not a virtue. It does not mean that I do not like long novels in and of themselves, I just find long swathes of them to be gratuitous flab (well written and brilliant though they might be). The Russian masterpieces act as a great case in point. “Anna Karenina”, “War and Peace” and “The Brothers Karamazov” (the three classic doorstops) were all written serially for the magazine The Russian Messenger. They were written in weekly installments by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky with word count and longevity of project strictly in mind (not that Tolstoy needed the money...). Now, the two authors knew that they were padding things out with side-track stories and story-telling devices, but we the modern readers know the books as they are and can't imagine any paragraph being cut (or in fact added to the end to smooth out the many-a-time abrupt endings, which are also legacies of the serialization). We like those novels for what they are and not for what they could theoretically be, but that doesn't mean that the modern author doesn't have the burden to perfect the pacing and content of his or her novel by removing the excess. There seems to exist nowadays a fanboy-like reaction to works even in cultured matters. People zealously defend endless novels, for some reason equating critique of length with critique of the total merit of the book. One can love a book and still critique its faults - we're not football ultras, we're readers.
Basically I say that a modern-day author has no excuses for writing over-long. It's a shame that some Modern (and some not so Modern) Fantasy writers can't manage to edit down their magnum opus.
Bottom-line: If you haven't read it, please do persevere past the first chapter and the strange names. It will reward you over and over in a way so few books do.
The is the story of the French and Russian war as told from the Russian front. At the beginning there are quite of few of the social aspects, the balls, parties, parlor visits, etc, but when it get into the war, Tolstoy really puts you there in the war. The logistics of war and wartime are laid right out there. The French were so not prepared for where their Napoleon took them. He didn't fight the war he had planned. And Alexander responded in kind. It very much came to the generals and commanders calling their own plays and battles. I much preferred Tolstoy's "War" to his "Peace". But I also liked how he wrapped up the story.
The very wimpy Pierre turns out to be the man after all. We get to see several sides of Alexander and of Napoleon. I had never read of Napoleon and so really found all that quite interesting. All in all, this is a great story and deserves to be read today and has it's place in literature today. I think it has proven and will continue to be proven a timeless epic of "War and Peace".
Having reached the end, though, it wasn't a totally positive experience. Mainly I disliked the way that Tolstoy builds up a situation of high tension (eg the character who amasses horrendous gambling debts) only to dispel the tension just a page later (whoops his father's paid the debts off).
There were some sections I found fascinating from a historical viewpoint: life in Russia before the revolution where, like Michael Jackson's kids, everyone is a prince or princess. Also the modes of warfare, where telecommunications consisted of a bloke on a horse careering round letting everyone know what was going on. Except that by the time he got there it had changed.
All in all, I'm glad I read it, because otherwise I would have only wondered.
Especially when taken with Anna Karenina, which is almost as impressive and somewhat more coherent as a single story, Tolstoy seems more like the omniscient god of mankind's imagination to me than any religious "God" does. Bravo.
PS: The Oxford World Classic edition is great. The translation by Aylmer and Louise Maude was approved by Tolstoy himself and is never stilted - it hasn't even aged greatly. There are a handful of helpful maps, a list of characters, and a timeline. The typeface is easy to read and by no means small. The inner margin is wide, meaning that the words never run too close into the spine, which is itself quite strong. The endnotes are helpful and thankfully referenced by page number, thus not being difficult to find, unlike the accursed numbers-arranged-by-chapter format. The only drawback is the weight: one-handed reading will be uncomfortable for some, but on the whole I think the ever-so-slightly heavier paper will be appreciated. The price is certainly a bonus. For the record, this is the only classic which I bought and read straight away, right the way through on the first go!
The inter-personal plot of this epic tale is quite excellent, but boy is it bogged down by both detailed descriptions of troop movements and battles, as well as Tolstoy’s personal axe-grinding against his contemporaries. It’s possible that it was insightful at the time of publication, but now, not so much.
These characters though! The main characters (especially Pierre and Natasha) are mostly boring and insufferable and deserve each other. But the villains and minor characters are so delightful. Boris’ eventual wife Julie (who is only in about 10 pages of the book) is SUPER GOTH - Boris woos her by writing poetry about death and drawing her a picture of a grave. Pierre’s wife Helene is an awful person but boy does she know how to work with what she’s given. She sleeps with EVERYONE – her brother (a great villain), Pierre’s houseguest Dolokov (also a great villain), Boris (boring except for his great taste in women), a government official and a Catholic priest (playing them against each other in an elaborate plot to divorce Pierre), and dies in a botched abortion. Truly a legend. Tolstoy is not particularly great at writing women, certainly not by today’s standards, but just due to the fact that there are 600 named characters in this book, by default some of the female characters have to be unique and interesting. Good job! On the flip side from the villains is sweet Denisov, Nikolai’s mentor and Natasha’s first suitor. His only characteristics are that he is nice to everyone and he talks with a lisp and he likes to eat sausages while writing letters.
War and Peace is simply a magisterial work. In an essay included in an Appendix to this edition, Tolstoy tells us that this work is neither novel, poetry nor historical chronicle, and I think he is quite right in this. The book has a sprawling narrative that takes a long time to come together, and even when it does, the reader is often following a number of distinct plot lines. At the same time, Tolstoy intersperses digressions on the nature of history and our overly simplistic understanding of world events. If one were to read the work as a straight story, it would feel disjointed and scattered I suspect.
Yet it accomplishes a pair of goals with such power that one cannot help but be awed by the book. First is the incredible set of characters which he assembles. Tolstoy begins with a guiding idea for each character - Pierre's attempts to reconcile his spiritualism with his daily demeanor in contrast to Andrew's rationalism, or Natasha's overwhelming youth to Sonya's "sterile flower" approach to the Rostov's. These are typically coupled with a physical description that is repeated a number of times throughout (Pierre's size, Mary's eyes). From this simple base, the characters grow to be complex and subtle people. My hypothesis is that it is Tolstoy's mastery of written conversation, in which we get glimpses of real people, rather than bundles of preordained qualities.
His characters also show fragmentation, and this makes them real. Throughout the work, Tolstoy illustrates his claim that events are determined by an immense nexus of causal forces (such as the "spirit" of the arm), rather than the seemingly free decisions of people and leaders. This comes through in his characters. Even while Pierre is undergoing his Masonic transformation, he finds himself unable to change when with friends. Natasha is swept up by the glamor of the theater and Helene and into a terrible mistake. Nicholas' betting scene with Dolokhov stands out as perhaps the best example of this. The underlying virtue of these characters does not make them immune to the situation they find themselves in. Just as our characters are not nearly as unified as we intuitively think they are (see work in situationist psychology), the same holds for Tolstoy's characters. I suspect that this is a vital contributor to their depth. (Indeed, Tolstoy is far better at revealing his characters than he is at describing them - the passages in the Epilogue describing Nicholas and his intuitive relationship to his peasants is a bit jarring in its simplifications and idealization, but it is followed with a set of moving glimpses of his character in his interaction with Mary and in an important conversation with Pierre.)
Indeed, as the characters become more realized to us the readers, the plot is bound together. As the novel progresses, the simple sketches are rounded out, and this brings us along throughout the many branches of the plot.
I have already gestured at Tolstoy's second goal, which is the illustration of his thesis that history is determined by the complex causal history of an event. In a number of chapters he defends this view explicitly, and it gets a full treatment at the end of the novel. While not all of his arguments are entirely convincing (and at times he seems to reify "the spirit of the army" rather than using it as a shorthand for a more complex phenomena), he illustrates his thesis very powerfully. The battle scenes (Austerlitz stuck out to me in this regard) show how military action is determined by small decisions and events, rather than grand strategy. The "great man" thesis is far more intuitive than the one Tolstoy develops, so by showing us how this happens he makes his own view that much easier to grasp.
There is much else one could say about War and Peace. It is the sort of work that envelops you for a long period of time. One ought not read it for a thrilling series of events (though there are many such passages), but rather for a grand sweep of ideas, times and characters. It is an immensely rewarding read.
So, mainly for my own use, here’s my review. First, the fact that the book is one the Greatest of the Great Books (I mean, it’s *War and Peace*) does get in the way of just reading the book on its own terms, perhaps more than any work. But the book’s daunting length eventually cures you of that concern. Checking in at 1215 pages (including an Epilogue that is around 80 pages long), reading War and Peace is truly a marathon. I admit that at times it was a slog.
I read the new translation by Richard Pevear, and Larissa Volokhonsky. From my limited research, the husband and wife seem to be generally considered as the best interpreters of Russian literature. How one judges a translation in a language one does not read is problematic, but so be it.
A short summary: In the words of Woody Allen, it involves Russia. Ha-ha. Tolstoy basically follows the lives and fates of three families, all of them rather odd. Of course, hanging over all of them is the Napoleonic War. The story swings back and forth between the home front and the battlefields. Tolstoy’s realistic depictions of battle still seem quite modern in many ways – the fog of war, the wildly mixed emotions within each man’s breast, and the suddenness of death in battle. He also depicts life of the soldiers and life of the generals.
The Rostovs are a noble family in Moscow who have hit hard times and are sliding toward disgrace. The story especially features the deeply annoying Natasha – what a helpless little drama queen! She moves from one crisis to the next, most of them either of her own making or exacerbated by her. Her brother Nikolai tries to perform heroic feats in battle. Little brother Petya provides the sudden tragedy. Over-protected Ma Ma provides the road to poverty with her witless insistence on living her normal life of luxury. The Rostoves are living examples of the need of proper Russian nobles to maintain appearances and of the men to be seen to protect the women (alas, not all Russian nobles are ‘proper’).
We meet Pierre Bezukhov in the books first pages at a fancy party in comparatively racy Petersburg. He is then and remains always extraordinarily introspective and entirely susceptible to the needs of others. He begins quite poor, but his father the count acknowledges his paternity on his death bed. The count dies and suddenly Pierre is the wealthiest man in town. He also moves from one thing to the next, but never by half-measures; no dabbler is he. He marries disastrously (this wife later dies, during the occupation of Moscow, if memory serves). He joins and devotes himself to the Freemasons. He seeks to live a moral life despite his riches.
Pierre always seems stunned like a duck that has been struck upon the head. ‘Dazed and confused’ might be going it a bit too far, but it gives the general idea. He is a space cadet. He is odd. He seeks out the Borodino battlefield and wonders around it. He narrowly misses being killed. At one point, Pierre ludicrously plans to assassinate Napoleon. Later during the occupation of Moscow, he is taken captive where he meets Karataev, a peasant with more sense than Pierre has ever experienced among the nobility. Well-rounded and grounded is Karataev and some of it rubs off on Pierre. He is eventually freed, falls in love with Natasha, and marries her in the first Epilogue – a fairy tale ending that Tolstoy somehow makes seem inevitable and necessary to the reader and thus acceptable.
The Bolokhonsky’s are a noble family of some military notoriety and now ensconced at their Bald Hills Estate. At one time, son Andrei is to marry Natasha Rostov, but the demands of Andrei’s strange father manage to chill that idea (and then Natasha totally destroys it with an ill-conceived and idiotic fling). When war comes, Andrei signs on as aide-de-camp to Kutuzov. Andrei is intoxicated with the idea of glory and honor. He does lead an heroic charge and later organizes an artillery squadron’s even more heroic stand, but Andrei is seriously wounded. His near-death experience sends him spiraling downward. His love for Natasha flares up again, but then he is mortally wounded. Carried home, Andrei dies a long and painful death in her care.
Tolstoy greatly admires the Russian general Kutuzov, who seems to have a mixed reputation among historians. He derides the ‘genius’ Napoleon. On the whole, however, Tolstoy eschews the Great Man approach to history. He regards the outcome of wars as controlled by great forces. In the second epilogue (Yes, there are really two epilogues!), Tolstoy makes it clear that he believes a divine power is the moving force behind man’s actions. He seems not mean, however, that this control occurs in a specifically direct way with the Big Guy with the Beard directing each step. As these things always do, the attempt to reconcile an almighty god with man’s free will becomes hopeless. Tolstoy would have done the reader a favor by leaving out the second epilogue. He should have left it, as he had developed through the course of the book, his rather fatalistic view that the great streams of history so control events that the ability of individual people to change its course is extremely limited.
I have left great swaths of the book untouched. Suffice to say that I am already beginning to think that I need to re-read the book, just a few days after rejoicing when I at last turned the final page. The book is so vast that I begin to feel that one only gets a general grasp on the first reading.
The novel centers on five interconnected aristocratic families, and if the novel has a chief character, it's Count Pierre Bezukhov. And he's a buffoon. When we first meet him, he's described as a "a stout, heavily built young man" with "natural" manners (meaning none) and he's such a social disaster his hostess follows him around to try to repair the damage of his ill-judged outbursts. He lisps, he stammers. He's easily led yet subject to grandiose delusions, he's absentminded and he's lucky he comes into an inheritance, because he had no idea what to do for a career, and lacks the basic competence to succeed. Soon after the party introducing him, he gets involved in a drunken incident where a police officer was tied to a bear and thrown into a river. Following him and his emo musings around for hundreds of pages wasn't a joy. It occurred to me that if we were in an Jane Austen novel, Pierre would be the comic relief--a Mr Collins or Mr Rushworth--not a character taken seriously. But it wasn't as if any of the characters initially popped out at me as distinctive or sympathetic or complex. Nicholas Rostov struck me as a fool, Prince Andrew Bolkonsky arrogant and callous, Boris Drubetskoy a mercenary social climber and all the Kuragins are despicable. Whenever I started to feel sympathy for some of the characters, such as Prince Andrew or his sanctimonious sister Princess Mary or the flighty Natasha Rostov, before long they'd do something to lose my liking.
Pierre and his loves take up a lot the peace part, which contain long drawn-out set pieces such as masonic initiations, aristocratic hunting parties and opera performances. The book does give you a sense of everyday life among the 19th century Russian gentry. But the book is also famously about the Napoleonic Wars, but if anything, I found that part even more wanting. Please understand, I've read and finished and enjoyed lots of weighty 19th century classics, and a lot of them have been very, very long. And I love history, too, having read plenty of books on the subject around as long as War and Peace. This also isn't a girl thing. I was fascinated by Shaara's novel Killer Angels centering on the Battle of Gettysburg. But Tolstoy's battles are on the whole as sleep-inducing as his ballrooms. Despite some gory imagery here and there, and some vivid passages, his battle scenes are rarely exciting except when one of the major characters are in danger of their lives or wounded--a few pages out of many dozens. Tolstoy expressed well the contingent, chaotic aspect of battle, but neither leadership nor the bond between brother soldiers is something his view of war encompasses. Any time there are flashes of brilliance in his battle scenes, you can be sure the momentum will be broken by endless, repetitive digressions on Tolstoy's one-note theory of history (complete with algebraic equations at one point).
Despite its reputation as the ultimate historical novel, I didn't feel as if I gained any insight into the history of the Napoleonic Wars and the personages involved. But then Tolstoy doesn't believe that leaders play an important role: "A king is history's slave. History, that is, the unconscious, general, hive life of mankind, uses every moment of the life of kings as a tool for its own purposes." Tolstoy scoffs at the very idea of military science or "military genius" determining outcome. His Napoleon comes across as a caricature. Tellingly, Tolstoy scoffs even at the idea that one can diagnose a disease--"no disease suffered by a live person can be known." Tolstoy at one point indulges in a long paragraph of national stereotypes--I had to shake my head at his characterizations of Russians, because it sounded so much like a description of himself as betrayed in his novel: "A Russian is self-assured just because he knows nothing and does not want to know anything, since he does not believe that anything can be known." If you can't believe in knowledge, then you can't have knowledge to impart.
Ultimately, for me War and Peace was a monstrosity that steamrolls you with its very length. And boy, that epilogue? Tolstoy serves up two, with the second containing no story but only a rant on history and the Theory-Of-It-All (tm.) he'd been constantly expounding upon for hundreds of pages. I guess by the time most people get to the end of over a thousand pages, they want to think it worth it. I can't say I do. Well, except now I have bragging rights. I actually read from cover to cover--actually finished War and Peace! After this, even James Joyce's Ulysses and Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude can hold no terror.
Taking Tolstoy at his word, this is not really a novel although it most certainly reads like one. Even the digressions into Tolstoy’s philosophy of history, in the main part of the book, are interesting rather than distracting. But what carries the book forward are the two themes: the Napoleonic Wars culminating in the French invasion of Russia in 1812 and the effect on the lives of mostly Russian nobility, although we get some idea of what happened to ordinary Russians, especially the peasants. Although may times touted as a love story, in reality it is an examination of the relationships between men and women of the upper classes, focusing primarily but not exclusively on Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, Pierre Bezuhov, and Natasha Rostov.
However intertwined the two themes are, they’re treated separately and brilliantly. As someone who loves reading military history, I found Tolstoy’s account of the initial conflicts and then the battles of Austerlitz and Borodino utterly fascinating. I also appreciated his unromantic look at war, how it is waged, and the overall general mediocrity if not downright incompetence of most high-ranking military officers. Tolstoy ridicules Napoleon’s reputation as a military genius; I’m no expert on Napoleon so I can’t comment but it certainly makes for interesting reading.
The only problem I had with the book was with Part 2 of the Epilogue. Part 1 follows the lives of Pierre, Natasha, and the Rostovs after 1812, and is the dullest part of the tale. Part 2 of the Epilogue is about 30 pages or so of Tolstoy’s philosophy of history—page after page after page of examples, adding nothing to an argument he already makes within the body of the book. The last 10 pages or so—if you manage to survive the first 20—are interesting as a summary of his power vs necessity view of history and have merit, but I have to admit that this part drove me crazy, and only my grim determination to finish the book in its entirety kept me going. The Appendix, however, is worth reading. And I think that one should read the Introduction before tackling the book.
I, for one, didn’t find the huge cast of characters confusing or a problem.. The translation I read was the Pevear-Volokhonsky one; in this edition, there is an excellent list of characters at the beginning of the book. I referred to it for a while, but constant meeting up with the characters within the story soon made that unnecessary.
I would recommend viewing the 1968 movie version of War and Peace as a companion to reading the book. I have the Russian-made version, with a superb cast and the Soviet Army as the extras in the battle scene. It is a magnificent accompaniment to reading the book, since it is extraordinarily faithful to the book. It’s hard to believe that in this day of CGI battles, that you are looking at real human beings marching in set formations across a battlefield.
War and Peace is not so much a book as an experience, one that I’ve been through three times and one that I probably will have again. It deserves every bit of its reputation as one of the greatest literary works of all time.
For the most part, War and Peace is simply brilliant. The main characters are wonderfully drawn, and I loved getting inside their heads and rooting for them all the way through. I also felt that I got a good sense of what it was like to be in (or on the edges of) the upper echelons of Russian society in the early 19th century through the descriptions of various social scenes and the viewpoints of minor characters. I also enjoyed the war scenes involving the main characters.
However, I didn't quite get on with some of the other war parts and the various passages ruminating on history in general, especially towards the end. I was also a little let down by some of the main characters' fates as described in the first epilogue (mainly the way in which the female characters are depicted), but I recognise that this is partly due to the era in which the novel is set/was written.
Despite that, I'm really glad I finally read War and Peace, and will be looking up some of Tolstoy's other works in the future.
What brings the book down a bit, I think, is Tolstoy's need to interject his own thoughts and theories into the narrative. This makes for a slightly jarring sensation - it throws the rhythm of the book off balance and feels like commercials have been inserted into the story. And now for a word from our sponsor... These asides are irritating and condescending, but also at times informative and insightful. Mostly they just make your eyes glaze over. I think he should have published these bits separately as a companion piece or put them together in the back of the book for further reading for those who were interested. So this is why, although I loved the book, my rating is not higher. I also made a slight deduction for the two epilogues. Two? No one needs two epilogues!! And let me just state right here that I did not and will not read the epilogues - they always annoy me and quite often ruin a perfectly good book. So no. Just no to the epilogues.
The other thing I want to address are the translations and the audio versions of this book. I listened to the version that is narrated by Neville Jason - this is a five star listen if you are judging the narrator's performance. I cannot recommend this version highly enough - he is fabulous! Every character has a unique voice, and that's saying something right there because there are a LOT of characters in this novel. Jason also does a great job with all of the accents and with reading all of the French in its original form and then directly translating it without it becoming awkward or weighty. Don't be intimidated by the fact that the combined audios (it's in two separate books) are more than 60 hours of listening time. I listened at 1.25x speed for the peace parts and 1.5x speed for the war parts. Ha! This audio version is from the Maude translation, which brings me to the final thing I wanted to address - in my opinion, the Maude translation is superior to the P&V translation. Just saying. I often followed along in print, and what I had was the P&V translation - this allowed me to see the variations between the two, and I was amazed at what a difference the translation makes. The Maude version is so much more lyrical - much better use of language and word choice. Because after all, cudgel and club bring to mind different images in my head even though they are synonyms. The same thing with flushed and embarrassed. SO I am thankful that I chose to listen to Neville Jason because I liked his voice and his style - if not, I would have missed out on the lovely Maude translation and been stuck with the much drier and less poetic V&P version.
One last thing. The humor that is scattered throughout was an unexpected surprise. And it was delightful:
p.242 "He could not simply tell them that they all set out at a trot, he fell off his horse, dislocated his arm, and ran to the woods as fast as he could to escape a Frenchman. Besides, in order to tell everything as it had been, one would have to make an effort with oneself so as to tell only what had been. To tell the truth is very difficult, and young men are rarely capable of it. They were expecting an account of how he got all fired up, forgetting himself, how he flew like a storm at the square; how he cut his way into it, hacking right and left; how his saber tasted flesh, how he fell exhausted, and so on. And he told them all that."
Well worth reading, but set some time aside!
I liked this book. It's many characters were interesting, diverse, intertwined in many cases, and individual. Tolstoy did a great job of making each one different from the others.
There was no way I could keep remembering who every person was or how one connected with another, but I didn't mind that. It was interesting and I'm glad I read it.
Perhaps I'm less tolerant of the lecturing tone that Tolstoy employs through so much of the text.
I still think that there are chapters in W & P that are as brilliantly written as anything written by anyone anywhere. (c.f. Natasha's first big ball, the big Rostov hunt scene, Prince Andrei's reflections before and after meeting Natasha, Pierre wandering about on the Borodino battlefield.) But maybe the proportion of these "good scenes" is smaller than I remember.
And however much you have to respect the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation, it really seems clear that Count Tolstoy could have used a good editor.
In summary, I guess I'd argue that every serious reader needs to read W & P once in their life. A second time? Prolly not really necessary.
I love Tolstoy. I have for some time. My love for Tolstoy is in part a love for the writer and his work, but it probably has just as much to do with Tolstoy the person. I feel Tolstoy and I are in many ways like-spirits: his paradoxical personality, his so-called radical morality, his asceticism. I can identify. Hell, if there's one person I know who's likely to have a fit in the middle of night in the middle of winter and wander off and die, it's me. And when I'm 81 years old, I want to have a beard just like that.
So my appreciation for Tolstoy's written work is probably greater than it would be if I didn't consider the man a direct line to the divine. Even so, I love Tolstoy the writer. Yes, sometimes he got lost in his thoughts, taken away by some philosophical rant that in hindsight doesn't seem that insightful. But that's because his thoughts have been ingrained on us in 2013. Radical non-violence is commonplace as we occupy streets from New York City to Pittsburg, Kansas, but to Gandhi and the leaders of the civil rights movement in the US in the 60s, Tolstoy's writings, particularly The Kingdom of God Is Within You, were momentous. So Tolstoy rambled quite a bit, and War and Peace was certainly no exception. Throughout the novel his views of historians were expressed. He ends the novel with a very long rant, presenting his theories of history and historians. It's a horrible ending, grinding down the novel's greatest moments into a blunt and worn thin point. But it's Tolstoy, so first of all, it's expected, and secondly, his epic tale makes up for it.
Tolstoy put together such a wonderful cast of characters, weaved them throughout a story that was interesting and beautiful. And I fell for it. All the guys go ga-ga over Natasha, and I'm like WHY? She's shallow, immature, and not even very pretty, but—oh wow, Natasha, I think I'm falling in love with you. There's the impulsive Pierre, whose awkwardness eventually grew on me. And Andrei, he does some jerky things, but through his epiphanies I was eventually able to empathize with him. Then there were the four hundred or so other characters, many of whom I loved. I guess spending nearly five years of my life (granted, off and on) with these characters attached me to them.
So Tolstoy rambled and he got wordy and he occasionally showed his own shallow ignorance (that which he had at a tender Tolstoy age of forty), but War and Peace is still one hell of a novel. It's not for everyone, and those not particularly interested probably shouldn't read it; stick with something shorter by Tolstoy (which would be any of this other offerings). I'm glad I got it out of the way first because I'm fairly confident much of Tolstoy's later writing will appeal to me more. In fact, I'm eager to get started. It may have taken five years to read this puppy, but I'm hopeful that I will have knocked out several of Tolstoy's other works by 2018. And if not, I'm sure I'll have many great excuses why I didn't.
At first, I was a bit daunted. In the first part, the reader gets too much information to cope with. The Russian names of people and places don't make it easier either. Tolstoy also has this habit of referring to the same person in different ways by switching between their first name, last name, nick name, title, ... all the time. After the second part (which starts after about 115 pages) I was completely hooked however and I am so happy I decided to stick to this book.
I hear many people complaining about Tolstoy going on and on about his views on the world and history. Personally, I didn't find it boring or tedious to read at all. I even find myself looking upon events in the world as in my personal life completely different now. This book has changed my life forever.
I'm not giving it 5 stars, since this edition not only translated the Russian into English, but also replaced the French and German parts with English translations. Since I can read French and German (but not Russian :-)) I was sad to hear that other editions exist which keep the French and German parts intact; I should have picked up one of those. Some paragraphs have really lost some of their meaning and impact by excessive, but necessary, use of `said she in French' or `he said in German'. Pity.
Great book however and an epic story. Absolutely marvellous to spend countless evenings with!
Well, in fact, it was something else.
I have a selective memory, I don’t know whether it comes as a blessing or as a curse, that enables me to remember the most insignificant details like for instance, where and when I bought my books, which are often second hand copies. When I pull one of them off my shelves it usually comes loaded with recollections of a certain moment of my life that add up to the mute history of their usually worn and yellow pages.
So, War and Peace was also a memory. This one had to do with an unusual cloudless and shiny afternoon spent in Greenwich Park eating the greatest take-away noodles I had ever tasted and browsing through my newest literary purchases, recently bought in one of those typical British second-hand bookshops, where I spent hours besotted with that particular scent of moldy ancient paper.
That’s what War and Peace meant to me until I finally shook my sloth off and decided to read it. It turns out I rather lived than read it, or maybe the book read me, but in any case, I curse my lazy self for not having taken the plunge much sooner.
This book is an electroshock for the soul. There is no division between Tolstoy’s art and his philosophy, just as there is no way to separate fiction from discussions about history in this novel. Without a unifying theme, without so much a plot or a clear ending, War and Peace is a challenge to the genre of the novel and to narrative in history. Tolstoy groped toward a different truth- one that would capture the totality of history, as it was experienced, and teach people how to live with its burden.
Who am I?, What do I live for?, Why was I born? These are existential questions on the meaning of life that restlessly impregnate this “novel”, which also deals with the responsibility of the individual, who has to strive against the dichotomy of free will as opposed to the influence of the external world, in the course of history. Fictional and historical characters blend naturally in the narration, which occasionally turns into a reasoned philosophical digression, exploring the way individual lives affect the progress of history, challenging the nature of truth accepted by modern historians.
Tostoy’s syntax is unconventional. He frequently ignores the rules of grammar and word order, deliberately reiterating mannerisms or physical details to identify his characters, suggesting their moral qualities. He uses several languages gradually changing their sense, especially with French, which eventually emerges as the language of artifice and insincerity, the language of the theater and deceit whereas Russian appears as the language of honesty and seriousness and the reader becomes a privileged witness of the formation of a community and national consciousness.
In repeating words and phrases, a rhythm and rhetorical effect is achieved, strengthening the philosophical pondering of the characters. I was emotionally enraptured by the scene in which Count Bezukhov asks himself what’s the meaning of love when he glances at the smiling face of Natasha or when Prince Andrey lies wounded in Austerlitz battlefield looking up at the endless firmament, welcoming the mystery of death and mourning for his hapless and already fading life. The book is full of memorable scenes which will remain imprinted in my retina, eternal flashing images transfixing me quite: the beauty of Natasha’s uncovered shoulders emerging from her golden dress, the glow of bonfires lit by kid-soldiers in the night before a battle, the agony of men taken prisoners and the absent faces of circumstantial executioners while shooting their fellowmen, the unbearable pain of a mother when she learns of her son’s death, a silent declaration of love in a dancing embrace full of youth and promise…
War and Peace is much more than a novel. It is a vast, detailed account - maybe even a sort of diary or a confession- of a world about to explode in constant contradiction where two ways of being coexist: war and peace. Peace understood not only as the absence of war, but mainly as the so much coveted state in which the individual gets hold of the key to his identity and happiness, achieving harmonious communion with others along the way.
Now that I have finally read this masterpiece, I think I can better grasp what this “novel” represents among all the great works of art created by men throughout our venturesome existence: the Sistine Chapel or the 9th Symphony of Literature, an absolute triumph of the creative mind, of the spirit of humankind and a virtuous affirmation of human life in all its richness and complexity.
My battered copy of War and Peace and I have fought many battles together, hand in hand. We have been gently soaked by the descent of moist beads in the misty drizzle at dawn in Paracas. We have been splashed by the salty waves of the Pacific Ocean only to be dried off later by the sandy wind blowing from the dunes of the Huacachina Desert. We have been blessed by the limpid droplets dripping down from branches of Eucalyptus Trees in the Sacred Valley of the Incas and scorched by the blinding sunbeams in Nazca.
Particles of ourselves were left behind, dissolved into the damp shroud of grey mist falling from the melting sky in MachuPicchu, and whatever remained of us tried to breathe in deeply the fragrant air of those dark, warm nights spent under scintillating stars scattered endlessly down the Peruvian sky.
With wrinkled pages, tattered covers and unglued spine, my copy of War and Peace has managed to come back home. I have just put it back reverently on my bookshelf for literary gems, where I can spot it at first glance. An unbreakable connection has been established between us as fellow travellers, as wanderers of the world. Somehow, we have threaded our own unique history; an unrepeatable path has been laid down for us. The story of this particular shabby copy comes to an end though, because I won’t ever part from it. My copy of War and Peace has come back home, where I intent to keep it, now for good. No more war for these battered pages but everlasting peace emanating from my shelves for all times to come.
It is definately an elitists view of Russia. I would now like to read the same thing from the peasants point of view! :)
The characters were entirely frustrating and I wasn't really fond of any of them. The women were all portrayed as a bunch of airheads. Natasha, who is supposed to be Tolstoy's depiction of the ideal woman, is the most annoying, trivial, brainless person I have ever read of. Marya is supposed to be Tolstoy's ideal of the good spiritual woman. I didn't see her as spiritual at all but she was religious. Everyone in the book fell in love at the drop of a pin. It seems you can be madly in love by just looking at a complete stranger LOL
The most impressive thing about this book by far was the battles, Tolstoy's view of how the war between Russia and France unfolded and concluded, and the philosophy. I also learned a lot about the 'lack' of art and strategy of the old sword and cannon combat style of warfare. LOL It's these qualities that make it Russia's greatest novel.
Glad it's finished! :)
Letter to Archibald MacLeish, 1925
Selected Letters, pg. 179
"Tolstoi made the writing of Stephen Crane on the Civil War seem like the brilliant imagining of a sick boy who had never seen war but had only read the battles and chronicles and seen the Brady photographs that I had read and seen at my grandparents' house."
A Moveable Feast, pg. 133-134
"...Books should be about the people you know, that you know, that you love and hate, not about the poeple you study up about... Then when you have more time read another book called War and Peace by Tolstoi and see how you will have to skip the big Political Thought passages, that he undoubtedly thought were the best things in the book when he wrote it, because they are no longer either true or important, if they ever were more than topical, and see how true and lasting and important the people and the action are. Do not let them deceive you about what a book should be because of what is in the fashion now."
By-Line: Ernest Hemingway, pg. 184