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.
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.
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".
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.
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 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.
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 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.
Wrong. To begin with, as Tolstoy himself said and much of his contemporary audience agreed, it isn't even a novel. It's part, as Tolstoy put it, an "epic in prose," (back then, when novels were relatively, well, novel, the distinction between them and epics was much more widely understood) and part lengthy non-fictional rant. Mixed in with the story are a great many chapters with titles like "The method of history," "The cause of historical events," "The forces that move nations," "Rulers and Generals are history's slaves," and finally, "The problem of free will and necessity." (I don't think these are actually Tolstoy's titles, and were probably just inserted in my edition, but they are accurate summaries of the contents.) There's nothing wrong with addressing such abstract themes, of course, but in a novel they should be presented through the characters and story, not in a separate essay as an aside which, while it may be thematically related to the story, adds little or nothing to the literary merit of the work. I think it actually detracts from it, as Tolstoy's views and his arguments for them are almost ridiculously bad. If he stuck to presenting them through the story, one could at least appreciate it as a work of art, though not as a work of philosophy---as one can, for instance, with Anna Karenina, even though its themes are even more monstrous (as it is perhaps the most misanthropic, and especially misogynistic, novel ever written, yet it is "flawless as a work of art," as Dostoevsky said---and Dostoevsky is more humanistic and liberal by comparison, though actually his own views are also pretty medieval). In War and Peace, Tolstoy harps on these issues repetitively and seemingly endlessly.
So what are the themes of War and Peace? Well, first of all, there's the senselessness and inhumanity of war. While that may in fact very often be the case, it's not like he's saying something new here, and other writers have presented superior artistic visions on this theme. Next, he insists that free will is an illusion caused only by our ignorance of the relevant causal factors, that men such as Napoleon do not move history (nor do even the masses, though Tolstoy believes they actually have much more to do with it than their leaders) but rather are puppets of History with a capital "H", which basically amounts to God's grand design. Now, it's actually a bit refreshing to see a Christian acknowledge that the existence of an omnipotent God who controls everything is incompatible with the existence of free will instead of trying to make pathetically tortuous arguments attempting to reconcile the two, so at least on this point Tolstoy is consistent. However, if you combine the idea that it is not man but God who is in control of man's actions with his first premise about the senseless brutality and inhumanity of war, the only conclusion one can draw is that God is a senseless, inhumane brute. And I don't think that's the view Tolstoy wishes to communicate. Finally, War and Peace is virulently anti-reason and anti-science; as Tolstoy writes, "If we admit that human life can be ruled by reason, the possibility of life is destroyed." In a passage on the various kinds of self-assurance expressed by various nationalities, he writes, "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." (This is said approvingly, as opposed to the German's self-assurance, which is "worst of all, stronger and more repulsive than any other, because he imagines that he knows the truth---science---which he himself has invented but which is for him the absolute truth." The only problem with the Russians, apparently, is that they should take a more humble attitude instead of being so damned self-assured in their lack of intellectual ambition.) This is especially amusing, however, since Tolstoy tries extremely hard (though he does so extremely poorly) to use reason and science and prove his positions.
Leaving aside the quality of his ideas, and skipping the non-fiction chapters (as you will probably want to do the further you get into the book and the more of them you encounter), what about the writing? There are hints of the literary genius (despite their even more hideous thematic content) of later works such as "Father Sergius," "The Death of Ivan Ilyich," and "The Kreutzer Sonata," but not very consistently---though it is still far more well-written than most of the trash that is published these days. There are a few, but not a great many (considering the length of the work), nice stylistic flourishes, such as this metaphor: "No matter what [Pierre] thought about, he always returned to these same questions which he could not solve and yet could not cease to ask himself. It was as if the thread of the chief screw which held his life together were stripped, so that the screw could not get in or out, but went on turning uselessly in the same place." The story is decent, but it would be easier to get involved in it if any of the characters were actually interesting or sympathetic, but they usually aren't.
In short, I'm not quite sure why this is considered such a great classic, aside from the fact that it is by the author of other, better, works, and that it is so long...which in my view actually isn't a point in its favor, since it could and should have been shorter, which one can not say about other epics such as The Iliad or novels such as The Brothers Karamazov.
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
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.
W&P is set during Napoleonic times and looks at the trials the Russians endured from a largely from aristiocratic perspective, although the themes of pain suffering and loss are universal. Did not move me like Anna K but still highly reccomended.
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! :)
And the plundering of the French destroys the city and the plundering of the Russians resurrects it, and that blew my mind harder than anything else in a pretty long time. And what he does to Natasha, well, I can't accept it, but I can and do twig that it's a challenge, that he's saying "This it what it means to truly love life, so fucking swallow that shit," and who knows? maybe it'll come to that for me one day too. In the meantime - I finished "War and Peace," Mr. Dodds, and today I am a man. Best book ever.
Yet, so gradually that I cannot point to the moment, the book had captured me. I found that this was all I wanted to read—the siren call of other books fell upon deaf ears and I was sorry when it all ended.
At any rate, I spent the last couple of months reading "War and Peace" and it was absolutely marvelous... I enjoyed nearly everything about it-- from the ins and outs of the family drama during peace time, to the descriptions of Napoleone's failed march into Russia to Tolstoy's musings on the nature of man and war. Overall, just an excellent book.
Well worth reading, but set some time aside!
I read this in a week and it was time well spent, it is a compelling read that I truly enjoyed the characters are engaging and I couldn't wait to get through the pages to find out what became of them all.
Languagehat, a brilliant American blogger, reports that he has just finished reading War and Peace (over a year since he started) - and grumbles that philosophical chapters are amateurish, unnecessary and spoil the novel.
Many desperate readers agree. Here is what Andy K from Australia writes in an Amazon.com review of War and Peace:
I have tried War and Peace several times since I was a teenager, and each time I have enjoyed it UNTIL I get to the same bit. This is the bit where Tolstoy decides it's time to give us all a little lecture (say, a mere hundred and fifty pages) on his theory of history. I think this is in an inexcusable flaw in a story, book, or epic. Worst of all, it makes poor Leo Nicholayevich into precisely the pretentious git which he didn't want to be remembered as. Because of the pretentious and boring quality of the classic War and Peace, I quit reading this book. But I felt like I had failed when I was a teenager. Now I am a mature adult and I know better: Tolstoy was being a pretentious bore.
Well, ask Tolstoy's good friend and follower Gandhi, he would agree - Tolstoy is some work. But that work helped Gandhi change himself - and the world.
A lot of writers can't help but moralize. Few are ready to admit that it may be boring for the reader. In fact, I only know one, W.Somerset Maugham, a younger contemporary of Tolstoy, who honestly advised his readers to skip the next chapter, where he was going to philosophise, if they wanted just the story. Here is what he writes in the first paragraph of Part VI of The Razor's Edge:
I feel it right to warn the reader that he can very well skip this chapter without losing the thread of such story as I have to tell, since for the most part it is nothing more than the account of a conversation that I had with Larry. I should add, however, that except for this conversation I should perhaps not have thought it worth while to write this book.
I suspect Maugham envied Chekhov for his ability to construct a gripping story without a real plot - and disguised it as critique of Russian 'verbosity' in general. Even though compactness is one of the most striking features of Chekhov's style. Maugham himself digresses into a whole chapter of criticising Chekhov for his lack of narrative in 'Ashenden', supposedly a spy thriller based on Maugham's own experience on Her (sorry - His) Majesty's secret service while trying to stop the bolshevik takeover of Russia in 1917. In another chapter Maugham implies that the revolution only happened because the people who could have stopped it spent too much time talking.
I think Tolstoy also envied Chekhov for the same reason - and also criticised him. But Tolstoy hated his own 'verbosity' and worked hard to make his language compact. I agree, we Russians are famous for our 'verbosity', but, in fact, we generally hate it too. We have a huge thesaurus of hate phrases for it, including many expletives.
And Maugham is one of our favourite English writers.
A note: if you think it's not fair to pay for a book which contains hundreds of pages you know you won't read, get ECCO Press 2007 version of War and Peace translated by Andrew Bromfield (War and Peace: Original Version) - it's Tolstoy's own, abridged, 'hollywood' version of the epic novel, half the size and a different, happy ending.