Posted by: Nathan | March 1, 2009

Thoughts on War and Peace

It has been called the greatest novel ever written many times by folks more intelligent than I; how could I not read Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace? I saved it for myself as a reward for finishing grad school, which was funny to think about three months later when I was still reading it. I was in this epic tome from November 8, 2008 to February 18, 2009, and I read every one of the 1358 pages, which makes it the second longest book I’ve read to date (Les Mis is still #1). I suppose I’d be lying if I said I didn’t read it for the accomplishment, but that’s not the main reason I read it. I wanted to experience such a renowned novel for myself, and it was worth it!

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The primary achievement of W&P in my view is its scope: 15 years, multiple families, several dozen characters, and ever-shifting settings. Add to that a great deal of philosophy and the passages about Tolstoy’s opinion of history, and you’ve got a novel of unparalleled range. It would be easy for any author to stray into tangents with so much going on, and Tolstoy does from time to time. However, I always had the feeling that the tangents were the main point. Tolstoy manages to combine all these disparate elements into a cohesive whole. W&P is a showcase of an author’s unifying power of vision.

Now let’s break down the book into the two parts mentioned in the title, starting with war. Hemingway wrote that Tolstoy is the best at writing about war because he is able to show the broad picture and the individual struggles simultaneously. Borrowing movie terminology, Tolstoy has an amazing ability to zoom in and out on the battles. The reader sees what’s happening to the left flank and the position of all the troops and then squi’s is in the middle of the action with one of the characters with bullets whizzing past. The battles in the book are the Napoleonic wars of the early 1800s when the infamous Frenchman led his troops to Moscow only to be turned back (not a spoiler: check your history books). Napoleon is a fascinating character, but naturally Tolstoy is sympathetic to his Russians. His portrayal of their leaders, especially Kutuzov, is quite intriguing.

The peace sections take up two-thirds of the book, and they’re usually as compelling as the war parts. Unlike many male authors, Tolstoy is quite capable of portraying depth of emotion and exciting action. His female characters are among the best women written by a man that I’ve ever read—better than Flaubert. There is no condescension; the ladies in the book matter as does the way they live. There are many scenes of Russian high society and the accompanying back-stabbing and joy. Families in Tolstoy are also important, and the author spends plenty of time lingering on the inner-workings of a household.

The best part of the titular dual dynamic of the book title is that one is never bored. Just as I grew weary of hearing about corpses, battle schemes, and marching I was swept back into the busy households of St. Petersburg and Moscow. And when all the societal pressures and complicated relationships were beginning to bore me, I was back at the front lines.

As I indicated earlier, Tolstoy writes complex and believable characters. Not all of them are that way (the book would be even longer if so), but all the main characters are well-drawn and interesting. The reader doesn’t like all of them, but they are never poorly written. Interestingly, there are few characters that I loved if any. Usually, one picks out one or two folks to follow and root for, but I spent a lot of time forming my opinion of the characters. Is Andrey noble or cold-hearted? Is Natasha foolish or enchanting? Is Pierre a bumbling jerk or a philosophical seeker? Is Marya severe or pious? Tolstoy never lets his characters be simple, which is the best way because we are all complicated and have both positive and negative attributes. I ended up like Lise, Pierre and Natasha the best.

The book’s biggest weakness is Tolstoy’s occasional tendency to preach about history. There are several chapters about how historians view the Napoleonic wars and/or history in general and the errors they continually make. Basically, Tolstoy believes that enormous historical events (like that particular war) are never brought about by the will of a few people in power; there are countless causes for every event. He essentially advocates the view that history is always subject to the forces of necessity/destiny. I could go on, but my point is that Tolstoy goes on too long about this. I definitely knew what his opinions are by the time I got to the end; I did not need a long epilogue to further explore the issue! End the book, buddy.

Lastly, I’d like to sing the praises of the edition of W&P that I read. I read the Penguin Classics version (pictured above) that is translated by Anthony Briggs. Briggs’ translation is superb. The novel is always readable and never awkward. His phrasing and diction are excellent. In his brief note on translation, he writes that he wanted to strike a balance between fidelity to the text and accessibility; mission accomplished. Bravo! If that weren’t enough, this volume has very useful end notes, maps, chapter summaries (if you forget what’s happening), and—best of all—a character list! Why don’t all long books have a character list? Do you know how helpful that is? If I forget so-and-so who was mentioned 250 pages ago, I simply turn to the back. Publishers of the world, pick up this volume and take note. Oh, and it costs only $18.

All told, War and Peace is the peerless epic it is made out to be. Did I enjoy every page? Certainly not. However, the experience was definitely worth it. It is a type of novel that probably will never be written again–at least not soon. The scenes, characters, emotional depth, philosophical exploration, historical perspective, and unimaginable scope make War and Peace an undeniable masterpiece.

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Responses

  1. Thanks for the review, Nathan. Excellent synopsis, as always. I doubt I’ll ever read this book, but I’m closer to it now than perhaps I was before. One wonders if there will ever again be a period in history so rich as the 18th-19th centuries on which to base epic works of fiction.


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