War and Peace

by Leo Tolstoy

9/10 (Can’t be considered flawless with all the historical mumbo-jumbo)

So ultimately, what do we have here? Over the course of 3.5 weeks in the summer of 2013, I spent 1-2 hours of my life each day (on average) to read the behemoth that is War & Peace. And to what end? To make me a better person? To the extent that being better-read can make you a better person, I suppose so.

Tolstoy, if he cared to (he wouldn’t), would ask, “What caused Blake to read this book? Was it really his decision?” He would say not. He would say that it was the product of hundreds or thousands of little movements and actions on the part of the most insignificant lumberjack, miller, typesetter, teacher, parent, teacher of my parents, parents of my teachers, cafeteria worker in the school at which my teachers and parents attended, et al. that led me to this moment. He would then spend 50-100 pages criticizing historians for saying it could be any other way. And he would throw in an epic love story somewhere in his analysis and it might become another seminal work of world literature.

In all sincerity, I feel too insignificant to be able to meaningfully critique this book. But as with most of my reviews I want to register my thoughts and impressions so that I can personally look back on them. My thoughts on W&P are that it is most definitely not perfect, despite being captivating, heartbreaking, and magnificent in every sense of the word. A “Four-and-a-half” would be my ideal rating because “Four” is too low, but so it goes. It joins 90 or so other books among my favorites of all time.

Having heard of Tolstoy in general and of this book in particular for over half my life (or since I read Crime and Punishment in high school), I am proud of myself for finally reading it. It looms as one of those monuments of literature that every serious book-lover should read at some point, maybe as sort of an initiation. Overriding my pride, however, were my delight and amazement at encountering such a compelling and moving story, with characters whom I loved and for whom I suffered. In other words, it was not anything like the slog I half-feared upon beginning.

It was the soap opera aspect of the novel that most impressed me, particularly how much I found myself enjoying it. The only other story I’ve read that was even close in this respect was One Hundred Years of Solitude, but Tolstoy’s focus on just four or five characters over 15 years sets W&P apart. Such a tight focus allows you to know them intimately and grow with them over time, as opposed to Garcia’s work, where you sort of feel like a parade of characters is passing in front of you and you’re just there to notice them for a little while.

I’m not a soap opera fan in general, and Tolstoy used some of the worst aspects of them here — predictability; uncanny, plot-driving coincidences — but overall it worked well. It also bothered me that he tended to allow major confrontations and plot moments to occur off-page, only telling you later about them. But it’s a quibble. The bottom line is that you love Pierre, Natasha, Andrei and even Nikolai and Marya at times. Their development is believable and organic. The details of their lives and personalities are crystal clear.

The war segments are also compelling although they suffer in comparison due to the lack of one or two characters who you really care about (Nikolai and Andrei make appearances but really play incidental roles). However, Tolstoy mostly makes up for it with his descriptions of battle and his biting commentary on the pathetic reality of military order and history, for him a complete sham.

These were the scenes that offered some of the most rewarding moments for reflection. Yes, his theory of history is repetitive and overly deterministic at best, yet some of his points are not only salient but difficult to refute: the fact that no commander-in-chief, neither Napoleon nor Alexander nor Kutuzov or anyone else actually controlled any of the troops in a meaningful way; that the reasons for sending hundreds of thousands of people to their deaths were unpardonably weak; the incomprehensibility of battle as opposed to the narratives that emerge afterward. These are all vital statements on war and existence, and Tolstoy delivers them with the artfully effective touch of a master.

Moreover, the war segments had me realizing that this is one of the first existentialist/nihilistic works of literature, something I didn’t know going into it. I know Tolstoy studied Schopenhauer during the writing of W&P, but when reading Camus, Sartre, Nietzche, or even Dostoyevsky, I haven’t often seen Tolstoy’s name mentioned among them for his existentialist tendencies. You certainly see the seeds of Catch-22 in the absurdities catalogued here, or even the mystical ramblings of the film “The Thin Red Line.” I had no idea that Tolstoy was one of the first.

The difference between Tolstoy and those other authors is that none of them can give you goosebumps as Tolstoy does when after 1000 pages of torment and suffering for the Russian troops, you see Kutuzov obtain one of his most cherished goals:

Bolkhovitinov first reported in detail what he had been ordered to.

“Speak, speak quicker, don’t torment my soul,” Kutuzov interrupted him.

Bolkhovitinov told him everything and fell silent, awaiting orders. Toll began to say something, but Kutuzov interrupted him. He wanted to say something, but suddenly his face shriveled, wrinkled; waving his hand at Toll, he turned the other way, to the corner of the room with its blackened icons.

“Lord, my Creator! Thou hast heeded our prayer. . .” he said in a trembling voice, clasping his hands. “Russia is saved. I thank Thee, Lord!” And he wept. (Vol.IV, Part Two, Ch. XVII)

I also had another interesting experience with this book, which was an awakening as to the importance of the translation. I began with the Wordsworth Classic edition which used the Maude translation. However, the print was too small and I suspected it was causing headaches so I borrowed the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation from the library, ignorant of what it might mean to change translations “midstream.” The difference is unmistakable. Whereas the former exuded a sterile formality, the latter ebbed and flowed in such a natural way, seeming to much more closely approximate Tolstoy’s authentic style. Or perhaps it’s not more authentic, but it’s certainly more enjoyable. I will definitely be seeking their version of Anna Karenina.

As a closing thought, I also must say that I really loved how unabashedly Tolstoy attacked Napoleon throughout the second half of the book. My knowledge of post-revolutionary French history is poor so I can’t confirm or refute any of Tolstoy’s arguments, but they were still richly entertaining and I admire his audacity. And in general, this book has done more to teach me about Russian society and history than the 15 or so other Russian books I’ve read combined. On top of its narrative merits, it works as an amazingly informative portrayal of one of the most formative eras of the Slavic people.


Original Review


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