Book Review: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

I might never have attempted to read War and Peace if it had not been for the enthusiasm of one of my nephews. I know him to be intelligent and discerning, and he told me that War and Peace was his favorite novel. The subject came up now and then over the following few years until recently he sent me a copy of the novel for my birthday. This, of course, stifled all excuses.

There are several translations and numerous editions of this novel. The one I have is the Penguin Classics edition translated by Rosemary Edmonds. Although it is a paperback, it is the size and weight of a brick. The text of the novel comes out to 1,444 pages of small, barely readable print. It is so hefty it was often uncomfortable to read. I often read lying down with pillows propped up behind me, and I had to find a position in which I could support the weight of the book with my forearm.

With a book like this, you have to sort of draw a deep breath and plunge in, and that’s what I did. It took me several weeks to read the whole thing. In the beginning, it’s sort of discouraging when you see where your bookmark rests and realize how slow your progress and how much there is still to go, but that feeling soon goes away. In fact, once you start, it is no chore to keep going. Despite its length, most of the book is a real page turner.

Basically the novel covers the lives of the members of several aristocratic Russian families from the years 1805 to 1820. This was during the time that Napoleon invaded Austria and then moved on Russia; he made it all the way to Moscow, occupied it for a short time, left it in flames, and then retreated in ignominious defeat, losing massive amounts of personnel along the way.

I have watched a few filmed versions of War and Peace, specifically the movie with Audrey Hepburn and Henry Fonda, and also the recent BBC miniseries. However, these did not prepare me for the grandeur of the novel. Tolstoy, using third person omniscient point of view, plunges deeply into the minds of his characters. You get to know them intimately and really care what happens to them.

The story begins in Saint Petersburg at an aristocratic gathering, where it introduces some of the main characters, and then moves on to Moscow, where more characters are introduced. It first, at least to me, comes across as some sort of elaborate sophisticated soap opera similar to Downton Abbey, except that instead of following both the aristocrats and the servants, it focuses solely on the aristocrats. It does not really come into its own as a complex, nuanced work until the scene shifts to the war in Europe and the Battle of Austerlitz. After that point, Tolstoy alternates extended scenes in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, various country estates, and various battlefields as Napoleon advances.

Throughout the book, the story unfolds through the lives of certain main characters, specifically members of the Bezuhov, Bolkonsky, and Kuragin families and their friends, acquaintances, and enemies. Napoleon is a character, as is Alexander I, the tsar of Russia. Each of these people has a whole flock of attendants supporting them. One of my objections to Tolstoy’s approach in this novel is that the serfs, servants, and other lower-class personages are all treated like furniture in the background. They are always there, but very little attention is paid to them or their needs. They are taken for granted and are always loyal, as if they were appliances there for the convenience of their masters and mistresses. Like Downton Abbey, which I watched a few seasons of, you have to relegate this aspect of society to the historical background, so to speak; it grates modern sensibilities, but it’s an inevitable part of the story during that era. In the beginning (which in this novel means the first several hundred pages) almost all of the characters, even those who turn out to be sympathetic viewpoint characters, are so vain, self-centered, and oblivious to their selfishness, and commit so many devastating blunders, that it’s impossible not to feel that they deserve the horrendous travails and societal upheavals to come, and surely Tolstoy intended this.

Tolstoy’s story is magnificently epic, and when he sticks to what’s happening to his viewpoint characters, it is well told. He moves from Saint Petersburg to Moscow to battlegrounds and back, advancing the lives of the characters and at the same time building momentum for Napoleon’s advance into Russia, its impact on everyone Tolstoy has introduced, and the inevitable collapse and flight of Napoleon and his army. My biggest objection to the book is the ponderous treatises on history that Tolstoy throws into the mix. These pontifications really gum up the works. There are short essays on history and philosophy throughout the book, especially in the sections that have to do with battles, but part two of the epilogue, about forty pages in my version, is a pedantic lecture on Tolstoy’s opinions concerning the theories of how history occurs, and this last part can easily be skipped. In fact, the novel would be much stronger if these essays on history were eliminated. This would also make the book at least two hundred pages shorter.

I didn’t want to miss anything, though, so I plowed through the whole thing, boring pedantic essays and all. It is worth it for the gems you encounter when Tolstoy is telling of the lives of his main characters. There are some scenes that are so perfect that they bring tears to the eyes. One is when Prince Andrei is dying and turns his attention away from the concerns of life and onto eternal verities. Another is when Pierre is captured and forced to march out of Moscow with the retreating French army; he meets another prisoner, a simple soldier, whose philosophy of positivity and gratitude changes his life. Some characters suffer, some characters die, but Tolstoy eventually brings his story to a satisfying conclusion. I would recommend this book; however, if you are a slow reader like I am, get into it when you have several weeks of reading time to spare.

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