Saturday, July 02, 2011

Review: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Reviewing War and Peace is a daunting task I have put off for many months now.  I figured it would be smarter to let the book's wisdom digest, though like anything we read, with time it begins to fade.  There is no way to encapsulate this work at the best of times, but I will do my best here to tell you what I thought about the novel.
Many feel like 'War and Peace' is going to be a daunting task.  It's length is the number one worry, and I would say the second is that the book is in Russian, and many are afraid of being caught up with the character naming conventions.  I think the third factor that inhibits people from reading W&P is that they don't know much about the history of the War of 1812 and feel that they won't understand the plot.  Let me dissect some of these worries.

The length of the book is deceiving.  There is no question that it is long and requires some mental toughness and time to work your way through it.  However, with the exception of the second epilogue at the end, it doesn't feel long.  In fact, when I was finished with the work I felt like I had lost a part of my family - the book was over and there was no more.  I wanted it to be LONGER, so I could continue to follow the characters and learn more about Tolstoy's thoughts.  In today's world, it's hard to be able to focus on one book for so long without life getting in the way.  Mine definitely did, but I still found I could get back into the book if I put it down for a month and in a way, it was refreshing because I was able to reset my emotions and fall in love with the story again and again.  It took me maybe four months or so of reading at a moderate speed.  Someone told me that if you read a chapter a day you would finish in a year - the chapters are short though, and I would anticipate that you couldn't read so little of the work if you tried because it becomes encapsulating.

The names in Russian literature can sometimes become a struggle.  Some have three names, many are named the same given name, after their fathers.  I found this more difficult in other Russian works, and definitely more difficult in 'One Hundred Years of Solitude'.  In W&P, the main characters were so well discussed that after a few chapters you had no problem telling them apart.  Their mental descriptions were such that it was impossible to not make this distinction easily.  I think this is important to note, because sometimes the characters in novels are not 'full' characters and it becomes hard to differentiate them - this was definitely not the case here.  There were numerous smaller characters that made appearances, but this didn't distract from the overall book and the ones that were important were very easily to discern as well.  Some editions are more true to Russian names (Andrei) and some are anglicized (Andrew), so you can really choose what you prefer.  I had two copies of the book, so I was able to choose the one that suited my own personal style.

I read a little bit about the War of 1812 prior to reading W&P, but it really wasn't needed.  Tolstoy didn't get as detailed as you would have thought in regards to the numerous amounts of concessions and defeats and various countries participation in the war (in some cases fighting on both sides at different points in history).  He touches on specific battles, but tells you everything you need to know about them in a non-detailed way.  Due to the sheer length of the work, you wouldn't necessarily expect this but it was the truth.  The main battles discussed, that I can remember were 'The Battle of Austerlitz' (1805) and 'The Battle of Borodino' (1812), and of course the eventual occupation of Moscow.  You don't really need to do any external research, but as you continue to read W&P you will probably find that you want to do some side research because it's just so interesting.

So what was War and Peace about?  The simple answer... life (in Russian leading up to and following the War of 1812). 

The book is so complex that it's difficult to summarize.  The book is split into various sections detailing what Russian was like for aristocrats in times of Peace, followed by life for the aristocrats and the peasantry in times of War.  Many in my bookclub enjoyed the tales of Peace the most, but I found both equally fascinating... and truth be told, I may have enjoyed the war time more.

The book touches on many important subjects, such as personal and spiritual development of the individual, love, the concept on how histories are written, war as a living entity, free will versus determinism, the aristocracy, peasantry, religion, life, death, etc.
*SOME SPOILERS FROM THIS POINT - but not in tremendous detail*

Tolstoy talks much about the flawed ways that histories are written.  He discusses the overemphasis on generals and their effect on the war, including letters sent in battles detailing strategy that is already outdated by the time it makes it to the people actually fighting the wars.  He talks about writers and historians coming up with a theory and working backwards to fit each circumstance to that theory to serve their own purposes.  One of the main dislikes of most of the people in the bookclub was that the second epilogue discussed these points in more detail, which could be considered by some as overkill, as we already knew Tolstoy's opinions on the matter from his interjections throughout the book.  These interjections were fascinating and gave better context to the overall work. 

One of the most interesting parts of the book dealt with how wars became their own entities; a force that could not be controlled.  Tolstoy's view on this was very spiritual and largely against the theory of free will. 

Religion was interspersed throughout the novel, but more in a spiritual way instead by way of religious propaganda. By this, I mean that we were not hit over the head with particular religious beliefs, which some English books around the time period were apt to do with Christianity.  Tolstoy was very spiritual, but he didn't push anything on to you; he simply allows you to think and feel how you wish.

Tolstoy obviously loved the peasantry over the aristocracy, and this was very present in the work.  We mainly see the lives of the aristocracy throughout the book, and especially at the beginning.  As we get more into the war, we get glimpses of the lives of the peasants but nothing in tremendous detail.  We experience more through the eyes of the aristocracy, and I believe he paints a very balanced view.

For those of you who enjoy good love stories with intrigue, passion and heartache - you will find what you are looking for in W&P. Everyone seemed to fall in love with Natasha, who was a free spirit until later on in the novels and was full of life. Sofia seemed to get a hard rap, as her love was more enduring and less fickle, but due to caste reasons she never seemed to get the love she deserved. Mary ended up with her beau, but she went through many struggles with men, including her father, who treated her very poorly.


Tolstoy treats life and death both very seriously, and one cannot help but think about his/her own life in the grand scheme of things.  Have we lived?  Do we understand the world in which we live and are we at peace with it?  Are we afraid of death or are we afraid of life?  All these questions are brought to the forefront of the readers mind.

The prose of this work was beautiful - particularly around the self reflection and growth of others.  The metaphors were strong, and it was evident to me that Tolstoy knew much about various subjects in life (such as the lives of bees, as one example), which we learned about as the story drew on.  I wrote down many quotations, and hopefully I will make it back to them all one day because that in itself would be rewarding.  The style, in general, had a beautiful flow to it and was not as thick as you would believe.  The book was very easy to read, and at the same time very deep and rewarding.

I know I have not done this book justice with this review; I believe the task is a very daunting one.  But I hope that I implore you all to read War and Peace if you have not yet already.  More than half of our book club found this book to be in their top five of books they had ever read, with quite a few naming it the BEST book they had ever read.  Sometimes we must throw our caution into the wind, in order to grow.


Eclectic Indulgence said...

This next review is by Phil, a member of the bookclub and a PHD student. Enjoy!

War and Peace can be analyzed from many dimensions because of the breadth and scope of the story. The main focus of this review will be those dimensions that capture Tolstoy’s genius as a writer.

Tolstoy writes splendidly when he discusses the religious experience of some of the characters. There is Princess Marya, who is modeled in Tolstoy’s real life mother. The princess’s religious devotion is almost saint-like. She does not appear to have a selfish or sinful bone in her body. She takes care of her abusive father with little concern for her own needs. She has regular meetings with society’s outcasts on her estate. She is irreproachably generous with the peasants who till her fathers land. Her love for her father, Prince Andrey, Nicholai Rostov, and others is of a morally and spiritually pure kind that, as Tolstoy movingly states, exudes a beauty that transcends the plainness of her actual physical appearance.

Tolstoy’s capacity to beautifully capture religious feeling is demonstrated with other characters too. When Prince Andrey falls in love with Natasha, this love manifests itself as a “sudden vivid awareness of the terrible opposition between something infinitely great and indefinable that was in him, and something narrow and fleshy that he himself was”. This quasi-supernatural love manifests itself in sadder circumstances: when Andrei is injured in the Battle of Borordino, he discovers that omnipresent power and love in the universe that makes his impending death meaningless, even welcome, for him.

This privileging of the supernatural over the natural may explain why, in many parts of the text, Tolstoy displays a preference for the intuitive and emotional over the material and rational. There are Natasha’s, Marya’s, and Andrei’s omens of impending doom that always come true. There is the juxtaposition between the Russian general Kutuzov, who makes crucial decisions during the war on the basis of feeling and intuition, and the German generals who introduce mathematical and scientific principles into battle plans. For Tolstoy, it is the decisions of the former that save Russia, while the decisions of the latter lead to failure. This disparaging of the rational and scientific also manifests itself in Tolstoy’s theory of the Napoleonic wars. He rejects the historians who try to explain these events on the basis of the will of powerful leaders like Alexander or Napoleon. This error, according to Tolstoy, emerges, in part, from the over-simplification that occurs when trying to find a singular cause. For Tolstoy there is no singular cause that can be identified in the material world. There is the coincidence of millions of wills all interacting with each other, and their individual intentions do not correspond with the actual outcomes of the war. And these millions of wills are themselves moved by that omnipresent metaphysical entity that Tolstoy alludes to continuously throughout the text. Since this entity cannot be perceived with the senses, perhaps only intuition and emotion are the only means to access it.

Tolstoy can often be contradictory, however: he rejects the powerful leader theory of the war, but in some parts of the text he depicts Napoleon as a heartless megalomaniac who was responsible for the slaughter that took place.

Tolstoy works wonders with words when he takes those disjointed elements of internal experience and external reality and merges them into a singular, coherent, subjective impression. A moving example is when Nicholai Rostov, in the heat of a battle against the French, experiences the following: “Just then the sun began to hide itself behind the clouds. Ahead of Rostov, a stretcher appeared. And his fear of death and the stretcher, and his love of the sun and life—all merged into one painfully disturbing impression”. With writing like this, the saddest part of the book is that it ends.

Anonymous said...

I'm am one of those who is intimidated by this book for all the reasons that you mentioned. I've picked up Pevear's translation in the book store several times, glanced over that long list of character names, felt the weight of it in my hands and put it back on the shelf. I think I'm also intimidated by the commitment. I tend to only read one fiction book at a time and I will admit to being put off by the thought that after I start this book,I might not get to another for a month - or more! But your comments about Tolstoy, particularly the ones after the spoiler note (I didn't read the spoilers section) cause me to reconsider. I can't promise that I'll be able to overcome my fear of commitment any time soon with this book, but I'm going to give it some thought. :)

Rebecca Reid said...

What a wonderful write up! I think this is the best write up of W&P I've seen.

"Sometimes we must throw our caution into the wind, in order to grow."


My book group read this too but we only had two months and it was too rushed for me. It made it daunting every page. Don't read this with a deadline like that!!

I too was fascinated by Tolstoy's thoughts on the writing of history. I knew nothing about the war before I read this but I know plenty now -- at least form Tolstoy's perspective. I wrote three posts on this novel:

aloi said...

i just discovered your blog through the book blogger hop! thank goodness for blogs which tackle classic lit :)

neer said...

I like the idea of these read alongs.
New follower of your blog.

Abigail Rogers said...

Congrats on taking the time and effort to write such a detailed and lengthy review! I listened to this book on audio, which made the Russian names MUCH easier to deal with :)

I wrote my review here:

CHE said...

I've had War and Peace on my bookshelf for over 5 years now and haven't read it yet. Mainly because, as you rightly mentioned, the size intimidated me and also my complete ignorance about the'War'. Your review has absolutely hit the spot and inspired me to tackle this classic. Great post.