So we did it. Done. War and Peace, all 1,200-some pages is done.
Leo would be proud. Actually, I doubt that. But, we finished the book that is go-to cliche for long books. Search twitter sometime for the phrase “longer than War and Peace” and you will find it used to describe everything from a business memo to a love note.
Good sir. What did you think?
In no particular order, since this is a blog.
It took a lot longer than I thought it would. It was originally designed to be a summer project..like done by Labor Day. OK, more like done by Christmas. Now, it wasn’t all we read during that time…there were short breaks here and there, but it was mostly what we read. It took a lot longer than I thought it would.
Next year’s project is going to be a year-long-type deal.
It was a good book. I gave it 4-stars on Goodreads. I only give 5-stars to books that completely blow me away, that I just love and would read again, and this book didn’t get to that level. But it is a very good book and parts of it are incredible. Tolstoy has an amazing ability to capture events and sometimes an incredible ability to capture people. He can also develop an extended metaphor like nobody’s business. For such a dour-looking fellow, he actually has a sharp eye for ironic humor and makes that work as well. Some of the book is outright hilarious. He is equally good at capturing the drama of a parlor room as he is when describing a battlefield.
That said, this book would never make it out of a contemporary MFA class. The narrative style is such as will never be found anywhere else in contemporary literature. In a lot of cases, he tells and doesn’t show, which is a no-no today, and there are actual essays–multi-page, 2,000 word essays–embedded in the middle of the story. No one could get away with that and no one would try.
The book was not especially difficult to read, contrary to its reputation. The hardest thing is the proliferation of Russian names and the fact that one person can be called by multiple Russian names. If you replaced all the Russian names with familiar names you’d find this book pretty easy to read. In fact, it is much easier to read than a lot of contemporary fiction. The story employs a chronological story arc and is pretty straight forward. Nothing complicated is going on and god knows he hasn’t adopted the tactic of dropping you in the middle of the scene without explaining what is happening.
It is still a long slog and there are still whole sections of it that are difficult to read if only because they are so meandering and seemingly pointless. I am sure that if I didn’t have a partner in reading it, I would have put it down at some point and never picked it up again.
What surprised me most was how radical it was. I sort of expected straight historical fiction, with heroes and legends, good guys and bad guys. I expected more of a traditional epic story. Honestly, in my mind, I saw Gone With the Wind in Russia in 1812.
Which isn’t what this is. The philosophy this book espouses is actually radical. You want to say radical for its time, but maybe not. Let’s return to that idea.
What Tolstoy is setting out to do is to destroy the idea that great men control the destiny of other men. That geniuses–like Napoleon, among others–use brilliant minds to make decisions that control the actual course of events. War and Peace shreds any kind of mythology like that.
Men don’t act based on reason. In many cases, they don’t have enough information, any information, or they have wrong information. And yet they act. They might look like geniuses because they take an action that they had no choice about…and history judges them based on how it turns out, not whether the choice was a choice at all. They might be acting in the name of something righteous, but many times they act out of vanity or ego. Even when these actions succeed, they aren’t the result of genius. Any action is followed by a myraid of other actions, most of them independent variables to the main question. Something has to happen, good or bad. It doesn’t make it genius.
By destroying the idea of the great man…along with the Age of Reason while he is at it…Tolstoy creates a new democratizing idea. In short, it is the spirit of the people who make great events happen. Great men are just along for the ride.
In a way, that’s an interesting take on our times as well as his…he said, pointing you to the Presidential election that was held while this book was being read.
When it comes to individual affairs, as it were, Tolstoy has an extremely sharp eye for how he portrays people. He is clearly out to demythologize here as well. With the exception of servants, the book consists almost exclusively of artistocrats. In a typical book, they would have been seen as dignified, refined, educated, sophisticated and witty. In War and Peace, all those misconceptions are gone. They are shown to be as scheming, petty, self-involved and ignorant as anyone else, just in better clothes and with less hunger.
The idea of romantic love is worked around a little bit, too. Tolstoy finishes the book extolling the idea of pure love as the only thing that truly gives life meaning. But when it comes to romance, characters seem to be able to find their one true love more than once. Witness Natasha, who has a veritable revolving door of true loves.
I was trying to think about who my favorite character was. That’s hard to pin down. At times you find Pierre to be an engaging oaf, but eventually he becomes an insufferable gasbag. Similarly, you can’t help but enjoy the idealism of Prince Andrei, but you can’t picture spending a lot of time with him.
I think you could take the easy well out and go where Tolstoy points you…which is Kutuzov, the General with the sense not to fight. But, I have to say there was no character I fell in love with. This is probably a tribute to how real the characters were and of Tolstoy resisting the urge to make a truly good–and then by definition one-dimensional–character.
Which is another radical part of the story…no good guys, no bad guys. In that sense, it is very modern.
Bottom line, I’m glad I read it. I have always wanted to, and I finished it. It was a grind in some cases and not in others. It is pretty ridiculous to say it was good, because it has been read for so long. But it was good. And worth it. And a much deeper and more introspective look at humans, reason, free will, and society than I expected.