That’s all folks…


Almost 6 months, over 1,200 pages read and according to my e-reader, something like 44 hours logged in reading time brings us to the end of War and Peace. Whew!

When we started this reading adventure, I had no idea what to expect. Both BJ and I were skeptical that we would finish the book. I think reading it together definitely helped motivate us both to finish it, and it made it more enjoyable to have someone to talk to about it.

Did I enjoy it?

I think enjoy is a strong word. I didn’t hate it. I don’t think anyone goes into reading this book thinking it will be a breeze to read. Or that it will be an “I’m going to hunker down with a mug of tea on a rainy day and get engrossed in the story” kind of book. There were times that the story moved along and I did enjoy it. And then there were the other times where I wanted to poke my eyes out – mostly when Tolstoy would spend pages expounding on his theory of history or philosophy.

Am I glad I read it?

Definitely. Part of it is that BJ and I shared the experience, so that made it fun…or “fun”. I did learn a lot about Russia and history and Napoleon. So that was cool. And in a super nerdy way, it is an accomplishment to have read the whole thing.

Would I recommend it to family and friends?

No. Is it a book that gives you an insight into the human condition that you can’t get anywhere else? No. Is it a book that is so ingrained in our popular culture or canon that you have to know it? No.

Was the project a success?

Yes. 100%. It was a cool thing to do and a fun thing to share with BJ. It sucks to be living apart and this really did – at least for me – bring us closer together. I am glad we did it.

The only downside is, my book reading total took a hit for the year. I think I should be able to count this as 3 books, at least!




leo_tolstoy_21So 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 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.

Volume 4, Part 4: Sorrow and Joy

We are winding down on the adventure that is War and Peace. I will say this, Tolstoy is a very good writer. Duh, right? I mean, this book would not have survived all this time if he wasn’t. Sometimes he goes on and on about philosophical ideas, which is tiring, then sometimes he does this:

The stars, as if knowing that no one could see them now, frolicked in the black sky. Now flaring up, now going out, now quivering, they busily whispered among themselves about something joyful but mysterious.

He paints the picture with words, and it’s brilliant.

Here is the line I want to talk about:

But pure perfect sorrow is as impossible as pure and perfect joy.

When I read that line, I said, that’s it! That is the whole book in one line. Ok, maybe not the whole book, but I think it’s the essence.

That is very clear when we get the resolution of the Natasha story. Or should I say ‘resolution’. She is completely distraught – with good reason – the love of her life died in her arms, and her young brother died on the battlefield. She’s got nothing left. Then walks in Pierre, and he doesn’t recognize her because the spark has gone out of her. But what do you know, once Pierre comes back, boom, the spark is back.

The question is, did both of these characters have to go through sorrow to get to joy? Obviously, or else the book would have been a lot shorter. I kid. I do think that is life, though. You have to travel through the sorrow to get to the joy. So therefore sorrow is never pure because it will somehow lead to joy. And the converse is true.

So do the characters get a happily ever after? We don’t know at this point. I am assuming all (or at least some) will be revealed in the Epilogue.


V4P4: And we came to the end…

natashaSo there is one other element of Tolstoy’s story.  We have seen him take 1,200 pages to demonstrate his idea that the stories that history describes aren’t true…that the geniuses, the masters of the universe, the kings, the aristocrats…those that are traditionally known as the people with the power…that their actions are ill-informed, poorly motivated and fail and succeed on luck and chance.

I haven’t blogged about it yet, but he didn’t leave a vacuum.  He had an idea what he thought drove the success of armies:  the spirit of the troops.  He mentions it in every battle–one side has a winning spirit and the other doesn’t.

It represents an important part of the democratizing efforts of the realism movement.  Previous to this, the soldiers would have been thought of as pawns in the game of war, under the final direction of a great master general.

I’d say that this has continued through to this day.  Listen to Shelby Foote…or any description D-Day, for example, you don’t hear about genius generals, but the valor of the soldiers making their way up the beach.

Tolstoy carries this point to another level in this section as we look at the grieving Natasha.  She has been rocked by the death of Andrei and then learning of the death of her little brother.  As expected, she enters a full mourning-mode.

Then, she begins to care for Princess Marya and becomes infused with a new passion for life that is so strong and unexpected that at first Marya finds it offensive, but seems to understand:

“The awakened force of life that took hold of Natasha was obviously so irrepressible, so unexpected for Natasha herself, that in her presence Princess Marya felt she had no right to reproach her even in her heart.”

And, Natasha surprises herself and is joyful and gay.

Anyway, this concept of spirits is interesting. It almost seems like a mystery of life–because certainly there have been plenty of people who mourn themselves right out of the book.

It is the Christmas season now and we just got done watching the Christmas Carol…where spirits play a big role with ol’ Scrooge.  So, it wasn’t just Tolstoy with this idea  In more modern terms, I think we tend to view people as making “choices.”   I’m not sure we’re better off…I think sometimes we feel a certain way and we don’t know why or where it came from.  Is that spirit?

Volume 4, Part 3: Shocked!


You would think that by now I am used to characters dying. Apparently not.

We catch up with Petya Rostov, Natasha’s younger brother. He hasn’t performed particularly well in the war. When we catch up with him, he has been moved to a new regiment and is giving away raisins and flints to anyone who wants one. (Apparently he has a secret stash.) He is young, only 16, and enthusiastic. He gets himself invited along to do some reconnaissance with Dolokhov in a French camp to get some intel on the state of the union. The next day the Russians are planning to take down a French transport.

The battle starts, they ride into the foray, and all is fine except out of nowhere, Petya does something stupid, gets shot in the head and dies. Boom! Just like that. I had to re-read the passage a few times to make sure that happens. Totally not expecting that.

I was going to analyze why Tolstoy killed Petya off, but I don’t think that’s the point. Or it is the point. War is random. Life is random. And 16 year old boys are not immune to the ravages of war and death. So that was a shocking turn of events.

All along, Tolstoy has been preaching the concept of history vs. actual events. History as written will never be true because is has the bias of the writer, the bias of seeing the whole picture play out and knowing what the start and end points are. The actual events as they are unfolding are never able to be expressed since anyone who expresses them gives them their bias.

This whole strange, now incomprehensible contradiction between facts and historical descriptions comes only from the fact that the historians who wrote about this event wrote the history of the beautiful feelings and words of various generals, and not the history of the events themselves.

He has come back to this time and time again. The bee in his bonnet is the fact that historically, the Russian army is heralded by their ‘profound plan of cutting off and capturing Napoleon and his army’. Basically both sides are hungry, frozen, have no rations or suppplies. The French are just trying to get out of Russia, and the Russians are making sure that they get out. There was no master plan.

We are winding down on the story….one more part left. Hang on tight!

V4P3: Anti-history

french-retretNeil Armstrong famously said that when you go to the moon, you only have to figure out two things:  how to get there and how to get back.

Same with Moscow.

Napoleon didn’t get the memo, and it turns out to be a long walk back to France from Moscow in the winter.

So, the French are leaving town…and the 360-degree circumstances around that are leaving Tolstoy in  frenzy of bitter irony.

I have written on this blog about how quick Tolstoy was to recognize how much of the action in military maneuvers was designed for self-aggrandizement.  One thing I have not as much is his disdain for historians, who are the creators of the mythologies that he seeks to dispell.

For example, Tosltoy says that historians went back and wrote that the Russians had the objective of capturing the French army.  He then goes back and thoroughly debunks this notion…what would they do with the prisoners, for example?  The Russian army was starving on their own, without prisoners.  And why wouldn’t the objective be to let the French leave, which they are already trying to do?  Not to mention that killing people who are literally falling dead by the road on their own makes no sense.

His point–odd for a novelist but right for a realist–is that there’s no storytelling in the truth of history, as it is seen by those who participate.  Time and time again, he asserts that an action that was taken was taken not out of genius but because it was the only option possible.

Take, for example, the narrative that the French defeated the Russians to get to Moscow and then the Russians defeated the French to get them out.  He writes:

But, leaving national vanity completely aside, one feels that this conclusion contains an inner contradiction, because the series of French victories brought them to total destruction, while the series of Russian defeats led them to the total destruction of the foe and the purging of the fatherland.

Find that in your history book.

V4P2: Don’t just do something, sit there

So after all the de-mythologizing that Tolstoy has sought to do in War and Peace, he finds his true moment in this section.

Simply put, he has found a wise man.  That man is “His Serenity,” Mikhail Kutuzov.  As the leader of the Russian Troops, the portly man is the only one in the army who understands that there is no reason to attack Napoleon when he is in the process of self-destructing.  His enemies–and here we refer not to Napoleon but his internal enemies–seek to attack to take action, because, of course, action and attacking is what make a man a legend at the expense of the life of many others.

Kutuzov continually resists these attempts, fights off the undermining, and eventually…without losing men in a bloody battle…watches the French leave Moscow and head back toward Smolensk, with the eventual idea that they will be leaving Russia.  The French had gorged themselves on plunder while in Moscow, and are in no condition to fight.  In fact, given the prospect of walking back to Paris, they are actually hoping to be taken prisoner.

There’s so much here…so much rich and powerful insight into human nature.  Three examples:

How many times have you seen a situation where getting your goal is the end of you?  There was no greater curse for Napoleon than reaching Moscow.

How about a really solid lesson in confirmation bias?  This is a popular concept now, but can be tracked as far back as Thucydides.  Kutuzov thinks this:

He…knew how capable people who desire something are of grouping all the information in such a way that it seems to confirm what they desire, and knew how willingly on such occasions they omit all that contradicts it.

And courage?  How many times have you seen someone act because he or she is afraid of criticism for not acting?  Kutuzov had the courage to do nothing, to take the critikoetoezov_kazancism for giving up Moscow to keep his army intact, which in the end was the decisive move.  He had the strength to not need to look like a hero…to not cause needless suffering…to realize that patience and time “were his greatest warriors.”

For this, ironically, Kutuzov is in fact now a legend and hero in Russia.  There are monuments to him and during WWII the Soviets named military honors and entire operations after him.  The military honors exist to this day.

Volume 4, Part 2: Happiness is…


Pierre finds himself amidst the chaos of the looting and rioting and insanity. We know that he has struggled throughout the story with how to live his life, how to meet expectations that others have of him and that he has for himself. It seems now that he has faced death, and had all of his vices taken away from him, he finally has the clarity to find peace within himself.

Pierre ruminates on the definition of happiness. This is the strength of Tolstoy, and what makes this a timely novel today. His ability to summarize what makes us all human and hilights the struggles we all have. (Even if we don’t live in 1812 Russia.)

Here, only now, did Pierre fully appreciate for the first time the enjoyment of food when he wanted to eat, of drink when he wanted to drink, of sleep when he wanted to sleep, of warmth when he was cold, of talking to someone when he wanted to talk and hear a human voice. The satisfaction of his needs – for good food, cleanliness, freedom – now that he was deprived of them all, seemed perfect happiness to Pierre…

Pierre was thrust into a life that he wasn’t prepared for, and possibly didn’t want. One would think that being rich, and powerful, you are automatically happy. But Tolstoy shows us that is not so through Pierre. I guess I expected Pierre to either be equally unhappy, or more so. It seems as if Pierre has grown.

I did have a soft spot for Pierre throughout the novel, even though he was a bit of a dope, but this part really made me like him and realize he didn’t get a fair shake. We will see how he does once he gets out into the real world.


V4P1: Andrei Finally Meets the End

andrei-dyingSo, Prince Andrei, who was near death several times over the course of the book…finally met the end when V4P1 came to its conclusion.

Andrei is a fascinating character.  He starts out thinking that the actions of a few great men determined history…then he became interested in making laws as a way of determining history…before he finally had the realization that (in Tolstoy’s view) history is an aggregate mash-up of everyone’s decisions.  He finally has a deathbed conversion when he forgives Anatole and Natasha, declares his love for Natasha, has an extremely well-crafted dream that tells him dying is awakening, and then he decides to give it up and go ahead and die.

What’s interesting is that research has indicated that while most of the characters in War and Peace were linked to actual people, Andrei was entirely fictitious.

Which have to make you wonder whether he wasn’t the character Tolstoy sent in to truly define how he viewed the world. It is one of the things that makes this book great.  It is a good story and it is a great read…because of the incredible scope of human existence and philosophy it encompasses in those 1,200 pages.  This is the work of an incredibly expansive and brilliant mind–someone who sees deeply into what is around him.

With that in mind, what was new in this section is the discourse on love.

Love? What is love?” he thought. “Love hinders death. Love is life. Everything, everything I understand, I understand only because I love. Everything is, everything exists, only because I love. Everything is connected only by that. Love is God, and to die—means that I, a part of love, return to the common and eternal source.” These thoughts seemed comforting to him. But they were only thoughts…there was no evidence.

Andrei gets the evidence only when he actually dies, which is Tolstoy’s Russian fatalism at work again.  However, let’s not miss the romantic Tolstoy in this passage.  Yes, history is fate determined by countless decisions made by people who act without knowledge or understanding.  Yes, therefore, the myths and the legends of society mean nothing.  In a sense, nothing means anything…or at least nothing means what it seems to mean.  So what’s left?

So what’s left?  What is a person to do?  Love…that remains the thing that gives meaning to life…not history, not myth.  Love.