Review: War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy

It’s been a while since we finished the War & Peace read-a-long and I hope everybody’s finally got used to reading whatever the hell they want again! It took me a few weeks to get rid of the pervading feeling of guilt I felt because I was reading something that wasn’t an epic Russian classic. Now we’re a few months on, I thought I’d take the time to write a proper, overall review of the book, with the benefit of hindsight, time and space.

Plot summary (HA!): Tolstoy’s epic
masterpiece intertwines the lives of private and public individuals
during the time of the Napoleonic wars and the French invasion of
Russia. The fortunes of the Rostovs and the Bolkonskys, of Pierre,
Natasha, and Andrei, are intimately connected with the national history
that is played out in parallel with their lives. Balls and soirees
alternate with councils of war and the machinations of statesmen and
generals, scenes of violent battles with everyday human passions in a
work whose extraordinary imaginative power has never been surpassed.

The
prodigious cast of characters, seem to act and move as if connected by
threads of destiny as the novel relentlessly questions ideas of free
will, fate, and providence. Yet Tolstoy’s portrayal of marital relations
and scenes of domesticity is as truthful and poignant as the grand
themes that underlie them.

I love how even the blurb can’t be arsed to try and unravel the various plots… 

War & Peace can best be summed up in one simple sentence – ‘not as bad as I expected.’ I mean, come on. It’s one of the most intimidating books available in the English language; people who have never touched a page of this tome use it as a simile for something unecessarily long or arduous. It’s long, it’s huge and it’s filled with teeny tiny little text.

So why read it then? Well, while I concede this makes me an awful human being, I wanted to Have Read It. I know, right? In my defence, I don’t intend to trot it out at dinner parties (like I have the type of friends who host dinner parties anyway) or bludgeon people with my reading history. I just like secretly holding the fact to myself, that I have read War & Peace.

In truth, it was alright. I will admit that it started a great deal better than it ended as it suffered a gradual decline into tedium. To begin with, I was looking forward to picking up War & Peace, which is a statement I never thought I’d say. I was managing to read other books alongside, but I didn’t mind putting them aside to go back to 1800s Russia.

It opens in the city itself, with a lot of gossip, scandal and drama. To be honest, it could be a Jane Austen novel if you replaced all the furs with ribboned bonnets. Who wants to marry who, who’s too poor to marry, who needs to settle down and stop messing about with the boys… etc. It’s interesting.

We then flit to the war with Napoleon. I found the wars bits mildly less interesting, but it was somewhat reassuring that I could pick out odd parts that I remembered from A-level history. The problem with the military parts is that Tolstoy assumes you already know and intimately understand the Napoleonic Wars. He refers to the Russians as ‘we’ and occasionally tangents into discussions of what should have been the appropriate cause of action.

This does sound a little odd, but if you were reading a historical fiction novel about World War II, aimed at English-speaking audiences, you wouldn’t really expect it to bother explaining the war and how it happened and who was Allied with who, would you? I suppose Tolstoy didn’t really expect his epic novel to become the renowned worldwide staple that it is today, and therefore didn’t bother explaining himself all that much.

Anyway, I managed to struggle through the war parts with a combination of Shmoop and my slightly foggy A2 knowledge. I admit that I did spend most of it wishing we could hurry up and get back to the court gossip though. The two parts tend to alternate, at least for a while – War, Peace, War, Peace, War, Peace. Unfortunately, as the war becomes more serious and Russia starts to lose, it becomes more:

War, Peace, War, War, War, War, Peace, War.   
By this point, I think a lot of us had started to struggle. It was quite long-winded, quite dry, a little ranty and we had been reading the damn thing for two months by that point. It’s hard to tell whether our disssatisfaction was purely due to the book itself or our desire to read something, anything else.
My main issue with War & Peace is that it seems Tolstoy didn’t plan a damn thing before writing it. Aside from the obvious point that the book is unecessarily, obnoxiously long, he goes off on mad tangents that I can only assume were affected by whatever was going on in the real world around him that week. We spend a few chapters off on an insanely detailed hunting trip because (genuinely) Tolstoy was on a hunting expedition in real life. In another part, one of the characters decides to shlep off and join the Freemasons – it’s rumoured Tolstoy came across some Masonic documents around that time.
His lack of planning is also evidenced by the sub-plots that are left hanging and aren’t dealt with, and his sudden killing off of characters that he doesn’t need anymore. Look, it’s 1800s Russia. I understand that a lot of people are going to die. Yay realism. But he spends ages building up your relationship with a certain character… and then kills them off in a pragraph because they’ve become unecessary! ARGH.
The ending is quite anti-climactic as well, as it just assumes you know what happened after Napoleon limped out of Russia. It just kind of… stops.
The fundamental, over-arching Point of War & Peace, and correct me if I’m wrong, seems to be that military leaders don’t have a whole lot to do with the eventual outcome of battles or revolutions. It’s more related to the spirit of the people and the wings of the butterfly. There’s a whole pretentious epilogue to spell this out for you, but that’s the very basic gist.
I’m glad I understand the underlying principle or I may have felt that the three months I spent reading this book were a waste of time. As it happens, I don’t think that. I enjoyed reading this, much more than I expected to, and I’ve come away understanding a little more about Napoleonic Russia. I don’t see myself needing to read this again, honestly, but I am glad we took the time to immerse ourselves properly in this epic novel.
We’re FREEEEEE!   

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