Wow. So that’s what it’s all about. I have finally finished what is considered sometimes as the most arduous undertaking in a literary reader’s life. Tolstoy’s War and Peace will probably put off most of the more timorous readers by the sheer size of the tome. Add on to it the legend of the Everest like endeavor needed to overcome it and it’s easy to see why this is held in higher-than-most esteem. And to top it all off, it’s a Russian author’s work. That screams philosophy and detailing not for the faint of heart.
Mine being hopefully less faint than that of most, held out. And at the outset I have to say that, despite the size of and the time one needs to devote to the burdensome tome, I found it less intricate and easier to follow than a Dostoevsky. Sure, there are reams of detail which we may find cumbersome and a drag, but at the same time, it is more straightforward in its basic themes than, say, a Brothers Karamazov. Or maybe it is the prose style which makes for an easier read.
Those themes are, of course, War and Peace (duh!). And relationships.Specifically, the Napoleonic wars and their impact on the people of Russia sometime towards the end of the 18th century and till the early decades of the 19th.Napoleon and the French empire were on a raging warpath, attempting to conquer all before them and try to make incursions into Russia, while the Russian emperor and his generals try to exhort the generals and the public into rousing shows of strength and solidarity to resist the invaders. The two empires enter into an uneasy truce before delving into battle again, as Napoleon makes inroads into Moscow and the Russian armies retreat. However, this supposed very great triumph of Napoleon is the start of his downfall, as anarchy and looting reign among the soldiers let loose in the Russian towns. Finally Napoleon is forced to retreat to his confinement on the island of St. Helena, though still in some comfort.
That is the history known to everyone with a cursory interest in the period. Tolstoy provides his own view on the monarchs and the events which shaped each or which each shape in their turn. Suffice to say, he is not a huge fan of Napoleon. There seems to be a bit of a bias in his mostly not very flattering expositions of the monarch, but an even greater one in his detailed analysis of historians of the era and their interpretation or portrayal of events of the period. In fact, most of the concluding Epilogue section is taken up by this critique and extrapolation of the conventional portrayal of these events and why historians are mostly wrong in assuming that it is the action of one or two individuals which caused all this great migration of people and firepower from East to West or vice versa. According to Tolstoy’s analysis it has more to do with a million small events and thoughts which brings about great change and forces the will of the people. However, his manner of expressing it in this dreary part of the novel is too pedantic and weary. I probably found it tougher to get through this last portion of the novel than any of the preceding thousand pages.
At its heart, the book focuses mainly on the families of theRostovs and the Bolkonskys, and an initial outsider, Pierre Bezukhov, who flits between them. Most of this domestic drama happens in the posh confines and soirees of various St. Petersburg drawing rooms as the counts and countesses and princes and princesses and their numerous underlings and servants and guests go about doing whatever it was 19th century aristocracy usually did.Which is quite a culture shock for the uninitiated. They have servants waiting on them at every point and servants who help them dress up or take off their clothes, and even those of more modest means seem to need such help as a basic necessity. Sales and deeds are transferred sometimes in the form of souls, or the erstwhile serfs attached to the land, a system which has since been ended.
Most of the people in the domestic drama do get involved in the war though, some more closely than others. Overall though, I was not as captivated by the war sections as I am by more contemporary authors dealing with the subject. This could be because of the age in which it was written or the translation style, but most of the descriptions and events seemed to be narrated in a very impersonal tone, the kind of which stopped me from completely enjoying another Russian classic, the Brothers Karamazov. To add to it, the constant exultations and emphasis on the pride of going to war and of love for the sovereign struck me as a bit naïve, even for the time it was set in. It would have been nice to hear a bit on these young people’s fears and insecurities before going off to fight rather than just their eagerness. The belated realizations of wars follies struck me a little impersonal as already mentioned above.
So, no, this is not among my favorite books for sure, and the size of it ensures I’ll probably never really go back to it again considering I’m not a literature major studying it. But it is a worthwhile read, nonetheless. Despite its size and wordiness, I hardly ever felt bored or like giving up on it and it does portray a fascinating portrait of an important period in Europe’s history.