08 October 2010

Book Review: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

    

What happens when the page count includes a comma?
How does one begin to write a review of a novel of 1,358 pages? Better question: How does one begin to read a novel of 1,358 pages? I very much enjoy the act of reading. But as with most other facets of my life and personality I am always thinking about the end result. In reading that means I am always thinking about finishing a book, logging the finished title on my list of books read, and choosing the next book. In general I don't feel bad about this.  I read things completely, but sometimes I don't read things as closely as I should and thus I don't always retain a whole lot of detail. In fact one of the reasons I decided to review every book that I finish was so that I could look back on my reading list and actually recall what happened in a particular book. But being results driven in reading has also aided me in reading a whole lot more. This isn't a question of quantity over quality either in choice of material or in the way I read a book. What it does mean is that my slightly OCD-influenced drive to finish whatever I am reading with all due speed helps me spend time with something that I love--books.  If it weren't for that, I would still love books, but I would probably spend way too much time in front of the TV while my paper friends sat neglected and dusty on the shelf.

So, how then does the results-driven reader get through 1,358 pages? This was not without challenge for me. At first I kept looking at where my bookmark was. But 50 or even 100 pages into a book this thick doesn't look much like progress. It soon became clear I needed a plan for getting through this one. I thought of following Dovegreyreader Scribbles read along which is reading 100 pages a month for a year. Some following that read along are going to read a chapter a day for a year. Both seemed like a good way to break this monster book down. But it didn't seem right for me. The results-driven me kicked in and decided that  that was too much time to have something like this hanging over my head. So I plunged in, hell bent on reading this book in much less than a year.

The good news is that the book actually came to the rescue. Once I started getting into the rhythm of the writing and story lines it soon became clear to me. One shouldn't approach War and Peace as a book. It is more like your favorite TV drama or mini-series, or, dare I say, soap opera. You enjoy the moment. The setting, the costumes, the characters interacting. You enjoy the arc of the mini story lines, and you don't mind that it goes on and on and on, seemingly without end. It allowed me to enjoy the process and think less about the end.

A note about spoilers
Just as I have with my previously posted graphic summaries, I do list below what could be considered a spoiler or two. But the arc of this book is so sprawling, the characters so many, and the page count so high, that even if you know what happens, I think it would be hard to ruin it for someone who hasn't read it. Plus my spoilers aren't too spoily.

The story
If it took me this three paragraphs just to express my thoughts on how I read the book, how long do you think it would take me outline the story? You don't want to know. And I don't want to try. It would probably also take me longer to do that then it did to read the book. So you get a bulleted list:
  • Begins in Russia in July 1805
  • Ends in about 1820
  • The war bits relate to the campaigns in the Napoleonic Wars in which Russia was involved.
  • The peace bits tell the story of a circle of titled and not-so titled upper class Russians in Petersburg and Moscow.
  • There are plenty of peace bits (chapters, sections, etc.) with parties, marital intrigue, romance, etc., but to me it was all background. The impact of the wars on the characters and their families spills over into all of the peace bits.
  • Lots of inappropriate and typical upper class behavior: too young girls being paired off with too old men; marriage for dynastic and financial reasons; overspending, gambling debts; and other such luxuriously tragic goings on.
  • A relatively happy ending. Like an Austen you can kind of see the marriages coming down the pike, and they do come together in the end.
  • A few of the deaths are surprising, but given the vast scope of the novel they are sometimes, I think purposely, anticlimactic.
In the process one learns about:
  • Napoleon and his quest for world domination. At one point in my undergraduate days I knew the rough outline of Napoleon's romp through Europe and Africa. War and Peace helped refresh some of that and, more importantly, prompted me to go back and skim the history of that time to reacquaint myself with the "facts".
  • The nature of war which is so often about important people playing chess with human pawns. I think Tolstoy would have problems with the premise of this gross simplification but I think it still rings true and is very evident in his book.
  • Human life and death, triumph and sorrow, things that are earth-shattering at the moment, are blips on the map of human history. Just imagine if Tolstoy put it in the context of geological time.
  • Historians, on both the winning and losing sides, create heroes. Rarely--at least in this period, but one could argue even into our own day--are commanders and tacticians as brilliant as they are made out to be. Chance and dumb luck have much to do with success on the battle field.
What War and Peace isn't
A paean to the art of war. There is certainly much description of military maneuvers and glory seeking commanders and soldiers. But the overall feeling I got from Tolstoy was that there wasn't much glorious about it. In fact, there were times when I was caught up in the action, and like a 13-year old straight boy, was filled with the shoot 'em up thirst for a glorious victory. But I don't think there was one instance where Tolstoy gives us a moment of pure militaristic climax. One of the more compelling scenes in the book is when Nikolay Rostov is proving his bravery and leading the charge against the enemy. Just as the reader reaches a peak of excitement over Rostov's impending triumph, Rostov himself sees the face of his "enemy" and has an immediate crisis of confidence and conscience.

Final thoughts
  • I enjoyed reading this book.
  • It is no doubt a masterpiece, but it is also an enjoyable read.
  • I think there are probably at least 300 pages that could be chopped out.
  • When I had about 60 pages to go all I could think was "enough already, just end it"
  • I could have done without the non-fictional, philosophical disquisition that Tolstoy includes in the Epilogue. In a different mood I would find it very interesting, but as the final 30 pages out of 1,358, it seemed like punishing someone for doing a good deed.
  • I am very glad to have finally finished War and Peace. Probably the one title in all literature that reigns as most intimidating. Okay, I take it back, I think that distinction should belong to Ulysses.
And now I can pursue the read-a-thon without this one hanging over my head. Hoo. Ray.

16 comments:

  1. I doubt I would be able to handle this - masterpiece or not. Its best to accept one's limitations!

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  2. Wow - that is impressive and I love your summary!

    happy readathoning

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  3. I dove into W&P on a vacation--I don't think I would have been able to do a year-long read-a-thon. I was really surprised how readable it was. And even though I loved all the philosophical bits, the last little dissertation was a bit too much.

    Congrats on finishing it! Thanks for the thoughts.

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  4. Congrats on your huge accomplishment! I have actually read a lot of Tolstoy (including Anna K), but not this monster... I'd really like to, though, because I do like his writing and his wit a lot. But of course, the page count is daunting! You give me hope that it can be done!

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  5. Congratulations on this huge accomplishment. I can honestly say I think I will die before I read this novel. Kudos to you though :)

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  6. You did it! And with some of my favorite images on any blog in recent memory too. Just loved following your progress. And now, open the wine and pick the tiniest book you have to start the readathon!

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  7. Hi - I was perusing through some of the Read-a-Thon blogs and found yours very interesting. I am about halfway through War and Peace, and enjoyed the first part of your comments (didn't read them all because of the spoiler warning). I'm trying to do about 20 pages a day, so I don't feel overwhelmed and can read other stuff at the same time. I agree with you - it's more readable than I thought it would be. Looks like you have a great stack for the Read-a-Thon! This will be my first - should be fun! (Liked your video from Ellen, too.)

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  8. Congratulations to you! I read this so long ago that I couldn't tell you anything about it anymore (back in the day before I kept reading logs). I had to laugh out loud at this thought,
    "In a different mood I would find it very interesting, but as the final 30 pages out of 1,358, it seemed like punishing someone for a good doing a good deed."
    Thanks for the summary, and enjoy your weekend!

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  9. Mystica: I agree about accepting limitations. This one is long but pretty easy to read otherwise.

    Verity: I knew I shouldn't try and write a summary in paragraph form. Would have been boring for you all to read.

    Melody: It is surprising how readable it is. I think its reputation does it some harm.

    Steph: At the time I read AK I recognized it was a big book, but never felt it was a mountain like W&P. If you like Tolstoy, then W&P is like a gift from on high. There is so much of it.

    Brenna: That is how I feel about Ulysses.

    Frances: Thanks. The photos were the only way I could summarize things without hurting my brain.

    Sherry Ann: Thanks for stopping by. Now that W&P is done the Readathon should be sheer joy.

    Susan: I am not sure if you meant to point out my typo...but you did! I have since corrected it. :)

    Mlle: Thanks!

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  10. We had a copy of a CD set of Prokovief's wonderful operatic version of W & P at the store, which I hemmed and hawed about buying. Someone else bought it, alas. A very long opera, but still shorter than reading the book. Wasn't there a something like 8 or 10 hour film version a couple decades ago?

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  11. Always pleased to see someone get through these books - it gives me hope that one day I'll muster the self discipline to read some of the monsters on my shelves:)

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  12. Congratulations! What an impressive accomplishment. I think the same approach would work best for me, too. One of these days... And I loved your visual progress reports!

    Enjoy the read-a-thon!

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  13. Well done! That is a serious monster of a book, isn't it? And I'm glad to hear that you enjoyed reading it. I'm thinking of reading it next year and was wondering which translation you read as I haven't decided which to get.

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  14. I read Anna K last fall and really liked it. Sharing this success with others, a co-worker replied they had spent all summer reading W & P. I borrowed it in February and have found it daunting and hard to break into - a google search on visual character maps led me to your blog. thanks for these inspiring thoughts about how to approach reading W & P - I am also impressed with how much you read and the descriptive way you document your literary adventures - thanks for sharing.

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  15. Leslie: Thanks for stopping by. Anna K is definitely easier to get into than W&P so don't feel alone on that one. I had the same experience. Good luck and have fun.

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