Before I get started, I should note that book reviews — at least when it comes to fiction — have not featured and probably will not feature prominently on this blog. However, I’ve noticed that the blog’s ‘Literature’ category (which I’ve classified as a sub-category of ‘Pleasure’) is getting a lot of hits, even though there’s hardly any content there. I thought I’d better remedy this with at least some book reviews and/or other literary content. In general, I haven’t been reading nearly as much fiction as I used to at one point, and especially when I was doing some studies in Comparative Literature at Helsinki during my M.A., but I’ve always got some book or other under way. War and Peace was under way for a long time…
It would be silly to try to write any kind of a comprehensive and informative review of War and Peace, which has been so extensively studied. That’s why I’ll opt for the same style as I have done in all aspects of this blog, i.e. I’ll just write about my personal reading experience. So, don’t expect a synopsis here; you can go read one of those on Wikipedia, among other places… I finished War and Peace towards the end of last year after working on it for about a year. That’s a long time despite the 1300 pages, and I’m not a slow reader, but what happened is that I went through stages of reading the book regularly, and then 1-2 month periods of not even touching it and reading something else. The original idea was to do a sort of a reading group with a mate of mine in the UK, but then I moved back to Finland and the initial motivation to keep reading died. I’m telling you all this because I feel that War and Peace is not an easy book to read, in fact, it’s very boring at times, and it’s very difficult to keep track of all the Russian names (notoriously, the same person may be referred to with a number of different names), especially if you’ve put the book down for a while. Anyway, let me get into some more detail about the actual book.
The Oxford World Classics edition of War and Peace
I read the Oxford World Classics version of the book, which comes with extensive notes, all of which I read. This is one reason why I said that it’s not an easy book to read, for if you want to stay on top of all the references, you really need one of these thoroughly annotated editions, and then you end up checking the notes every five minutes. That kind of ruins the pacing of an already very slow going book. Of course, the pacing of the book changes a lot from section to section, being very slow with the descriptions of the family affairs of the characters, and occasionally quite action-packed when it comes to descriptions of battles. I found the war sections more interesting, and I think they work well to give an impression of what war was like back then, despite Tolstoy’s obvious pacifist agenda.
One thing that I’ve learned to know and love in Russian literature — which I’ve read a lot — is the inner dialogue of the characters, closely associated with the psychological aspects of the great Russian novels. There’s less of this in Tolstoy than Dostoevsky for instance, but it’s certainly a visible element in Tolstoy’s work as well. There is virtually none of this well into War and Peace, which was a bit of a disappointment for me, and a major reason why I didn’t relate to any of the characters to begin with. Later on in the book there is an increase in this type of character development though, and Pierre’s inner dialogue in particular becomes a major aspect of the novel, especially in the sections where he explores Freemasonry and when he is captured by Napoleon’s forces in Moscow towards the end of the novel. I enjoyed these, although Pierre’s naivety is slightly irritating at times.
I don’t have much to say about the family relations and love affairs that take so much space in War and Peace. They are amusing at times, and give some insight — albeit surely caricatured — into the lives of the Russian nobility back in the day, but the drama with the ladies is just so much over the top that it’s a bit difficult to take it seriously.
Tolstoy’s remarks and (pseudo-)philosophical pondering about military strategy, determinism, and the interpretation of historical events increase in frequency towards the end of the book. I found them entertaining, although all of the complaints about military strategy and at least nearly all of the comments about the study of history are utterly obsolete. Over and over again we hear that military historians are under the illusion of Napoleon and his ilk being some sort of heroes who guided the events of the war with clear vision et cetera, et cetera. While this may or may not be an accurate description of the historians of Tolstoy’s day, I’m confident that contemporary historians have a rather more realistic picture about historical events. Having said that, the picture that Tolstoy paints is rather close to the one that children might get in school — it’s all very much focused on the persons.
Anyway, what I can say, with more confidence, is that Tolstoy’s conception of determinism and the power of individuals to change events is very naive, and probably inconsistent. This may be easy to say now, when we know about things like quantum indeterminacy, but regardless of all that, Tolstoy does get way too preachy about this. It’s fine if you read it as a curiosity and know a little bit about Tolstoy’s character, but I also feel that this is something that is not sufficiently clarified in the extensive notes of the Oxford World Classics edition. While this is of course a novel first and foremost, Tolstoy himself clearly intended it to be much more, and not least a philosophical essay of sorts. Hence, it would be useful if at least some of his more preposterous philosophical claims were assessed in the notes as well.
Well, I think I’ve written quite a lot already, without saying very much about the book at all. At any rate, I don’t think that this ‘review’ will make anyone want to read War and Peace. That would be unfortunate, as even though I’ve said some rather negative things about the book, I still think that it’s one of the few hundred books out there that everyone should read. Just know what you’re getting yourself into!
I’ve read (some of) the other major novels by Tolstoy, namely Anna Karenina and Resurrection, but I read both in Finnish — like I’ve read nearly all of the Russians. I do think that they translate into Finnish nicely, although this is difficult to assess without knowing Russian! I suppose that there is at least some sort of a resemblance between the Finnish and the Russian mental lives though, so I suspect that this may help. Anyway, I’m not a huge fan of Anna Karenina, but I recall that Resurrection made some sort of an impression on me. I read it many years ago though. I just wanted to mention these because I do think that Anna Karenina may be a better Tolstoy novel to start with rather than War and Peace; the former gives a good idea about Tolstoy’s idealism.
I think that’ll do, but I’ll try to add some more content to this category of the blog eventually. I’m currently reading another epic, James Joyce’s Ulysses…