Thoughts on “War and Peace”

For the past few weeks, I’ve been posting about some Stephen King adaptations — to movie — in this spot. I intended to do the same thing this week, but the next movie in the pack that I’m currently working through is 167 minutes long. I just didn’t have the time this weekend to watch a movie that long. However, I had just managed to finish reading “War and Peace” and since I had planned to talk about it decided that today was a good day to do so.

I’ve been reading “War and Peace” off and on for about four months now. I finally managed to finish it about a week or so ago. It was a long and rather heavy book, and again as usual I kept getting distracted by other things. The pace, therefore, was incredibly slow. Some days I’d manage to read a whole four pages before putting it aside for the night. This was mostly because the book was detailed and deep enough that I had to focus more on it than I would otherwise and so when I got distracted I did have to make sure that I went back and caught the details of the parts that I might have skimmed over otherwise, especially since a lot of it was in French where I had to make sure that I read the translations to figure out what was going on.

Now, this is a very famous work, and is well-known in literary circles. There’s a lot of literary analysis that can be done and has been done for this book. I’m not going to do any of that here. Instead, I went into this with the attitude of “Okay, so this is labelled as an incredibly wonderful book that stands the test of time. I’m going to just sit down and read it and see how it works simply as entertainment from someone who likes to read books”. So, I was reading it for fun. Was it fun?

I’m going to start with the good points, segue into some of the bad points, and then give an overall assessment at the end.

While obviously how the work is translated can play a big part in this, nevertheless it’s clear that Tolstoy’s writing style is very good. His conversations generally flow, his asides generally work, the pacing is normally fairly good — more on this in the negatives — and his descriptions generally work. Character-wise, Tolstoy is generally able to describe them well-enough and to speak well-enough in their own voices to make them distinct and also relatable and sympathetic. There are a number of characters in the work that I really liked — Marya and Sonya in particular — and that I grew to like later like Pierre and Natasha. Most of the background characters work even if they often don’t really get any resolution to their character arcs. For the most part, Tolstoy does a good job of mostly describing people going about doing things and talking about things that they would talk about, and exposing them for their strengths and foibles, which makes it seem like a description of Russia at the time and not so much a work of fiction at all. That he uses the actual historical backdrop of the Napoleonic ways only adds to this; without knowing the actual detailed history, you probably won’t notice the differences in characters or events that Tolstoy hints at in his epilogue, nor will at least some of the prominent characters that he invents seem out of place as prominent characters. There are some rather major discrepancies as Tolstoy notes, but as a work of fiction it works well to make all of those discrepancies at least seem like things that could have happened.

Tolstoy also at times takes a rather cynical view of wars, politics, history and historians, and a number of other things. While these are generally asides, they also usually work pretty well. Tolstoy is a master of expressing what he sees as the foibles of people and institutions in a way that’s interesting and somewhat cynical but still leaves them as mostly human. He also always spends some time arguing for his positions which puts him ahead of many cynical people today who seem to want to say “This is stupid!” but never want to talk about why it’s stupid. Tolstoy always says why it’s stupid or at least wrong, even if you don’t agree with this assessment. A big part of the work, in fact, is Tolstoy’s rather pronounced views on how historical changes actually happen and what they are actually caused by, which is an interesting theory in itself that I don’t have the time to explore in detail.

This, however, leads to the major problem with the work, by Tolstoy’s own admission: it’s disjoint. There’s no real central plot or narrative to follow as you read it. The major progression is the Napoleonic Wars leading up to the famous taking of Moscow and subsequent retreat of the French from Russia with that infamously disastrous Russian campaign — also infamously repeated by Hitler in WWII — but it’s clear that that’s the framing device and not the plot of the work. But, then, what is the main narrative here? You could say that it’s the story of the Rostovs, but while the story keeps touching their lives and all the main characters that survive end up in their family either directly or through marriage for the most part the Rostovs are too unimportant to be the focus of the work. The character who plays the most important role in all of the proceedings is probably Pierre and he does have a character arc, but as he plays almost no role in the war that would leave much of the work mostly extraneous. Tolstoy in an afterword does point out that people have objected to this sort of thing in the work, so this isn’t unknown to him and is likely partly intentional. But the problem is that in such a lengthly and heavy work we really want to have a set narrative, even if a small one, to focus on and help us push through to the next scene, especially when the book shifts to things that we don’t care as much about. All that we have here is the desire to find out how things for certain characters will turn out, but this hits the same problem that I noted with “Legacy of the Force”: that sort of structure means that when the work is focusing on events and characters that we aren’t interested in, we’re going to be bored. This is epitomized in the Epilogue, where after he resolves the issues for the characters and explains what happened to them, he goes on and on for a number of pages about his personal theory of history, which is repetitive and boring and only something I struggled through at all because I was wondering if he was going to talk about the characters again at some point. While his pacing is generally good, when it goes wrong it’s usually because he stops talking about the interesting characters and goes off to talk about something less interesting.

Also, a number of events require people to be idiots, which can be problematic. At the political or military level, it isn’t an issue — there has obviously been a long history of people at the highest levels acting stupidly and causing disasters — but it is a bit of an issue when it happens to the characters. It’s hard to remain sympathetic to characters to act hypocritically or idiotically and cause massive problems because of it. And it builds from characters that we would expect to act that way — Natasha is one of the biggest idiots in the work, but she’s a vain and emotional teenage girl when she does so so we can forgive her for that — to characters that should probably know better later on. That being said, Tolstoy does manage to pretty much rescue all of the important characters and shows their human foibles to, in fact, be nothing more than human foibles, but it can get irritating at times.

Still, it’s a pretty good book. The characters that we end up with are the ones that Tolstoy has spent time making sympathetic, and they mostly end up with the sort of life that they’d want in the end. The only real downers are Prince Andrei dying and Sonya getting passed over for marriage by the man she loves and never really finding love herself, but again both of those are clearly supporting characters that you have to remind yourself of to get that downer feeling. Most of the asides are interesting and Tolstoy usually leaves enough mystery and threads around to push you through the parts that you may not be all that interested in. Except for the length of time it takes me to read it, this is a book that I’d consider reading again.

I’ve turned away from Russian classics towards mystery, having both “The Complete Sherlock Holmes” and Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” on the go at the moment.


6 Responses to “Thoughts on “War and Peace””

  1. malcolmthecynic Says:

    Still, it’s a pretty good book.

    At last, someone who finally gives the real scoop on “War and Peace”. 😉

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