War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
originally published in 1868
translated by Anthony Briggs
Reviewing a book as celebrated as War and Peace is no easy feat, especially when you’re going against the crowd, so let me emphasis that this is not an objective review of War and Peace or where it stands in the annals of literature, but a summary of what I thought of the book. In short, as much as I wanted to like War and Peace, and even thought that I would based on the first 700 or so pages, I found the second half to be a tedious slog that focused increasingly on detailed descriptions of the Napoleonic Wars while the characters took a backseat.
I decided to tackle War and Peace for a few reasons. One, a few friends (Hadeer and Rachel, who both finished before me and have posted reviews on their blogs) were doing a group read and it seemed like the kind of project book that could use a support system. Two, I had recently seen and loved Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, a musical based on the 70-page excerpt of War and Peace that focuses on Natasha’s affair with Anatole Kuragin. Since the excerpt is drawn from the middle of the book, I was left with questions about how these characters came to be in their situations, and what happened to them after the musical ended. I can’t tell you how disappointed I was that the characters in the book only ever felt surface-deep.
Part of my frustration stems from the fact that the novel is extremely unbalanced. The first half of the book is undoubtedly stronger as Tolstoy’s early war passages contain both a wry sense of humour and commentary on how young men romanticize the war and the emperor. These are balanced with engaging peace scenes that develop the characters, from poor bewildered Pierre to selfless Sonya and spirited Natasha. By the time Tolstoy hits the midpoint he seems to abandon all pretense that he’s writing a novel though and focus decidedly on the war.
As the only other nineteenth-century, brick-sized epic I’ve read, I couldn’t help but compare and contrast War and Peace with Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. Unfortunately, War and Peace comes out poorer for the comparison in every way.
Although the characters in Les Misérables are archetypal (Fantine as The Fallen Woman, for example), they’re given such depth and empathy that you can’t help but feel for them. I liked Tolstoy’s characters initially, but it’s difficult to form a connection or to feel like you know people who barely seem to know themselves. As a commentary on society, creating characters who are so mutable that their minds, romantic attachments, and entire worldviews shift in an instant if someone voices a dissenting opinion, is interesting. In practice it makes for characters who are hard to understand and care about.
You’ll hear no argument from me that both of these books could have used a more disciplined editor, but Hugo’s digressions, tangents on The Battle of Waterloo, the Paris sewer system, and argot, among others, are somewhat interesting and, much like a distracted university professor, he gets back to his original thought. In War and Peace, it feels like the characters and any semblance of plot are the digression. Tolstoy rhapsodizes about the war and presents his detailed thoughts on the Great Man Theory and every hundred pages or so someone reminds him that there are characters besides Napoleon and the soldiers and Tolstoy grudgingly gives the reader a hasty interlude before he returns to writing passionately about the war. Sadly, this is true even of the epilogue. Tolstoy presents twenty or so pages of domesticity to sum up the characters’ lives, but the remainder of the hundred pages reads more like the conclusion to a dissertation than an epilogue. For those with a keen interest in military history I imagine this makes for a fascinating read. As someone who reads for characters above all else, I found this immensely frustrating.
At the end of Les Misérables I felt a great swell of emotion and love for these characters who had become so dear. When I finished War and Peace I mostly just felt relieved that it was over.
For all my negativity, I’m not sorry I read War and Peace and it hasn’t entirely put me off Tolstoy. At some point (many moons from now, I need a break!) I’ll probably still read Anna Karenina, and hope that it touches me more than War and Peace. However, I can’t imagine ever wanting to read War and Peace again and I think it offers more from a military history perspective than it does from a story standpoint.
Should you attempt the behemoth and read War and Peace? If you have a great love of military history then yes, this might just be the book for you. If not, do yourself a favour and choose another nineteenth century epic, I’d suggest Hugo’s Les Miserables, instead.