War And Peace by Leo Tolstoy
I finished it. The whole thing. Every. Last. Word. And I feel as though I understand the word epic better than I ever have before, and tome and other words that mostly just mean really big book. Now, with fear and trembling, I will attempt to articulate what I thought of it.
First I have to say I liked the "Peace" parts more than the "War" parts, but more than either of those I loved the parts where Tolstoy left off telling the story and talked about his own philosophies of society, history, war and peace. That is where his brilliance as a thinker shines brightest, in my opinion, and that's all it is, an opinion. I haven't studied this novel, I have only read it. I don't pretend to offer anything but a very simple response to a complicated work.
The "Peace" parts tell the stories of several well-to-do families, their children, their struggles, their romances. And of course, their efforts to get through the war years without their menfolk. I found these sections easier reading and more interesting even with the "all drama, all the time" characters. The Russian names did present a bit of a problem; I spent so much time trying to figure out the right pronunciations that I frequently lost the line of the story and had to go back and pick it up again.
The "War" parts just about did me in a couple of times. I found the long passages about battle strategies and troop movements mind-numbing. Try as I might I can't seem to work up an interest in military things. And that Russian intensity looks almost crazed in the soldiers' obsessive need to impress their leaders, to be noticed or touched by them. They positively swoon if their Great Leader stoops to speak to their lowly selves.
Tolstoy has some pretty good insight into the human condition, as shown in the following great quotes:
"It was as if the thread of the chief screw which held his life together were stripped, so that the screw could not get in or out, but went on turning uselessly in the same place."
“(He) was one of those who purposely put themselves in most depressing conditions to have a justification for being gloomy.”
"Pfuel was one of those theoreticians who so love their theory that they lose sight of the theory's object--its practical application. His love of theory made him hate everything practical, and he would not listen to it. He was even pleased by failures, for failures resulting from deviations in practice from the theory only proved to him the accuracy of his theory."
"At the approach of danger there are always two voices that speak with equal power in the human soul: one very reasonably tells a man to consider the nature of the danger and the means of escaping it; the other, still more reasonably, says that it is too depressing and painful to think of the danger, since it is not in man's power to foresee everything and avert the general course of events, and it is therefore better to disregard what is painful till it comes, and to think about what is pleasant. In solitude a man generally listens to the first voice, but in society to the second."
It is that insight that kept me going when I wanted to quit the book altogether. I had to see how his characters turned out, where he took them and who they became. I didn't really connect with them at all but I did enjoy reading what they believed and how they looked at life.
Now for my favorite parts of the book, those where Tolstoy leaves the story and addresses the reader directly. I love his logic, the clarity of his thinking. I'm probably the only person on the planet who doesn't already know this but I need to do a search to see if he has written any non-fiction. He's fascinating to read when it's his personal thoughts and philosophies he's conveying. He writes eloquently about history, human nature, society, etc.
Throughout the book, particularly at the beginning of chapters, there are passages that reveal his feelings about war in general and the War of 1812 in particular. Book 9 Chapter 1 begins with this almost angry comment on the criminal nature of war:
"On the twelfth of June, 1812, the forces of Western Europe crossed the Russian frontier and war began, that is, an event took place opposed to human reason and to human nature. Millions of men perpetrated against one another such innumerable crimes, frauds, treacheries, thefts, forgeries, issues of false money, burglaries, incendiarisms, and murders as in whole centuries are not recorded in the annals of all the law courts of the world, but which those who committed them did not at the time regard as being crimes”
Another topic he's keen on is Napoleon. He talks about his rise to and fall from power and makes it clear he's not a fan: "Napoleon, with his usual assurance that whatever entered his head was right..." and "Napoleon- that most insignificant tool of history who never anywhere, even in exile, showed human dignity...." I feel I know Napoleon better after reading this book than I did after reading others where he was the main subject.
Another target of Tolstoy's criticism is historians. He frequently takes shots at them for portraying history in ways that accomplish their own purposes and have no regard for truth. He presents clear, practical arguments for his case that recorded history is wrong about the war of 1812 and that things were not as historians have portrayed them. He is not at all hesitant to point out their errors and to hint strongly at their deliberate falseness and stupidity.
There's an impressive discourse on "greatness of soul" and what that means, and then in the second epilogue, a wonderful essay on understanding "freedom" and "inevitability" as causes of historical events. Even if you never read the whole book, that section is worth looking at.
All in all I found lots to appreciate, and lots I couldn't appreciate, in War And Peace. The sheer volume of it is intimidating but it's not difficult to read. Boredom was my chief adversary but I conquered that by reading other books at the same time and taking War And Peace in small doses over a long period of time. Having finished it, I can now recommend it. Truthfully, I don't think I will ever read the whole thing again but I do expect to reread some of the more philosophical parts, especially the second epilogue, which I found fascinating.
Leo Tolstoy certainly deserves the literary world's admiration. He can at times drone on and on about things (like his endless comparison of the emptied city of Moscow to a queenless beehive that felt like it went on forever) but there's no denying his genius. I can't begin to imagine what would inspire anyone to undertake such a huge endeavor or how anyone's mind could hold all of this story from beginning to end, let alone the tenacity to keep going and getting it all on paper. And without a computer!
So this monster that has intimidated me for ages has been faced and found not so terrifying after all. It is with great satisfaction that I cross this one off my list. And though also intimidating, the writing of this post wasn't really so bad either. It is the longest review I probably will ever write, but then it's the longest book I probably will ever read. And the very best thing is: I didn't hate it!