War and War and Then Some Peace

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I’m sure you’ve heard of the book War and Peace, by the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, and maybe you’ve read it, though if you’re a normal person, reading it probably never even occurred to you. People say the book is a great novel. I’ve just finished reading it this week, and I don’t agree. I do not think War and Peace is a great novel.

To be fair—as fair as I plan to be, anyway—I didn’t read the book at one go. My version is 1,200 pages, so I read 100 or 200 pages at a time, with other books in between, and I spent about a year on it. That long process may have affected my perception of the book, such as my belief that it’s far, far too long, no matter what else you say about it.

The story is a great, vast epic over twenty years, with some of the Napoleonic wars, including the invasion of Russia and occupation of Moscow by the French. There are plenty of detailed battle scenes, of course, and many of the soldiers going into battle seem exhilarated and happy. Back when I thought I might drafted and sent to Vietnam, I used to think that if someone were firing bullets at me, I’d be lying terrified on the ground. Leo Tolstoy, by contrast, did go into battles in the Caucasus region, so I guess he knew better than me. But exhilarated and happy? Did they really run forward thrilled to be there until their brains were blown out?

In general the style of writing is strong, at times simply brilliant, but the story has little focus much of the time, moving from person to person, including entire chapters from the point of view of characters who are ultimately fairly minor. In the end, several characters are followed all the way to the conclusion, so they seem like major characters by exhaustive virtue of having survived the full 1,200 pages.

I have to admit that I didn’t really like most of the characters very much, except perhaps Sonya, who is completely downtrodden and mistreated, and sometimes Pierre was OK. Many of the characters, however, seemed so negative in their portrayals, such as Nicolai at the end turning into a sullen, reactionary country landowner, that I began to wonder whether Tolstoy himself actually liked any of these people.

There were also times when it seemed to me that the author was either bored or lazy, particularly in describing female characters. One woman had “shining eyes” (лучистые глаза) so often that I thought “Leo, did you not notice you were doing this?” I also found his treatment of the female characters to be cliched and sometimes offensive. I know he lived in a very different time from us, I understand that, but Tolstoy is also famous for his ability to realistically portray his characters. With the women, I felt he was often working with stereotyped images that he carried in his head, rather than describing real women.

The most dramatic example of his condescension for me was a description of Natasha at the end of the book, now married and a mother, as being quintessentially a плодовитая самка (“prolific female” or “fertile female [animal]”). Tolstoy literally says at that point in the book that Natasha’s former sparkling personality is gone, but she is a good breeder. You can translate that how you like. A quick Google search showed me that I was not alone in stopping, astonished, when I read that phrase.

As a work of literature, War and Peace can be discussed and criticized, or praised, on many points, but I think as a work of fiction its greatest fault is that Tolstoy was exceedingly self indulgent, deciding that any damn thing that came into his head belonged in his book. OK, it was the nineteenth century, and they did that then. So did Victor Hugo in Les Misérables. But War and Peace has long—long—stretches where the story stops altogether and the author goes into philosophical discussions of history, including various theories as to how history can be written. I’m not kidding.

This flaw particularly mars the end, where it appears the author completely loses interest in his characters. The last thirty pages of the book are a very dense historical discussion that turns into philosophizing about free will. Of course when you read the book for the first time (this was my second time, so I knew what to expect) you keep thinking the discussion will stop and you’ll get back to the characters and the story. Surprise.

I do have admiration for this book, and there were times when I got a great deal of pleasure while reading it, but for me it has too many flaws, some of them too egregious, to regard it as a great novel. But then, what is a great novel anyway?

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