Sunday, October 25, 2009

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

(Book Review)

Yes, that's right. The infamous "War and Peace". I finally knocked it off my reading list. I now plan to spend the rest of my life at cocktail partys bragging about how well read I am.

Actually, a friend of mine noticed this book on my lap at one point when I was about halfway though it. "Ah, reading 'War and Peace'" she commented.
"Why yes I am," I answered proudly.
"I thought you had already read that," she answered.
"No, this is my first time."
"Hmmm. It just seems like the kind of book you would have already read."

And at that point I realized with horror that I was going to go through all the work of reading this book, and instead of getting credit for it, people would just assume this was the kind of book I would have already read.

Well, in a lot of ways it is I guess. At the very least, it's been on my reading list for as far back as I can remember.

As a young adolescent, I was always the kind of kid who was trying to tackle the great classics just because I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. (I'm sure you other geeks out there can identify).
And, as a typical boy interested in war stories, a title like "War and Peace" was something that aroused my curiousity.

I never got around to this book as a youngster, but it got back on my radar screen again when I was a college student and was becoming interested in politics and revolutionary movements. I learned that Tolstoy had the same politics as me--he was an anarchist and a pacifist--and that the inspiration for "War and Peace" originally came partly from a novel by Proudhon, and partly from the Decembrist uprising.

Like most people I kept putting this book off because I was intimidated by its length, but it's been on my list of "books to read someday before I die" for a while now, and I thought this year was as good a time as any to knock it off. And so, the last time I was in Oita city I picked up a copy from the Oita Prefectural library.

But now, having listed all the reasons why I was attracted to this book, I should add that none of them are a good reason to read it.
For the politico, there's very little revolutionary, anarchist, or even pacifist themes in this book.
And the for the military nut, battle scenes, while they are very impressive (more on this later) make up only a small portion of this 1441 page book. The book spends much more time in dance halls and living rooms than it does on the battlefield.

The best description of this book I can make is to compare it (with apologies) to Quentin Tarantino.

Back in 1997 when "Jackie Brown" was released, I remember catching an interview with Tarantino on, I think it was, the "Charlie Rose Show". Tarantino was saying something like,
"A lot of people have criticized 'Jackie Brown' for being too long. Well, whether you like it or you hate it, at least give me credit for it. I meant to make it that way. Very seldom in movies do we get an opportunity to just hang out with the characters, but in this movie, I was trying to create scenes where the audience got to do just that, just hang out with the characters."

I imagine that if I had walked into "Jackie Brown"unprepared, I would have hated it. But because I saw this interview, and I knew going into the movie that the plot wasn't going to move very fast and that I was supposed to just relax and hang out with the characters, I loved it.

In the same way, "War and Peace" is a novel where the story doesn't move very fast, and you spend a lot of time just hanging out with the characters.
Fortunately, the translators introduction prepared me for it, and got me in the right state of mind before I started reading it.
From the introduction by Rosemary Edmonds: "Tolstoy never loses sight of his aim as an artist, which, as he said in a letter to a friend, 'is not to resolve a question irrefutably but to compel one to love life in all its manifestations, and these are inexhaustible. If I were told that I could write a novel in which I could indisputably establish as true my point of view on all social questions, I would not dedicate two hours to such a work; but if I were told that what I wrote would be read twenty years from now by those who are children today, and that they would weep and laugh over it and fall in love with the life in it, then all would dedicate all my existence and my powers to it.'".

If that sounds a bit boring, the good news is that Tolstoy has created characters in this novel that you enjoy spending time with.
Now I don't want to superimpose my own prejudices onto you, but if you're anything like me you tend to be doubly wary of a book like this. First of all, it's over 100 years old, and second of all it's from another country and another culture. I was worried the characters would all be stiff 19th century Russian nobleman walking around spouting off boring platitudes.

Instead, the book is filled with characters who are so life-like that I felt they were real people I knew.
The characters were almost all either people I strongly identified with personally, or they reminded me of people I know in real life.
I mentioned the same thing in my review of "Anna Karenina", but it's true in this book as well. As Tolstoy described the thought processes of these various characters, I felt like, "Yes, that is so true. That's exactly the way I think." Even when the characters make bad choices, we're given a glimpse into their thought processes to see how they justify it to themselves, and I always thought, "Yes, my mind works exactly the same way."

None of the characters ever feel flat or unrealistic, and none of the choices they make ever feels contrived. We understand exactly why they do everything they do.

In fact, reading this book, one can't help but be struck by how human nature remains unchanged, even across cultural and generational lines.

Recently, one of my students was talking about the brutal history of Russia, and saying what a savage race the Russians were. I reached behind me and grabbed this book. "If you read this," I said, "You'll feel that they're just the same as you and me."

The second piece of good news about this book, for those who might find its bulk intimidating like I did, is that the whole thing is character driven. Long it may be, but it's all story, unlike many other 19th century door stoppers. Unlike, say, a novel by Dostoevsky, this is not simply a 700 page philosophical discussion bookended by 300 pages of story.
Nor, like Victor Hugo in "Les Miserables" does Tolstoy leave the narrative to go off on a 50 page digressions giving this thoughts on religion or society.

In short, I was pleasantly surprised that this book read so much like a modern novel, and not like a dusty classic.
Someone was recently citing this book to me as the classic example of a book which intimidates people, but need not. And that is so true.

Now, there's no getting around the fact that it is a very long book. My edition was 1441 pages, and that with tiny print and very small margins.
So, if you're in a hurry to get finished, you're probably not going to enjoy it. And if you're impatient for the plot to get moving, this book is going to drive you crazy.

But if you can clear out your reading schedule and just let this story develop at it's own pace, you'll enjoy this book.
I'd be embarrassed to tell you how long it took me to read this book (cough, cough***9 months***cough), but even though it took me a long time, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

This book covers Russia during the period of the Napoleonic Wars from 1805 to 1812 (with a brief epilogue several years later on the eve of the Decembrist revolt).

However it's somewhat misleading to think of this book as historical fiction, because the the vast majority of the story, well over half of the book, is just about the personal struggles of the characters as they search for happiness or meaning in life.

Nevertheless the historical sections are an important part of the book, and it is these sections that, in my opinion, stick in your memory most after you have finished reading.

If you don't know much about this period in history, don't let that stop you. Like all good historical fiction, this is a book that teaches you history as you read it rather than demands that you already know it.

The book begins with Russia and Austria in an alliance against Napoleon. This part of the book is very interesting because it describes the awkward cooperation between the two armies, and the sometimes ambiguous chain of command as they prepare for battle. It reminded me a lot about the squabbles among the allied command you sometimes read about in World War II, and was a reminder that the Napoleonic Wars were the equivalent of the World Wars for the 19th Century.

In 1807, Napoleon and the Russian Empire Alexander make peace and divide Europe between them.
But in 1812 the peace breaks down, and Napoleon invades Russia. Moscow is occupied, and ends up burning down to the ground.

This is the climax of the novel, and it's a climax that really pays off. Because we've spent so much time getting to know these characters and get involved in their lives, the climax has much more of an emotional punch.
Even though as a history geek I knew the burning of Moscow was coming, it was hard to believe it would actually happen. This city was the whole world to these characters, and because their world seems so real to the reader, you can't imagine it all being so completely shattered.

There are also several battle scenes in this book, and they are all amazingly well-written.
I knew very little about the life of Tolstoy before I started reading this book, but as I was reading about the battles and about army life, it seemed so real to me that I felt it must have been based on real life experience.
And sure enough, a little bit of research on Tolstoy's life reveals that he fought in the Crimean War, and based the battle scenes off of his personal war experience.

I suppose comparisons to "The Iliad" are cliche, but I couldn't help but be reminded of Homer as I read through this book. Like "The Iliad", "War and Peace" describes the progress of the battle as a whole, but also effortlessly switches back and forth between the greater battle and the experiences of individuals in the fight.

Unlike "The Iliad", however, this is not the story of mythical heroes gloriously fighting each other. But nor is this book like "All Quiet on the Western Front," constantly hitting you over the head with the miseries of war every second. Instead, like everything else in the book, we get a very human portrait of war in all its aspects.

We see, for example, the soldiers preparing for battle, knowing that many of them will not be there tomorrow, but doing everything they can to avoid talking about it.
There is also the nervous joking that goes on when the men are actually under fire.
There is the confusion of the battle: people aren't sure what's going on, and when a Frenchman and a Russian grab each other, neither is sure who has taken the other prisoner.

After the battle, a young man who spent the whole time being thoroughly confused as to what was happening, feels the need to describe the battle to his friends in terms of his heroic charge, because he feels they'll never understand if he tries to tell them what actually happened.

Battles aside, we also get a lot of glimpses into the daily lives of the soldiers. Although I've never been involved in military service, I loved Tolstoy's description of army life.
"The Bible legend says that the absence of toil--idleness--was a circumstance of man's blessed state before the Fall. Fallen man, too, has retained a love of idleness but the curse still lies heavy on the human race, and not only because we have to earn our bread by the sweat of our brow but because our moral nature is such that we are unable to be idle and at peace. A secret voice warns that for us idleness is a sin. If it were possible for a man to discover a mode of existence in which he could feel that, though idle, he was of use to the world and fulfilling his duty, he would have attained to one facet of primeval bliss. And such a state of obligatory and unimpeachable idleness is enjoyed by a whole section of society--the military class. It is just this compulsory and irreproachable idleness which has always constituted, and will constitute, the chief attraction of military service." (p. 574)

Tolstoy occasionally intersperse his historical sections with his theories of history. Except for a 40 page epilogue at the very end, he limits himself to one or two pages at a time, so you don't have to worry about a big long digression from the narrative, but it is a major theme of the book.

Specifically, Tolstoy believes that history is shaped not by great men, but by historical forces beyond their control. Although it may appear as though Napoleon's ambition was re-writing the history of Europe, Tolstoy believes when you carefully examine history you find that Napoleon is no more than a puppet of historical forces.

This is contrary to the way most of us have been taught to read history. It also seems to go against common sense. And, needless to say, it's a controversial view.
(Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, in his introduction to the "World Leaders: Past and Present" series, states that the whole purpose of creating
this series on world leaders and their influence was to refute Tolstoy's view of history).

Personally I was not entirely converted to Tolstoy's view, but it was interesting food for thought. He makes some good points that are worth pondering over even if you don't buy into the whole thing.

Final verdict: length of this book aside, it's much more readable than you think it is. If you make the time for it, you will enjoy it.

Link of the Day
Chomsky on Humanism

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