War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

“Well, Prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now just family estates of the Buonapartes …..”

I am very hesitant to even attempt to review this book.  How can one do even the slightest bit of justice to an epic like this? How can one even touch on the depth of the myriad of characters, not to mention communicate the complexities of a war that even the participants had difficulty distinguishing?  And how do you review such an epic tale without producing an epic review?

War and Peace follows the lives of five families of Tsarist Russia:  the Rostovs, the Bolkonskis, the Bezukhovs, the Kuragins and the Drubetskoys, their interactions and struggles, and the afflictions suffered by each set among the events leading up to and during Napoleon’s invasive campaign in the year of 1812.  Pierre Bezukhov is the illegitimate son of a nobleman and, through a series of circumstances, inherits a great  fortune.  His new position in society chafes against his natural character of simplicity, naiveté, and introspection. The Rostov family is a well-respected family, yet are in financial difficulties. The son, Nikolai, joins the Russian army, his brother, Petya, will soon follow, and their daughter, Natasha, a joyful free-spirit, becomes attached to a number of men throughout the story.  Sophia, an orphaned niece, is raised by the Rostovs, and shows a steady and loyal character as she pledges her love to Nikolai early in the novel.  Bolkonsky senior is a crochety old count who attempts to control his son, Andrei, and terrorizes his daughter, Maria.

Natasha Rostova (c. 1914)
Elisabeth Bohm
source Wikipedia

And so begins the dance between the cast of characters, sometimes a smooth waltz, and at others a frenzied tango.  There is contrast between generations, between old and new ideas, between life and its purpose, yet Tolstoy is adept as showing the gray tones overshadowing the blacks and whites; that situations are not always as they appear.

Tolstoy’s highest attribute is his ability to peel off the layers of each person and look into his soul.  His characters are crafted with such depth and such human motivations that the reader can only marvel at his skill.  And not only can he give birth to such characters, he understands them.  The scenes involving the Russian peasantry, who act completely contrary to reason, yet with such humanness, are evidence of Tolstoys profound comprehension of human nature and the human condition.

Count Leo Tolstoy, 1908
from Wikipedia

I love how Tolstoy lets humanity and compassion show through the animosity and the bloodletting of war.  One of my favourite characters of the novel was Ramballe, the French officer whom Pierre met in Bazdeev’s house and who showed brotherhood and goodwill despite that fact that, given the circumstances, they should have been pitted against each other as sworn enemies. Originally, Pierre is portrayed somewhat as a bumbling oaf, a man of a lower class who, by luck and circumstances has managed to rise to a position of prestige yet has never been able to cast aside his peasant-like origins. However by his actions in the novel, he becomes admirable, echoing a segment of humanity that shows kindness, goodness, bravery and integrity that shines out from the avariciousness and shallowness of high society.

Tolstoy himself was very ambiguous about his masterpiece stating that it was, “not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less an historical chronicle.” He believed that if the work was masterful, it could not conform to accepted standards and therefore could not be labelled.

The Battle of Borodino by Louise-Françoise, Baron Lejeune, 1822
from Wikipedia 

“It is natural for us who were not living in those days to imagine that when half Russia had been conquered and the inhabitants were fleeing to distant provinces, and one levy after another was being raised for the desense of the fatherland, all Russians from the greatest to the least were solely engaged in sacrificing themselves, saving their fatherland, or weeping over its downfall.  The tales and descriptions speak only of the self-sacrifice, patriotic devotion, despair, grief, and the heroism of the Russians.  But it was not really so.  It appears so to us because we see only the general historic interest of that time and do not see all the personal human interests that people had.  Yet in reality those personal interest of the moment so much transcend the general interests that they always prevent the public interest from being felt or even noticed.  Most of the people at that time paid not attention to the general progress of events but were guided by their own private interests, and they were the very people whose activities at that period were most useful. Those who tried to understand the general course of events and to take part in it by self-sacrifice and heroism were the most useless members of society, they saw everything upside-down, and all they did for the common good turned out to be useless and foolish …….. Even those, fond of intellectual talk and of expressing their feelings, who discussed Russia’s position at the time involuntarily introduced into their conversation either a shade of pre tense and falsehood or useless condemnation and anger directed against people accused of actions no one could possibly be guilty of.  ………  Only unconscious action bears fruit, and he who plays a part in an historic event never understands its significance.  If he tries to realize it his efforts are fruitless. The more closely a man was engaged in the events then taking place in Russia the less did he realize their significance ……….”

Napoleon’s Retreat from Moscow
Adolf Northern
source Wikipedia

Perhaps Tolstoy is showing us that people are imperfect, with human vice and human foibles and that, in spite of trying to find heroics in war, the actions are only the actions of people trying to survive.  It is history looking backwards that make the heroes, but in reality, the characters in these trials of life are all people acting out their parts in a very human way.  There is no glory in war, only people trying to deal with the circumstances as best they can, and to get by with a little human dignity.  Success can be more a matter of chance than planning, and it is often luck or misfortune that places people in either the bright spotlight of fame, or the dark dungeons of villainy.

I know that many people shy away from War and Peace because of its length, and I did too for a long time.  Another criticism is that Tolstoy’s “war” parts are monotonous.  It certainly is a lengthy novel but by doing some cursive research on this period of Russian history, the reader can gain enough of a base to allow him to relax and be pulled into the story.  And by viewing the wars scenes, not only as history, but as a chance to learn from people’s reactions in situations of stress and conflict, I think they can give us more of an insight into human motivations.  So pick it up and let yourself be swept away into the Russia Empire of the early 1800s.  You won’t be disappointed!

(translated by Aylmer & Louise Maude)

24 thoughts on “War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

  1. It is always a great feeling when you have finished a book, thoughts are on paper and the blogpost is uploaded. In your case you have managed to write an informative report about one of the longest novels in history! Congratulations are in order for just having read the book! War and Peace is not on my classic list but hiding behind other books on my shelf. I just cannot bring myself to read it. With all respect for your efforts…..were there any sections that you could consider ' skipping' without losing too much of the narrative? I found in Don Quixote there were chapters one could easily overlook. Just curious….

  2. I actually think you'd really enjoy this one, Nancy, and you read quite quickly so it probably wouldn't take you as long as you fear.

    You certainly can skip some sections. Tolstoy has moments were he intersperses …… I don't want to say his philosophy, more like his opinions as to what happened in the war and the historical errors or inconsistencies of the views people had about it. Yet, if you skip these sections, you really skip the point of what Tolstoy had to say. His views on how history is made are quite illuminating and do tie into the rest of the story. it would be a shame to miss it. However, we all know our limits and if the thought of his digressions prevent you from even picking it up, it's better to skip them than not read it at all.

  3. Now, at least due to your words the book is on the table. I'm one stap closer to opening it! "Eh bien, mon prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now no more than private estates of the Bonaparte family." This book sounds like a 'winter project' . 🙂

  4. It would be a great winter project! ……….. Curled up by the fire in a big comfy chair, a cup of hot tea, the rain/snow falling outside ………. just think ……… 😉

  5. Thanks, Sam! Initially I was hoping to read this with a buddy but as I got into the book, I was glad that I could go at my own pace; sometime I got so engrossed that I had to keep going, and sometimes it was nice to put it down for awhile. I hope you like it when you get around to reading it!

  6. I used the Aylmer & Louise Maude translation. They knew Tolstoy personally, which I find fascinating as it must have added more depth to their translation. Pevear-Volonhonsky have been popular but I'm convinced it's only because of marketing. They simplify the language and completely deaden the story; I absolutely hate their translations. I read an Anna Karenina translation of theirs and I'm convinced that I still haven't really read Anna Karenina. :-Z Personally I quite like Constance Garrett too, but the complaint with her is that she tends to embellish. The story is wonderful but if you're a Tolstoy-purist, she might not be the right one for you.

    I do hope you get the chance to read it one day!

  7. This is a fantastic post! I read W&P from Sept 2012 to Jan 2013. I would read other things in between each section, but I made sure I went back to it. And I'm glad I finished it! It was well worth it. And you are right, if you are reading only for plot, there are sections you could skip, but I would recommend buckling down and reading the whole thing. Tolstoy's insights can helpful and very interesting.

  8. Thanks, Dale! I read your posts and enjoyed them as well. I liked how you pinpointed that the setting is around the time Austen had her novels published. It's helpful to have a tie-in from another country.

    Like you, I found that Tolstoy's novel is so much more than plot. I would have liked to have taken some more time to mull over his thoughts, but the book was so long that I had to keep going. Perhaps during my re-read! 🙂

  9. Well done! I've never got into War and Peace, I've read it twice and neither times were successful. This year I bought a different translation (recommended to me by someone obsessed with this novel!) so I'm hopeful. 🙂

  10. Thanks! That surprises me! After your Proust-aganza, I thought that you would be able to read anything! 😉 This book might be good to read as a buddy read; that way you have someone to keep you going. Good luck with your third attempt!

  11. I think it isn't so much the war parts are less interesting than the peace parts (after all, the war parts have some of the most stirring and moving episodes in the entire novel), but it's during the war parts that Tolstoy sometimes stops the action of his story and starts writing long-winded philosophical essays on history and the nature of warfare without much reference to the characters. It feels almost like he switches from fiction to nonfiction mode. Anna Karenina lacks the interspersed essays of War and Peace, which is why I find it the more engaging read.

    It has some similarities to Moby Dick in that the story will essentially halt as we read snippets about whales from other types of discourse.

    I suppose it depends on one's taste. Does one prefer a mostly uninterrupted story-driven narrative or a narrative that tells the story in roundabout (somewhat unusual and experimental) ways.

  12. Yes, you're absolutely right in your assessment, but to be fair, considering the length of the book, he didn't switch gears all that often. And I did think while he may have had general thoughts, he did relate many of these philosophical monologues to some of the characters: Napoleon, Kutuzov, etc. who were all real people. (ie. why was Kutuzov viewed in a certain light after the war, what did he do to deserve a certain appellation, did he mean to do this or that, etc., which morphs into how heroes are created, do they deserve to be heroes/villians, etc.)

    I haven't read Moby Dick yet so I can't compare, but I have read Hugo's Les Miserables. Hugo's digressions for the most part, while very interesting, I didn't feel added to what he wanted to say in the novel. With War and Peace, I do think Tolstoy's "digressions" were important if you wanted to fully understand all the themes in his "novel".

    I think Tolstoy himself realized the uniqueness of his work when he said that it was "not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less an historical chronicle." It is a book that you have to read with an open-mind and allow your expectations to have some malleability. Once I let Tolstoy take the lead, I really enjoyed his style; it was almost like getting three different genres for the price of one! 😉

  13. I finally got a minute to read your review. I like how you summarize war as just men doing what they must to survive. It really is all a struggle for survival. Man can't help it b/c there is always some madman challenging the world, and the world must decide to play dead or fight and survive. But that's me interjecting my opinion.

    I have had such a difficult time sticking to W&P. Everything in my heart tells me I love the writing. But it is not easy to stay focused. I am trying to read a little bit every week, but I find it challenging to make connections. I suppose reading it so broken up is not a good idea, and I will never be able to make connections that way.

    I know what you mean about finding a way to write about it. This is definitely a story that needs to be read again and again.

    Well, congratulations for completing it.

  14. It was so interesting how Tolstoy emphasized that heroes are made by circumstances, and by how history decides to perceive them. I believed this intuitively, but it took his philosophical orations to really cement my ideas.

    I tend not to have difficulty keeping characters in Russian literature straight, but if you do, it might be a challenge at the beginning. When I was reading it, I tried not to overload myself. I did read sections at a time and often would put it down, but I also spent a little time mulling over what I had read. I was constantly asking myself why a certain character would behave a certain way (I tend to do that with Russian lit!) and it helped the story come alive and kept it in my mind.

    Thanks, Ruth and all the best with your War and Peace journey! 🙂

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