09 August 2015

Well that was a slog (Review: "War and Peace", 1869)

Well, I've finally managed to do it - I've completed a read through of Tolstoy's literary door stopper. It's not the longest novel ever written; not even in the top ten in fact - but I can only imagine that the original Russian text is even longer due to the greater length of Russian words.

Did Tolstoy have an editor?

Voyna i mir, to quote its Russian title, is (primarily) an epic about a group of rich Russian families in the period between 1805 and 1820; with particular focus on the Napoleonic Wars, specifically the Corsican's invasion of Russia, which saw him capture Moscow (getting a bit further than Mr. One Testicle), which promptly ended up being mostly destroyed in a big fire before having to retreat due to the Russian winter.

The "war" is better than the "peace" by a good margin; Tolstoy did extensive research on the period and captures the intrigues, politicking etc. of the Russian high command very well. In addition, Tolstoy (having served in the Crimean War and ended up a pacifist as a result) exposes the chaos and difficulties of fighting a war before the invention of radio communications brilliantly, not to mention the horrors that exist eternally.

That's not to say that the non-battle stuff is poor; there's some good character arcs, with Pierre Bezukhov's quest for meaning in life being particularly key. The life of Russian aristocracy (parties, gossip and marrying for money) and general Russian customs is insightful; also an insight into days when if someone went on a trip, you had no idea when they might actually return... if at all.

Where the novel really runs into problems, however, is when Tolstoy takes a break from it to have a moan at historians he doesn't like; especially those who thought that the events were all driven by the 'great man' Napoleon Bonaparte; he argues that many thousands of individual wills were involved. Some of this may be OK, but when he devotes an entire second epilogue of 12 chapters to a discussion of free will versus inevitability, you're really just desperate for it to end. In addition, the first epilogue actually just kind of stops.


While definitely a good book and certainly worth a read, Tolstoy's habit of going on long diatribes knocks this down considerably. The story is interesting, but if I wanted a discourse on the nature of historiography, I would have read a different book.

Personally, I prefer Crime and Punishment.


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