|War and Peace
Author: Leo Tolstoy
Hard Cover, 1386 pages
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
This is an imposing work, let’s be honest. Leo Tolstoy is and excellent author, and this book is exemplary. But this will take longer than a couple nights to read, and is not a book that intends to just entertain with a delightful yarn. It is a serious book that intends to shatter our notions about cause and effect and the ability to freely decide the path that is “right”. If you are interested in history, and the art and science of the historian, then this book is absolutely for you.
War and Peace is set in Russia of the early 19th century (~1805-1813), with an epilogue that jumps to 1820. It presents the staccato conflicts between Napoleon and Alexander, respective leaders of their empires – or more to Tolstoy’s point, the unavoidable pendulum swing of whole peoples in the throes of circumstance. In the telling, Tolstoy paints a canvas of relationships and familial responsibility that interplays with the conflict to grip the reader’s heart and mind.
Most of the book is narrative and conversation relating to the details of the story: relating the moods and actions of the numerous love triangles and intrigues of court, describing battles and duels. But Tolstoy attempts to interweave philosophical ruminations on history. These are prolonged essays on the ways historians distort the facts, and the nature of necessity and its relationship to free-will, as well as very thoughtful pondering of the events that made up the Napoleonic era. In fact, the tale itself is meant to point the reader to his thoughts on the subject of cause and effect, and the complete lack of real control held by individuals, especially those who are often praised by the historians as the decision-makers.
I don’t believe that Tolstoy is completely successful in his attempt to prove that free-will is bound by necessity in a sort of symmetry, a conservation of will. His attempts to show that leaders have little control over the decisions they make are well-written, but anecdotal, and wrongly assume that these singular instances will convince the reader that all leaders and decisions suffer from this same inability to overcome the situation and setting.
Tolstoy is the master of painting characters. In 1400 pages of text one should, I suppose, be able to describe and illuminate a couple characters for a reader. But Tolstoy, in one statement, can present both the outward appearance and the underlying reality – often comparing and contrasting others in the same phrase – with vividness that I have seen in few other authors. In War And Peace, he shows an intimate knowledge of body language and the minutest facial expressions. He recognizes and expresses the import of a wrinkle, a down-turned head, a phrase uttered a moment late.
He is also a master at painting scenery. You can taste the smoke and smell the horses and sweat. You can feel the dew and see the most noble clothing. You can hear the blast of cannons and the smallest sigh. But this, combined with his expressiveness in relating characters’ thoughts and statements is the reason for the incredible length of the book. At times I simply wished he would move along! Then, once I got to the prologue, I saw what speeding up the flow did for Tolstoy. The slow and steady progress of the majority of the book is much better than the choppy and forced character of the prologue.
I would give this book ★★★★☆. But I can’t really imagine reading it more than once.