Review of War and Peace

War And Peace War and Peace
Author: Leo Tolstoy
Hard Cover, 1386 pages
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Language: English
ISBN-13: 9780679600848

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.

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About George

I'm interested in theology, languages, translation and various sorts of fermentation.
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6 Responses to Review of War and Peace

  1. Mike Aubrey says:

    Thanks for this; I’m about 250 pages in, myself.

    Have you read Anna Karenina?

    • George says:

      Yes. I loved Anna Karenina. Actually liked it just a little better than War and Peace. It was only after reading Anna Karenina that I became interested in reading War and Peace.

  2. Nathan Stitt says:

    You’ve got me started on reading Tolstoy and quite a few other classics. Also, it is unlikely that my wife will ever make the time to read any of these old stories and so we’ve been renting them on DVD from Netflix and watching them together. We watched Anna Karenina first, and have just started watching War and Peace. It’s been really fun to discuss the plots, characters, and themes together. If it weren’t for the movie versions we wouldn’t do this at all.

    I still much prefer to read the books themselves, even though it is a much slower progression.

  3. George says:

    I was not aware that either Anna Karenina or War and Peace had movie versions. My wife is unlikely to read either of them, as well. But she might be inclined to watch them…

    Kim and I do read a lot, individually, but we have always enjoyed reading together. We don’t do it all the time, but each year we read a couple books to each other, taking turns with the chapters. She hadn’t read Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit growing up, and we read them that way. We also read Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper that way. I know there are a lot of others we read that way.

    Another book that has a really powerful movie version is The Joy Luck Club. As always, it’s not the same as the book, but still very good. And The Kite Runner was a much better book than movie…

  4. Nathan Stitt says:

    The film versions for the two Tolstoy works I mentioned were produced by the BBC and Masterpiece Theatre. AK is a 3 DVD series and W&P is a 5 DVD series. They are both quite good, though I am unsure of how faithful they are to the books, as I’ve not finished reading them yet.

    • Mike Aubrey says:

      well, at three & five DVD’s respectively, they seem to have worked hard not to leave things out. Typically Masterpiece Theatre is pretty good at faithfulness. I’ve seen Crime and Punishment from them.

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