War and Peace

I finished War and Peace a few weeks ago, after about nine months of reading. It wasn’t difficult, just too easy to put down. I pushed through because hey, it’s lauded as one of the greatest novels of all time, and I wanted to see if, when all was said and done, it lived up to the hype. Welp, not for me.

To start with, the book opens with a protracted party scene, which introduces us to mostly unimportant characters and is incredibly boring. It goes on for over 100 pages, which in the scheme of the book is hardly any time at all, but for an opener it’s really no fun. I read it carefully too, expecting I’d have to remember everyone, but much to my later annoyance found out that most of the people didn’t matter. Although come to think of it now, it was a good primer for the rest of the book, since there are countless characters weaving in and out of sight, some reappearing after I’d decided they weren’t going to show up again.

The ending isn’t great either, as there are two – yes two – epilogues, the first setting up the remaining characters with a more or less rosy future, and the last indulging Tolstoy’s love of philosophising on the nature of  life, free will and causality. This was another thing that I didn’t like about War and Peace. I’d be in a good part, happy that I wasn’t having to work so hard to move forward or enjoy what I was reading, and bam! Tolstoy would pull up and start talking directly to me about how historians are ridiculous, giving too much credit to the famous men from the 18th and 19th centuries and their role in starting, winning or losing wars and setting revolutions in motion. Or you know, I might be in a not so good part – the war bits weren’t my favourite haha – but it would be made even worse by Tolstoy’s analysis of troop movements, generals’ actual versus perceived qualifications and explanations of why Napoleon is vastly overrated. Yawn. Can we get back to the story now? I love historical fiction generally, and I liked that War and Peace helped me learn a little about the wars between France and Russia, but a little more excitement and less academic musings please!

Another issue I had was that I didn’t care enough about any of the characters. There are a handful whose lives we follow closely throughout the novel, but even those ones couldn’t get much emotion, other than annoyance, out of me. Pierre for instance is the bastard son of a count who inherits his fortune and finds himself thrust into the social spotlight. He struggles interminably with the meaning of life and how he ought to be living, but he’s so snivelly, indisciplined and changeable that there was only a brief period, somewhere in the early to middle part, when I found him actually likeable. He’s also incredibly out of touch with reality, following around the Russian soldiers as if on a field trip, endangering his life – he literally stands in the middle of gun and canon fire – with no intention of actually fighting. Who does that? Why did no one kick him off the field/send him home? How is that even believable? Even describing it now is making me frustrated. Then he gets it into his head that he’s going to be the one to take down Napoleon. Pierre the assassin. Good grief.

Then there’s Natasha, who I dislike more for the way she’s written than her actual character, if that makes sense. She’s the stereotypical flighty, shallow, beautiful girl, who plunges into a deep depression after a heartbreak that she brought on herself. It’s understandable, to an extent, but Tolstoy writes her as sick to the point of death, for months, which I found too dramatic, especially given the way things happened. In general the women in War and Peace are two dimensional caricatures: the beautiful mercurial one, the pining-away-for-the-love-she’ll-never-have one, and the pious-to-the-point-of-perfection one. The other women we learn about are much the same, with two busybody mothers and a greedy socialite. The men are much more interesting, complicated and given credit in ways that the women aren’t. None of this is surprising, given when War and Peace was written, but it still bothers me that people today completely gloss over this fact when they give it such high praise.

Another frustrating trope is the noble savage. War and Peace revolves around the aristocracy; peasants are written as simple beings needing guidance, but there’s an especially repugnant storyline involving Pierre and a fellow POW. Platon Karatayev is a grown man in his late 50s, but Tolstoy describes his attitude on waking as “a child wanting to play with his toys straightaway” (p. 1079, Briggs 2005) and tells us that the great thing about his conversation style was that he “never thought over what he had said or worked out what he was going to say” (1079). If that’s not ridiculous enough, somehow Karatayev could “never remember what he had said even a minute before” (1081). He “enjoyed no attachments, no friendships, no love in any sense of these words that meant anything to Pierre, yet he loved and showed affection to every creature he came across in life, especially people, no particular people, just those who happened to be there before his eyes” (1080). Karatayev is the most vapid, uninteresting, impossibly unreal human in the entire novel, but somehow crowned as simplicity and truth personified, the “epitome of kind-heartedness and all things rounded and Russian” (1079). He plays a small role, but every time he was on the page and Pierre interacted with him in all his condescending glory, I cringed.

In spite of all this, I wouldn’t say that War and Peace was a bad read or a waste of time. The prose is pretty straightforward (I wonder how it feels in the original Russian), but I came to enjoy its clarity. I liked following the development of characters in such detail, over years of time. At least as far as the men were concerned, they have interesting problems to solve or goals they’d like to accomplish, and we see them react to the various challenges and opportunities life throws at them. As their experiences change them, my feelings for them often changed as well.

For a good while I was expecting something to happen, for there to be a big climax or problem that needed solving, the usual climb and descent of a novel. Then I realised that War and Peace isn’t that kind of story; it’s more of a window into people’s lives and relationships, like real life, with people that you can’t stand, that you just tolerate, that you root for and who disappoint you. It’s impressive in its detail and grand in its scope, painting a picture of a particular time in history and a class of people that are entirely gone today. While I wouldn’t go around recommending it to people, I can see how its subject matter and ego made possible its status in the canon of great literature. To put my earlier criticisms in perspective, I picked up a few shorter books while I was reading, since my copy is big, bulky and not great for carrying around. None of them were as good. Since I’ve finished the best thing I’ve read is The Rosie Project, which, although a very different type of novel, I wouldn’t put in the category of lasting literature. Overall, I’m glad it’s done and I can check it off my reading bucket list, and though I can see how another read through could help me understand it more and maybe enjoy it better, I don’t see myself picking it up again – I read in the introduction that one writer has read it as many as 12 times! :O

(Post script: I ran into a Russian grandmother on the subway platform one day while I was reading. Her 7 year old grandson had a copy of War and Peace and I made a comment that got us talking. She was thrilled to see me with my copy, and promised that I would laugh and cry and have the greatest time. As I was 3/4 of the way through I knew this wasn’t the case, but I just kept that opinion to myself.)

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