Saturday, January 3, 2015

War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy

Reading War and Peace for the first time could be considered a milestone in one's life.  It is an epic story (well over 1,100 pages) set in Russia during her interactions with the French, under Napoleon, in the early 1800's, and features nearly 600 characters - many with ever-changing Russian names.

It took me exactly seven months to read (June - December 2014).  Sure, I could have cut that time in half had it been the only book I focused on; however, I do not believe I would want to read it any faster given the amount of information to consume.

There are many characters to know and remember; and with that, there are numerous interactions, confrontations, events, and relationships to follow - many of which intertwine.  Tolstoy provides countless themes and ideas to explore, analyze, and interpret - and you know how Tolstoy loves to venture into philosophical tangents.   Also it is somewhat helpful, though not necessary, to understand the historical context of the French Revolution, Napoleonic Wars, and the reigns of Napoleon and Alexander I.  Tolstoy does provide an historical overview of these events, but it is beneficial if you know a little about them before you read.

By the way, there is a great TV-mini series called "Napoleon Bonaparte" (2002), starring Christian Clavier and Isabella Rossellini.  I had watched it several years ago and remember some of the history of Napoleon in Russia.

For me, my favorite parts overall involve Natasha, Andrey, and Pierre. Whenever Tolstoy cut away to war or other characters and their stories, I longed to continue on with Natasha and her story.  While I did not mind the long dissertations on war, I did prefer the human-interest stories more often.

One of my favorite themes of War and Peace was about Russia's patriotism. Patriotism comes very naturally to people; they don't have to be taught to love their country. (Unfortunately, today, at least in the United States, a lot of young people are being taught to hate their country and feel disconnected from it.)  Imagine if the Russians were not patriotic: they would have easily handed over their nation to Napoleon.  There is nothing wrong with patriotism, as it is a very healthy and honorable feeling to have toward your country.  (Shoot! Before War and Peace was over, I loved Russia, too. When Tolstoy was saying "we" - meaning the Russians - I imagined he was including me, the reader.)

The final parts of War and Peace seemed to pick up speed; everything happened so quickly.  The abandonment of Moscow (by the Russians), and the capturing and immediate loss of Moscow by the French were fascinating.  Tolstoy did an entertaining job theorizing his opinion as to why the French lost Moscow.   He continued philosophizing well into the epilogue, which was altogether one of my most memorable parts from the entire book.  (He really does take issue with Rousseau and even drags him into the story.)

Pierre, Natasha, Andrey...that's all you care about.
In the end, this is an inadequate review of War and Peace from me - well, it's not even a review.  I am just saying that I was really grateful to have read this chunkster of a book.  It encourages my admiration of Tolstoy immensely.

So back to my milestone comment: I may have read War and Peace once, but this is a book I will have to reread because it is absolutely necessary.   Reading War and Peace once is like viewing the tip of an iceberg sticking up out of the ocean; there is so much more underneath that has yet to be seen.  The milestone won't feel fully accomplished until I can experience this again another time.  But I am definitely grateful that I committed and experienced it even this much.

22 comments:

  1. War and Peace is so daunting to me, but I don't know why?! My version of Gone with the Wind has about 1100 pages, but it doesn't scare me!! Maybe it's because of all the Russian names and stuff. I shouldn't even be scared of that because I took two years of Russian!! Whose translation did you use?

    I'm so glad you completed this!!! BTW is that Audrey Hepburn in a War and Peace movie?

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    1. W&P intimidated me a lot more than Gone With the Wind, too. I would have never touched Russian lit had it not been for The Well-Educated Mind. I had to read Crime and Punishment, by Dostoevsky; it was translated by Constance Garnett, and it was so easy to read and comprehend.

      Then I read Anna Karenina, also trans. by Garnett. And now W&P by Garnett.

      Frankly, I like her writing, but if you research it, some Russian lit enthusiasts will tell you she isn't the truest translation. Maybe if I become a Russian lit enthusiast, I will feel the same; but for now, she works for me, and I am very grateful.

      P.S. Yes, Hepburn played Natasha in W&P (a long time ago). : D

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  2. YES! War and Peace is by far my favorite novel. Nothing else really compares to it. You are right, with all the characters and philosophical ramblings, it can be a bit tough at times. But the utter realism and depth of the characters makes everything worth it. Plus, Tolstoy is such a fantastic writer and talented creator of living breathing characters that I didn't mind his rambles too much. In fact, sometimes I just felt priviliged to be reading the thoughts of such a genius man.

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    1. I agree - about feeling privileged to read the thoughts of this genius.

      I like how his characters are good and yet, flawed. That may be why they are so realistic.

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  3. I have never read anything by Tolstoy but I'm planning to read Anna Karenina during my summer. I know it's supposed to be one of Tolstoy's more friendly books but it still is a really big book and like you say here, it is a read that if I'm able to finish it, I will definitely be proud of. Congratulations on this, it is a huge achievement :)

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    1. I think I saw that on one of your reading lists. ??? Anna Karenina was excellent. Take your time going through it, and take notes. It is a like a character study of two different people. And you will feel good about committing yourself to finishing it. A great accomplishment.

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    2. Yes, it is in my Summer TBR :) Thanks for the advice!

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  4. Wow! I am in awe. I have never read War and Peace. In fact, I may be afraid of Russian books. The names throw me for a loop. But I have read The Death of Ivan Ilyich and loved it so perhaps it's just an excuse. I do have Anna Karenina on my TBR stack. Congrats on the accomplishment.

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    1. Thanks! I always feel that way about Russian literature. I've read three, so far, and the translator has been the same (Constance Garnett). She has made them all easy and enjoyable reads. Good luck on Anna Karenina.

      P.S. I've got to put the Death of Ivan Ilyich on my TBR, too.

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  5. I've read half of this novel & love it. I only stopped because school took over & the spell sort of faded, but I do intend to finish. It was way better than I expected. Congrats!

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    1. That's why I started reading in summer (thinking I'd finish in three months before school started again). I didn't want anything to interrupt my reading of it. So that's difficult for you to work around right now. Well, you'll get around to finishing it. It was excellent.

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  6. I spent about 8 months reading War and Peace and was so glad I took my time. It allowed me to become more connected with the characters and the story.

    This book is so hard to review, isn't it? I think you did a wonderful job, especially for people who might be considering reading it for the first time. It's daunting, but when push comes to shove, I think you just have to jump right in.

    I'm usually particular about translations but, even though Garnett is said to embellish, I have to admit that I really like her writing. My favourite translators, at least for Tolstoy, are Aylmer-Maude, but I really want to read a Garnett translation again one day. I find her writing adds life to the works whereas Pevear-Volokhonsky drain the life right out of them.

    Okay, great review because now I want to read W&P all over again! :-)

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    1. Thank you, Cleo! I would encourage anyone to keep reading to the very end, even if it takes a year, unless they absolutely hated it.

      I've not heard of either of those translators you mentioned. I wouldn't want to be any of them trying to translate this.

      My next intimidating read is going to be Les Misérables. (biting fingernails)

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    2. Oh, I LOVED Les Miserables, Hugo's digressions and all! You're in for a treat!

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  7. Well done! I haven't read any Tolstoy yet but have enjoyed other Russian writers - Dostoyevsky & Solzhenitsyn very much. I must say it's the length of the book which has put me off - keeping track of the names, which was hard with D as well as they were all quite similar - but I'd like to read a Russian author for the Back to the Classics Challenge this year.

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    1. Thanks, Carol. You may like Anna Karenina, if you would like to try Tolstoy. It is rather large, also, but there is no war element, and it is all about people and relationships. I really liked my translator: Constance Garnett. She made reading it easy and enjoyable.

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  8. Great review and by no means inadequate :)

    I felt the same way about the war descriptions - they were excellent, but I was propelled forth by wanting to read about Natasha. This book has so many layers, though - a re-read might make one appreciate a whole new aspect.

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    1. Yes, with so many layers, rereading it (again and again) would provide new perspectives over and over.

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  9. Exactly what I felt after finishing War & Peace: How would I write a decent review for this book? There are so many things to be contemplated and discussed. And you're right, we need to go back to this often in the future. Maybe I should dedicate one year free of any challenges or obligations, and just reread some of my favorite books, enjoying them slowly. Maybe I should challenge myself to "not taking any challenge" next year, LOL!

    My favorite was Andrey-Natasha part, and I shed many tears reading them. Pierre is, I believe, Tolstoy's own view? I didn't give many thoughts on Tolstoy's philosophy on my first read, partly because I was too carried on with the Andrey-Natasha's story, but on the second read, I'd like to ponder over it more seriously.

    Great review, Ruth! :)

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    1. Thank you, Fanda. That sounds like a great challenge: the no-reading-challenges challenge. I'd love to do that sometime, but first I want to read all the classics I've never read, and then go back to the ones I loved and read them over and over.

      And see, since you say that Pierre (may be) Tolstoy's view, I'd like to read W&P just to focus on that, too. I got bits and pieces of it, but overall, my first read was all over the place. So that would be a great study topic next time around.

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  10. Yes this is a tough one (near impossible) to review adequately. I loved your comment about how you loved Russia by the end...Me too. That's a great testimony to the author. This book is an astonishing achievement. It's an investment to read it, but well worth it. My review: http://100greatestnovelsofalltimequest.blogspot.com/2016/06/war-and-peace-by-leo-tolstoy-69-down-31.html

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    1. Hey, Joseph. I've been gone for a few days and I have one more day left. When I return I look forward to reading your review.

      I totally agree: W&P is well worth it. I can't wait to read it again. : )

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