4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful
Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace is early-19th Century Russian life, in print. It is a social, political, and military tale of epic proportion, spanning two decades and 1400 pages. So, where to begin with this review – probably one of the most difficult to write, simply due to the fact that the book is so massive and covers so many points, from mysticism and the Masons, to the friendship and ultimate showdown between Napoleon and Tsar Alexander, and everything in-between? Essentially, in terms of plot, the novel itself revolves around one group of characters, who weave in-and-out of social and political circles, and who engage in the war in various ways – the point being that all of these people, whether or not they are direct participants in the war, are somehow impacted and affected by it, but through no direct action or power of any one person. The story starts in 1805, with a social gathering of the crème-de-la-crème of Petersburg society. Here, we meet the many characters whose lives will go on display before us, including Pierre (the unlikely hero), the Drubetskys, the Bezukhovs, the Bolkonskys, the Kuragins, and more. The reader is afforded glimpses of each of the characters and some, like Helen or Count Rostov, remain static throughout, while others grow and change throughout the years – due to trials and tribulations each of them face, particularly Natasha and Pierre. Tolstoy’s prose is obviously masterful though, of course, this particular edition was an English translation, also done wonderfully. What Tolstoy does with the descriptions of war time and peace time, though, making them separate but equal – entities which should not coexist, but do- is brilliant. Readers are allowed to witness the actions of Emperors, generals, peasants, and aristocrats, whether they be Russian, French, German, Polish or otherwise. These families come together and are torn apart, as is the Russian military – held together by feelings of patriotism, but undermined by individual pride and egoism. How each battle impacts the neighboring locales is mirrored by how each familial separation impacts the characters; how each Russian triumph creates a sense of National warmth and re-commitment to the cause and the Emperor is mirrored by the many interrelationships – weddings, partnerships, friendships- for our main characters. Ultimately, what one gets with War and Peace is a holistic, all-encompassing look at Russian life during the French invasion – what people ate and drank, the games they played, the reasons each went to war or deserted, the religions in play, the groups in power, the doubts permeating the military ranks, and the flip-flopping confusion about the French (Russian high-society is torn between admiration – even adoration- of the French, speaking French and going to French opera and theater- and their loathing of Napoleon and his treachery). It is as if the reader is living his life with these people, a fly on the wall, witnessing the sights, sounds, and smells of all these interesting and uninteresting everyday Russian folk. The reader also learns, in part two of the epilogue, that Tolstoy had an even loftier purpose – one more daring and provocative than the historical account and anthropological study of the Russian people during the Napoleonic wars. His intent, really, was to dissect and discredit historians in general, for assuming that any one version of history could be correct, or that any one character or event in history could be of more or less importance than the total, collective, predetermined course of history itself.
4 – Characters extraordinarily developed.
While it does sometimes become difficult to keep track of the characters, whether because some have the same names, or their names change depending on who is being addressed, and by whom (and how), or because characters marry, or because the names are Russian, lengthy and difficult to pronounce; or, because the book is 1400 pages long, and characters who disappear for hundreds of pages, suddenly turn up again five or ten years down the road – still, the characters themselves, if you can keep pace with them, are all extraordinarily well developed. Tolstoy clearly knows each of his characters deeply – from the charming and beautiful Natasha, to the stunning but stupid Helen; or Pierre the bumbling hero and his unlikely inspiration, the idiot Krasnoye. Each of the characters, regardless of how much page time they receive, are clearly conceived in their entirety, three-hundred-and-sixty-degrees, by the author. This makes their growth throughout the years, their interactions with other characters, and their self-reflections, when they do occur, interesting and even, at times, revelatory. Two particular favorites of mine – and likely intentionally, on Tolstoy’s part – are Natasha and Pierre. They are unlikely protagonists at the start, but the reader is allowed glimpses and hints at their truer natures as the story progresses and, in the end, is rewarded by committing to these two, as they become the two to watch, as it were. Another interesting development is the character of young Nikolay, Countess Marya’s nephew. The reader watches him grow from boy into young adulthood (similarly to Pyotor Rostov), and while the real presence of this boy only comes about in the end, and in relation to Pierre, Tolstoy allows us to assume that he will lead the way into Russia’s new era, towards reconstruction after the burning of Moscow and the triumph over Napoleon – and, with sentiments of Plutarch- we almost wish there were another 1400-page volume in the works, to tell Nikolay’s tale. Almost.
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story
It is necessary to applaud both Tolstoy’s original prose and mastery of language, which I am truly a fan of now, after having read his three most popular works (Death of Ivan Ilyich, Anna Karenina, and, now, War and Peace), as well as Anthony Briggs’s translation of the work into English. Though I was a bit surprised by the presence of more than a few grammatical/proofreading errors (an anomaly for Penguin editions), I was able to separate these from the prose itself, and from Tolstoy’s incredible storytelling ability. In another’s hands, this hefty work (you really could hurt someone with the bulk, if you dropped it at the wrong time!) could have been cumbersome, boring, and tedious – but I managed to read through the entire work in under 30 days and, had I not been an adult with a full-time job and other responsibilities, I likely would have plowed through it even faster. It was that enjoyable, that “easy” to read – not that it was without challenge. The work is certainly literary – the language and vocabulary are difficult, but the story is engaging and the prose is wrought beautifully. The only real challenge, for me, were the last 50 or so pages – part two of the epilogue- which veered dramatically and noticeably from the story and into the realm of theory and philosophy. While this reader understands Tolstoy’s intense passion for the subject, and his need to explain the deeper elements of the work, beyond sociological history and the story itself, even still, there was a point where one wondered – where did this come from, and when did the actual story end? For this reason, it almost became necessary to reduce the rating in this area but, fortunately, since Tolstoy remained a masterful linguist and proved himself to be even more brilliant a thinker than a storyteller, which was quite a feat, given his ability in the latter regard, it was possible to score the book perfectly here as well. I will warn those not interested in theory or philosophy, though, that, for you, it might be beneficial to stop reading after part one of the epilogue, as this is really where the “story” ends.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.
Where can a reviewer begin, when discussing the many and varied elements of War and Peace. It would almost be best to leave this section blank, with a big, bold “4 out of 4” as one’s only commentary, because much will certainly be left out or overlooked. Still, it is important to try, because the work was truly remarkable – both stylistically and in pure entertainment and reading-pleasure regards, and in its educational value. What strikes true for the reader in this novel are two major purposes for the book: first, the desire to explain, in full-detail, the nature of the Russian people, from peasant to nobility, during the turbulent Napoleonic era; and second, the need for any historian – literary, cultural, military, or scientific- to depict every single aspect of humanity and its many types of people during an event in order to attempt to explain the event and/or its causes, while maintaining the understanding that this may still be an impossibility (see the first included quote, below). There is much to learn from this novel, and it is clear that Tolstoy tries to remain impartial, though, by his own reasoning, it is probably impossible for him to have been completely segregated, since his place in history is as a Russian, looking back on Russian society, during a Russian-French and Russian-European conflict. The most obvious source for debate and doubt would be Tolstoy’s depiction of Napoleon as not a military genius (as he has been described by so many historians), but as a rather lucky, arrogant dunderhead. This sentiment aside, though, the descriptions of the military tactics and engagements, the backroom dialogues, the socialite events and arranged marriages, the master-servant dynamic and farm life (similar to plantation life) – family structures and the power of money – are all well flushed, honest, and varied. Tolstoy depicts French victories and losses, as well as Russian victories and losses. He attempts to explain why the French soldiers lost control after gaining Moscow, and also spares no rod in terms of chastising those Russians who acted improperly, even stupidly or viciously. The families in War and Peace each have their ups-and-downs, some gaining wealth from nowhere, and some losing all they have – and his descriptions of how each family (and each person within that family) deals with losses or triumphs are whole, distinct, and believable, particularly in that nobody reacts the same way. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the book, though, is watching as the scenes of war intermingle with the scenes of peace – the reader begins to understand how one element creates a cause-and-effect relationship with the other and how, in the end, everyone was connected, even when apart.
Suggested Reading For:
Age Level: Adult
Interest: Russian Literature, Russian History, Napoleonic Wars, History, Classics
“While ever authors continue to write histories of individuals – your Julius Caesars, Alexanders, Luthers and Voltaires – and not histories of everybody, absolutely everybody, involved in an event, there is no possibility of describing the movement of humanity without falling back on the concept of a force that impels men to direct their activity to a single end. And the only concept of this kind known to historians is the concept of power.”
“Gazing into Napoleon’s eyes, Prince Andrei mused on the unimportance of greatness, the unimportance of life which no one could understand, and the still greater unimportance of death, the meaning of which no one alive could understand or explain.”
“Every action of theirs, that seems to them an act of their own freewill, is in the historical sense not free at all but is bound up with the whole course of history and preordained from all eternity.”