Classic Literature

Review, Part One: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

This is a partial review of War and Peace, since I’ll never be able to cover all of it in a single review.  In fact there’s so much to think about I’m sure I won’t cover most of it. At the moment I’m in the middle of Book Two, Part Three.  For the uninitiated, War and Peace has four books, plus what I hear is a very long epilogue. According to my Kindle, I’m about 37% of the way through.

Now when you describe a book like that, it sounds like you can’t wait for it to be over.  But that doesn’t mean I don’t like the book.  I’m really enjoying it.  Really. But at the same time, it is a sort of mountain to climb.  An accomplishment to be proud of.  So yes, I’ll be happy when I’ve finished.

I’ve written about the book a little bit here and here so hope I don’t repeat myself.  I don’t want to write too much about the plot, because even if you think you’ll never read it, you might not want to know who dies or gets married.  So I’ll try to avoid spoilers if I can and just give you the big picture.

As I’ve read so far, the story alternates between what I’ll call the “war parts” and the “society parts”.  Apparently there was a big brouhaha in the book blogging world when Oprah suggested that if readers are intimidated by War and Peace, well, there’s no harm done if they skip over the war parts.

As you might imagine just based on the title, the war parts are pretty integral to the story.  So that suggestion seems about as appropriate as telling a girl that “math is hard.”  My thinking is this: most of the time, we read for enjoyment, and that’s great.  But we should also push ourselves to read things that are challenging and different.  For me, those are the war parts.

The battle scenes are difficult to follow but Tolstoy writes from the perspective of his characters in a very human, understandable way.  The characters, Andrei and Nikolai, are drawn to the glory of battle but in different ways.  Andrei wants to be a hero. He wants to charge into battle and save everyone, so he can prove himself. Nikolai just wants to do the right thing and please Tsar Alexander; Tolstoy describes him as being in love with his sovereign.  Tolstoy also describes the characters’ admiration for Napoleon, which surprises me since the French are the enemy.  But the Russians have close ties to France, at least in the upper classes.  And maybe it’s more that these men, as soldiers, respect Napoleon as a strategist and leader.

These men, and their companions, find a certain joy, not just honor, in fighting for their country.  But they are also learning that honor is not so easy when it means facing death.

Nicholas Rostov turned away and, as if searching for something, gazed into the distance, at the waters of the Danube, at the sky, and at the sun.  How beautiful the sky looked; how blue, how calm, and how deep! …  “I should wish for nothing else, nothing, if only I were there,” thought Rostov.  “In myself alone and in that sunshine there is so much happiness; but here, groans, suffering, fear, and this uncertainty and hurry.. There, they are shouting again, and again are all running back somewhere, and I shall run with them, and it, death, is here above me and around. Another instant and I shall never again see the sun, this water, that gorge…”

At the same time Tolstoy describes battle as chaotic and confusing.  Leadership on the field is everything; yet it always seems to be lacking at critical moments.

All along the sides of the road fallen horses were to be seen, some flayed, some not, and broken-down carts beside which solitary soldiers sat waiting for something, and again soldiers straggling from their companies, crowds of whom set off to the neighboring villages or returned from them dragging sheep, fowls, hay, and bulging sacks.  At each ascent or descent of the road the crowds were yet denser and the din of shouting more incessant.  Soldiers floundering knee-deep in mud pushed the guns and wagons themselves.  Whips cracked, hoofs slipped, traces broke, and lungs were strained with shouting.  The officers directing the march rode backward and forward between the carts.  Their voices were but feebly heard amid the uproar and one saw by their faces that they despaired of the possibility of checking this disorder.

In Book Two, we also see what it means for these soldiers to go home again.  What kind of welcome they receive, what it’s like to go back to “society”, and how they’ve grown and changed.

There are a lot of proposals in this part of the book, many of them unsuccessful.  Proposing on a whim seems to be a universal characteristic of wartime.  Tolstoy gives us very different female characters, which I appreciate.  Sonya, Natasha, Mary, and Helene — while they are not characters that are fully developed, each are interesting and different in their own way, and none are perfect.  Natasha is young and frivolous, but she also seems to know her own mind.  She sees love as fleeting and knows she isn’t ready to commit to it.  Mary, in contrast, is serious and studious but easily swayed by a pretty face or romantic ideal.

I like that Tolstoy introduces these characters young, and shows you how they grow over time.  I’m finding Pierre the most interesting character.  Pierre comes into a fortune without really trying to, and never knows what to do with himself.  He means well but is also easily tempted by vice.  He struggles with every part of his life, even though he seems to have everything.

It was as if the thread of the chief screw which held his life together were stripped, so that the screw could not get in or out, but went on turning uselessly in the same place.

I have two “small” questions about War and Peace, that Internet searches have not helped me with.  First, is there any significance to the character of Denisov having what reads as a rather silly-sounding lisp?  Denisov’s speech impediment doesn’t seem to bother anyone in the book or hinder his military career in any way.  He is well-liked by all and even a heroic character.  But I feel like an author wouldn’t use a lisp without a reason.

Second small question: Tolstoy uses an omniscient third person narrator.  Only this narrator frequently uses terms like “our”, especially in the battle scenes (as in “our troops”), which I find distracting because then I wonder, who is the narrator.  Is this a translation issue?  I have two translations and both do the same thing.

Does translation matter?  I’m not reading the most well-regarded translation, but I needed something I could put on my Kindle (or the book simply won’t get read).  I’ll do another post comparing the two translations I have.  My sense is that the differences aren’t great — in fact the biggest difference is that one version translates the French and the other assumes I know it.  But I’d like to study the differences a little closer.

I hope this tells you enough about the book to make it interesting, and not too much to spoil anything.

2 thoughts on “Review, Part One: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

  1. Denisov’s “lisp” is just a poor translation. He actually uses the German “rolling” r that sounds like a growl. He is a Germanophile and tries to speak like a German. Turning this into a “w” is a poor effort at showing this, and inverts the meaning (instead of sounding intimidating, he just sounds wimpy).

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