I’ve Slam Dunked Tolstoy’s War and Peace

…And now the bragging rights are mine.

Even so, just how much do I want to linger over this dead corpse: Tolstoy’s challenge to all those who, rather than climb mountains, would subject themselves to the masochistic come-on presented by the daunting, daring, formidable, teasing charms of an overwritten, repetitive 1,350 to 1600-plus-page fictionalized historical opus?

Not much really.

But, some thoughts do bear being made – after some background.

Just a hair over three weeks ago I decided to read the Louise and Aylmer Maude translation, which appears to be the most common English translation in circulation. There is good reason for this. In doing a side-by-side comparison of translations at the library, I noticed the Maude translation was pretty easy to read—no small consideration in trying to avoid fatigue over such a long haul.

I actually checked out two different editions of the same translation, with the idea that I would lug the smaller-dimensioned edition in my backpack for bus reading and leave the larger sized edition (with larger print) at home for evening reading in a comfy chair or at table or desk.

For home reading, I checked out the 1942 Simon and Schuster Inner Sanctum Edition, which has a nice key to the characters in the back and good footnotes and maps. It was one hefty 1350-page tome.

For bus reading I checked out the two volumes of the 1938 Heritage Press edition (the exact same Maude translation), which constituted two smaller-sized books, each 850 pages. The page count was actually higher when these two plump volumes were added up (more than 1600 pages, due to smaller page sizes). But each of these two volumes weighed half as much and took up less space in my ever-cramped backback.

This system worked pretty well, except that I ended up preferring to read the 1600-plus page smaller books whether on the bus or at home because the font seemed friendlier (despite the smaller font size) and the page-turning time was a lot faster. On some days I found it easy to notch a hundred pages with these nifty little volumes. So did I read 1350 pages or 1675 pages? Both. The word count was the same regardless of edition.

But apart from this anal-retentive digressive minutiae, is what’s inside the book worth reading?

Yes, with caveats.

In general, I felt that Tolstoy was a much better writer about peace than he was about war. I’ve never read a better account of the domestic manners and frivolities of pampered Euro elites of the 18th and 19th centuries. One is really drawn into that world. It is in these accounts where Leo Tolstoy shines.

I took me about a week to get just to the first quarter mark of the book, mainly due to trying to keep the myriad characters and their relationships straight. This does get easier as the time and pages fly by, but an initial study of the cast of characters and the basic plotline over at Wikipedia would be advisable to anyone considering setting out on this journey.

By the one-quarter mark, we encounter the battle of Austerlitz, a fiasco for Russia and its allies, and it there that two major characters have had their first trials by fire. It is there, too, where one encounters what, to me, are weaknesses in Tolstoy’s storytelling.

Tolstoy’s way with conveying the action of war is very confusing, though part of this may be intentional and in tune with the author’s philosophy about how historical events occur. The historical motives that drive wars and other mass human movements can’t be known or easily explained in ways that historians try to explain them, something that Tolstoy tells us over and over again—and tiresomely so, I must add.

War is confusing to those on the ground, and it is from these perspectives that Tolstoy conveys it. And that is cool enough, if the author had just left it at that. But no, he finds it necessary to expound through repeated analogy and slight rewordings of the same arguments, over and over, that history is not driven by wills or plans but by chaos of innumerable factors. In one analogy he equates human activity to a bee hive, but does so in two long pages in which he restates the same arguments.

This tendency is most egregious in the last of the two epilogues—an incredibly anticlimatic lecture in which Tolstoy expounds dryly and academically on issues such as free will and the nature of power, etc. After indulging this long-winded epic for 1300 pages, is it really reasonable to expect a reader to endure these dullish ramblings – especially as most of these issues were already addressed in the main text of the story?

So, War and Peace is a dead book that is full of life. 1200 pages of turbulence and unsettled lives, or settled lives being unsettled and of stultifying ritual and denied desires and delayed gratification. Until, finally, around page 1200, the characters who have managed to survive do end up living happily ever after. Whew, that was a relief!

And what about the characters? it seemed to me that most of the older characters are better defined than the younger ones. Maybe that is because the older ones have accepted their station in society and are more easily defined by those expectations. They are easier to define because they are willing to be typecast by social expectation. Many of the younger characters, Natasha, Pierre, Nicholas and Andrew I found to be shallow, even though these are supposed to be the “seekers” of the story. Maybe their shallowness is a function of their personal incompleteness; their own unsettled sense of personal identity. Or maybe Tolstoy is not as great as filling out character personalities as we modern readers would like or expect. Tolstoy is great at telling us what his characters look like, how they act, how they appear to other characters and even what they are thinking. And yet, often, I feel like I really never get to know them. So what is missing?

And how well does this story sustain itself over its enormous canvas? Variably I’d say. There are times when the story seems to be headed toward inertia, though there’s always something that picks things up. Still, honestly, this story could have been told in far fewer pages—in half, and dare I say it, maybe even three-quarters less the space. But that would of course rob us of the subtleties of Tolstoy’s phrasings and descriptions (sometimes a good, and sometimes a not so good thing).

I have mixed feelings about the book. It is not a personal favorite, and were I asked if someone should read any six Modern Library top 100 picks of 200 pages each or this book, I would say go for the other six books.

But I did learn a lot, about European aristocracy, about lifestyles of the past, about philosophical and theological concerns which are still pondered today, about the historical forces and alliances in play during the Napoleonic wars, etc. And now I’m not afraid to take on Sergei Bondarchuk’s 7-hour Soviet film epic version from 1968. That should be a breeze by comparison (it’s on request at the public library; more to come on that…)

And, to my relief, the book moved along well enough. I found myself blazing through most of the pages. What more can one ask?

-EG

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2 Responses to I’ve Slam Dunked Tolstoy’s War and Peace

  1. johneboy says:

    Congrats on hitting the finish-line ribbon! I read the book years ago, and found that my bicepts were larger afterwards…

    Your critique is spot on (at least, in my opinion). It is an amazing book, moreso for the time it was written and the subject matter; but as some of it is insightful, moving, and interesting, equal parts are repetitive and slow. Ah, well, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

    And now…it’s Miller time!

  2. gravybread says:

    johneboy,

    I’ve been told that I have inspired at least one person to read the thing.
    Anyway, it sure makes getting back to Graham Greene and more contemporary authors all the sweeter.
    -EG

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