Yesterday after a little under two months of heavy reading, I finally came to the end of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I’ll start off by saying, no the irony is not lost on me that I started reading this book during the beginnings of a war involving Russia which is one of the main players in this novel. In fact, I ended up thinking it quite fitting. It gave me insight into how Tolstoy may have viewed the conflict that is currently unfolding.
I had heard before reading War and Peace, that although it’s often referred to as a classic “novel,” Tolstoy himself did not describe it as such. I’d have to agree that this book is not what you would expect from a traditional work of fiction. A good portion of the book is a lengthy, honestly tedious and repetitive, account of Tolstoy’s opinion of past wars and historians’ descriptions and explanations of them. Another portion of the book is focused on the fictionalized account of the war itself. Perhaps if you are someone who likes to read about history, battle strategies, or the logistics of war, this would be of interest to you, but if you go into this book with the idea it will be like his other novel, Anna Karenina, you will be sorely disappointed.
Apart from these two seemingly disjointed portions in the work, it is about the interpersonal lives and inner dramas of some of the wealthiest families in Russia during the Napoleonic Wars. These passages in the book were excellently written, gripping, and often even profoundly philosophical. I adored Pierre from the very beginning and continued to throughout the rest of my reading. Although the elaborate Russian names in Anna Karenina were difficult at times, I felt the lengthy list of characters in this book made it even harder to keep track of the important players.
While overall, I got a lot of enjoyment from this book, I felt the ending left a lot to be desired. I wish that the story had stuck with the lives of the characters rather than getting sidetracked so often by seemingly irrelevant details about generals, marching orders, battlefield layouts, and criticisms of historical accounts. Quite understandably, it felt like by the time Tolstoy got to the end of the nearly 1400 page book, he wrapped everything up with the characters rather hastily. Everything did get tied up in a nice bow with no storyline being neglected or unfinished, but it still felt unsatisfying and rushed in the end.
I was also rather irritated that the last 50 pages or so of the book which were once again just a long diatribe by Tolstoy, railing against the foolish or incompetent historians that recorded the events that took place in real life. Eventually he did come to some interesting philosophical points about cause and effect and free will.
I still believe that this book is worth reading, however I’m not quite as sure why it is lauded as one of the greatest books ever written. My final impression is of a work that had great bones, but gave a feeling of being a first draft rather than being carefully edited and compiled. I’m not sure whether or not there were editors at that time, whether Tolstoy had one, or whether or not he would have taken their advice had he had one. My suggestion would have been to scrap all of the superfluous text about the war maneuvers themselves and the author’s personal commentary on the war. At the very least he could have published that account in a separate work. I would have much preferred those pages have been dedicated to more fully delving into what I consider the main story, the lives of the fictional characters.