Title: WAR AND PEACE
Author: Leo Tolstoy, Anthony Briggs (Translator)
Release Date: 1868
Publisher: Penguin Classics
My Rating: ★★★☆☆(3/5)
Review on Goodreads
There are two things I want to say upfront before I (try to) get into the meat of an actual review.
First, having completed this book, I must say it is highly unlikely I would have picked it up or enjoyed it in the slightest had I not arrived at it by way of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. It is only with the musical’s vibrant characters in my mind that I was able to maintain my motivation to keep reading. That said, however, I will say that I hardly ever found the “peace” chapters dull or hard to get through. I just couldn’t connect with the characters very well. They were engaging, but I never cared about them as much as I hoped to (except for Helene, and possibly Anatole).
Second, what brings that book down to three stars for me is the insufferable, pedantic detail of the “war” chapters. Apparently Tolstoy is praised for his description of these battles. He does bring a certain realism to the forefront. However, I think that realism could have still been maintained even if huge chunks of these war chapters were pared down. There is just so much detail about random characters and random battalions and flanks and canons and other things I just could not bring myself to care about. And then of course there’s Tolstoy’s own philosophical interjections every now and again which I struggled to read without my eyes glazing over (Part II of the Epilogue…was an ordeal). I’m not going to go into Tolstoy’s philosophical beliefs or his views on history; I think his theories are best left to group discussions than book reviews (suffice it to say, if I understand Tolstoy correctly, I think I heartily disagree with many of his points).
The characters are the meat of this book. Tolstoy writes them well: they are all complex and varied and so different from one another you never had trouble telling them apart (well, the main characters at least!). And they are all so human in all their doubts and flaws. Despite the enormous cast of characters, I would say that there are really 3-5 main characters, in order from most to least importance/screentime: Pierre, Andrei, Nikolay, Natasha, and Marya (to my eternal disappointment, the Kuragins are really only very minor characters).
There are chapters upon chapters dedicated to Pierre and Andrei’s philosophical musings on life, which I found extremely irritating. It read like stream of consciousness at times. Andrei, as I’m told, is considered the Fitzwilliam Darcy of Russian lit, but I personally couldn’t stand him. I found him arrogant, brooding, and self-righteous. I know I’m supposed to have liked Pierre, and I didn’t dislike him, I just found his storyline meandering and dull (his whole thing with the Masonic Society was really weird and pointless). I’m rather ambivalent about Nikolay. I liked Marya a lot; I think she’s a fascinating character who really tries to embody goodness. And Natasha – the original Manic Pixie Dream Girl! Perhaps that’s a bit harsh, but I wasn’t at all fond of Natasha’s characterization. She almost always seemed to be described in terms of her affect on other people, particularly men, who were drawn in by her seduction and oddities, and yet her own inner life seemed strangely bereft. Perhaps this is an issue with the translation, but often I found her thought process and dialogue meandering and dramatic to the point of irritation. It was like she was written more as a spectacle, a phenomenon, than a character.
The two characters who intrigued me the most were not featured as much: Anatole and Helene. From the moment they are introduced they are fascinating and contradictory. Anatole is described as kind and generous and yet simultaneously utterly oblivious to the wants and needs of others, or to consequences. Helene enjoys a reputation as a clever high-society woman and yet is thought of as stupid by her husband, whom she seems to despise but tolerates for his ability to raise her status in society. In the musical we get many interactions between Anatole and Helene that show their intense sibling bond; in the novel, however, they barely interact. Rather than being shown we are told about their strong (perhaps incestuous) bond, yet we see very little to convince us of this.
Perhaps that is my issue with the whole book and why I had such trouble connecting. So much of it is told to us. I know it’s probably futile to talk about “show don’t tell” when it comes to an epic like War and Peace. Not just because it’s an epic, but because literary conventions have shifted so much since this novel’s publication that I as a reader am certainly influenced by my own expectations. But alas, my enjoyment of these characters was definitely hindered by my modern day conventions and expectations of literature, and I wanted to see so much more than I was told.
But still much of the novel was engaging and entertaining, though the war chapters did nothing for me whatsoever. The agonizing dullness of the war chapters may have been salvaged by beautiful writing, but the writing is plain and ordinary. Again I hesitate because this is a translation, and perhaps other translations capture a more lyrical tone, but in the case of the Briggs translation I found the writing rather dull and unadorned. It is certainly easy to read, but it also leaves you unaffected. Not once did I pause and admire the beauty of a particularly written sentence or paragraph.
I’m glad to have read this, and I did enjoy many parts, but overall this isn’t a novel that will stick with me or affect me in any way. I wish I felt what so many people do upon reading this novel – which is apparently some kind of grand appreciation for the human condition or something – but I don’t, sadly.