I read War & Peace! I read War & Peace! I read War & Peace! I feel like I need to shout that at everyone now. Because I can. Okay, I’m done.
Ever since I decided that I was actually going to read it, it’s been haunting me. Mostly because it was easily the longest book on my TBR. But also because it’s Tolstoy. Classics usually take me a bit longer to read, and I know from reading Anna Karenina last year that Tolstoy takes me longer to get through than most. But it was just something I knew I needed to do. When I decided to get my Masters in English, I realized that, for me, part of that education needed to be something I did on my own. I’m the type of person who will never feel completely confident in my own abilities, and I knew that having read books like War & Peace, Cloud Atlas, and A Visit from the Goon Squad – books that have won awards, are on the “must-read” book lists, or are frequently referred to in pop culture – would help. Reading is something that is a part of who I am, and, in order to make it also a part of what I do, I felt the need to be well-read. So now you know why I read War & Peace (even though everyone I know in real life who saw me lugging around a 1,400-page book thought I was insane – I lost count of the times I was asked: “Are you really reading War & Peace?” or “Why are you reading War & Peace?”). Now onto the important question: what did I think of it?
I don’t think I can review something like War & Peace. It is a classic on an epic scale. So, instead, these are just some of my thoughts on the book.
First of all, I went into this having read all those famous authors, etc. who insist that War & Peace is a masterpiece that everyone must read, and read multiple times. I have to admit, I was a little skeptical. I liked Anna Karenina, but it wasn’t my favorite thing ever. After about eight-hundred pages, I found myself eating my words. War & Peace is a masterpiece. And, yes, I will likely read it again (in a decade or so). War & Peace isn’t just a novel. It’s a boundary-pushing work that also explores history, philosophy, life, and love. First, I will delve into the history aspect of the book. Tolstoy was actually a war reporter before becoming a novelist, so the depictions of war in this book – whether they be action-packed, boring, or just plain disturbing – are accurate. Not only that, but Tolstoy did his research; War & Peace is full of military history (there are literally whole chapters of it), including characters who actually lived, like Napoleon, Tsar Alexander, and some of the Russian generals. It’s worth noting that, in 1865, this was kind of groundbreaking, literarily-speaking. I majored in history in college (and even took a whole course on Russian history), so I actually really appreciated the amount of history and level of research that went into this. Tolstoy definitely had some opinions about the French invasion of Russia (which was part of the Napoleonic Wars): basically, Napoleon wasn’t that smart, both armies were ridiculously lucky, and none of it really matters.
We can know only that we know nothing. And that is the highest degree of human wisdom.
Another aspect of War & Peace that I was unexpectedly impressed by was the philosophy, which, at times, delved into psychology. Many of the chapters (particularly those in the second volume of the epilogue) really analyze the philosophical implications of war (mostly along the lines of: War! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!). See that quote? The one above this paragraph? That’s Tolstoy paraphrasing Socrates. Clearly, Tolstoy knew his stuff. Personally, it was the philosophical and existential discussion that runs throughout the novel that convinced me of Tolstoy’s genius. Plus, I’m pretty sure the fact that Tolstoy wasn’t crazy nationalistic was pretty groundbreaking in itself. Instead of making war seem glamorous, he shines a (very graphic) light on what war actually is (or was in the nineteenth-century): a bunch of young men running around getting slaughtered. I actually loved Tolstoy’s commentary on the causes of war, and how it affects the people involved both directly and indirectly, which he both directly comments on and demonstrates through his characters. See? Brilliant!
What is the cause of historical events? Power. What is power? Power is the sum total of wills transferred to one person. On what condition are the wills of the masses transferred to one person? On condition that the person express the will of the whole people. That is, power is power. That is, power is a word the meaning of which we do not understand.
Even though I enjoyed these parts of the book more than I thought I would, I definitely liked the “peace” parts more than the “war” parts. The characters were interesting, albeit very melodramatic. Seriously, apparently being emo was a thing in the early nineteenth-century. I liked that Tolstoy was a bit more progressive than his contemporaries when it came to relationships and sexuality (even the fact that women had sexual feelings/thoughts was pretty revolutionary). Though, I guess having read Anna Karenina, it wasn’t that surprising. I also liked that the relationships weren’t perfect. There was some insta-love (which you all know is not my thing), but it worked here. Why? Because Tolstoy made it seem ridiculous. Breaking your engagement and running off with the hot guy at the opera? Not such a great idea. Even though there was a fair amount of fawning and inappropriateness, some of the characters were very realistic about the status of their relationships during war. It reflected both nineteenth-century Russian society and human nature. Which is kind of amazing.
My rating of War & Peace is based mainly on my enjoyment of the novel. The only reason I took off one star is because, while it was brilliant, it was just long. 1,400 pages long. It took me at least 300 pages to get invested in the story and start to care about the characters. And, as much as I appreciated all the history and philosophy, the chapters that were only history and/or philosophy were a little boring and hard to get through. But, like I said, War & Peace is genius. It’s completely unlike anything I’ve ever read in sheer scale alone. It is epic and dramatic and almost overwhelmingly good. I read the majority of the book in about three sittings (which still surprises me), because, towards the end, I did become pretty invested in the story. And watching the pages go by on this giant book was a huge motivator to keep reading. I am so glad I finally ended up reading it! It definitely is a masterpiece.
There will be today, there will be tomorrow, there will be always, and there was yesterday, and there was the day before…
I’m going to hop on the bandwagon and say that War & Peace is one of those books everyone should read at least once. I know it’s intimidating, but you can do it! I ended up trying three different translations (yes, there are a lot of them) before finally settling on one that somehow, magically, made it easier to understand. So, if you’re looking to read War & Peace, I would highly recommend getting the Anthony Briggs translation (it’s the one with the cover I used for this post). I would also suggest using a reading guide to help you with some of the more difficult chapters – I used Shmoop, which was very helpful and provided a lot of interesting tidbits regarding history and philosophy and Tolstoy’s literary tricks. While it isn’t necessary if you have a good translation, it definitely enhanced my understanding and appreciation of the novel.
Have you read War & Peace? What did you think? (And, if you haven’t read it, are you planning to?)