Originally published 7/14/2010 in The Sheet
“I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in 20 minutes. It involves Russia.”
It took me five months and four days to read War and Peace. In my defense, though, I have a life—one that involves more than just devouring epic Russian novels. In fact, this was my first Russian novel, which I consumed in manageable bites of no more than 20 pages per day, gulping down 13 other books between lapses of interest.
Perhaps also in my defense, I never wanted to read War and Peace in the first place (no offense, Tolstoy). In fact, I have no better reason for completing it than that I picked it up one day, began reading it, and decided, “Well, maybe I should finish what I started.”
When my dad received the most recent translation of War and Peace by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (Knopf) for Christmas a couple years ago, I picked up the hefty hunk of literature with marked apprehension. It looked so inaccessible, insufferable, and just plain intimidating.
At the start of January this year, I discovered a hardcover copy of the same translation in my boyfriend’s possession. I asked him, in more of a mocking tone than I intended, “Who’s reading this?” He told me he was (although he hadn’t started it yet), because a friend in town had initiated a War and Peace book group. I laughed and said, “Good luck with that,” not envying him or his fellow book group victims. The next day, out of curiosity, I read the introduction, which taunted me like a challenge: “Read me because it would be so cool and intellectual to say that you’ve read me!”
Now that I’ve read it, I can’t say I feel any more cool or intellectual. Because, really, how cool is someone who sits in the corner during house parties reading her Russian novel because she has to catch up with her book group? And, as for my intellect, this was the first question I asked at the final book group meeting: “Was Pierre still fat by the end of the book?”
What I can say now, which is more than a lot of people can say, is that I’ve read it, from start to finish. (Disclaimer: neither my dad nor my boyfriend has read it yet). At least three of the original book groupers had still not finished it by the final meeting. In a column by Chicago Tribune culture critic Julia Keller about books readers couldn’t finish, War and Peace was at the top of the list. Carol Saller of Chicago said, “About 30 years ago I stopped reading War and Peace about 15 pages from the end. I could tell the story was over, and at that point Tolstoy was just yammering on about his philosophy of history, so I quit. I’ve never regretted it—actually, it’s more fun to brag about quitting 15 pages from the end.”
Now having successfully completed Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, I’ve decided to impart my honest review. As someone who had no idea what she was getting herself into when she decided to forge through Tolstoy’s 1217 page journey, I think it’s worthwhile for potential readers to know what they’re getting into, and what they may get out of it. So here is a review, from a person without a scholarly background in literature, sans CliffsNotes or any in-depth historical knowledge of pre-revolution Russia.
Woody Allen was halfway there when he explained that War and Peace “involves Russia.” A more accurate description might be that it involves Russia, but is about everything. Tolstoy narrates, in laborious detail, the events preceding Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and its impact on Russian society, reflected in the lives of the story’s aristocratic protagonists.
But, in addition to an almost soap opera-like plot, Tolstoy tackles an impressive scope of universal topics, including, but not limited to war, religion, freedom, marriage, history, death, and happiness. When the reader sees how leisurely Tolstoy examines these institutions, it’s no wonder why the book is so long. Yet his philosophical wanderings are seamless and the characters extremely memorable. Richard Pevear, one of the translators of the newest version, opens the introduction with:
War and Peace is the most famous and at the same time the most daunting of Russian novels, as vast as Russia itself and as long to cross from one end to the other. Yet if one makes the journey, the sights seen and the people met on the way mark one’s life forever.
In other words, the book is tedious as hell, but if you get through it, you’ll have a lot to think about. At first, you’ll stumble over the names of characters, since each protagonist has about five different names. For example, Count Nikolai Ilyích goes by Rostov, Nikólushka, Nikólenka, Nikoláshka, Kólya, Nicolas, or Coco. Some patient adjustment is also required while reading passages where characters spontaneously switch to speaking French, which is not translated to English in the text, but rather footnoted at the bottom of the page. Other footnotes lead the reader to the back of the book for brief explanations of historical references, none of which are adequate enough to fill the gaps for someone with no prior knowledge of those people, places and events.
But, after meeting the characters, you begin to develop a particular fondness for their quirks, faults, strengths and signature physical features. Natasha Rostov, for example, with her boundless beauty and helpless happiness for life, matures from her sweet, childlike naivety in the beginning of the book to calm attentiveness by the epilogue.
Pierre Bezúkhov is the fat, bumbling, unassuming hero of the book. His righteous resolve to personally assassinate Napoleon is so nearsighted and idiotic it’s almost endearing. Yet he becomes one of the most sensible characters by the end, after facing the possibility of his own assassination and enduring his subsequent imprisonment by the French.
War and Peace is more of an experience than it is a book, where the reader gets wrapped up in the lives of interesting characters, unique prose, history, and philosophy. Tolstoy himself couldn’t even define it, saying it is “not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less an historical chronicle.” But Tolstoy uses this freedom from form to craft something truly unrivaled in its revelatory nature.
Some of the most enjoyable parts of the book were written by Tolstoy in first person, where he carefully postulates, and sometimes relentlessly rants, about the laws of history. He explores the ideas of “chance” and “genius,” “freedom” and “necessity,” and “power.” He surmises that “Kings are the slaves of history. History, that is, the unconscious swarmlike life of mankind, uses every moment of a king’s life as an instrument for its purposes.” The conclusions he draws about the “purpose” of individuals, events, rulers, and history itself are, at times, so well developed in their arguments that the reader can only think, “Well, of course!” For example, this passage from the epilogue challenges why history unfolds as it does:
If the purpose of the European wars at the beginning of the present century was the greatness of Russia, that purpose could have been achieved without any of the preceding wars and without the invasion. If the purpose was the greatness of France, it could have been achieved without the revolution and without the empire. If the purpose was the spreading of ideas, printing would have carried it out far better than soldiers. If the purpose was the progress of civilization, it is quite easy to suppose that, besides the destruction of people and their wealth, there are other more expedient ways to spread civilization.
If nothing else, reading War and Peace will give you legitimate bragging rights for the rest of your life. I’ve been told that just saying you’ve read it makes you sound smart. Be forewarned though, that finishing it is anticlimactic. Upon reading “The End,” I was almost expecting a parade to be thrown in my honor. I at least thought that when I told people my grand news, they would shake my hand emphatically, slap me on the back, and say “Congratulations!”
Instead, most people just say, “Well that took a long time didn’t it? Was it worth it?” Oddly, after five months perhaps you too will muster a wise look in your eyes, gaze into the distance and reply solemnly, “Yes. Yes it was.”