Thursday, March 3

Book: War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy Click for more info

War and Peace is an intelligent book. There's ample signs of this; from the difficulty in reading it to the language used and themes covered there's not much doubt about it: this book is quite the slog.

But around 200 pages into the 1300 page edition I read and things did start to settle down a bit. I guess this is a book where you need to fall into the flow and rhythm over time - but once you do it's actually very enjoyable and rewarding.

War and Peace is also a book of many faces. It's both fiction and not, prose and biographical, a novel and scientific volume. Of that last one it covers history, military strategy, religion and philosophy. I lost count with the number of layers presented across the five volumes.

With hundreds of named characters (some who shared names and others who had pseudonyms) and places, there was a lot of raw information to take in - often resulting in a bit of an overload for the reader. I sometimes had to "turn off" and let things go over my head just to make progress in the book; to understand it fully I would have had to keep notes or something. Add to that the continued repetition and redundancy and I did question exactly how much of the book was of substance. After reading though I realised that the trivial parts were needed to bridge the major ones, and that repetition was a tool used by Tolstoy to make a point.

As usual, the main point of interest for me was the extent of characterisation found in the story. Of this there was plenty; between the two of them Pierre and Andrey were so alive I'm left struggling to believe they weren't people in Tolstoy's life. In fact the notes in the Penguin edition (well worth a read) do make the point that they're supposed to represent the spiritual and logical side of Tolstoy himself, so perhaps that's where the power of the characters came from.

And indeed by the end it's clear that this is really a book about Tolstoy rather than any of the characters he created. This is shown by the not infrequent dips into pontification and lecturing - although I don't mean this in the bad way these words imply since I did enjoy a lot of it. Not to disrespect it too much but it was almost like the stuff he would have put on a blog or something, with his arguments on quite tricky and abstract topics being laid out so completely and precisely and logically that I couldn't help but be mesmerised by it all (and if you happened to have been sharing the commute with me these past six months you would know why I was randomly smiling).

It's a skill that I've spent years trying to develop both in speech and writing myself, and perhaps one borne out of making a habit of talking to oneself. Internal dialogue, self-argument and critical thinking are all explicit methods used to build confidence in your own thoughts, and it's clear to me that a lot of the book was Tolstoy simply saying out aloud things he had spent a lot of brain time thinking about alone. That's not to say I totally came to the same conclusions as he did; he seemed a little too fatalistic for my liking, but the cynicism and presumption of humanity in plural being inevitably flawed were two themes that struck home with me.

As much as I loved my six months with the book, I'm still undecided if it's one I can recommend. Yes, it's rich and extremely rewarding but considering the time and effort spent extracting those things there are more efficient ways of achieving the same. What other books will not give you is a physical and mental challenge (I literally had back pains due to holding the book for extended periods of time), so if you're into that kind of aspect of reading then you should give it a shot; just be prepared not to receive anything back straight away and you'll be fine.

1 comment:

  1. anon78613:33

    Thanks for your review, I'll add this to my post-retirement list. Have read Hadji Murad by Tolstoy? It's much shorter and he writes admiringly of a nineteenth century Chechen mujahid.