Friday, February 22, 2013

Door Stop: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

For this week's post, I am covering a book that many save for the retirement years. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy is definitely the longest book I have ever read, and may well end up holding that title until the day I die. I mean, this book is long...and I mean long enough to where I can't even compare it to another book I have read because it is longer than all of them. The edition pictured to the right clocks in at a staggering 1396 pages. Basically, you get to page 1000, and you still have enough pages left to go that would constitute about the average size of a modern novel. I feel like I should get three times the credit on Goodreads...

The Situation: The story follows the lives of the members of five different Russian aristocratic families as they interweave with each other. The Bezukhov family mainly consists only of Pierre, as he is made the sole heir of his father's fortune after he dies. The Bolkonsky family includes the old Prince, his son Andrey, who is a good friend of Pierre's, and his daughter Mayra.The Rostovs are a once wealthy family that includes the parents and their four children, Vera, Nikolay, Natasha, and Petya, as well as their orphaned but incredibly sweet cousin, Sonia. The two remaining families aren't spoken of as much as the preceding three, but they are Prince Vasily Kuragin and his three children, Anatol, Elena, and Ipolit; and Princess Anna Drubetskaya and her son Boris. There are other characters, many of which are soldiers or officers in the military, that come in and out of the lives of these families. And like every other Russian novel I have read, it is incredibly easy to confuse one name for another one, and some of them even have the same name. And then when the ones that are already hard to keep track of end up having kids or changing their titles...basically, I'll just spare you. These five families are the main focus of the story. However, two other characters that receive heavy mention that aren't part of these families are Napoleon Bonaparte and Tsar Alexander I of Russia.

The Problem: The primary problem throughout the whole novel is that Russia is at war. An incredibly simplistic version of the story is that Napoleon starts killing mass amounts of people and taking their land, so the Tsar declares war on him. Then peace is made, and then the Tsar and Napoleon have a disagreement, and the war is back on. This results in Napoleon entering Russia, but the conquering of Moscow actually leads to him losing the war and being disowned by his own people. And with a war, comes casualties.

But even beyond the war, their are little feuds between these five central families, and within the families themselves.  Both Anna Drubetskaya and Prince Kuragin are greatly concerned about the affect the inheritance will have on Pierre, or more to the point, how it will effect their own families in relation to him, as Anna is trying to have her Boris set up in the best situation possible in the military, and Kuragin desperately wants to marry all three of his children off to wealthy spouses. Andrey is trapped in a marriage in which he is miserable and isn't that upset about having to leave his pregnant wife for the service. His sister Mayra is subject to the temper tantrums of their ornery father as, despite her wealth, her prospects of marriage and escape are slim. And the Rostovs, who are actually lovely people with wonderful and popular children, have managed to squander their entire fortune and their children's inheritance by being generous and social to a fault. Quite surprisingly, there is enough going on here to adequately fill close to 1400 pages. And the dull moments in between that are bound to spring up in a novel of this length don't last very long, and Tolstoy is very quick to get back to the point.

Genre, Themes, History: This would most likely have been considered historical fiction as Tolstoy worked on the novel heavily in the 1860s, but the story covers the events of the early 1800s, leading up the events of 1812 involving Russia's conflict with Napoleon. War is of course a main theme throughout the book, but Tolstoy also discusses religion, philosophy, and social justice, often using Pierre as his mouthpiece, and I suspect he sometimes used Princess Mayra as well. From what little I know about the events surrounding Napoleon's entrance into Russia with the French army, I imagine what Tolstoy has put down in the pages of this book is pretty close to accurate. Granted, I am sure he took some liberties as far as the actual conversations that took place among the soldiers and among Napoleon and Tsar Alexander. But Tolstoy, or I should say the narrator, also makes many comments on what he believes are the errors of historians and other commentators on the events of the war. He seems to differ greatly with others who have presented the events of this war and have offered their own opinions as to what should have been done at what time and who is genuinely at fault. His conclusion appears to be that no one could have possibly done any better considering the circumstances, or possibly known how things were to turn out. While I preferred the parts that were actual story to the parts that were criticizing the historians, some of it was still pretty entertaining.

My Verdict: Even with some books that are only 300 pages long, I find myself wishing they were shorter and can find at least one or two places where the book went on longer than it should have. Given that this book is close to 1400 pages, I was expecting to have many examples of that, but I found only one. Basically, at the very end, after all is said and done and we are done reading about the characters of the book, Tolstoy goes one for another 40 pages or so about the war and history and philosophy, etc. My view is that this should either be put in before everything with the actual characters is wrapped up, or left out completely. But other than that, I don't feel that the book is 1400 pages just for the sake of being 1400 pages. 1350 of those pages are used well and worth reading, and it is good reading. There were characters I loved, characters I didn't like, characters I mourned for when they died, characters I felt satisfaction about when they died, and characters I cheered for when they lived or got married. After 1400 pages, I felt like I went on a journey with some of these people and didn't want to let them go. I watched them grow up, get married, go off to war, have children, and some I had to watch die. There is a reason people pick up this epic book and commit to reading it despite its length, and there is a reason it is still read today. It is just that good.

Favorite Moment: Just one? Oh, alright then. There is a moment when two of the characters meet, and I won't say who so as not to spoil anything, but as soon as he walks in the room and their eyes meet you just know they will end up together, and I could not have been happier. 

Favorite Character: This would have to be a three-way tie between Pierre, Andrey, and Mayra. These were the three characters whose fate I was the most concerned about. Pierre is a socially awkward and unaware fool, but I couldn't help but want him to be safe and happy. Andrey is a brooding and tormented soul who married for looks and regretted it, but he is ultimately a decent man who tries to look after his sister Mayra. And she is all that is good and pure and probably deserves the most to be happy out of everyone in the novel.

Recommended Reading: I will have to recommended Tolstoy's other epic novel Anna Karenina, which clocks in at 900 pages, but that is about 500 pages less than War and Peace, so that is something worth considering. For me it is a very different novel, but still follows families of the Russian aristocracy and how their lives intertwine with each other.

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