Tuesday, June 08, 2010

War and Peace (by Leo Tolstoy)

As Andy Bernard would say, maybe you've heard of it?

My friend Brad is a huge fan of Russian literature, and I'd never read War and Peace but loved Anna Karenina, so we kept saying we should form a War and Peace book club (of two people). And so we did; we've been reading this book probably for six months or so? Every week I go into the coffee shop where he works to talk about the book. (Actually, he's also a big Lost fan, and Lost was way more confusing than Tolstoy for a while there, so we talked a lot about Lost instead.)

War and Peace reminds me of Les Miserables a lot--both super long, epic books, with a backdrop of war, and involving Napoleon! Although the themes are different and obviously the latter is very French, while the former is very very very Russian. Not in the usual way* but it emphasizes Russian values and the strength of peasants and the value of the Russian language and critiques the aristocracy and points ahead to the Decembrist revolution and all that stuff.

*Brad: "Well, there are three names on the back cover, and this is a Russian novel, so one of them is going to die, one's going to get brain fever, and one's getting shipped off to Siberia."

So, the strengths of the book: compelling characters, sweeping in scope but also very detailed and intimate, without being difficult to read. Tolstoy is able to zoom in and zoom out--describe a scene as if from a distance, and then zoom in on one particular character's experiences and thoughts. Especially in the war sequences, this works brilliantly, and the pacing is mostly perfect. The characters are well-drawn: I loved the flighty Natasha, the flawed Pierre, the devout Marya, the impetuous Petya--even when they aren't sympathetic, they're very real.

The weaknesses: that damned second epilogue is a mess! It's essentially a first cause argument, except that rather than one pointed paragraph, it's twelve chapters of analogies that really don't hold together logically. Plus, it repeats points he's been making throughout the text about history and free will and all of that. He does get a little too didactic elsewhere too, and seemingly doesn't trust the reader to understand the point the first (or fifth, or tenth) time he makes it. Like, I get that you hate Napoleon, and I get that the Russian Spirit is awesome, and that you're basically a Kutuzov apologist, can we possibly move along?

Also, the characterization of Pierre becomes a little problematic, Boris kind of disappears (unless I missed something), Bagration's fate is decided off-screen, and there really isn't enough explanation of the fate of the French army--I had to supplement the book with Wikipedia! And man, does poor Sonya get the shaft, or what?

Ultimately, I'm really glad I read it. I especially recommend it to anyone who's interested in Russian history. I also enjoyed this essay about someone else's experiences with the book. I guess now Brad and I have to find something else to read! Gravity's Rainbow, maybe?