I just finished Tolstoy's War and Peace. It was a lovely, albeit long experience. I want to share my thoughts in the hopes that some of you might be willing to give it a shot.
What is War and Peace? It is not a novel, still less an epic poem, still less a historical chronicle. War and Peace is what the author wanted and was able to express, in the form in which it is expressed.-Tolstoy
The primary characteristic that sets the work apart from all others is Tolstoy’s technique of interspersing novelistic narrative with nonfiction chapters. In any other writer this would seem arrogant and pushy: “I’m reading a novel! I don’t want a sermon!” Tolstoy can pull it off, however, because he’s Tolstoy - he has the literary chops to back it up. I don’t have the specific words from literary criticism to explain what I mean by this, but in my limited experience I’ve never seen a better writer. Anyone who can explain things so vividly and develop his characters so precisely has the right to toy with us. And he certainly does that. The narrative arc is so long (1,000+ pages) that the reader really needs to ‘count the cost’. What I found is that I had to ignore where I was in the book (in terms of pages and inches) and focus on where I was in the story. I had to slow down and enjoy his writing, enjoy the way he describes people, and even stop reading once in awhile and think about what just happened. And if it’s okay to step up on my soapbox for a bit, I think our culture could stand to slow down once in awhile. I get distracted as much as the next guy, but sometimes depth of knowledge is more needed than breadth. This story is a great way to practice that.
One thing that does get tedious is that Tolstoy has many conversations in French. In the translation I used (more on that below) the French was maintained in the body of the text and the English translation was in a footnote at the bottom of the page. It does get irritating to switch back and forth, especially when it involves dialogue. But Tolstoy does have a method to his madness here (conveying the irony of upper-crust "Russian" people who don't even speak Russian fluently).
The fiction part of the book describes the lives of several families roughly during the time from 1805 to 1812 (the Napoleonic Wars). It runs the gamut from romance novel to war story, but with none of the overly-simplistic characters common to those genres. The characters you love do stupid and ugly things and the ones you hate can surprise you too. Kind of like real life (which is kind of the point).
Speaking of real life, the non-fiction parts are good too. Any quick summary of Tolstoy’s historical argument is bound to have some oversimplifications. But, keeping this in mind, I think that Tolstoy’s primary concern is to critique the “Great Man” theory of history. In this vein he has a lot to say about freedom and what it consists of. A man or woman who is alone is free - a group less-so. As soon as we bind ourselves to a group we limit our freedom. This is true for every level in the group. It would be a misunderstanding to assume that the leader of the group is free. The general of the army is less free than even the lowest private because the eyes of all are on him. Thus it makes no sense to say ‘The French army invaded Russia because Napoleon...” In reality, the one million men in the French Army made their decisions for their own reasons. Likewise, war "X" was not won because General "Y" brilliantly commanded his troops. The outcome was because of many different elements that were out of the General’s control (and even outside of his knowledge).
One effect of this idea on Tolstoy’s theory of history is that he’s more inclined to focus on the ordinary people in the story. So the fiction sections of the book serve to reinforce the nonfiction parts (and vice versa). At first glance there may seem to be a lot of dualism in the way I’m describing this: war vs. peace, fiction vs. nonfiction, French vs. Russian, etc. In reality, the dualism melts away within the work itself. When Tolstoy breaks from narrative into a couple chapters of nonfiction it flows very naturally. I found myself in tension about the plot throughout the nonfiction part, but once I got back into the narrative I detected some tension in how he’s going to resolve the nonfiction argument too.
One last note on the translation. Getting the right translation can be important. My go-to translators for anything in Russian are Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. (Paperback and Hardcover) My reason for this is that they don’t make simple comprehension of the words their focus. They try to replicate the tone, rhythm, and character of the work, even when that could make it read slightly less smoothly. I’ll share one example that they give in their introduction to the book.
And the others:“The children were riding to Moscow on chairs and invited her to go with them”
See what I mean? Tolstoy wants us to get into the frame of mind of the children and therefore didn’t include anything about ‘playing’ or ‘pretending’. If you include that language you make it clunky and less true to what Tolstoy was going for. So that’s my recommendation on translation. If you have the time to commit to it I think this will be a very rewarding book. I’d love to hear from any of you who decide to pick it up.“The children were sitting on chairs playing at driving to Moscow”“The children were playing at ‘going to Moscow’ in a carriage made of chairs”“The children were perched on chairs playing at driving to Moscow.”