WAR AND PEACE by Leo Tolstoy
originally published in 1868
translated by Anthony Briggs
I don’t even know where to begin with reviewing a book like War and Peace. But in an effort to condense my experience with it into a single sentence, here we go: I didn’t like it. I wanted to like it, I tried to like it, I was in fact sure I was going to like it, but even giving this novel the unenthusiastic three stars would be disingenuous.
If you made a Venn diagram of things that interest me in a novel and things that interest Leo Tolstoy, there would be nothing the middle. On my side at the top of the list you’ve got: characters. On Tolstoy’s side you’ve got: Russian history.
Maybe it was naive for me to expect less war in a book where War comprises half the title, but my expectations going into this were all wrong. I’d been familiar with the musical Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, which was adapted from the 70 page segment of War and Peace which focuses on the affair between Natasha and Anatole Kuragin. Already having some affection for these characters, I dove into War and Peace with a list of questions that weren’t apparent to me from the musical alone: What exactly was Helene’s role in the affair? What were the circumstances of Anatole’s first marriage? Did Anatole ever love Natasha, or was he always out to use her? Unfortunately, such details turned out to be beside the point entirely.
I’ve never quite read a novel like this, where the plight of the characters always seemed secondary. Here is a list of things that got more narrative attention than the main characters: Napoleon, military strategy, Tolstoy’s personal philosophical musings, heavy criticism of the Great Man Theory… and if all that interests you, you will love War and Peace. But as someone who isn’t so interested in war, who needs something more quotidienne to drive a story than Big Philosophical Ideas, this ended up being a long slog for me.
I don’t mean to imply that there’s no character development at all in this 1,358 page behemoth. Pierre and Andrey notably struggle with finding their place in the world, each adopting different philosophies at different points in their lives, constantly striving to be good men. But their personal journeys weren’t quite enough to really pull me into this story, especially when I didn’t find either of them particularly interesting to begin with. Characters who I found much more intriguing – Helene, Anatole, Natasha, Sonya – were only ever paper thin.
I think War and Peace also suffered for the unintentional contrast with Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables that I couldn’t quite get out of my head. (This was the initial reason I was sure I was going to love War and Peace – my only other experience with a monster-length nineteenth century novel resulted in me finding my favorite book of all time.) I can’t help but to see these two novels and their musical counterparts as inversions of one another. Les Mis condenses the contents of the novel into a two and a half hour long musical, cutting it down to the absolute essential characters and events. And while it does a good job, reading the book only enriches the experience and gives you a fuller picture. Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 extrapolates from a very small section of War and Peace – it takes characters who weren’t very well developed to begin with, and gives them new depth and new life.
If I ever read this again (which I don’t intend to, but, never say never!) it will have to be with the intention of furthering my understanding of the Napoleonic Wars. This, in my opinion, is the height of what War and Peace has to offer. It’s a seminal text where military history is concerned. But I wanted more of a story.
I’m glad I can say I’ve read War and Peace… but the relief I felt at turning the final page isn’t like anything one should feel while reading a much-loved novel.