Finally wrote my review of War and Peace: Original Version. I try to include here, reviews that have some relation to spiritual fiction. Although that is a rather debateable aspect of this novel, I do think it exists, as it does in much classical literature. Hope you enjoy the review. As always: thanks for stopping by my blog. I’d appreciate it if you’d leave a comment if so inclined.
Jesse S. Hanson
Heroes and Heroines or Failures and Fools… or both?
I guess the first responsibility one has in writing a review of War and Peace is to be clear about what version is being reviewed. My review concerns, War and Peace: Original Version, translated by Andrew Bromfield, Paperback, 912 pages, Published September 1st 2008 by Harper Perennial. The 912 pages is short by most standards (Goodreads.com shows 383 editions and the lengths of some of these editions can run into several thousands of pages, divided into multiple books. The most common versions read by English readers run something less than 1500 pages, I believe.
Whew, I’m glad that part’s over! It’s all quite relevant, I’m sure, on the one hand, which edition/version we’re talking about and yet on the other, perhaps not so much so. There are the issues of a “happy ending” or not, philosophical “fill” or not, etc. Leave it to the Tolstoy geeks, I’m sorry. It’s not the only good story in the world and, great as he was/is, he’s not the only great writer in the world. I don’t personally see how saying that detracts anything from his greatness or the novel’s greatness.
So let me begin by saying, It’s a great novel. I felt a strong sense of loss when I finished it. It had become a friend over the nearly five months that I was reading it (I’m a slow reader and I have a very busy life and I was reading other books simultaneously).
I must say that if I hadn’t been coming into it with the expectation of it being a great novel, I may have abandoned it early on. Those glamorous society parlor soirees, full of gossip and all manner of arrogant types of conversation would have done me in. The fact that the author was obviously critically mocking the characters didn’t help much. I think that when it was written, such authorial mockery may have served an important purpose and been quite entertaining, as well, but we’ve had such a diet of it over the years of my life that I now find it quite boring and repugnant—the stuff of soap operas. Still, I cannot deny, Tolstoy was a master of minute observation and when the stuff of his writing is sincere, I was in constant admiration of that ability.
My other problem with the novel was the fact that it was written from the point of view of privileged society in the first place. My Australian Goodreads friend Laurel sent me her thoughts: “With Tolstoy’s two great books, Anna Karina and War and Peace, he very much writes about family life. You feel as if you know the families concerned. For me, it is his greatest achievement.” I could not help but agree with her about the contribution regarding family, but it’s just a personal thing with me: I’m not often fascinated by the family doings of the rich and famous. So when I remarked that I was likely to remain a bigger Dostoevsky fan, that was perhaps the reason. Personally, I am a product of middle class America. From that starting point, in the board game of life, I have occasionally travelled through the slums and the low places of those without “opportunity” as it is usually called, and I have, in turn, traversed, on other occasions, the high roads and visited the lofty nests of the well-to-do. There are good and bad people in all walks, and I’m not comfortable anywhere, but certainly not in the lap of luxury.
I think the greatest delight in reading War and Peace is that the reader is always kept guessing as to the quality of a character’s character, so to speak. My favorite one, Pierre is a perfect case in point. For some time I thought that he was the only character with character. Later, I became convinced that the same was true of Prince Andrei. Up and down I was thrown and plunged through my identification with individual personalities. Whether it was in terms of family relations, or those of friends and peers, or those uniquely military or nationalistic, the story always had me going, pulling for this character or that, despairing in his or her shortcomings and reveling in that same one’s transcendence.
The war scenes, though relatively brief, are very powerful. Ultimately, War and Peace is an anti-war novel. I think it’s also a pro-Russia novel; I mean to say a work that revels in the character of the pre-socialist Russia. But it seems so ironic that Tolstoy freely expresses this love of country while he relentlessly mocks every one of his own characters and the entire Russian mentality. He openly portrays the Russian military organism, from the beloved sovereign to the generals to the foot soldiers, as absolutely clueless. He places no value whatsoever on the genius of anyone in command (not even Napolean, the enemy’s great emperor hero who is widely acclaimed, even today as a military genius). The business of war, the author sees as baseless murder, yet the business of peace he seems to see as ridiculous comedy.
There is really one primary question that I have, and I think the reader must decide for her/himself: are there any heroines/heroes in this great sprawling and endearing epic? I believe there are only three characters who genuinely concern themselves with any higher, spiritual questions or pursuits in their lives; how those questions or pursuits are resolved is, to me, part of the same primary question.
I do highly recommend War and Peace. I think it will be a joy to discuss it with others—a joy one won’t be able to relate to unless one reads it.