Archives: March 2016

War and Peace and Why I Wish I Hadn’t Read It

I wanted to read a good, literary, and long novel this past winter break. Sort of a palate cleanser after reading large numbers of 12ish-page student papers of varying (though sometimes excellent and rarely terrible) quality. Because I am an idiot, I selected War and Peace.

My friends, the book is long. And not merely long–it is also slow, repetitive, meandering, digressive, didactic, and in dire need of a vigorous edit. To make matters worse, the ebook copy I read was riddled with typos. Granted it was free, but a majority of the typos could have been located with a simple spell check. There is simply no excuse for such shoddy material being released online. While it was rarely more than annoying, it certainly left me thinking less of Simon & Schuster for putting their name on it. Another issue was that the editor saw fit to mine the footnotes with spoilers. That is the subject for another day’s (profanity-laced) rant.

The book is a rather odd mix of epic, soap opera, war story, historical analysis, and ramble. I learned a lot about an era of history I don’t know much about, albeit only a brief slice of it (the very early 1800s, including the French invasion of Russia in 1812). I gained some limited perspective on Russian society of that era, though the lives of the serfs–essentially slaves–aren’t given much consideration. (Like Jane Austen’s novels, for example, they aren’t meant to provide a view of the whole of society, though Tolstoy had more of an opportunity to see a wider swath of it than Austen did.)

Ridiculous Tolstoy quote: easy to say if you have money and freedom.

Ridiculous Tolstoy quote: easy to say if you have money and freedom.

Based on what little he did say about them, Tolstoy seemed to see the serfs as inherently inferior, and in need of management in the same way that cattle or estates need management. Up to a point–for example, if one sees serfs as employees–there’s some validity, but Tolstoy clearly approves heartily of the actions of one character who very tightly manages their personal lives as well. This character’s stern (and sometimes violent) management of his serfs causes them to respect him to the point that, Tolstoy says, “serfs from neighboring estates came to beg him to buy them.” This is no more than a fantasy justifying harsh treatment of enslaved people. Tolstoy was of his time, of course, but I would have preferred him to be a bit more enlightened. (The question of how much one can reasonably complain about this is an enormous one that I won’t try to tackle.)

The military episodes, of which there are many, have the sort of verisimilitude that Tolstoy’s own military experience would be expected to provide–including one of the more horrifying, distinctive, and powerful deaths in combat that I’ve read. (Because I’m not an ass, unlike a certain editor who shall remain nameless, I’m not naming names.) Tolstoy’s attitudes about war are quite clear: “war is the favorite pastime of the idle and frivolous.” Tolstoy’s understanding of the difficulties of communication and planning, in the absence of technology, are also incredibly useful—though not terribly relevant any longer. However, he focused so deeply and repeatedly upon his insistence of the chaotic and leaderless nature of war that it seemed more like a mania, in the end, than a carefully-reasoned and persuasive argument.

With respect to the characters…I didn’t find many of the people very likeable. The main female character is absurdly spoiled and coddled, leading to awful, selfish behavior. The main male character is genuinely dreadful for much of the novel, and even during his period of rehabilitation, he simply ignores a man about to be killed because it’s awkward for him. This is apparently OK because the man is a peasant, though he claims to care about him.

Few of the characters seem well suited to making the children they made, or raising them in any way that is likely to turn out well. As for the other characters and their overlapping stories, some were surely compelling. If you’re the sort of person who can simply skip the boring bits (I am not), I can see it appealing to fans of Downton Abbey, or of the novels of Austen, the Brontes, and Trollope. All things considered, though, I wouldn’t actually encourage anyone to read it. There is better stuff out there, by far, IMO.

The tome is ended with epilogues: three of them. Why? Well, the first is a seven-years-later segment that brings us up to date on Russia and, more importantly, the lives, loves, offspring, and evolving characters of the characters, now that they are somewhat older and not at war—for the moment. It’s entertaining, though it leaves many questions and frustrations. It’s not happily-ever-after, by any means, though it seems like Trollope’s conception of it. I felt sorry for many of the characters, and wished others would pull their heads out of their butts.

France's retreat from Russia, by W. Kossak.

France’s retreat from Russia, by W. Kossak.

The second epilogue…dear Lord, it took me so long to get through the second epilogue. It’s so dreadfully dull and repetitive, and some if it is nonsense. For example: “What causes historical events? Power. What is power? Power is the collective will of the people transferred to one person. Under what condition is the will of the people delegated to one person? On condition that that person expresses the will of the whole people. That is, power is power: in other words, power is a word the meaning of which we do not understand.” And also: “If any single action is due to free will, then not a single historical law can exist, nor any conception of historical events.” Setting aside the irony of him referring to “the whole people,” which he clearly doesn’t mean, what?

Tolstoy also wants to claim that history should be treated as a science, and that if the laws and influences determining human actions were known fully, we could abandon our foolish notions of free will. At least, I think he’s saying that. He’s contradictory at times. He does acknowledge that we cannot prove that we have free will, which seems true enough. But the rest…So painful. Don’t read epilogue two.

The third consists of Tolstoy discussing the book. He says: “What is War and Peace? It is not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less an historical chronicle.” I think it’s difficult to argue that it’s not a historical novel—and he’s probably not the best person to judge, in any case. Tolstoy also discusses the very different needs and methods of historians and “artists”–meaning novelists. This section would, I think, be interesting for both of those types of people to read. He also, rather painfully, confirms what I noted before about his apparent attitudes about serfs. He thinks the tales of the horrors of the serf system are overblown. Sigh. Dear Tolstoy, I rather doubt it. After all, who wrote the materials you used for research? The serfs, or the people who owned them? Might those people have been a teensy bit biased? Yes. Yes, they were.

Historical note: serfdom was abolished in 1861, War and Peace was initially published in 1869, and Tolstoy lived until 1910, so he lived to see a great deal of change. He changed considerably, himself, over the years, though that’s a subject for another day and another author.

All that said: MAN, I’m glad it’s over. I have since read, among other books, Andy Weir’s The Martian. It kicked butt—check it out!