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March 12, 2012

Rohit Reviews: War and Peace

War and Peace

For the benefit of those who have not had the insurmountable displeasure of interacting with me in person of late, I must admit that I have become somewhat fixated in recent months upon the so-called Mayan apocalypse and the prospect of world coming to an (unlamented) end on or about December 21, 2012 (the winter solstice). That's not to say I believe the world is coming to an end in nine months, because only lunatics and buffoons believe in such rubbish, but only that this prospect has caused me to contemplate the meaninglessness of life (alone and in the dark, of course) and consider the extent to which I have accomplished nothing more than I normally might. One natural question that follows from this line of thought is as follows: what would I regret not having accomplished if when I perished along with the rest of the wretched mass of humanity that torments this miserable planet like a biblical plague? The answer shouldn't be too hard to guess: I would regret having not gotten to Leo Tolstoy's 1869 epic, War and Peace.

And so, with heady thoughts of the world's end consuming me, I set out on January 1st of this year to accomplish at least this one goal in a life otherwise riddled with false starts and downright failures. Last night, I accomplished this goal, some nine weeks after I began, and below I briefly summarize some of my impressions on this vast, towering novel.

Where to begin when reviewing a novel that spans two decades and 1,250 pages—what Henry James described as a large loose baggy monster—is somewhat of a conundrum. War and Peace is, at its essence, a historical fiction—predominantly the story of three families, the Bolkonskys, the Rostovs, and the Bezukovs, as they navigate Russia during the Napoleonic Wars (approximately 1805–1812). At another level, it is Tolstoy's treatise on war and military history. And at yet another, it is an awesome and awesomely compelling tale of an entire people as their country descends into war.

It is hard not to devolve into raving praises for a novel that accomplishes so much so well, but having spent the better part of the past two months with this work, I would prefer here to focus on a couple areas I found to be problematic. Notably, length was not one of these. Yes, the novel is quite long and completing it will require more focus and diligence than is usually necessary for most other works, including other works of Russian literature. Given the numerous characters and parallel story lines, keeping on a schedule is all but necessary to keep from losing track of it all. But so what? It's worth it. I read about 50 pages or so a night and never felt that it was dragging.

That said, two areas I did find problematic were as follows: first, despite occupying some 1,250 pages of text, the novel failed at times to develop characters in depth that I was expecting; and second, perhaps as a consequence of the enormous breadth of the novel and focus on humanity broadly, the novel never engaged with philosophical questions that emerge in the character's lives (principally those of Pierre Bezukhov and Andrei Bolkonsky). Additionally, Tolstoy's ultimate conclusions on war (and peace) are not nearly as revolutionary today to someone living after the carnage and atrocities of the 20th century as they might have been to someone living in the late 19th century. At times, they even seem somewhat quaint.

Of these flaws, the most disappointing to me was the first. Although nearly a decade has elapsed since I read Tolstoy's other great work, Anna Karenina (on this trip to London, incidentally), that novel remains in mind one of the greatest and most moving portrayals of the depth of human emotion ever created. Just about everything one might feel in a lifetime is, I'd like to believe, covered in that novel. The fact that War and Peace failed to deliver with its characters in the same manner as Anna Karenina was therefore quite a let down.

I don't mean, however, to be too dour. Ultimately, this was still a book I'm very much glad I was able to finish before any untimely apocalypse could take me out and one I wholeheartedly recommend to all but the faint of heart. I just can't say it was the best Tolstoy I've read when I have read Anna Karenina. Four stars of five.


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