Tuesday, August 7, 2012

War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy

Okay, wow.  It’s been a while since I posted anything to this blog.  I have two good reasons for that.  1- Olympics.  I’m all about the zeitgeist, so of course I’m going to watch and couch-surf my way through an international event like the Olympics.  Being Canadian, I’m more disposed to enjoying winter sports, but I can always find something to engage my interest during the winter Olympics, too.  2- My latest read: War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy.  Yikes.  My version runs at 1,358 pages (and the font is teeny-tiny) so it took a while.  But, now I’m done, and can finally blog about some of the observations that have been swirling around my head during my reading for the last two weeks.

First off, plot: War and Peace is quintessential Tolstoy in that there are numerous plots which all swirl around each other.  The biggest piece is the story of the Franco-Russian War, ending with Napoleon’s (failed) attempt to subdue Russia by marching into Moscow.  Don’t get me wrong, Napoleon made it to the Holy Mother Moscow, but what he found there ended his reign in Europe: he found nothing.  The Muscovites had fled, many of the administrators and court to the cultural capital of St. Petersburg, thereby leaving Napoleon nothing by an empty city to ‘capture.’  He did, but many historians point to this ‘victory’ as the beginning of the end for his Empire.  The other plots, the fictional ones, revolve around a series of families – predominately the Rostovs and the Bolkonskys, as well as Pierre Bezukhov.  The plots are further divided between the men and the woman, as well as peace and war times.  In essence, what we get are the tales of various lives, how they intermingle with each other, and how the interact with the history happening around them.  

I was worried when I started reading this book that I would be hopelessly lost; I had read Anna Karenina in Grade 10, and what I remember about it is the shear number of people you have to keep track of.  If anything, War and Peace is worse – more people, more foreign names, and a wider playing field.  But, knowing that this was the case (I once heard War and Peace has over 200 characters), I was super careful about focusing on each new person that was introduced, the setting, and their connections to the others around them.  If you’re going to read War and Peace, I highly recommend you take the same care – it’ll save you confusion later on.

For the quantity of characters, Tolstoy never skimps on the quality.  The author must have been a venerable people watcher.  His characters range from the poorest of Russian serfs (remember, serfdom was still alive and kicking in Russia during the first half of the 19th century) to the wealthiest princes of the realm; Tolstoy writes sincerely and earnestly about the feelings of a 15 year old girl falling in love, and the Emperor’s emotions at learning about defeats in the battlefield; he speaks eloquently to the failings of man, and to his triumphs as well.  It all makes for an engaging and interesting read, at every turn.

There is no doubt that with a title like War and Peace the reader is in for a bunch of contrasts and dichotomies.  The plot lines follow the lives of the families and people mentioned above during peacetime (when they fall in love, loose family fortunes on the turn of a card, do the social rounds), and during the war.  Tolstoy does an amazing job to taking his readers and placing them in the thick of battles like Austerlitz and Borodino.  It’s clear he researched troop movements, orders, and dispositions until he was blue in the face.  Normally, I don’t enjoy this type of story-telling, but Tolstoy weaves the stories of his characters in amongst the musket and canon fire to make it relevant and engaging.  When fortunes can be made depending on whose adjunct you are, or lives lost that will have such far reaching impact, the device of using real-life battles to tell the stories of such interesting characters is expertly used.

For all his focus on the history of the events surrounding the Franco-Russian War, it’s pretty damned clear that Tolstoy hated historians.  On multiple occasions, he goes off on ranting passages about the damage that historians do to the human narrative; we all know that history is written by the victors, but Tolstoy resents this one-sidedness of the tale and the omissions that it results in.  On the whole, it’s quite a hypocritical position for him to have taken.  For god’s sake, the man is telling a fictionalized account of a huge moment in European history, which many historians will cite to be a Russian victory (though I’ve always been of the impression that it was more of a French loss, which just happened to have occurred in Russia).  Tolstoy not only takes on historians, but he takes on various branches of history, including cultural history (which is my specialty).  He runs historians of this branch (in fact most branches) through the muck as blind fools telling only what they want the world to know based on their own closed-minded world view.  That’s a pretty high horse to be on for a Russian, considering it would be less than a century before the Marxist historians come along to shift the profession, and dominate the world-view for multiple decades.  I do wonder, however, what Tolstoy would think of the current professional field – he frequently rails against the “Great Man” method of history in War and Peace (that it, only telling the story from the higher-ups in society).  This hasn’t been history’s modus operendi for quite some time – thanks to the Marxists (hey they did something good!) and the subalternists, most historians now consider this whiggish interpretation of history to be passé and it’s generally no longer done (or, if it is, it’s styled a biography).  

If you really want to know what Tolstoy thinks of history, I highly recommend you read part 2 of War and Peace’s epilogue.  That’s right, I just wrote ‘part 2.’  With 1,320 some odd pages, the man just couldn’t leave well enough alone and obviously felt he had to keep going.  Part 1 allows the reader to catch up with Rostovs/Bolkonsky/Bezukhovs seven years following Moscow’s capture, and it’s great to see how peace-time has affected all the characters.  Part 2, however, is a 30 page diatribe about historians, man kind, and human perspective that I could have done without.  The problem was, after two weeks and 1,300 plus pages, there was no way I was going to walk away to the book so close to the end.  So, I stuck it out.  I read it, I absorbed about half of it, and I warn you all to not bother – it has nothing to do with the rest of the book (other than using Napoleon and Alexander as examples), and you’d be better of saving yourself the long-winded Russian rants.

One last word from me on War and Peace, and that’s about the translation.  My copy is Penguin’s new translation by Anthony Briggs, and I found it to be quite good.  The quality of a translation is only as good as the quality of the original writing, but Briggs seemed to have stepped up to the challenge, and delivered.  He did make some odd choices, like having the lower-class characters sound like cockney chimney sweeps, but I can understand the need to find a universally understood accent to represent another class from the high-brow counts and princes.

Well, this was a long post, but to be fair, I’m posting about a monster of a book.  My final recommendation is that you read War and Peace if you have the patience and interest in History.  This is one of those books that has become a by-ward for long-winded Russian literature, but I think that’s a bad reputation.  It is long?  God good, yes.  But the plot rarely lags, and Tolstoy’s ability to paint believable (though not always likeable) characters off-sets this.  If, however, you’re a person who needs immediate gratification and has no understanding or interest in the history depicted, I recommend you take a pass (even an abridged version might not be interesting enough).  Regardless, I found it to be a great read.

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