This is a definite strong 4 star book for me. Of course, for me the stars are usually relative to a variety of factors, so just because books get the...moreThis is a definite strong 4 star book for me. Of course, for me the stars are usually relative to a variety of factors, so just because books get the same or different star rating by me doesn't mean much about what I think about those books other than that more stars is better. In this case I think this book deserves 4 stars primarily for entertainment value. It does handle some serious themes but not very deeply, and most of what is presented is a story for the sake of a story. Despite being a tale of revenge it isn't for the most part an action story. Much of what happens is developed over long periods through more subtle methods than sword play or gunshots. That being said, there were some places where I found myself racing ahead. Still, I think the primary value is fun. I found it fun to follow the sub-plots and twistings of the narrative. This is one of the reasons that I like long involved stories like Dickens or Herodotus. Stories that take the scenic route to get where they are going. I don't mean I can't appreciate terse focused and directed writing but that I enjoy these lengthy meandering take your time ways of story telling. (So certainly of course I am strongly in favor of the unabridged edition of this work and by the way also found the translation very readable, though I have to admit that I was taught by my parents that abridged versions were basically unethical. I say that with a little humor but also seriously.) As an example opposed to some reviewers I like the fact that the story seems to jump far away from the Count and his revenge to concern itself with Franz and Albert in Italy and slowly wends it's way back to the main concern of the novel. I found the description of Rome during Carnival season to be very fun and that section of the book made quite an impression on me. I also found his description of Parisian society and it's difference from the way of life the characters pursued in Italy to be interesting. On the other hand in some ways there is less time to look around when the story gets to Paris for although the completion is still a long way off the pace of the plot picks up and we are conscious of being closer to the revenge by the presence of the main players. Another point of strong writing to me was the conversation between the Count and Villefort that takes place in the chapter 'Ideology'. It's not that I agree with the Count's view on human relations, but that I thought it an interesting conversation that had a lot of force and tension in it because of the positions of the two characters with respect to each-other and the context that we know and that Villefort doesn't. As another reviewer pointed out, there's a lot of stuff that we as the readers are told or led to guess long before the character's so often there isn't a whole lot of suspense in the specific revelations but there's still a lot of tension in the progress of the revenge. Even the moral qualms that the Count starts to have from the time Mercedes intercedes with him on behalf of her son are easily anticipated well before they actually happen.
So much for the parts I enjoyed. Now I would like to cover some things that were more questionable to me. The first is of course the nobility of revenge. I think in the end I have to come down on the side that revenge is not noble, even in a case like this one where it could be argued that the Count has every justification for pursuing it. I think in the end revenge is resting in resentment of the wrong done to one and that a truly spiritual character would be able to rise above it without having to do violence to the one who harmed them. For that reason I can't help but see the Count as somewhat a figure of evil. On the other hand it makes sense to me that as he goes through the end of the novel and the culmination of his plots, he begins to doubt, spurred particularly by Mercedes to break out of his simple cold hatred, but that there is also redemption in that breaking down of the implacable, and that there is even some further justification of his behavior in the very debate he has with himself. It would be true hubris for him to not even entertain doubt. Still, even given those thoughts, I still can't help but look at the Count as something of a figure of evil for taking himself to be providence in some sense rather than seeking redemption through forgiveness. Here I want to be clear that I am not arguing an aesthetic point of view. It would be a totally different novel if that choice were made, and I'm fine with Dumas writing about the Count as set on revenge and even as being a part of God's divine justice. That is, I'm not saying I think the novel should be different, I'm just giving my own ethical judgment of the character. Dumas deals with these themes to some extent but probably much more could be said about these topics. Again though that would be a different book.
Along with that aspect of the Count, there's the parallel way he treats the Morrels. He let's both the father and the son go through hell before relieving their suffering. The count argues in his closing letter that the nature of human psychology justifies this, as one can't truly appreciate the good without suffering the bad. Again, this is a case of the count setting himself above human affairs. I guess the Count sees himself as something of a marked man. He's cursed in that it was through no fault of his own that he undergoes the immense suffering that he does, but that this curse is exactly what sets him apart from the ordinary flow of human lives. In a sense it is his very cursedness itself which shows him to be somehow a favorite of God through whom punishment and reward can be delivered.
I guess one thing that in general did bother me about the book as whole was it's lack of realism. Again, I don't think it should have been different but I did find myself longing at times for more realistic happenings and psychologies.
On the whole it was very entertaining to read.(less)
This book is a monster. So much so that I felt myself struggling with it physically more than I have any book since my seventh grade math book. I’ve n...moreThis book is a monster. So much so that I felt myself struggling with it physically more than I have any book since my seventh grade math book. I’ve never been one to worry about creasing a binding, but I found myself delighting in bending it backward, scratching and tearing at the covers, smudging the type with my sweaty hands, even pretending the book was a stocky beligerant bully and assaulting someone with it.
But as far as enjoyment of it goes, I was dissappointed. There is much that is interesting, beautiful, and exciting about this book. There were also a number of times when I had the experience that he was telling me about something that I knew but hadn't been able to put to words. One of my favorite passages is:
"Life is everything. Life is God. All is changing and moving, and that motion is God. And while there is life, there is the joy of the consciousness of the Godhead. To love life is to love God. The hardest and the most blessed thing is to love life in one's sufferings, in undeserved suffering." (1212)
I think Tolstoy deserves to be recognized for quality of the writing in this regard. He is able to cram a lot of stuff into this book that is worth reading. A lot of that stuff comes in fairly small disconnected pieces though.
It seems to me there are distinct layers to the book. The story of the main characters, the history of the war, historical analysis of the war, and philosophy of history.
Overall the plot consists for the most part of two kinds of action. Action driven by the historical story (major battles, the burning of Moscow), and a remarkable chain of coincedental connections and events. Just when Petya Rostov is killed they rescue Pierre, not to mention that Petya had just coincidentally been sent as a messenger to Denisov, who coincidentally is working with Dolohov. These coincidences were often unbelievable to me.
In the end I felt that the struggles of the characters didn’t have a whole lot to do with the external events that moved them around. This makes them feel a little thin to me. While I enjoyed the stories of the main characters and did feel connected with them, there was always something that felt a little bit sketchy rather than fully developed about them. They each have a sort of defining feature or characteristic that seems to determine the character of their life in a way that makes them feel less than human.
There are also a number of characters who are central for a some portion of the book and then simply dissappear (Anna Mihalovna) or fade out (Boris). Even the main characters are in and out over the course of the story. This had a destabilizing effect for me. While I can identify with all of them, I can't really get behind any of them in a way that makes me feel a part of the book. While I can identify with Pierre to a great deal he is made too much a buffoon. Particularly when it is revealed that all of his well intentioned projects are failures that only make the lives of his peasants worse rather than better. (Of course it is worth mentioning the whole romanticized view of serfdom for "good masters" like Nick Rostov that understand their place as master and that the peasants truly appreciate that is disturbing along another axis.) Andrei is clearly intelligent and practical but too fragile for the difficulties of real life. Natasha is vibrant and youthful but lacks wisdom. Nick Rostov has honor but is too conventional. So while I do care enough about them to like them all, and to want to know what will happen to them, I also always feel distant from them.
Kutuzov is the only "character" that bridges the gap at all between the layer of historical events and the narrative strand. The way he is portrayed is definitely memorable, but he is a major question mark for me. He is idealized as the one individual who grasps the uncertain currents of history flowing around him and able to guide his fellow Russians in a way that takes advantage of this flow rather than fighting against it. If history is so contingent, then why should we believe that Kutuzov of all people has achieved some Taoistic understanding? Why is he an exception to the usual blindness of men to their impotence against history or contingency? If Tolstoy weren't so obsessed with trying to make historical and philosophical points through this character I think I would be able to enjoy his characterization of him as some mysterious Russian general who simply knew what to do. Tolstoy incessantly points to him and seeks to use him as the focal point of his discourses. Thus it doesn't seem unfair to me to ask him to make sense in the discursive context as well as the narrative one, and that just doesn't happen for me. Napolean is merely a destructive gambling fool, but Kutuzov intuits the essence of reality just isn't a terribly compelling portrait. All the arguments should apply equally well to Kutuzov.
I think again, Tolstoy deserves full credit for succeeding in making the events of the war which are basically common knowledge full of drama.
Other than the imbalance just mentioned I found most of the historical analysis (an by this I mean the actual analysis of battles and decisions, not the philosophical material) very interesting and thought provoking. I didn't have a detailed knowledge of the Russian campaign before reading this book but I did have a decent overall picture that was of course shaped in many of the ways that Tolstoy points out. In this regard I don't need him to be absolutely right about his analyses because he is making me rethink my understanding of events. I found it interesting that he was so committed to his analysis but given the nationalist motives that they end up supporting it's not as amazing as it at first appeared.
Lastly, the wonderful topic of the history of philosophy offered in this book. As many other reviewers noted, these speeches are frequent and repetitive. I couldn't really find much coherence here either. He takes similar ideas in very different directions without much coherence among them.
Much of the value of the stories of the characters is in the spiritual journeys they take, many if not all of which seem to be told in a distinctly Christian framework. Furthermore, love is a crucial element in each of these stories as a support and life giving intimacy between individuals. Ok, Tolstoy doesn't need to be committed to this view to tell the story through that perspective, but then the historical determinism that is offered is a very harsh alternative that seems to throw the character development under the bus. If it is truly essential to overcome the perspective of individual freedom, then what is the value of the stories and the revelations that the individuals experience?
On the other hand many passages seem to indicate that he believes no theory of history to be possible due to the contingent nature of all events. This is first expressed through Bolkonsky’s thoughts about military science, but is reiterated through the narrator's voice at the battle of Borodino. No such science is possible, as contingency is what truly rules the day in the end. In this context it is repeatedly offered that the people on top are the least free and the soldiers at the bottom are the most free. History then is made by the little people. This idea seems in many ways similar to the butterfly effect.
Taken in another direction we are offered the indefinite notion of a calculus of history which has to take the infinitesimals into account properly to give a valid theory. Again though, it is unclear why all of the other theorems of military or historical science have been false, and how this calculus is truly to make sense of the variety of individuals and their circumstances. He asks us again to believe that all other sciences of these matters are false and actuallly dumb, and yet without much definition of it we are asked to accept on faith the existence and explanatory power of this calculus. We are also left without much understanding of how this calculus is to help us, when the paragon of virtue seems to be Kutuzov who relies wholly on intuition and feeling, and succeeds for this reason.
The epilogue is the worst part of the book in my opinion. The epilogues first part is an awful portrait of the disgustingly unmitigated joy of all the remaining characters. Everyone is entirely happy in the sequestered life of the manor and all the players are perfectly balanced with eachother. The political conversation that springs up on Pierre's return seems to point to further troubles ahead, implying that there is no end point (another point Tolstoy had made earlier) and that all of what has happened can be seen as providing the ground for the next conflict.
Getting to the end to find out that I must overcome my sense of free will in order to understand history felt like getting punched in the stomach and the only thing that felt appropriate was to go and wash the dishes. The thing that makes the ending so difficult is that for the most part the stories of these people was compelling enough to make me want to continue following them. So when I am told that these stories are mere appearance and that really individuality is just the result of historical laws if only we can see it, I feel betrayed to a certain degree. This seems tantamount to telling me that I wasted my time in caring about the characters in the first place.
Lastly, it seeems to me that there are a lot of very old, very standard questions about determinism that make it a very repugnant view. Even if he is offering a new account of why we must believe in some form of determinism, the inevitable futility of everything under a determinist view seems to be a very tough nut to crack. For one thing what is the point of trying to write this book convincing us of all of these various theses? Why is it “essential” that we recognise a dependence on history, and a lack of freedom of the will? What could that even mean?
In the end although I enjoyed the story I didn't think it a great one and the rest of what was offered me just didn't seem to live up to what was insisted of it. It did matter to me a lot how the book ended.(less)
I just re-read this. The first time I was only about 14. At that time I was so starry-eyed about the whole world presented (it was probably the first...moreI just re-read this. The first time I was only about 14. At that time I was so starry-eyed about the whole world presented (it was probably the first really adult novel I had read also) that I wasn't too concerned with the actual meaning of the events.
This time through I am amazed by how easy it is to read. I also see a much darker side to it than I did at my earlier stage. At that time it seemed like the stuff that happened was just stuff that happened. Now I am able to see it as a reflection on them or at least how they have chosen to deal with difficult circumstances.
Though my ardor has cooled a little, this is still one of my favorite novels. (less)