Jeb's Reviews > War and Peace

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
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Apr 13, 09

Recommended to Jeb by: So far, I've only been advised against it.
Read in May, 2008

Since high school, I have made references to War and Peace based on general assumptions: its length, dullness, how long it would surely take one to read it, and the degree to which the reading of it would make one want to kill oneself.

First off, I never wanted to kill myself, though it did lull me to sleep unintentionally during many a 3 a.m. subway ride. Now, what I didn't expect: it's sorta good. Like Salinger, Tolstoy uses irony to lovingly expose the flaws of his characters in a way that often made me laugh out loud (and believe me, I didn't expect War and Peace to be laugh-out-loud funny). Unlike Ayn Rand, even his greatly flawed characters can become his heroes. Like Dan Brown, Tolstoy starts a section with an exciting event (usually the prospect of courtship) and then leads you through the less-exciting stuff while you're still awaiting the romantic conclusion. Unlike Louisa May Alcott, the sad parts were so well executed and unexpected that they actually made me produce tears. Like Jane Austen, the scenes of the nineteenth century societal elite are enchanting, but more interesting than Austen, as they are set in St. Petersburg rather than Great Britain and also discuss politics, and not just who's going with whom. And finally, like D. H. Lawrence, Tolstoy sneaks in his own philosophies enough so you're intrigued...and then beats you over the head with them.

Is it the best novel of all time? Yes, I think it probably is. The construction is truly genius: Tolstoy takes an intricate and enchanting love story, sets it amidst the Napoleanic invasion of Russia, and inserts every political essay he's ever dreamed up to justify why Napolean sucks. In the end, his lovestruck Russian everymans emerge as the heroes more triumphantly than in any other work.

Now just because it's history's greatest novel does not mean it's the most entertaining. A lot of the book is just as you imagine it to be: downright boring. Judged by today's standards, I wonder if War and Peace could even get published in 2008. But judged by the standards of literary time, it packs a hefty punch.

I'm glad to have read it and am excited to NetFlix both the Audrey Hepburn and Anthony Hopkins movies, and maybe one day I'll catch the opera at the Met. Surely these adaptations highlight the loveablenesses of the characters and tiptoe quietly over the detailed accounts of the alliances of European generals in Austria. These former mentioned sections are what will stick with me over the years. (Oh, and how frightfully undeserving Napolean is of the title "military genius." Got it, Tolstoy--no really, you've made that abundantly clear.)

Should you read it? I hate to say it, but I kind of think you should. It's really long and took me a year (interspersed with a few month-long hiatuses to read quicker works), but the best feature regarding its readability is that its chapters are usually three pages long. So it's really easy to be like, "Hey, I can read two chapters right now and then do something else." Then again, you will have to read two chapters and then do something else 180.5 times. It's your call.

*Added way later: I've now NetFlixed the 1956 movie with Audrey Hepburn, who shines, divinely cast, as the mercurial-turned-refined Natasha. The men, however, are another story: Henry Fonda is a mess as Pierre, and Mel Ferrer cannot garner viewer sympathy because he is stoic and wearing way too much make-up. Here's why Fonda is a mess: basically, the director decided that Pierre, the classless bastard, should show his lack of rearing by donning an American dialect, while everyone else's in the film is British (or, in Hepburn's case, vaguely Dutch). No matter that they are all supposed to be speaking Russian. It's cool; no really: Pierre can speak American. And I get the choice, but it just comes off as "Oops, somebody forgot to hire a dialect coach for Fonda." And it also comes off as this ensemble cast of actors acting their hearts out to make this 1800's period piece shine, and here Fonda is, loud and proud in 1956. He calls her Nuh-TASH-uh, for God's sakes. That's "-tash" rhyming with "sash," "ash," "cash," and other nasal Bostonian vowels. But Audrey is adorable, and we are afforded a dash of eye-candy in the casting of Jeremy Brett (Freddy in My Fair Lady) as the underutilized brother Nicholai. That's "dash" rhyming with the "-tash" in "Nuh-TASH-uh."

Basically, it's brilliant and you should totally rent it.
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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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message 1: by Patrick (new)

Patrick that's a really honest review...are you making any better progress now, nearly a month later?


message 2: by Jeb (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jeb Let's just say I eventually awoke from my nap.


message 3: by Minerva (new)

Minerva Here's a bit of advice I got from a Russian literature professor on reading this book: If the war part is too much, go ahead and skip it. I would say at least skim it.


message 4: by Jeb (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jeb Hey, good to know! That should save me about 6 months! Thanks!


Dimitry Podkolzin What a lovely review, Jamie. I read this book in three nights as part of school program but I still liked it.


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