Whitaker's Reviews > War and Peace

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
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Jul 16, 14

bookshelves: canon, would-kill-if-thrown, russia, 2009-read, 3965g
Read in July, 2009

When I was growing up, the conventional wisdom was that War and Peace was the sine qua non of difficult books: the scope, the length, OMG the length! Conquering this Everest was The Test of whether you were a Man/Reader.

I have now read it. Thump chest and make Tarzan yell.

Actually, you know chump, big deal. The mountain really wasn't so large after all.

There are love affairs, there is a war, peace eventually returns to the Shire Russia. Sorry, got confused there for a minute with Lord of the Rings, another 1,000+ page work where there are love affairs, war and an eventual peace. (That's hardly a spoiler by the way. Not unless you've been hiding under a rock and don't know that Napoleon didn't succeed in conquering Russia.) Which is my point: With every half-penny fantasy potboiler these days weighing in at several hundred kilogrammes of war and peace (*cough*Wheel of Time*cough*), how can we still look at a book this size and feel fear? 1,000+ pages? Only? Pshaw! That's nuthin!. Spit out t'baccy chaw.

And yet, the notion still lives on about how HARD War and Peace is. So, if anyone out there still buys into that, is intimidated and deterred by that notion, well, really, don't be (unless, of course, the last thing you read was Green Eggs and Ham).

The thing is, to my surprise, I found it a rollicking good read. There are star-crossed lovers, suicide attempts, heart-rending death bed scenes, and battles aplenty where our heroes get knocked on the head and taken prisoner. Instead of Middle Earth, you get a fantasy-land of wholesome, loving Peasant Russia and you learn how True Self comes from Loving the Russian Soil. Okay, there's also the rather irritating and interminable philosophizing by Tolstoy about History and Its Causes, but you got through the interminable side songs in Lord of Rings didn't you?

In case any of you are thinking that I'm mocking War and Peace by this comparison, please note that it's not intended to be (wholly) facetious. I loved Lord of the Rings. If anything I'm mocking the awe with which we approach "Great Works". So, yeah, if you ever thought of reading War and Peace but were put off by its reputation, don't be. It's actually quite fun.

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Comments (showing 1-37 of 37) (37 new)

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message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

This review made me grin like a fool, especially the part about peace returning to the Shire Russia. My Russian teacher always claimed that the Russian word for "thick", referring to the size of his books, came from his name, and not the other way around. It's one of those words named after a person, like mesmerize or maudlin. It's possible that my teacher made that up, as he always liked messing with our overly earnest credulity, but I always liked the idea.


message 2: by Robert (new) - added it

Robert Somehow, I'm still intimidated, though. :-(


message 3: by Lori (Hellian) (last edited Aug 13, 2009 12:59PM) (new)

Lori (Hellian) Seriously? When I was 13, my mother and brother decided I should stop reading what they called trashy stuff (OK it was pretty trashy teenage stuff) and bought me Heart of Darkness. WTF - that for a 13 YO? So to show them I set out to read War and Peace, surely that would shut them up. Well it did, but little did they know that W&P really IS an easy read. The hard parts are Tolstoy's occasional philosophical ramblings to prove that Russia really did defeat Napoleon contrary to popular opinion that it was all luck and snow. Needless to say, I skipped those entirely, none for the worse! On my later reread I did read those parts and found them pretty darn interesting.

But the point is that Whitaker got it completely right, which I've been trying to tell everyone who is intimidated. There's some imagery that's stuck with me from my very first reading: the upper lip of the little princess, goofy Pierre's experience on top of that hill during the war. Read it! It'll fly by.


message 4: by Chloe (new) - added it

Chloe I loved the scene with Pierre at the top of the hill during the battle outside of Moscow. That and a few other scenes- the long march of the prisoners of war, Natasha's first dance- have really stuck with me since reading this last winter.


message 5: by Lori (Hellian) (new)

Lori (Hellian) Ahhh Natasha's first dance. *sigh*

Say, were you disappointed in how changed Natasha was in the epilogue? I had different experiences the 2 times I read it, but I won't say until maybe someone else comments. Oh and I always felt sorry for Sonia.


message 6: by Robert (new) - added it

Robert Well, the film with Audrey Hepburn was accessable!

From the film I developed enormous respect for the Russian military commander!

Well, there's a copy on my shelf - I'll get to it one day.


message 7: by Chloe (new) - added it

Chloe I always felt so bad for Sonia and kept holding out hope that she'd finally get hers in the end. I was a bit disappointed in Natasha's change, though after what she'd been through with Andrei I could understand it to a degree.


message 8: by Lori (Hellian) (new)

Lori (Hellian) Naturally as a 13 yo I was appalled at the change in Natasha. But the next time I read it was shortly after Jake was born, when nurturing a family seemed (and in a way, still seems) the real priority after all my searching and striving for The Meaning of Life. And after those kids were older, Natasha would change again. But it bummed me out how that sparkly light in Natasha was mostly extinguished. Altho we did get a glimpse of it rising up again.

And poor Sonia. ALtho why she and Mary were so in love with Nicholas, feh! I was torn, because I wanted Sonia to be finally get her own, and yet I did love Mary so.


Whitaker Ceridwen wrote: "My Russian teacher always claimed that the Russian word for "thick", referring to the size of his books, came from his name, and not the other way around."

That is SUCH a cool thought. I hope it's true!

(Maybe it's the "tol" bit. Ya know, as in TOL-stoy and TOL-kein. Mwa ha ha!)


Whitaker Lori wrote: "But the next time I read it was shortly after Jake was born, when nurturing a family seemed (and in a way, still seems) the real priority after all my searching and striving for The Meaning of Life."

I think that's such a great point to make. It really does get to the core of life doesn't it, this book?

And yeah, I though Sonya was hard done by too. It just felt unfair.

Robert, you really gotta get round to reading it. Try the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation. It's an easier read for modern ears.

Yeah, the Pierre on the hill scene was fantastic. I kept expecting something to happen to him.


message 11: by Robert (new) - added it

Robert Heck, I'm reading Piers Plowman right now; I shouldn't really be scared of any novel!


message 12: by Ian (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ian I never did get around to reading War and Peace but this review maybe gives me the little spark of inspiration I need. I'm not deterred by it being "difficult" or "long." Those are qualities I often look for in a book. I might be something of a reading masochist but that's a discussion for another day. I just never got around to it.

So I loved War and Peace (the movie with Henry Fonda and the awesome Borodino sequence) and I loved Lord of the Rings (the movies with Liv Tyler ... oh yea) but I did not particularly enjoy Lord of the Rings (the books ... please don't hate me for that). So will I like War and Peace (the long and difficult book)?


Whitaker Heh. Pennac's book, The Rights of the Reader, has "The right to skip" as one of the rights. And the example he gives is precisely War and Peace: he says that when he first read it he skipped all the boring bits with the philosophising about war. Just like Lori! :-)

What's totally true is that you can skip all those bits and you won't be missing any of the story. Presumably it was what the movie was like: the story sans the philosophising.


message 14: by Robert (new) - added it

Robert I don't remember much philosophising, no - but I was given a very clear understanding of the military strategy.


message 15: by Eh?Eh! (new)

Eh?Eh! I tried to start W&P in elementary school, just because my brother thought he would read it and I was going to beat him. My page count was a pathetic 30 but I did win, haha. I'll have to try again.

I saw the last book of the Wheel of Time series in the bookstore last week. Excuse me, the first of the trilogy that will make up the last book. There's an end in sight!


message 16: by Ben (new)

Ben Nice review, Whitaker!


Stephen I think this review did full justice to the sheer pleasure to be found in reading War and Peace.


Whitaker Thanks, guys!


message 19: by Brad (new) - added it

Brad I was just talking about finally reading War and Peace last night. You've convinced me. I'm going to go out and buy a copy. Thanks, Whitaker. Fun review, btw


Shannon (Giraffe Days) Love the review Whitaker!

My problem isn't whether or not to read - I do want to - but which edition to read. I have one, and there's another one I want to get that's a more recent translation (that got criticised by the snobs) and they both have gorgeous covers - anyway I don't know which one I should read!

The edition of Anna Karenina that I read, Wordsworth, was a terrible edition, so it's made me wary. Advice?


message 21: by Brad (new) - added it

Brad Shannon wrote: "The edition of Anna Karenina that I read, Wordsworth, was a terrible edition, so it's made me wary. Advice?..."

That's the edition I read of Anna Karenina too, and I hated the book so much I burned it. I wonder if Wordsworth or Tolstoy was to blame.



Shannon (Giraffe Days) I go with Wordsworth, Brad. I wouldn't mind getting a different edition of Anna Karenina one day, one that was better translated and better edited and proof-read and copy-edited! I still love the story, as depressing as it is.


message 23: by Ken (new)

Ken there is an excellent movie adaptation of war and peace. the best adaptation of all is the 1968 russian version (the most expensive movie ever made reportedly - $700M inflation adjusted. $100M orig). the dubbing is excellent with british actors, you would not even notice....there are also 15 other languages on the dvds. also avail for downloading from the Net.

PS: there are supposed to be shortened versions of these classics, touted to be "half the length, twice the fun" . has anyone seen these editions. (pls no flaming from the purists). Tolstoy was supposed to have hypographia (obsession with writing, a form of writing diarh...)


Whitaker I haven't read the others so I can't really say. This is a pretty good translation. The only other thing I'd add is don't get too perturbed in the beginning with all the different names for the same person, you get the hang of it after a while. Oh, and if you hate the war philosophising, just skim it. You won't be missing any story. :-)


message 25: by [deleted user] (new)

I loved this review. Thank you. I've had it on my to-read list but haven't gotten around to reading it yet. It's now been promoted.


message 26: by Frank (new) - added it

Frank I'm with you Robert (Message 11)! After I read The Faerie Queene, I no longer fear the heftiest of novels.

For those of you asking about an edition of Anna Karenina, I would suggest the Oxford World's Classics edition, translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude.


message 27: by Robert (new) - added it

Robert I finally got hold of a complete edition of The Faerie Queene last year...must get to it sometime...took me a year to read Piers Plowman!


Whitaker Robert wrote: "I finally got hold of a complete edition of The Faerie Queene last year...must get to it sometime...took me a year to read Piers Plowman!"

Good luck!


message 29: by Scribble (last edited Dec 20, 2010 02:58AM) (new)

Scribble Orca You mean Green Eggs and Ham isn't a "Great Work"?

I am s l ammed!


message 30: by Robert (new) - added it

Robert Thanks, Whitaker!


message 31: by Jeni (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jeni LOVED and agree completely with this review!


message 32: by Efath (new)

Efath Kaje Anything id say abt this book wud be far from complete. This review does a great deal of justice to it.


message 33: by John (new)

John This was a funny review!


message 34: by Rebecca (new)

Rebecca Espinoza Thanks for this funny review, gave me the courage to finally read it!


Renato Magalhães Rocha I felt the same way. It is intimidating to start, but very rewarding and it was a page turner for me!


Whitaker Renato wrote: "I felt the same way. It is intimidating to start, but very rewarding and it was a page turner for me!"

Yeah, it has an intimidating reputation, but it's a really engaging novel. :-)


message 37: by Robert (new) - added it

Robert Whitaker wrote: "Renato wrote: "I felt the same way. It is intimidating to start, but very rewarding and it was a page turner for me!"

Yeah, it has an intimidating reputation, but it's a really engaging novel. :-)"


Having read it, I agree whole-heartedly!


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