Matt's Reviews > War and Peace

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
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bookshelves: classic-novels
Recommended for: The type of person who cares whether a person has read <i>War and Peace</i>

Whatever else I am, I am the type of person who reads classic novels out of a sense of obligation. Also, I must admit, out of a sense of vanity. My ego, after all, is as fragile as a goldfish and requires the constant attention of a newborn baby. Every once in awhile, it needs a little boost, and the intellectual challenge of Dostoevsky or Dickens can really work wonders.

Now, I’ve been told that forcing myself to read books I don’t necessarily like is a fruitless waste of time (and that the reviews borne of these endeavors are a fruitless waste of others’ time). That kind of criticism doesn’t go far with me. By my rough estimate, just about 99% of the things I do can be similarly classified as a waste of time, unless my endless games of Spider Solitaire, like “the button” on LOST, is actually saving the world. In which case I am a hero.

Moreover, great literature can be a worthwhile challenge to surmount. Compare them to mountains. Obviously, we don’t need people to climb mountains; it serves no functional purpose. Yet, on a personal level, climbing a mountain (even if it’s just a Class 3 walk-up) is immensely satisfying, mentally and physically. On some level, it’s the same with finishing a tough book. (Mentally, that is. There is very little physical component, unless you defenestrate the book upon completion).

War and Peace is a challenge I set for myself. It was a challenge a long time coming. The reason, of course, is that War and Peace is the go-to book when looking for an example of great literature, or for a contender for “greatest novel ever written.” If it is not exactly Everest or K2 (those are Joycean heights), it is at least comparable to Annapurna or Mount McKinley.

In the end, it is a book I wrestled with constantly. Unlike Doris from Goodbye, Columbus, I never considered quitting, only to start back up again the following year. However, there were times my frustrations almost led me to tear huge swaths of pages from the binding, as a primitive editing job. Like so many of the things you are told, as a child, are magical – the circus, love, magic – War and Peace did not entirely live up to its reputation.

If you were to ask me, would you rather retreat from Moscow in the dead of winter than read this book, I would say: "Of course not. I don’t like walking, I don’t like being hungry, and I’d probably die.” But if I had to choose between, say, tarring the driveway or mowing the lawn and reading this book... Again, I’d choose the book. Nothing beats reading. Besides, I’m lazy.

Where to start? With a (second) rhetorical question: What's War and Peace about?

It's a good question, and nobody really knows. (Though many will attempt to explain). There have been longer books – both you and I have read them – but this is 1,200 pages that feels like 1,345,678,908 pages. Nominally, it's about Russia's wars with Napoleonic France from 1804 to 1813. If that seems like a big subject, don’t worry, Tolstoy has given himself plenty of space with which to work. It follows dozens of characters in and out of the decades, as they live and die, love and hate, and generally stun the modern reader with their obtuseness.

The first sixty pages of the novel are a set piece in the Petersburg salon of Anna Pavlovna. You don't have to remember that, though, because Anna Pavlovna will only stick around these first sixty pages, then disappear for almost the entire rest of the book. We are also introduced to Pierre, who is, literally, a fat bastard; Prince Andrei, who is a prick; his wife Lisa, the little princess, who as Tolstoy keeps telling us, has a beautiful mustache (Tolstoy's obsession with beautiful female mustaches is pathological, and not a little frightening); Prince Vassily, who also disappears after a squabble over a will; and various other Russian aristocrats. Readers note: you should probably be writing things down as you read.

Other introductions come later, including Andrei's father, who is also a prick (apple, meet the tree); Andrei's insufferably "good" and "pure" and "decent" and "homely" sister, Princess Marya, who's goodness is as cloying and infuriating as that of Esther is Bleak House; Natasha Rostov, who is sort of a tramp, much like Anna Karenina except that she is redeemed through suffering (unlike Anna, who is redeemed through mass transit); Nikolai Rostov, a young prince who goes to war; Sonya, the simple, poor girl Nikolai loves, etc. I could go on, but it wouldn't make sense if you haven't read the book. It barely makes sense after you've finished. Unless, of course, you’ve kept good notes.

Anyway, Pierre, the bastard, is left his father's estate, and so becomes a rich count. He marries Helene, who is another of Tolstoy's harlots, though she gets her comeuppance, Anna Karenina-style. (There are two types of women in Tolstoy’s world: the impossibly pure-hearted and the whorish. Subtlety is not a Russian trait). Prince Andrei goes to war. Nikolai goes to war. They fight. Everyone else talks. An enjoyably characterized Napoleon flits briefly across this crowded stage, tugging on people's ears. The Rostov's have financial difficulties. Nikolai can't decide who to marry. Pierre has several dozen crises of conscience. At one point he becomes a Mason; at another, he tries to assassinate Napoleon. At all times he is thinking, always thinking; there are approximately 500 pages devoted to Pierre's existential duress. (How I wished for Pierre to throw himself beneath a train!)

There is an old saying that “if the world could write…it would write like Tolstoy. That’s one way of viewing War and Peace. It has a canvas as big as Russia, and within its pages are dizzying high and nauseating lows and bland, lukewarm middles.

The bottom line before I go on, Tolstoy-style, is that I was disappointed. My main criticism is the unfortunate mishmash of fictional narrative with historical essay. You're reading the book, right? (Or maybe listening to it on a long commute). And you're finally getting a hang of who each character is (because you’ve taken my advice and sketched out a character list), which is difficult when each person is called multiple things, and some have nicknames, and others have similiar-looking patronymics. But that's okay, you've moved past that. Suddenly, you're coasting along. The story is moving forward. Napoleon has crossed the Danube. There is drama. Finally, people are going to stop with the internal monologues and start shooting each other! I might actually like this!

And then, with an almost audible screech, like the brakes a train, Tolstoy brings the whole thing to a shuddering halt with a pedantic digression on the topic of History (with a capital H) and free will and military tactics and Napoleon's intelligence.

These digressions do several things. First, and most importantly, they seriously disrupt the narrative. All rhythm and timing is thrown off, which is exactly what happened to all my school concerts when I used to play the snare drum. I knew enough to quit the snare drum to focus on the recorder. Tolstoy, though, plunges on obliviously, casting all notions of structure aside. You lose sight of the characters for hundreds of pages. Instead of wondering what happens next, you start to wonder things like where am I? and how long have I been sleeping?. It tells you something when you actually start to miss Pierre's endless internal psychobabbling.

Second, the essays are Tolstoy at his stupidest (at least in my opinion; this is more a philosophical gripe). He believes that people have no control; that History is a force all its own, and that we act according to History's push and pull. Tolstoy says, in effect, that Napoleon is stupid, but that his enemies were stupider, but that doesn't matter, because they were all doing what they had to do, because History made them. This is all very...much a waste of time. Tolstoy goes to far as to attempt to prove this argument algebraically. Yeah, that's just what I wanted: Math!

Tolstoy's argument breaks down like this: 1. Someone does something. 2. Someone else reacts in a way that makes no sense. 3. Therefore, History is controlling things. The fundamental flaw, of course, is that Tolstoy's argument really boils down to nothing more than hindsight. Sitting in his armchair, decades after the fact, having never been on those battlefields, Tolstoy decides that the players on the scene acted dumbly, and he attributes that to cosmic events. A battle isn't lost because of bad roads, or obscured vision, or a shortage of ammunition (which are realities in all warfare, but even more prevalent in the 19th century). No, in Tolstoy's mind, it’s the Universe unfolding according to its whim.

Tolstoy also has a real axe to grind with Napoleon and he doesn’t hesitate to inflate his word count letting you know about it. (I suppose Tolstoy can be forgiven for hating Napoleon, but still, the book is 1,200 pages long. Enough). His analysis of the Corsican corporal is reductive and unenlightening. Napoleon was a lot of things (short, funny looking, brilliant, cruel, petty, brilliant, ambitious, oddly-shaped) but "stupid" was not among them.

Yet, there were moments when I loved this novel. Every once in awhile, War and Peace comes alive in that classic way; after plodding through a turgid essay, you’ll suddenly come upon a passage that's drawn so vividly you will remember it forever. There is the battle of Austerlitz, which is impeccably researched (so much so that a narrative history I read on the subject actually cites to Tolstoy) and thrillingly told, especially the fight of Captain Tushin's battery. There is Prince Andrei, wounded on the field of Austerlitz, staring up at "the infinite sky," realizing that he's never really looked at it before. There is Pierre, realizing he is in love with Natasha as he gazes at the stars and glimpses the comet of 1812. There is Napoleon suffering a cold on the eve of Borodino. There is Andrei watching a cannon ball land at his feet, its fuse hissing... There is Petya, the young adjutant, who rides to his doom chasing the French during their retreat.

Every once in awhile, there will also be something clever, showing you that Tolstoy isn't just wordy, but also inventive. For instance, there's a scene in which Tolstoy describes the thoughts of an old oak tree. Indeed! Among the hundreds of characters, there's even a tree.

I was also fond of a passage in which General Kutuzov, the Russian commander, holds a meeting in a peasant's house to discuss abandoning Moscow. Tolstoy tells this story from the point of view of a little peasant girl who, in her mind, calls Kutuzov "grandfather." (It's cute, but Kutuzov was no kindly old man. He was an indifferent drunk. The night before Austerlitz, he allegedly engaged in a four-some with three of the "comfort women" he brought with him on campaigns. Unfortunately, despite writing 1,200 pages, Tolstoy doesn't find space to devote to this occurrence).

The good, though, is surrounded by the bad or the boring. The flyleaf of the book said that Pierre, Natasha, and Andrei were three of the most dynamic characters in literature. I don't think so. Aside from Andrei, I was mostly unimpressed with the main characters (Napoleon was fun, in an over-the-top bit part). Pierre is a boob and a bore, and his sudden heroics during the burning of Moscow come from nowhere. Natasha is a flake. She's the stereotypical girl plucking the daisy: I love him; I love him not; I love him...

The end of the novel is (like Anna Karenina) a huge anti-climatic letdown.

As we approach the final pages, Tolstoy gives us a description of the battle of Borodino. It is a masterpiece of military fiction. The research and verisimilitude. The vividness. Pierre's confrontation with the Frenchman in the redoubt:

Now they will stop it, now they will be horrified at what they have done, he thought, aimlessly going toward a crowd of stretcher bearers moving from the battlefield.

Tolstoy’s Borodino is actually one of the great battle scenes I've ever read; afterwards, though, things fall of a cliff. There is no slow decline into mediocrity; no, it happens at the turn of the page. It’s like Tolstoy suddenly stopped taking steroids.

In an unseemly rush, Tolstoy has Napoleon move into Moscow, Moscow burns, Napoleon retreats. All of this occurs indirectly, through digression-filled essays on History. The characters recede into the background; all narrative vitality disappears. There are only a couple exceptions: one scene of the city burning, followed by one (admittedly powerful) scene of the French executing supposed arsons. During the French retreat, there is not a single visceral moment depicting their hard, frozen march. Instead we get Tolstoy nattering on about Napoleon’s stupidity.

Then come the Epilogues. When I reached them, I felt a bit like a cowboy in one of those old westerns who is riding across the desert and finds a well, except the well is dry and full of snakes and then an Indian shoots him with an arrow. We will never know the fates of the dozens of characters we've followed for the previous thousand pages. Tolstoy leaves their destinies to the imagination so that he can rant. It’s a stupefying literary decision, and reminded me of nothing so much as my Uncle Ed on Thanksgiving after five glasses of wine: You can't get him to shut up. Except at Thanksgiving, Uncle Ed usually passes out by the fourth quarter of the Cowboys game. Not Tolstoy. Not even death can quiet him.

War and Peace was an experience. There were times I envisioned myself reaching the end, spiking the book like a football, and then doing some sort of victory dance around the splayed pages. When I got there, though, I simply sighed, leaned back in my chair, and thought: At least this was better than Moby Dick.

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Reading Progress

August 22, 2008 – Shelved
Started Reading
September 27, 2008 – Finished Reading
April 26, 2016 – Shelved as: classic-novels

Comments Showing 1-38 of 38 (38 new)

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David I warned you, man. You told me you were about to the point Moscow was going to burn and you were like, "Ah, now things are going to get exciting" and I told you- "No, no it's not." I still think it's a great work, but I agree it's not the best read. As far as endless books go, I think I enjoyed reading In Search of Lost Time more.

message 2: by Ubik (new)

Ubik Wow, Ive never read War and Peace and I doubt I ever will (unless Im stuck in hospital for a very very long time at some point in the future), but reading your review of it was both informational AND hilarious. THank you for that.

message 3: by Debbie (new)

Debbie Moorhouse I'd rather reread War and Peace than Moby Dick any fact I recently bought a different translation from the one I've read, and I'm looking forward to giving it a try. Just remember to skip the reflections on history! lol

Kristen After reading both Moby Dick and War and Peace in a single year... I now know all there is to know about the biology of a whale, and Napoleon's invasion of Russia...

Syamsul.hasran Your review is one of the most exciting thus far.
But when you argued about how boring the "characters" etc, I'm seeing that you're criticizing how bad this to be a novel.

But Tolstoy probably will come to say to you "It's not a Novel, kid". It is "it".

message 6: by Lamb Bambee (new)

Lamb Bambee Somehow this makes me want to attempt to read this. Good going.

Matt Lamb wrote: "Somehow this makes me want to attempt to read this. Good going."

War and Peace was a challenge for me, but it was a fun challenge. You should go for it!

message 8: by Nick (new) - added it

Nick Black that was awesome. one thousand cocktails to you, sir.

Wendy Greetings from a fellow Omahan! Wow, incredible review, I spilled my coffee laughing ...I just finished slogging through the thing myself, which took 6 months, though I listened to the audiobook (which was nice because it dragged me through it at an even pace). I never felt much attachment for the characters either (unlike Les Miserables, another great, masochistic slog!--better, I think, though Hugo loves his tangents a bit too much). And I'm glad I'm not the only one disturbed by all those attractive female mustaches! Although I did grow attached to Major Denisov who seemed to get short shrift and undeservedly so. Still, glad I read it. Now I get the hundreds of references to it in every other book...

message 10: by Matt (new) - rated it 3 stars

Matt Wendy wrote: "Greetings from a fellow Omahan! Wow, incredible review, I spilled my coffee laughing ...I just finished slogging through the thing myself, which took 6 months, though I listened to the audiobook (..."

Ha! You're the first Cornhusker I've come across on Goodreads. I appreciate the comment. Also, I've been mulling over Les Miserables for awhile now, and you've unintentionally convinced me that I must read it. Thanks!

message 11: by Caitlin (new)

Caitlin Great review, Matt. I literally laughed out loud while I was reading it. I'm pretty sure I will never read the book, though. I will add Les Miserables to the list, however, as I've been inspired by yours and Wendy's comments.

message 12: by Kara (new) - rated it 2 stars

Kara Hilarious! Best review I've read, possibly ever.

message 13: by Janice (last edited Oct 08, 2011 08:03AM) (new) - added it

Janice Gauvin Awesome review! I certainly didn't think a War and Peace review could make me laugh so much!

And through it all you've actually addressed all of my concerns about this book.

1. Prick, self absorb, and whorish characters that I've encountered in Anna Karenina. And have been fearing I should suffer through again. Check.

2. The interminable 'internal psycho-babbling' of a less that stimulating main character, that make you feel dead inside. Check.

3. 'Dizzying high and nauseating lows and bland, lukewarm middles.' Check

Surprisingly enough though, I'm not completely dissuaded.(I'm with you on the whole mountain thing.) I've been considering War and Peace for a few years now. So I think I'll go buy it, add it the my book shelf, and contemplate it in it's physical form... for another few years.

If it's just sitting there, with it's accusatory unbroken spine. Maybe I'll give in to my apprehensions and take a crack at it.

Cheers and thanks for the laugh!

message 14: by Paul (new) - rated it 5 stars

Paul Brantley I was reading through your review hoping you would mention the epilogues (part 1 and 2) that were 100+ pages.
The epilogues felt like reading the John Galt speech in Atlas Shrugged.
Good Review and it was so long I was feeling like I was reading the book all over again. :-)

message 15: by Kaye (last edited Feb 05, 2012 06:06AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kaye Such a fun review. I take it there will be no re-read of this for you.

Actually laughed out loud when I read "Anna redeemed through mass transit". Lol, good one!

Adina I have only read the beginning of War and Peace, and it bored me terribly. I have recently finished Anna Karenina, which I am ambivalent about. Anyway, I do not know what exactly brought me to the War and Peace reviews and specifically made me read yours, but the first and third paragraph of this review describes my relationship with classical books perfectly. Thank you for that!

Birdbath Birdbath I think your review cured me of the PTSD I suffered from reading it. Survivors unite.

Faraz Fantastic and Hilarious review.
I'm half way through War and Peace and I'm wondering when will it end. But I really like the novel although I must admit that whatever you have stated in your review is true.

message 19: by Penney (new) - added it

Penney Hahaha. I haven't read War and Peace yet but it is on my list. Despite your review, I will read it as I'm trying to better myself and reading 'literature' is the only route I can generally be bothered with in this pursuit. I like your reviews :).

message 20: by Matt (new) - rated it 3 stars

Matt Penney wrote: "Hahaha. I haven't read War and Peace yet but it is on my list. Despite your review, I will read it as I'm trying to better myself and reading 'literature' is the only route I can generally be bothe..."

Despite my somewhat-negative review, War and Peace is a worthwhile struggle. It's been years since I read it, and the book - as well as the experience of getting through it - still remain with me. It's definitely a classic that is worth the effort!

Michele I love your review! I'm trying to slog through the book myself, since it has been on my mental list of books I should read. I just don't think I can do it. Every time I read a chapter, I feel I should reward myself with a cookie or an issue of Oprah magazine or a trashy novel. My husband loves this book. I'm taking a break and reading For Whom the Bell Tolls. I also have Anna Karenina loaded on my ipad. Cheers to you and your spot on review.

message 22: by Bobby (new) - added it

Bobby Bermea Oh no! Your dislike of Moby Dick gave you instant validity in my mind because I didn't like it either. But I planned on re-reading that this year, just to give it one more try and -- gulp! -- reading War and Peace as well. Now, I'm scared. fourteen hundred pages is a lot to be disappointed.

Sualiha Ali I love your review! Especially since I know now that I'm not the only one reading this book out of a sense of obligation and to give my ego a boost.

message 24: by Bobby (new) - added it

Bobby Bermea Sualiha wrote: "I love your review! Especially since I know now that I'm not the only one reading this book out of a sense of obligation and to give my ego a boost."

You shouldn't look at it that way. I find that classics restore my faith in people. Shakespeare, Beethoven, Michelangelo, Steinbeck, Stevie Wonder, Duke Ellington, Bob Marley, Johnny Cash -- these things actually are better and it's good not to turn your back on what's great. I think it's good to take part in what the world has recognized as great. On the other hand, as I've said, I've read Moby Dick already and ugh buuuuttt maybe I'll catch it in the right mood next time and be blown away.

Christine I loved your review! By the way... I also was curious about Tolstoy's obsession with Lise.'s moustache!

Andrea (Catsos Person) is a Compulsive eBook Hoarder I loved your review! It's hilarious!

That second epilogue of more of Leo's ranting up the bitter end was horrible. I was so weary! Then I had to read that crap!

Robbi Leah  Freeman Great review! I felt like I was reading my own thoughts! Also hated Moby Dick and weirdly thought the same as you after reading War and Peace.

message 28: by Alex (new) - added it

Alex I am thinking about reading it someday...

message 29: by Ryan (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ryan Haha awesome review.

message 30: by Jessaka (new)

Jessaka What a fantastic review, and I love your personal stories here. Often I think that only snobs read this book so that they can say they have read a very long classic. Me, I would rather weed my garden or read Nancy Drew. I am still struggling through Swan's Way, by the way.

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

Ryan That's exactly why I read it Jessaka, though I hope I'm not a snob.

message 32: by Jessaka (new)

Jessaka Ryan wrote: "That's exactly why I read it Jessaka, though I hope I'm not a snob."

haha. now you can say your read it. you are not a snob, and people who read it aren't. but the book has snob appeal.

Shelly Leyden I am in the epilogue portion of the War and Peace experience. Your review is priceless! This made me LoL ... perhaps it will you, too:

message 34: by Ziad (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ziad Nadda I am so in love with this review

message 35: by Tom (new)

Tom OK, I first read W&P during the DNC & RNC conventions in 1972 Miami while driving an 8pm to 8am taxi, then in 1985 Paris deciding what to do with the rest of my life. Last night finished the BBC series and the Pevear and Volokhonsky version's been on my bookshelf for a year now. I)nshallah, I'll read it again with all the French translated. Was it worthwhile? I can only say that 1/ for entertainment/distraction, can't be beat and 2/ whether it was influential or not, after each reading, I made essential/life changing, apparently positive life changes. BTW, which translation did you read?

Krishaan Khubchand Amazing review. I’m a couple hundred pages into the book and not sure whether I should continue w it or not; I’ve read essays on Tolstoy’s philosophy of history, I’ve watched the War and Peace BBC special; I feel like there isn’t much to gain from getting through another 900 pages of Tolstoy. There many other great books out there that I ought to read. What do you think?

message 37: by Alicia (new)

Alicia Ehrhardt Maybe it was better in the original Russian. Translations have their faults.

As for attempting it, I'm pretty sure life is too short. I am impressed that you read it, though. I wish I already had.

1,200 pages isn't that long - my paperback copy of GWTW was 1,468.

message 38: by Dmitri (new)

Dmitri Great review. Remember some goldfish grow to be quite large!

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