Book Diary Special – ‘War and Peace’ by Leo Tolstoy

Thursday 19th July – Saturday 15th September

I originally started this ‘War and Peace’ several years ago, reached page 559 and paused to read something else briefly, and never went back to it. After ‘Headhunters’ I was at something of a loss, with either a moderate pile of Scandinavian crime novels or a handful of classics to choose from. At this point, glancing over the classics, I noticed the bookmark lodged a third of the way through ‘War and Peace’ and decided that now was the time to re-embark on possibly the longest literary journey of my life.

Despite the fact that I could remember a great deal of what happened, I decided that rather than resume my reading in the middle, I would go back to page 1 and read it from cover to cover. And so I did.

It’s an impressive book, but by no means the best I have ever read. It doesn’t have a traditional plot, and as such seems more a chronicle of the events and activities of a select few people against the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars between France and Russia from 1805 to 1812.

It also comes across as a prolonged attack on Napoleon’s reputation as a military genius and historians’ portrayal of events throughout history – the second part of the epilogue is a forty-page discussion of whether or not historical events can really be considered to be the result of the instructions of one man which then morphs into a debate about the nature of free will. ‘War and Peace’ itself is written as four books, and extensive passages at the beginning of each book contain what seemed to me repeated and repetitive monologues dismissing the idea that Napoleon had any real control over the events of 1812. I sensed a certain hatred of Bonaparte which is entirely understandable from a Russian author writing about events within living memory.

Brief research shows that the book was originally published in parts rather than as a whole, and was heavily re-written in the late 1860s. To be honest, several sections of the book are repetitive (Tolstoy mentions that in pursuing the French out of Russia, the Russian army loses half its strength without facing a battle on several occasions) and this seems to me a direct result of the fact that the book wasn’t written in one go. However, Wikipedia claims that Tolstoy was fond of repetition; I would assume he used it to further reinforce the points he was making.

All in all, this was a very interesting book, and one I am very glad to have read. However, I wouldn’t say it was a great book. Tolstoy clearly has a great eye for people and personalities, and can convey them with great accuracy and understanding, but too often (for my liking), the book diverges into lengthy expositions of Tolstoy’s opinions on a handful of pet subjects. The points he makes are perfectly valid and very well argued, but his tone sometimes strays into something akin to sneering arrogance, and the aforementioned repetition left me feeling as though I was being told off for ever thinking that anyone else could be correct.

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2 thoughts on “Book Diary Special – ‘War and Peace’ by Leo Tolstoy

  1. I think you have convinced me to never read that book. Not that I dislike long books, but they need to be worthwhile for the time you put into them, and it doesn’t sound like that one is. Are you going to try for the other big Russian one, Crime and Punishment? What books are passing over the horizon from the deck of the good ship HMS Woodyreads

    • To be honest, I would agree that it probably isn’t worthwhile. I read it mostly because (a) I had set myself the challenge a few years ago, and I didn’t want to shrink from it, and (b) I got approximately 90 minutes of reading time every day at work in which to read it (without any other real options to occupy myself). Had it been taking up free time at home which I could have spent in other ways, I doubt I would have made it to the end.

      I would like to read ‘Crime and Punishment’, but at the moment I have yet to acquire it. Classics-wise, I have ‘Middlemarch’, ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ and ‘The Bostonians’ from the batch my mum gave me as an 18th/21st birthday present still unread. Otherwise, it’s a couple of Jo Nesbos and a handful of books on building and flying balsa wood model planes.

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