If you follow my twitter stream, you may have noticed that in the last few days a few complaint tweets about the never-ending nature of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Well, it ended. This morning I finished the last fifteen pages. My book club discusses it tomorrow night, but I wanted to record my initial impressions on having finished. I’m hoping that our discussions will convince me to try it again….maybe in a decade or so.
The storyline was wonderful: Natasha, Pierre, Andrei, Marya. I wanted to know what was going to happen to them as the war progressed. As I read volume II, for example, I could not put down the book: I wanted to know how it would resolve. Tolstoy did a wonderful job of creating well-rounded, complex characters.
But as Tolstoy indicates in his Appendix (“A Few Words Apropos of the Book War and Peace“), his book is “not a novel, still less, an epic poem, still less a historical chronicle” (page 1217). In short, he indicates that he wrote what he wanted to, without any regard to “conventional forms of artistic prose.” And these non-conventional elements are where he lost my interest: the historical digressions, his personal visit to the battle field and his own opinion on how the battle played itself out, his personal opinions on the character of Napoleon, a philosophical debate on man’s free will.
In part Two of the Epilogue, which was, essentially a 30-page philosophical discussion on free will (talk about a way to end a book), Tolstoy indicates what I think was his purpose in writing this book.
The subject of history is the life of peoples and of mankind. To grasp directly and embrace in words — to describe — the life not only of mankind, but of one people, appears impossible. (page 1179)
And yet, that “impossibility” is what Tolstoy has attempted in his giant tome. This book is not called “Pierre’s Journey to Happiness” or “Natasha Grows Up” or even “The War of 1812.” This is a book about war and peace: human nature and the entire human condition in the midst of both war and peace. Tolstoy wrote a classic because he attempted the impossible: he departed from the normal way of capturing human nature and wrote an account of the Russian people, as a whole, during a monumental time in Russian history. There are many facets to human nature, and he has tried to capture them all, from the people I was interested in to the not-so-interesting leaders of the war.
I am grateful for the storyline. I kept reading because I wanted to know how the every-day people (the upper class, at least) survived and thrived after tragedy. I kept reading because I wanted the satisfaction of resolution and happiness. Tolstoy followed the story through to the end, for the most part. In the end, there are still some questions of who is actually happy. But this is satisfying to me: nothing is completely “happily ever after.” Russian history did not stop when Napoleon left Moscow.
Although I disliked what I’ve been calling “digressions,” they really aren’t that: they are a part of Tolstoy’s work, and they are there for a reason. Take out the 300 pages of philosophy and history, and I’d have liked the book more — but it wouldn’t be Tolstoy’s tome.
As I was complaining to my husband last night, he called me out. “You read classic literature, but you’re still just reading for the story. You’re still just approaching it superficially.”
He’s right. I am reading superficially. I wish I could approach the tome as Tolstoy intended, that I could take the non-linear, non-fictional sections as important material and enjoy it for it’s insights into human nature and history. It may be that I’m just in a more “superficial” mood lately (I was similarly unsatisfied and almost bored by Persuasion recently too). Because my current reading state of mind may be to blame, I feel I should give War and Peace another chance to prove itself to me.
Just not any time soon.
Any thoughts you can give me on your first read of War and Peace? I’m leading the discussion tomorrow night, so would love your insights on what we should look at.