Wednesday, March 23, 2011

War And Peace - Leo Tolstoy

 War and Peace, or should that be, how not to write a review that doesn't mirror the length of the book?! To say Leo Tolstoy's legacy to the eyes minds of humanity is lengthy is an under-statement. At fourteen hundred pages it is one of, if not, the longest novels ever penned. Many people are put off by its length and don't even attempt to read it, whilst it is a constant source of jibes from stand up comedians world wide.

 I personally wasn't fazed by its tomeness. I have read many books of over one thousand pages so War and Peace held no demons for me. I was fortunate that I was on holiday when I started my epic quest to read this novel. I initially was reading a hundred plus pages a day and read the first of its two volumes in seven days. The second took longer as I got to within two hundred pages of the end and literally ran out of breath. I put it down for several weeks before picking it up and polishing it of one quiet Sunday afternoon.

  As with all novels of the era I found the first twenty or so pages difficult going until I got into the swing of the prose and the style of writing. In those first few pages I not once felt it too difficult to the point of giving up on it. I'm sure I am like all readers in that if I can't get into a book within a few pages then I know I won't get into it at all. Fortunately all things conspired my way and I ripped into Tolstoy's masterpiece with gusto.

  The copy I had stated on the back cover that War and Peace is considered the greatest novel ever written. I dispute that and consider it the second. Gone With the Wind claims top spot for me as it is a more pure novel than War and Peace. Let me explain. The problem with War and Peace is that Tolstoy hasn't written a straight novel. Right throughout there are chapters and long paragraphs where Tolstoy interrupts the narrative to add his views on such things as politics, religion, war, freemasonry, and the likes. It is incredibly frustrating and annoying because it is supposed to be a novel and not a sounding board for Tolstoy's personal views ( Victor Hugo in Les Miserable went down the same road but to a greater extent than Tolstoy ). This is what I mean by Gone With the Wind being a more 'pure' novel as there is no author butting in with his or her ruminations on the ills of the world. I feel if an author wants to do that then do it within the novels narrative.

  I suggest you obtain an unabridged copy and judiciously edit Tolstoy's ramblings out for yourself. Fortunately they are fairly condensed and not long so they can be easily and quickly skipped. I estimate that Tolstoy's views equate to about 100-150 pages so it isn't really a lot fortunately. Once his fluff has been skipped it is all novel and his views nothing but a minor irritant that should never have been put in. This is all I would abridge because the rest is too great in scope to want to miss out on. The whole novel moves along quite smartly and I found no real parts I had to slog through. Quite the opposite as some I absolutely raced through as they were extremely vivid.

  My absolutely favorite is when the Russians have set fire to Moscow and Pierre is wandering through the blazing city until his capture. It puts you in his place and you see and hear all he does. It is a very good piece of descriptive writing, it engaged me totally and its chapters whizzed on by in no time. Also the Battle of Borodino is well described, historically inaccurate, but well described. Tolstoy himself served in the Crimean War so knew what was warfare was about and his descriptions of Borodino, etc, come from his own experiences and vast reading on Napoleon's invasion of Russia.

  Also I particularly liked the scenes towards the end where the Cossacks are hounding the retreating French across the steppes. Very vivid, and again well written and I literally flew through their respective pages. But the novel isn't just about 1812. It is like Gone With the Wind in being a love story set against an historical backdrop, and I can't help but feel that Margret Mitchell got her inspiration for her masterpiece from Tolstoy.  The sweep of both books are marked as they both deviate from country to town to city, and they have a myriad of characters. Tolstoy's book is infamous in having a vast amount of characters supposedly into the two hundreds!

  War and Peace also has some ball scenes and again Tolstoy's ability to put you there is marked as they are so vivid. The whole book takes you from ball room in St. Petersburg, to Moscow, to the huge estates of the wealthy, to the courts of the Tsar, along snow swept steppes, and into Napoleon's own private quarters. It is an immense achievement and never, ever boring. The reader can only gasp as you are taken on a fourteen hundred page tour of Russia and its people. The translation I read was excellent and there were very few Russian words to stumble over. The whole narrative moves along very smoothly and it helped me read it in the time I did.

  This is an epic work of literature. If it wasn't for Tolstoy butting in and adding his un-needed views then I would unhesitatingly state that War and Peace be the greatest novel ever. But I can't. It is something of a given within much of the 18-19th century's literature that many authors did what Tolstoy has done. I find it frustrating, especially if I am enjoying what I am reading and have to stop to skip this type of rubbish.

 But for me, in the end minor quibble, War and Peace is quite simply a master piece of literature and is a must read. The scale, the scope, the sheer epicness of it has to read to be believed. It is also one of those rare books that once you have read it you can skit about the fact because there are many who will never even try!!

   A 'must read before you die' novel. Simple as that. 

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