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"War and Peace" by Leo Tolstoy

Times I've heard War and Peace mentioned before I ever read the book:

While typing an extra long email; "What are you writing, War and Peace?"

To the waiter while waiting for a friend to read the menu at a restaurant; "Sorry it's taking so long, Jamie's over here reading War and Peace."

My sister, after finishing her final paper for university; "Well it's no War and Peace, but it will have to do."

Yes, War and Peace is that kind of book, the kind that's so infamously epic in scale that even though I knew little to nothing about the book, I knew exactly what each of those people were talking about. In fact, I'm pretty sure none of those people had read it either. They didn't need to, it's reputation precedes it.

Probably the main reason I ever picked up this book in the first place was just so that if I was taking a long time and someone said, "what are you doing, reading War and Peace?!" I could say, "yeah, actually, I am!"

Here's a long review for a long book:

Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace (translated by Rosemary Edmonds) is, by any definition, a big book.   It is a great novel about a great war, at the time one of the biggest and most destructive ever.  The novel starts in 1805, and the first book (125 pages) introduces the reader to our dramatis personae.  The second book then takes us through their experiences at and during the Battle of Austerlitz - and that's just the start.  We then follow our characters through the the years of an uneasy cold war until Napoleon attacks Russia in 1812, which is when the story really begins.  Finally, Tolstoy adds an epilogue of seven years to tell us how our friends fared after the defeat of the French - plus some philosophical musings to finish it all off.

As I said, it is a big book ;)

War and Peace is an epic, and its scope allows us to follow Tolstoy's creations across a decade as they grow up, grow old and (in some cases) change.  We see Natasha Rostov as a sprightly girl, then as a beautiful young debutante.  Later she matures, learning from mistakes and hardened by the necessities of the war, finally achieving motherhood in the epilogue.  Another of the major characters, Pierre Bezuhov, appears on the stage as a plump, naive buffoon, but the war gives him the opportunity for him to show his true colours; by the end of the novel, he is a familiar, middle-aged friend.

Although the characters change in many ways, just as in real life, they only change within the constraints of their personalities.  Those who turn out to be disappointing people have the germ of this disappointment in them from the very start.  The writer merely allows time to bring out what is initially partially hidden.  Boris' snobbery, Sonya's sanctimoniousness, Petya's impetuosity - they are all there at the start of the novel for any reader to see.

But what is War and Peace actually about?  The answer is that it is a book about everything (which is, perhaps, why it is so long...).  Tolstoy, through his characters, ponders the big question of the meaning of life, and he uses his 1400+ pages to explore various answers.  Pierre and Prince Andrei wonder if it is about work or personal development; Maria tries education and the care of others; Boris works for his own gain, while Dolohov merely has fun wherever he can find it; Petya longs for glory, but his sister, Natasha, is aching for love.  Somehow though, nobody seems to be able to find the right answer.

Pierre is especially troubled by existential matters (when not overcome by marriage problems) and spends years looking for a reason to live.  At one point, he muses:

"Sometimes he remembered having heard how soldiers under fire in the trenches, and having nothing to do, try hard to find some occupation the more easily to bear the danger.  And it seemed to Pierre that all men were like those soldiers, seeking refuge from life: some in ambition, some in cards, some in framing laws, some in women, some in playthings, some in horses, some in politics, some in sport, some in wine, and some in government service. 'Nothing is without consequence, and nothing is important: it's all the same in the end.  The thing to do is to save myself from it all as best I can,' thought Pierre.  'Not to see it, that terrible it.'

p.636 (Penguin Classics, 1982)

You will have to read the book to find out how (or whether) Pierre is ever able to find what he is looking for...

Much of what I have said so far applies more to the 'peace' side of the book, but large parts of the novel are (of course) devoted to the war.  Tolstoy paints a masterful picture of the conflict, ranging from the delusions of the commanders looking down from the heights of their posts to the experiences of the peasant soldiers on the ground.  While there is no doubt that we are on the Russian side (constant mentions of 'our line' and 'our troops' ensure we never forget who we want to win), there is no hint of jingoism or revisionist reporting - the writer is as critical of his own side as he is of the enemy.  He describes how the majority of senior officers are only interested in their own affairs, seeking to discredit rivals and ensure their own advancement.

Despite the multitude of Generals, Tolstoy believes that things happen the way they do for a reason - and that military commanders have very little to do with how wars unfold.  Despite the appeal of the 'Great Man' theory, the impossibility of free will and control means that the soldiers fighting hand-to-hand (or running away...) have more influence on the course of a battle than any command Napoleon might give.  In the chaos of war, letting things run their course is the only way to go...

...and this is exactly the way another of Tolstoy's major characters (a real-life one) handles affairs.  General (later Prince) Kutuzov, the man who saved the Russian army from annihilation after Austerlitz, is recalled in his country's hour of need - but he is not exactly the epitome of a knight in shining armour.  He is an old man, in need of sleep and a good meal, and he is unwilling to rush things in the way his advisers would like him to.

However, it is this reliance on 'patience and time' that eventually brings success.  The General allows events to happen as they should and prevents people from doing stupid things for no reason - which is perhaps the best thing a commander can do.  In part then, War and Peace is just as much a demand for the reappraisal of the actions of the much-maligned Kutuzov as it is a novel.

One more thing that War and Peace is known for though is the second half of the epilogue, forty-odd pages of metaphysical ramblings that sum up the ideas Tolstoy has just spent 1400 pages setting out.  In that sense, it is akin to putting up a ten-foot barbed-wire fence on the home straight of a marathon race, expecting the reader to increase their mental efforts just when they were hoping for a nice, easy jog to the finishing line.

It is important though because this is where Tolstoy tells you what it is all about ('it' being everything, of course).  I won't claim to have understood it all, but the main focus is on the idea of free will versus necessity, and you begin to get a sneaking suspicion that Tolstoy's answer to all of his questions happens to be God.  Which is great if you are a Christian.  If you are not, it is a bit like reading a murder novel and then finding out that the killer is never revealed...

I will let Tolstoy finish this off for himself though, as after all that writing, he probably does it better than I could.  The very last sentence of the novel reads:

"In the present case it is similarly necessary to renounce a freedom that does not exist and to recognise a dependence of which we are not personally conscious." 


My last sentence?  War and Peace is actually a very readable and enjoyable novel - don't let my review put you off ;)

New to the Hungry Hundred Book Club?  Here's what you need to know:

1. Read the book (If you don't manage to finish it by the meetup date, don't worry.  As long as you're not going to be too disappointed by spoilers, you're still welcome to join.)

2. Come to the meeting, always on the last Sunday of every month

3. Be prepared to order food/drink at the venue (where ever that may be) to show our appreciation for letting us use their space

4. Discuss!  It's a casual conversation, so don't be afraid to ask questions and let us know what you think.


Join or login to comment.

  • Rachel

    Hey latecomers, if you are still coming, we've moved to the Istanbul grill around the corner on Bussorah street. Sorry for the quick change, but the other cafe overbooked. Hopefully you can still make it!

    1 · January 26, 2014

    • Rachel

      And I can't change it on the meetup because "the date published is in the past". :)

      January 26, 2014

  • Keiko M.

    Sorry for my last min notice, but I can't make it tonight. I got flu :( See u next time!

    January 26, 2014

    • Rachel

      Keiko, you're using up all your book club mc leave! Hope you feel better. :)

      1 · January 26, 2014

  • Tanya D.

    can't make it.. sorry for last min. Notice..

    January 26, 2014

  • Ashutosh

    Sorry, would not be able to make it today! Not well and have been advised rest for a couple of days ! See you next time,

    January 26, 2014

  • A former member
    A former member

    Feeling quite proud of myself after re-reading War and Peace (read it for the first time when I was 16) :)

    1 · January 24, 2014

  • Victoria C.

    Hi all! Finishing War and Peace was a 2013 resolution which failed spectacularly so I shan't be joining in this time to avoid spoilers - have fun all!

    January 22, 2014

  • Rachel

    I thought for SURE this would be a small meet up, and I was hoping to meet in a smaller space! The venue will be posted later this week, those of you who are regulars are use to that. :) If you haven't read the book, come anyway! But at least browse through the sparknotes summary or read through the plot on Wikipedia so you won't be totally lost and bored with the discussion. Those of you who managed to finish it, way to go! I'm really glad so many people are interested in coming to this discussion, but please please PLEASE update your RSVP if you can't make it.

    January 22, 2014

  • Tanya D.

    Haven't read the book but would attend.. sorry...

    January 21, 2014

    • Mark

      Join the club. ;)

      January 21, 2014

  • pgmuthukumar

    Looks like many of us havent read the book and want to attend/ listen the review including myself :P

    January 21, 2014

  • Rachel

    I will try my very best to be there! Can't wait to join in on the conversation!

    January 20, 2014

  • Jaya

    Will not be able to attend as am travelling! Picked up the recommended translation and reading at a slowww pace :D

    January 18, 2014

  • Ramesh

    Will attend the event, even thought i did not read the book.

    January 18, 2014

  • dina r.

    I'll be attending but have not read the book yet. Will try to get hold of it tomorrow. Thanks

    January 15, 2014

  • Keiko M.

    Sorry I'm attending even though I haven't read the book.

    January 15, 2014

  • Rachel

    How's the reading going for everyone on this monster? Even though this is my second time to read this book, it still took me a few hundred pages to get into it, so I didn't expect nearly this many people to rsvp! I still have about 400 pages to go...

    January 14, 2014

    • Astried

      I've started early and now stuck on the last part of the epilogue... I'm still gathering the willpower to get pass the hump :(

      January 14, 2014

    • Valentina M.

      I am at 35%.....will not finish in time :-(

      January 14, 2014

  • Mark

    i wonder if our book club's number of members will surpass the number of pages in the book by the time of the meetup.

    3 · December 5, 2013

    • Rachel

      Haha, thank goodness for my kindle!

      December 6, 2013

    • Rajni

      I have downloaded an still on Part 1...hope to finish it before the meet...

      January 14, 2014

  • Jaya

    Any recommendations on which translation to read?

    December 5, 2013

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