A Review of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
By Reuven Pinnata
Originally published in the November 2014 issue.
“Why would you want to read something that long?” That wasn’t a question some half-impressed, half-suspicious acquaintance asked me; it was a question I asked myself after spending $20 on a sweet-smelling, brand-new copy of Tolstoy’s beastly beauty. I am the kind of person who cannot give up on a book without feeling both guilty and insulted so at that time I knew that—like it or not—I was going to force myself to stick with War and Peace at least for a good portion of my summer. Either the ghost of some canonical writer convinced me to read it or I simply like big books and I cannot lie—I couldn’t remember why I decided to pick up this book in the first place. What I can remember is I am glad I did.
First of all, it is important to keep in mind that reading War and Peace requires an open-minded approach. Tolstoy himself shrank from any definite label: “It is not a novel, still less an epic poem, still less a historical chronicle.” But this means that Tolstoy really wants to do something important: to liberate both his book and its readers from any inhibitive expectations. That being said, just as Tolstoy takes his readers seriously, he wants them to take his book as seriously, too. You cannot read War and Peace while constantly checking how many people have liked your photo of it on Instagram. You either are reading it or you aren’t. The rewards of any great work of art come at the expense of commitment.
To those who think that the length of the book is absurd—I don’t think Tolstoy himself had a choice in that matter. To people a book with so many characters, both fictional and historical, and to concoct out of them a mere 300-page book seems rather irresponsible—and impossible. However, Tolstoy makes the fullest use of his space; his prose has the ability to play both the sage and the child. It can take you into the heart of a soldier, a lover, a mystic, a liberal, a reactionary, a parent, a child, an emperor, a serf, a dying soul, a soul waking up to life. In fact, in the introduction to the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation—which I believe is the best in the market—Richard Pevear gives an excellent example. In a sentence describing children playing and asking their mother to join them, Tolstoy writes, “The children were riding to Moscow on chairs and invited her to go with them.” Tolstoy refuses to patronize the children and demean the value of their imagination. They are not written off as “pretending to ride to Moscow”; inside their imagination, they can do what they like. And we the readers, just like the mother, are invited to jump in.
Some readers may be put off by its philosophizing, but I would argue that it is as indispensable to Tolstoy’s vision of the whole book as the story itself. In a book peopled by characters which can be divided into historically “important” and “unimportant,” Tolstoy wants to show us that no such division exists. This is where the book plays its card as a “historical novel.” Through clean, careful reasoning, Tolstoy guides his readers through his analysis of historical evidence to demythologize history. He shows us that a French soldier in the war of 1812 was not under the rule of Napoleon as much as Napoleon was under the rule of something greater than himself: the accumulation of things he had no control over—the spirit of his army, the spirit of the enemy’s army, or even just the weather. With his sense of omniscience and self-assurance, Tolstoy takes us to several historical battles to reveal what actually happened and debunk such concept as “the chain of command.” And in addition to that, you also get to meet the other side of Tolstoy: Tolstoy the writer of immersive battle scenes. I invite people who think they’ve read good descriptions of battle scenes to read how dramatically and effectively Tolstoy handles them.
This concept of interrelatedness is also reflected in the social parts of the book (I like to call them the “Peace” parts). In a way, the interwoven lives of the characters also act as an illustration of how dependent on one another even the strongest among us actually are. In the final section of the book, Tolstoy expands this socio-historical phenomenon and extrapolates it on the question of freedom and dependence. If you have ever found yourself caught between the dilemma of free will and determinism, you might want to check out Tolstoy’s take on it.
So now I turn my self-directed question to you: “Why should you read something this long?” I cannot tell you that it is the greatest book ever written; that would imply that I fully comprehend Tolstoy’s vision, which I do not. But I can tell you that this book is worth every single page. It is truly a suspended continuance of delight after delight, insight after insight. That someone could do that for 1,000-plus pages should really tell you something.