by James Wallace Harris, Monday, December 28, 2020
I began reading War and Peace (1869) by Leo Tolstoy back in April after watching and reviewing a recent 6-part BBC miniseries (2016) based on the book. I finished about forty percent of the novel and then stopped reading it in early summer. Then a couple weeks ago I decided I needed to finish it before the year was out. Every year I read one literary classic, and I had promised myself that War and Peace was going to be my 2020 read. War and Peace is currently #7 on The Greatest Books list. It did make an excellent companion to 2020, and illuminated the present with the past.
As I mentioned in my earlier review, War and Peace reminds me of Jane Austen because it’s set from 1805-1812 (plus epilogue 1813-1820), which was around the time Jane Austen was writing her famous novels. War and Peace has always been intimidating for his size – 55 hours and 30 minutes on audio, and 1,300+ pages in teeny tiny print. That’s almost like listening/reading all six of Jane Austen’s novels together. The plot and characterizations of War and Peace is about as complicated as reading all the Austen novels by round robin her novels chapter by chater.
That wouldn’t bother some readers, however, War and Peace mixes in countless pages of Tolstoy pontificating about war, power, military command, freedom, history, free will, leadership, etc., and I’m afraid that could turn them off. Thus it makes for a hard novel to recommend emphatically.
War and Peace wasn’t hard to read. Many people have asked me about that. Yes, the Russian names are problematic, but I think it helped that I watched the BBC series first, and watched the Russian language Mosfilm version that was released as four films over two years (1966-1967) while I was reading the book. Those four films of War and Peace are currently available on HBO Max.
My friends also ask me if War and Peace is worth all the trouble to read. When I’ve mentioned to folks that I was reading it, many reacted like I was doing something yucky. It’s actually a wonderful novel, quite philosophical, but mainly about romances within large aristocratic families during the Napoleonic Wars. If you’re a fan of Downton Abbey or Jane Austen, just imagine that kind of story on a much bigger scale with two epic battles, and the downfall of an emperor thrown in. I enjoyed the war parts, but I’m not sure if most readers will.
Again, I’m reminded of Jane Austen. Much of the book is about life and love among the aristocratic which is very similar to Austen. However, in Austen, the men go off to the Napoleonic wars but we’re never told of their experiences. In Tolstoy we are, and it’s important. The men are shaped by their experiences in battle, and two of them have intense spiritual conversions. War and Peace gives us the men’s view of the age, whereas Austen gave us the women’s.
I’ve never really understood Napoleon before. While reading this novel I went and read the entry at Wikipedia about Napoleon, which was very informative. But I actually believe Tolstoy gives a much better picture of this historical figure, even though Tolstoy obviously wanted to write his novel to give a revisionist assessment of Napoleon. I still don’t know enough history to know if Tolstoy is accurate or not, or even if he’s doing hatchet job on the man.
I have to admit that I wished that Tolstoy had published his soapboxing as a separate nonfiction supplement to his novel. It’s quite fascinating to hear Tolstoy’s 1860s knowledge of the sciences, including the new ideas about evolution, applied to events and people. Tolstoy is impressive in his insights, even by 21st century standards. I even used some of them to see Donald Trump in a new light. By the way, I was completely surprised by how important the French language was to Russian aristocrats at the time. I’ve always imagined Russia being very isolated from the rest of Europe.
On the other hand, I was always anxious to get back to the story, and I always wanted to know more about the characters, of which there were too many to chronicle here. Pierre was my favorite, but then he is much like Levin from Anna Karenina, my favorite character in that novel. In both cases, I wondered if those characters were stand ins for Tolstoy himself?
Still, do I recommend this monster of a novel? I am very glad I read War and Peace, and I found it very compelling, but it requires a tremendous commitment. I’m not sure I will ever try to reread it, but I think I will dip into every now and then. Some scenes and chapters are exquisite.
I can recommend reading War and Peace to anyone who loves 19th literature, to anyone who dreams of becoming a writer, or to anyone to enjoys finding philosophy entwined with fiction.
By the way, it’s quite cheap to try War and Peace since it’s in the public domain. Get a free Kindle copy. If you get hooked keep reading. I enjoyed reading it and listening to it on audio. My Kindle edition let me switch back and forth instantly.
14 thoughts on “Finally Finished War and Peace – But Do I Recommend It?”
I’m reading “War & Peace” for the third time. This time as a writer interested in Tolsoy’s use of internal dialog, which is excellent. He can also change POV in every line and not lose the reader. Great craft. I have advanced degrees in Russian history and European diplomatic history, and his history is very good…at least it is a reasonable interpretation. Same with Napoleon. I also like how each character’s philosophical pontification changes as they grow and succeed or suffer. War is great until you’ve been in one—it’s all glory until its all stupid. Women are great, unless they cheat on you, then great again when you again fall in love. The complexity will appeal to those who enjoy life’s complexities, not to those who see life in absolute certainties.
Keith, I agree with all your praise. I was wondering just how good was his history. I’m going to start some Great Courses on European history and Russian literature to supplement my reading. This is the best article I’ve found so far in trying to read about War and Peace.
Do you have any to recommend? By the way, I checked your blog and you haven’t written about War and Peace. I’d be interested in reading your take, especially have three readings.
Congratulations on tackling this lengthy classic!
And if anyone wants to grab a free e-book version, definitely go for the Standard Ebooks edition:
War and Peace may have been a ‘great’ novel for those fortunate enough to have read it in the original Russian. But the translations are terrible. Understand, a translator is rarely an actual writer or stylist, so what you are reading in translation is pretty amateurish, and rarely rises above the level of a third-rate novel, and in some instances baby talk.
It’s the only way I can read non-English novels since that’s the only language I know.
Do you know Russian? Can you give an example of what we’re missing?
Well, I’ll try. But the available translations are so shot through with awkward English idiom you think you are reading subtitles of a Korean romcom. Here’s an example:
“Pierre, not knowing whom to answer, looked at them all and smiled. His smile was unlike the half-smile of other people. When he smiled, his grave, even rather gloomy, look was instantaneously replaced by another—a childlike, kindly, even rather silly look, which seemed to ask forgiveness.”
Okay, I think I know what LT is saying here, but it’s so muffled in translation that it comes off as gibberish, and involves the reader in a secondary effort of translation. This simply isn’t stylistically sound English. Just my opinion, I could be wrong.
That quote is quite specific at describing a feature of Pierre’s. It would be interesting to see the same quote made by other translators.
I did that for my review of Anna Karenina. There are Bible sites that do it for many translations of the Bible, and other sites for Homer translations. Such comparisons show a wide variety of approaches and outcomes.
The language is “specific” in a linguistic sense, but it does not convey a specific image, or as T.S. Eliot would say, there is no “objective correlative,” i.e. it does not reference a recognizable human reality. Which is to say, the language employed by the translator does not rise to the level of art.
I might add as an addendum to my comment above that occasionally a translation can reach the heights of art, e.g. Robert Grave translation of “The Twelve Caesars.” And the grandeur of the King James Bible is often attributed to the men like Shakespeare or his ilk who spoke and wrote in Elizabethan English, an idiom that lends itself to rich and figurative language.
One more addendum. With regard to side by side comparisons of translations, here is a site where Ms. Lucy Fuggles compares two different translations. I agree with her assessment, that the Briggs translation is superior.