Saturday, December 29, 2012

War and Peace

I wasn't really interested in reading War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, but if I wanted to be a "well read" person, then I needed to know this book. So, I decided to use my hour-long commute wisely, and listen to an audio version of the book. This had the additional benefit of preventing me from trying to read a magazine or do anything else that would make me motion sick on the train. The disadvantage is that, I don't know how to spell any of the characters' names.

War and Peace is intimidating. It's one of the longest novels ever written. My concern was keeping all the characters strait. There were many characters, both major and minor, and new ones were introduced throughout the book. Each of them have a given name, a surname, a patronymic, a nickname, some are called by their French name at times, their Russian name at others. I did do myself the favor of looking up a list of the characters shortly after beginning the novel, as I thought seeing them visually would help me sort them out. But once that hurdle was crossed, the novel is very readable and not difficult to understand. As a matter of fact, Tolstoy frequently tells you exactly what you should think and feel by the way he describes the characters' appearances and thoughts. One character in particular was always looking at people with his "cruel eyes." I didn't like him.

War and Peace covers Russia's wars with Napoleon between 1805 and 1812 (although the epilogue takes the reader to a few years later). Our main characters are members of the Russian nobility. Pierre (it was fashionable then for the nobility to speak French)  is the illegitimate son of a wealthy count. He's intelligent, emotionally sincere, doesn't look down on anybody, and is a bit spineless. Pierre becomes wealthy and legitimate upon receiving a title and inheritance upon his father's death. Prince Andre is from a wealthy family, a good man, intelligent, and completely ruled by reason. The Rostov family are good people in financial decline.

Some of the major themes of the book explore the meaning and purpose of life, how wars and great events come to pass and how historians interpret them, power, and free will. The meaning and purpose of life are primarily explored through the lives of Pierre and Andre, and both characters are transformed for the better over the course of the novel. They were my favorite characters. Tolstoy studied many historical accounts of the Napoleonic wars before writing this novel, and he clearly had no use for historical interpretations of the war or anything else. The historians maintained that the "great" and "powerful" men of the age -- Napoleon, Czar Alexander, the generals, brought about the wars. But that is not the case, according to Tolstoy. The wars were inevitable because all the innumerable decisions made by individuals as they interacted with one another. When I tried to explain it to my dad, he told me this was called "self organization." Tolstoy does a beautiful job of explaining the characters' motivations, and very often those motivations were not honorable or selfless or for the love of Mother Russia. This was all evidence that what we think of as "power" is not real and only exists in our relationships to one another. There were thousands of commands given by generals and powerful people that were not carried out because they could not be carried out. And, there is no such thing as pure free will because every action is caused by something else. An individual doesn't do something just because one day he decides to do it. Something else made him think he wanted to do it or should do it. All of these causes and effects made the wars and their outcomes inevitable regardless of what anyone wanted or intended.

Tolstoy covered a lot of ground in this novel. I loved the character development, and he did a good job of making me feel exactly as I was supposed to feel. During a few chapters, three characters died in quick succession. They were very sad chapters, but Tolstoy conveyed it all beautifully. In one case we see the final transformation of one of the characters and are able to let him go. In another case, we see the waste of a young life for no good reason. In the third case, while we like the character and are said to see him executed, it is the effect this has on Pierre that is described so perfectly.

I enjoyed this book. There were times when it was a little slow, and Tolstoy really belabored his explanations of his views on things. I wish the character of Sonya had gotten a better ending. But, I guess novels become classics of world literature for a reason, and this one is very deserving.

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