War and Peace

by Leo Tolstoy
Reviewed date: 2019 May 31
Rating: 1
964 pages
Translated from Russian by Louise and Aylmer Maude
cover art

War and Peace is the longest single work of fiction I have ever read. Was it worth it? Yes, if only for the satisfaction of having read such a long classic book. Did I enjoy it? There were parts I enjoyed. Overall, no, I did not find the book satisfying. It seems to have captured the imagination of so many people over the years, but it's not for me.

Below are my thoughts as I read through the book.

I just started War and Peace. It was all fancy parties and soirees and it was putting me to sleep when suddenly there's a guy sitting on a third story window ledge, dangling his legs outside and chugging an entire bottle of rum while a crowd of drunk friends cheers him on.

Is this normal Russian behavior? It's not boring anyway.

After the third-story rum-chugging excitement (Volume One, Book 1, Chapter 9), War and Peace got dull again. The biggest excitement is an impudent little girl interrupting a dinner party to ask what’s for dessert.

Pineapple ices. They had pineapple ices.

Count Bezukhov is dying and everybody just wants his money. There was literally a tug-of-war over the will. (Book 1, Chapter 24)

War and Peace is so boring I put the book down and did my taxes.

By the end of Book 2, War and Peace is action-packed. The French shoot Rostov's horse out from under him, and he's injured in the fall. Dolokhov acquits himself in battle and even captures an enemy. Prince Andrew thinks he's hot stuff and imagines himself a general, but really he's just running around carrying messages for commander Kutuzov.

The Russian army is disorganized, ill-trained, and amateur. It's no wonder Napoleon is running roughshod over them. Any Russian successes are accidental, because once battle starts, there's no coordination or communication among Russian military units, and even within the units the men don't listen to their officers.

The Russian generals seem to understand this, which may be why their only war strategy is to slowly retreat.

Prince Anatole Kuragin has superpowers: his mere presence makes women smarter and gives meaning to their lives.

As always happens when women lead lonely lives for any length of time without male society, on Anatole's appearance all the three women of Prince Bolkonski's household felt that their life had not been real till then. Their powers of reasoning, feeling, and observing, immediately increased tenfold, and their life, which seemed to have been passed in darkness, was suddenly lit up by a new brightness full of significance.

I’m a quarter of the way through War and Peace and I only just now realized Denisov and Dolokhov are two different people. Denisov is Rostov’s war comrade who has a speech impediment. Dolokhov is Pierre’s hooligan friend who once tied a policeman to a bear and threw them both into the river.

The old Count Bolkonski yells a lot.

Dolokhov had the worst furlough ever. His old best friend shot him, his sweetheart shot him down, and he lost his new best friend. With friends like these, who needs Napoleon?

Wait, what happened to Napoleon and the war? Suddenly War and Peace is just a big advertisement for Freemasonry.

Ugh, these people: "[Anatole Kuragin] was convinced that, as a duck is so made that it must live in water, so God had made him such that he must spend thirty thousand rubles a year and always occupy a prominent position in society."

Tolstoy does not subscribe to the Great Man theory of history. He pontificates at length that history is inevitable and that it produces great men, rather than Great Men shaping history. But really he only believes this because the only Great Man of the Age was Napoleon and Napoleon was French. If Napoleon had been Russian, War and Peace would be one big essay on how Great Men bend history through the sheer force of their will and patriotism.

I'm most of the way through War and Peace, and I don't like it. I strongly object to the worldview that Tolstoy is presenting, one that paints history as inevitable and individuals as mere instruments of impersonal forces beyond their control. There is no room for personal responsiblity. People act as they must, and are no more responsible for their actions than the leaves are for falling in the autumn.

This lack of responsibility extends even to events with identifiable causes. In Tolstoy's telling, Moscow burned because the Russians left and the French occupied it and this apparently resulted in the city spontanously combusting. Nobody's fault. In reality, the history books all tell me that we have overwhelming evidence that Moscow burned because the governor, Count Rostopchin, ordered it burned. Patriotic Russians deliberately started the fires after the French entered the city. But according to Tolstoy, neither the Russians nor the French burned Moscow; it just happened.

If all things are inevitable and there is no personal responsiblity for one's actions, there is little room for the gospel in this worldview. And indeed, although Tolstoy does not ignore religion and the church, he portrays religious experiences as lofty, otherworldly encounters. God is not active in Tolstoy's world--there is no Jesus, no Holy Spirit acting and moving in the world in a real sense--rather, God is something completely apart from the world. This is not the God of the Bible. If there is an actual personal God in Tolstoy's worldview--and it seems likely that "God" is just a shorthand for a kind of impersonal spiritual force--if there is a personal God, he is not interested in human morality or in holding people morally accountable.

A few people achieve a kind of spiritual enlightenment; Nicholas (Nikolai) Rostov sees and admires such a spirituality in Mary (Maria) Bolkonskaya. But that enlightenment does not translate in any tangible way into a changed heart or into personal growth or into fruits of the spirit.

I keep wanting to reach into the book and throttle the characters. Snap out of it. Make a conscious moral decision for once in your life. Be a hero or be a villain, but please, deliberately be something.

It's aggravating. All these people, hundreds of characters. History unfolding. Events of monumental import. But according to Tolstoy, all is inevitable. There's no heroism, no villainy, no right, no wrong, no responsiblity, no moral culpability. Things just happen.

Also, it's boring.

The most intriguing character in War and Peace might be Count Pierre Bezukhov, except that the more I learn about him, the more I'm convinced he's not a complex, thoughtful character, he's just stark raving mad.

One analysis of War and Peace suggests that "much of Book Two concerns [Pierre's] struggles with his passions and his spiritual conflicts to be a better man." All I see is a rich dilettante with a tenuous grasp on sanity, who is prone to obsessions, delusions, and clinically significant OCD ruminations. He is not struggling to be a better man so much as he is experiencing a psychotic break from reality.

He joins a club (the Freemasons) and confuses that club's rituals with deep philosophical wisdom. Later, he grandiosely imagines himself the savior of Russia and decides that he should assassinate Napoleon. (Spoiler: he doesn’t.) Pierre is utterly ineffectual in everything he does, because he is living in an imaginary world.

I’ve still got about 200 pages to go, so maybe Pierre will redeem himself.

Book 14 of War and Peace is gripping; I stayed up late to finish it. The French army is in full retreat and Denisov is commanding a small group of soldiers that is picking off French stragglers. All my complaining a few days ago about the characters being passive and making no decisions of consequence? That doesn't apply to Denisov. He's a man of action. He makes decisions that matter--which detachment of French to attack, when to attack, etc--and he knows they matter. They may not matter on the macro level--the French are fleeing Russia anyway--but they are real decisions. Denisov is my favorite character now.

I have only Book 15 and the two epilogues left. The end is in sight.

Tolstoy is a funny guy. "[When] preparing to go to Kiev, [Pierre] fell ill and was laid up for three months. He had what the doctors termed 'bilious fever.' But despite the fact that the doctors treated him, bled him, and gave him medicines to drink--he recovered."

Can someone explain to me why the Soviets approved of War and Peace--a book that deifies the Tsar, features nobility as protagonists, and glosses over the suffering of the peasants?

The Tsar’s army employed a scorched earth strategy: they slowly retreated and burned Russia as they went, to prevent Napoleon’s army from living off the land. That may have saved the Tsar and the Russian aristocracy, but the peasants froze to death or starved as a result. Napoleon lost, the Tsar won, and the Russians died. This is a patriotic book?

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