War and Peace

Reading War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy was my main reading goal for this year. I spend a couple of hours a day on a train and I like to use that time constructively. Some books need a bit of time and effort, and commuting makes it easy to do that. War and Peace has been pretty high on my ‘should read’ list for a long time but I’ve been put off by reports of its difficulty.

Commuting presents the best opportunity I’m going to get to tackle the hard stuff. In this case, I didn’t make it. It’s 550,000 words, which is not that daunting for fantasy readers, I think. (As an aside, wikipedia has a list of the longest novels. In Search of Lost Time, I’m coming for you).

To start with I was really enjoying it. It’s in three volumes and volume 1 is wonderful; easy to read, full of beautifully drawn characters and believable dialogue. Most of this part is set in aristocratic society in Moscow and St Petersburg and it is lovingly brought to life. Most of volume 2 was pretty good as well. The pace was good, and aside from the length, I was struggling to identify what was supposed to be so intimidating about it.

The Peace bits were better than the War bits. The parts where the action was about relationships and society were very natural and had quite a modern feel about them, in that there was little exposition and a lot of showing things on the page. The War bits were harder to read. I wondered if this was a deliberate attempt to create a feeling of discomfort in the reader or evidence of lack of familiarity with the situation. Or perhaps it’s just that a modern reader is used to more cinematic descriptions of battle. There was more exposition and less flow. I liked that Tolstoy focussed on the confusion and general wandering about of armies, rather than presenting a heroic battle.

As the book goes on there is more War and less Peace. By the time I got to volume 3 there was another problem. Tolstoy stops telling a story and starts ruminating about historical determinism, fate and the ‘great man’ theory of history. All interesting stuff, but heavy going, and all the time you want to get back to the story. I got about 85% of the way through and my reading rate had dropped to about thirty pages a day (from a high point of about 80 pages a day). I stopped to read the book for my book club and found I really didn’t want to pick War and Peace up again.

If you’ve ever wanted to read this book, I’d say give it a go. Much of it is brilliant. I never really understood what was meant when people talk about Russian fatalism, but now I do. Volumes 1 and 2 are engaging and enjoyable and it’s worth it just for that.

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