Thursday, October 7, 2010

War and Peace

War and Peace has been on my "to read" list since I saw the 1956 movie starring Henry Fonda and Audrey Hepburn when in highschool.  It was one of those "I'll read it before I die but since I don't plan to die immediately, it can wait".  I'm still not planning to die immediately but having reached the age where one realizes one is not immortal, I have started on the "before I die" list.  I still need to live to be 107 to get through the entire list.

War and Peace (Wordsworth Classics, Maude translation approved by Tolstoy) is no light tome.  The 960 pages of dense prose in small typeface made it hard on my old eyes, I can tell you. It is really three books in one: historic novel, history and commentary essays.

The historic novel, with over 500 characters from tsars, emperors and nobles to serfs, servants and soldiers,  charts the Rostov, Bolkonsky and Bezukhov families from 1805 through 1820, in particular the romance of Natasha Rostovna and Pierre Bezukhov.  One gets an amazing feel for life among the Russian Gentry during the tumultuous years of the Napoleonic wars.

The history is of the wars between Napoleon and Alexander, beginning with the Russian defeat at Austerlitz in 1805 and ending with Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812.  The Battle of Borodino, the looting and burning of Moscow and the annihilation of the French forces as they retreat into the Russian winter are described in some detail. Tolstoy, is not a historian per se but never the less very well researched on the subject, uses the context of his novel to bring out information that other historians had overlooked or glossed over.

The commentary essays are Tolstoy's thoughts primarily on history and the forces which motivate and move men and nations. Tolstoy believed that no event was the result of one man's or a few men's actions but rather the result of the accumulated interrelated actions of all people to that point.  Events are captive to history and none of the participants could have done anything different than what they did.

It is an incredible book and has renewed my interest in the Napoleonic wars.  My current reading is Richard K Riehn's 1812: Napoleon's Russian Campaign.


  1. Hmmmm, I wonder if I would like that. I should pick out some classic I haven't read and commit to reading it. I think I'll go with something a bit shorter though.

  2. That's one of those books that I would likely have on my shelf to make me look smart, but if you open it up it would have a cutout spot for me to hide candy in, or something. Or a file, if I ever end up in prison.

  3. I tried getting through that in college with little success. Just too many characters to follow. Had better luck with Crime and Punishment.

  4. Dostoevsky is not an easy read either. I am taking Poor Folk (started long ago) and The Brothers Karamazov to read on holiday. I think some my kids waded through Crime and Punishment at University (or was it "One Day in the Life of "?)

    Gogol, Turgenev and of course Pushkin are much easier. There are excellent translations out there.

  5. My supervisor's been after me to read War and Peace, too. I know I should.

  6. Russians always seen to write such complex novels, and histories.

    Good luck with the reading. I don't think my brain could hand War and Peace.


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