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Tuesday, March 03, 2015

War & Peace (1869) by Leo Tolstoy

Napoleon's disastrous invasion of Russia is the subject of much of Leo Tolstoy's epic novel, War & Peace.

Book Review
War & Peace (1869)
 by Leo Tolstoy

   I listened to a free audio book version of War & Peace using the app for the free e book site LibriVox (app and website both called LibriVox) and if you are looking to fuck with audiobooks but don't want to pay ridiculous prices for public domain titles, start with LibriVox.  War & Peace is of course a notoriously long book.  The audiobook I listened to was divided into 18 separate "Books" each with between 15 and 25 chapters, each chapter between five and twenty minutes long.  The first sixteen books are the body of the work, followed by two Epilogues, the first recounting the "Happily Ever After" scenario for the main characters, and the second being a lengthy summary of the "philosophical parts" of the book itself. 

  While War & Peace may not satisfy the modern tenets of academic history, there is no doubt that Tolstoy intended War & Peace to serve as a novel, a history and a work of philosophy.  His main philosophical point is that fate and chance operate strongly on the lives of individual humans but less so on the lives of groups of humans.   The characters of War & Peace are varied and numerous, ranging from Czar Alexander and Napoleon Bonaparte, to nameless peasants and children.  However, the major characters are the younger heirs of the upper aristocracy of Russia during the Napoleonic Wars.

   The two men at the heart of War & Peace are Count Pyotr "Pierre" Kiriliovich Bezukhov and Prince Andrey Bolkonsky.  Tolstoy switches between the perspective of multiple characters besides those two and also employs a third person narrative to handle sweeping historical and philosophical passages which could not possibly be narrated by actual characters from the novel.  The major plot of the Napoleonic wars is deftly intertwined the personal and romantic histories of the major players and their families, who are intertwined through marriage and the dictates of "society." 

  The majestic and aloof historical and philosophical chapters are counterpointed by the various romantic subplots in which Countess Natasha Rostova plays a prominent part.  The romantic/family portions of War & Peace are familiar to anyone versed in mid 19th century fiction but they work as welcome respites from the high drama of the battles and diplomatic maneuvering that dominate the rest of War & Peace.

  However you decide to consumer War & Peace, be prepared for a massive time investment.  It literally took me months to make it to the end.  At the same time, it isn't completely unapproachable for a normal type reader in the way of lengthy modernist classics like James Joyce's Ulysses.  That book experiments with narrative technique, vocabulary and subject matter in a way that is purposefully off-putting to a casual reader.   War & Peace, on the other hand, is simply a very long, ambitious but largely conventional epic novel.  The most challenging part of War & Peace is the length, after that it is smooth sailing (as long you dig other 19th century fiction like Dickens, Trollope, Austen, etc.)

    The time commitment is not to be discounted- it is hard to imagine my friends with children and jobs reading or listening to War & Peace.  Students are unlikely to want to spare the time.  I'm left wondering who, exactly, is reading War & Peace in 2015.  Non working spouses without children?  The long term unemployed?   How can you recommend to someone that they take fifty to a hundred hours out of their entire life simply to read War & Peace.   Unlike Ulysses, or other challenging modernist works of literature, War & Peace is unlikely to change your entire perspective about the universe.

 If anything, War & Peace seems like it would make a great television series for the on demand Netflix era, with the mash up of genres and extreme length.  Perhaps the best recommendation I can make about whether to read War & Peace at all is that the history of Napoleon's ill fated invasion of Russia is enthralling, and sure to be something that the reader will be able to bring up in casual small talk at some point as an example of utter failure. 

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