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I Read War and Peace (it was ok)

For years Tolstoy’s War and Peace hung out before me like some monolithic and unconquerable realm. I promised myself that when I had the time I would read the beast, even if it did weigh twelve pounds and stretched nearly fifteen hundred pages. When, like the rest of the world, I became housebound during the Covid-19 pandemic, I no longer had any excuse to ignore the monster, this “white whale,” of my paracosm. So on the first day of “shelter in place,” I entered this furry obsolescence, in search of something truly transcendent. (or at least resplendent.)

War and Peace has been almost universally admired since its release. Like any “classic,” Tolstoy’s masterpiece has also been critically debated for years, winning its fair share of champions as well as some detractors. Earnest Hemingway often praised the work (he believed, after all, that there was no better subject matter for a novel than war), but Hemingway also believed Tolstoy should have focused more on the characters and less on the historical sections of the book[1].

Then when you have more time read another book called War and Peace by Tolstoi[2] and see how you will have to skip the big Political thought passages, that he undoubtedly thought were the best things in the book when he wrote it, because they are no longer either true or important, if they were ever more than topical, and see how true and lasting and important the people and the action are. (Earnest Hemingway Letter to Ivan Kashkin, 1936).

Hemingway also famously wrote that he would “not set foot in the ring,” with Tolstoy. There is truth to what Hemingway writes in the above quote, but the point of this twenty-first century review of a revered (and now somewhat aged text) is not to highlight Hemingway’s thoughts on the work, but rather to discuss how War and Peace reads to a modern audience.

Although greatly revered, it seems very few people today have honestly read War and Peace all the way through[3]. It’s hard to blame these imposter readers as War and Peace is voluminous. (It has not one, but two epilogues, after all.) As noted in the below footnote, in studies it is often cited as one of the most “lied about” books in terms of the number of people that claim to have read it versus those that actually have.

In a brilliant short story in the Spring 2020 Edition of the Paris Review (by writer Andrew Martin) titled Childhood, Boyhood, Youth a group of ivy-league educated (yet nonetheless largely pseudo-intellectual characters) form a reading group to gather together to discuss War and Peace, and yet none of them are actually reading the book to completion. Even the protagonist, who is somewhat self-righteous about the others faking their way through the text admits he skipped the “last hundred pages or so.”

Do we read War and Peace (or pretend to read it) for reasons not tethered to the work itself, but as some sort of guide-post about us, the “reader?” It would appear that the answer is “yes,” for the majority of readers (or non-readers, as the case may be).  Thus an important question for today’s audience is whether War and Peace can provide mana and truth versus the base lucre of a half-read or (Cliffnotes “read”) novel. To find out, I read War and Peace all the way through, and I’m not just saying that. (Were there moments of inadvertent skimming? Of course, I am a human, after all.)  

Is War and Peace worth the time investment? It would appear that today’s readers have a difficult time getting through War and Peace not simply because of its length, nor because it’s difficult to read (it’s really not that dense once you get the myriad of characters and their names pinned down), but rather because it is too pristine. What is missing in War and Peace is the sort of dissonant chord modern audiences expect and demand. In that way it is similar to the work of Mozart rather than that of Beethoven or Bach. The clarity and perfection of the art becomes in itself an imperfection. As a modern reader we find ourselves admiring War and Peace rather than experiencing it in a meaningful way (see postscripts below noting this is just my opinion and I could be wrong).

In The Art of Fiction, novelist John Gardner wrote “All good fiction has moment-by-moment fascination. It has authority and at least a touch of strangeness.” War and Peace feels more akin to art locked away in a glass concave rather than something living and breathing, such as the work by many contemporaries or near contemporaries of Tolstoy’s such as Dostoevsky, Melville, and Flaubert. Tolstoy certainly has “authority,” and War and Peace often displays “moment-by-moment fascination” (aside from some of the cumbersome political commentary that Hemingway rightly called out), yet War and Peace rarely achieves the “strangeness,” that we can relate to as a modern audience.

Perhaps a writer as patrician as Tolstoy (he was a Count, after all), couldn’t help but be a bit too far “above the fray,” as he wrote his magnum opuses. Like the protagonist Pierre Bezukhov engaging in the battle as a spectator rather than a combatant, he bears witness but fails to actively engage. There is so much to admire in Tolstoy that one wants to grade on a curve; to justify perceived flaws in work and to make arguments such as, perhaps, the work doesn’t fully resonate because of its omniscient narrator. (Also, this upstart doesn’t want to offend the learned #Tolstoy Together group over at A Public Space. )

And there are some moments of oddity contained in the work. Perhaps not enough in a work of this length, but they do exist. There is a somewhat reviled subplot where the protagonist Pierre joins the Freemasons. I personally enjoyed this section of the work, even if it felt more like something out of another work entirely. (indeed, perhaps for that very reason.) If we can spend sixty pages on a country fox hunt then why not spend another sixty pages on a freemason subplot that might better fit in the latest Da Vinci Code knockoff?

There are also moments in War and Peace that would feel more at home in a modern soap opera. Andrei Nikolayevich Bolkonsky (Prince Andrew to his friends and you, putative modern reader), is left for dead and then resurrected on not one but two (yes two!) separate occasions.

I often found War and Peace lacking in humor. Although one cannot blame Tolstoy’s work for the absence or near absence of the absurd, the surreal, the existential (as many modern modes of writing postdate War and Peace) plenty of contemporaries (Thackery, Austin, Twain, etc.) wrote with wit, spirit, and humor that I found sadly lacking in a work the length of War and Peace.

While one could imagine Dostoevsky listening to the band Radiohead and nodding along to the discord and tumult, one never gets the sense that Tolstoy could understand the unique ennui of our times. Maybe that says more about our times than it does about Tolstoy, but it’s a disconnect that feels palpable when reading the work.

When I read Moby Dick immediately following War and Peace I was struck by how modern the scope of the story felt. The dissonant vibe Melville conjures when he writes of the Jeroboam ship passing by the Pequod, carrying the mad “Gabriel” and a “malignant epidemic,” that could be spread (but is likely metaphorical in nature), the image of Ahab’s secret stowaway oarsman surrounding him like the four horsemen of the apocalypse on the first whale hunt, the building of a distinctive coffin for a character that then refuses to die (partially, it is hinted, because he so enjoyed the coffin), and the nature of the “monomaniac journey” itself, with its lesson about how we are all vulnerable to be led by frenzied leadership to take up causes that are dangerous, insane, or morally wrong (and all this nearly one hundred years before World War II).  

In War and Peace we feel engaged by the basic philosophy of the work, we are entertained by the realistic choices made by well-drawn characters, and yet we are at all times reminded that the author and his work are not of our time. When we are not ignored, we feel lectured at–rather than advised about–the nature of duty. We learn a great deal about the battles of the French and the Russians, and yet we do not taste the madness of the battlefield. Everything and everyone seems kept at arms’ length from us, the reader. Thus even those of us blessed with the patience and time to read the work, may be inclined to respect it, rather than love it.

I may never get that fifty hours of my life back. But oh well, at least I now have bragging rights to truthfully say I read War and Peace.


[1] I wish to refer to War and Peace as a novel, but Tolstoy himself cautioned us that War and Peace is neither a history, nor a novel, but something unique and in-between. I’m not sure if I fully agree with that; then again who am I to question Tolstoy’s analysis of his own work?

[2] Hemingway’s spelling.

[3] According to this article and study, it sits as the 8th most lied about book by the British. Somehow Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point is also on the list, I wonder what he would think of that data? https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/news/best-books-most-read-uk-war-peace-lie-1984-a9145946.html

(Adding a postscript here to note that the above is, of course my opinion. Also, as the #TolstoyTogether Group (perhaps rare people who are actually reading this all the way through and seem to be enjoying it) noted there are moments of the absurd and humor). In other words, I may just be dense, if earnest, in my review.

(Second postscript after being further educated by #TolostoyTogether–I should have mentioned that translations are important, as they do differ, and some are stronger and more in line with the spirit of a work than others. I read a translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude, copyright 1992. I would humbly suggest that any issues I had with War and Peace were my own rather than having anything to do with the translation, but I wanted to include this information to the extent it is important.)

One reply on “I Read War and Peace (it was ok)”

[…] Another way I have been able to invest my time, is in reading. I have tried to take an omnivorous approach to the reading, spending time on both contemporary work (such as catching up on my literary journals, reading contemporary novels and short fiction collections such as Molly Reid’s wonderful The Rapture Index: A Suburban Bestiary, and yes, catching up on some important works I am embarrassed to admit that I have never read. This lead to my reading War and Peace, which I have officially deemed (after 1,500 pages) as “ok.” […]

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