My experience with War and Piece

Do I write this post as a result of having finally finished reading War and Piece (Война и Мир)? Did I read the epic novel in spirit of my eagerness to write this post? To what extent lies the relation between the two events? Was I stimulated to pursue both as a consequence of other countless differentiable factors?

Tolstoy meditates on similar concerns and others. What motivates groups of similar men to kill each other? What motivates massive forces to embark on territorial conquest? What forces stand between one man’s desire and grand scale execution? What defines power? To what extent do freedom and necessity play a role in an action? What are the merits in seeking meaning and purpose? And he explores more, a lot more, although you may have to patiently endure until page 1400 before some of the said issues gain traction.

War and Piece is not a novel in the traditional sense, and Tolstoy didn’t consider it one. The writing showcases a mixture of genres. Only parts conform to a historical novel format, with elements of character development, ambition, courage, cowardice, treachery, romance, illness, war, suffering, intrigue, socio-economics, death, etc. Sections of the novel cover extensive historical analysis, including battle strategies, military campaign reflection, and political trends. Then a fairly significant portion consists of philosophical exploration, in part manifested through various personages, and in part through Tolstoy’s independent reflection. Certain portions of the book carry the analysis into very abstract territory.

The unconventional structure is one of the factors I value in a text of this magnitude. The epic doesn’t much observe a remarkable introduction, a glorious finale, and a series of entirely logical transitions from one setting to the next. Rather, Tolstoy showcased, to the extent of his imagination, through the eyes of both real and imagined historical figures, a combination of struggles, developments, on both an individual and societal level, the role they played and the influence they drew in the Napoleonic war setting of 1805-1813.

Let me demystify a few issues. The novel is divided into four volumes, although many modern editions feature two physical tomes of two volumes each. The Russian edition I read, as well as the many I’m aware of, number about 1500 pages, which includes the French dialog, of which there is a significant amount, followed by translations in the footnotes or inline. Some international publications, the Portuguese for example, I’m lead to believe number as many as 2400 pages, although I lack the knowledge to explain why - perhaps larger text, perhaps extensive complimentary notes.

The sheer length tends to dissuade many from reading or finishing the epic. However, given the original Russian text and some (minimal) historical perspective, at least 3/4 of the novel I found a relatively easy read; as easy to consume as other works many read in high school, such as Lord of the Rings, or in some cases not greater in difficulty than reading Harry Potter, as far as the prose complexity. The remainder of the novel, however, I found more challenging in the midst of an overwhelming amount of characters, or sometimes in presence of profound historical analysis. Parts of the latter half concerning more abstract philosophy, I found yet increasingly more challenging to consume, similar to dense philosophical works. In sum, I consider it an easier read than any Dostoevsky or (especially) Dickens work I’m acquainted with, each in the respective language.

Bear also this in mind. Were War and Piece a product of modern or 20th century effort, it would likely find itself in four separate publishings, each uniquely titled. What larger epics have people been reading in the last 80 years? Game of Thrones? Wheel of Time? Lord of the Rings? Dune? The totality of not only content, but in many cases prose complexity, in each of these series prevails that of War and Piece. However, prior to the 20th century, focused reading attracted greater audiences, longer works were considered customary, and the publishing industry had less of a need to resort to clever tactics.

I finished the novel in under 2.5 months of quality reading. To manage the sheer number of names and the volume of historical context, which Tolstoy eagerly showcases from page one, I maintained a digital War and Piece journal, a habit I’ve developed for novels of any notable complexity. In the case of this journal, the length of content approached a small novella. I found it worth the trouble though, as the practice enabled a very immersive reading experience I desired.

I’ll mention a few words concerning the content, but leave no spoilers, so read calmly. The novel initiates with the French dialog of the “famous” Anna Pavlovna Schérer - “Eh bien, mon prince. Gênes et Lucques ne sont plus que des apanage, des поместья, de la famile Buonaparte…” Many a reader glancing at these commencing words would unlikely find immediate encouragement to pursue the work. But as I already mentioned, the format is anything but traditional, and serves not to necessarily please.

French, especially at the first part of the 19th century, was highly fashionable among the Russian nobility. Some commanded a higher level of French than Russian. Others spoke it less naturally. Yet, it was spoken and written in a way far more pervasive than English today among second language speakers. It was spoken not simply professionally or politically, but also intimately, often among family. Tolstoy made great effort to reflect this fact. On a handful of occasions the novel features entire pages of pure French dialog or correspondences. Sometimes he only provides phrases or shorter excerpts, continuing in Russian, leaving it implied that the remainder of the conversation took place in French. Sometimes, he exclusively indicates the nature of a French conversation otherwise written in Russian. The extent of actual French depended from person to person and across situations.

The French was one factor that incited me to finally read the novel at this particular time. I’ve slowly, in microscopic steps, been… how I prefer to say, assimilating the language, independent of the novel. As the reading progressed, I less relied on the footnote translations.

The characters are many, with an important subset introduced in the first 50 pages, where that journal especially served. You will not find one main protagonist. Rather, I considered all actors in a supporting role, although a small handful of names tend to reoccur for a greater portion of the novel. Similarly, I found few characters, if any, to exemplify any one measure of virtue. Virtually all commit a combination of glorious, contemptuous, or questionable acts. After some thought, I could imagine the sorts of factors that could cause most notable actors to undertake the respective decisions.

The novel features many elements of suffering, but one must acknowledge the precarious time period the Napoleonic wars represented for parties of all social status. Yet, as the title suggests, the turbulent period also experienced moments of piece. Whereas Tolstoy paints the battle scenes in long, gory, horrific detail, he also blesses the reader with unforgettable sequences of absolute charm. Humorous aspect too plays a role. (Well, I found few literary devices Tolstoy had not leveraged.) The first 50 pages (hence I don’t consider it much of a spoiler) witness a bear tied to a квартальный - a local police servant, back to back, and sent swimming along the river.

Having already read Anna Karenina (which Tolstoy later wrote), I began to find similarities between certain models of personages. This probably represents my greatest critique. I intuitively recognized which character Tolstoy personally identified with and at which particular stage of their journey, which character(s) represented such and such qualities to the stereotypical limits, and which character models matched between the two novels. Now, this wasn’t always the case, but more often than I would have preferred. Having read a number of Dostoevsky novels, for example, I found the character element of each novel far less predictable overall.

However, any inherent issue with dimensionality of character development, I didn’t find too disturbing to the overall novel appreciation. Much of the novel addresses less an individual character story, and more, philosophical and historical analysis. The literary marvel provides much value, and much insight. It occupied, and continues to occupy significant real estate of my consciousness, which I can’t say for the majority of literature I undertake.