2013 Challenges, Books, The Classics Club

Book 248: War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy, Leo - War and PeaceAnd with this book I completed ALL of my reading challenges this year! I will do a wrap up post (year, challenge and month) on either the 31st or 1st, but for the record this was the 11th book of the Back to the Classics Challenge, the 6th book (but 8th counted – two were double) for the Tea and Books Reading Challenge and the 25th Mount TBR book!

But what is MOST shocking is how much I enjoyed this novel. There were portions I hated that I think were decisions of the translator and there were definitely parts that were beyond boring (the war parts, obviously), but overall I actually am glad I read this book and the investment of just over three weeks was definitely worth it. I’m not going to lie and say that I was excited about this novel and I won’t even say that it was easy, but I was a bit confused after reading this in the forward:

“The first readers of War and Peace were certainly surprised, but often also bewildered and even dismayed by the book. They found it hard to identify the main characters, to discover anything like a plot, to see any connection between episodes, to understand the sudden leaps from fiction to history, from narration to philosophizing. There seemed to be no focus, no artistic unity to the work, no real beginning, and no resolution. It was as if the sheer mass of detail overwhelmed any design Tolstoy might have tried to impose on it.” (loc. 140)

I didn’t think that the novel was that confusing. I can definitely see where the characters names are confusing! The introduction discusses the multitude of ways a character’s name can be modified and that did cause me to stop a few times but if I kept reading the context clues almost immediately told me who Tolstoy referred to.

What I was surprised most about while reading this novel was the beauty Tolstoy brought to the numerous passages about war and those about love. His descriptions of both the internal feelings of a character and the observations of other characters of a character were beautifully written (check out some of the quotes below for a sample). I found myself longing for the “war” portions of the novel to hurry up so I could get back to the day-to-day life of the numerous characters and was always ecstatic when those involved in the war returned to the day-to-day passages. From Natasha and Andrei/Pierre to Nikolas and Marya/Sonya I was madly in love with the love stories and was so glad Tolstoy included Part I of the Epilogue.

I can imagine why this novel is seen as the height of Russian literature (especially to Tolstoy himself) when I compare it to the only other Russian novels I’ve read Doctor Zhivago and Anna Karenina I can easily see why this novel is a step above. It encompasses a very specific moment in Russian history and even though it is over 1200 pages long it engages the reader and kept me interested throughout. In addition Tolstoy reigned in his preaching and kept it under 30 pages where as it felt like the entire last half of Anna Karenina was full of it. So I’d recommend skipping Part II of the Epilogue unless you’re REALLY interested in the philosophy of history.

The BIGGEST problem I had by far was the translator’s decision to NOT translate the French and German in text. Clearly this is a translation from Russian, but apparently all English versions of this book do not translate the French and German and you are forced to read footnotes or endnotes. This was insanely difficult on my iPad (RIP dear Kindle) and the jumping was not perfect. In addition within the footnotes the publisher should’ve created hyperlinks to references in other foot/endnotes.

Recommendation: THIS is the Russian novel to read if you ask me. I would definitely recommend taking your time and even taking breaks while reading it, but it was beautifully written and historically fascinating. I’m sure there are many other things I could discuss but what hasn’t been discussed with novels of this caliber?

Opening Line: “Eh bien, mon prince, Gênes et Lucques ne sont plus que des apanages, des estates, de la famille Buonaparte.” (“Well, my prince, Genoa and Lucca are now no more than possessions, estates, of the Buonaparte family.”)

Closing Line: “In the first case, the need was to renounce the consciousness of a nonexistent immobility in space and recognize a movement we do not feel; in the present case, it is just as necessary to renounce a nonexistent freedom and recognize a dependence we do not feel.” (Whited out.)

Additional Quotes from War and Peace
“He used to say there were only two sources of human vice: idleness and superstition; and that there were only two virtues: activity and intelligence.” (87)

“As happens with lonely women who have long lived without the society of men, on Anatole’s appearance all three women in Prince Nikolai Andreevich’s house felt equally that their life had not been life until that moment. The power of thought, feeling, observation instantly increased tenfold in them, as if their life, going on in darkness till then, was suddenly lit up by a new light filled with meaning.” (226)

“But as a young man in love trembles and thrills, not daring to utter what he dreams of by night, and looks about fearfully, seeking help or the possibility of delay and flight, when the desired moment comes and he stands alone with her, so no Rostov, having attained what he desired more than anything in the world, did not know how to approach the sovereign and presented thousands of considerations to himself for why it was unsuitable, improper, and impossible.” (287)

“Looking into Napoleon’s eyes, Prince Andrei thought about the insignificance of grandeur, about the insignificance of life, the meaning of which no one could understand, and about the still greater insignificance of death, the meaning of which no one among the living could understand or explain.” (293)

“Pierre was struck for the first time at this meeting by the infinite diversity of human minds, which makes it so that no truth presents itself to two people in the same way. Even those members who seemed to be on his side understood him in their own fashion, with limitations and alterations which Pierre could not agree to, since his main need consisted precisely in conveying his thought to others exactly as he understood it himself.” (436)

“The main thing he wanted to weep about was a sudden, vivid awareness of the terrible opposition between something infinitely great and indefinable that was in him and something narrow and fleshly that he himself, and even she, was. This opposition tormented him and gladdened him while she sang.” (466)

“Each man lives for himself, uses his freedom to achieve his personal goals, and feels with his whole being that right now he can or cannot do such-and-such an action; but as soon as he does it, this action, committed at a certain moment in time, becomes irreversible and makes itself the property of history, in which it has not a free but a predestined significance. There are two sides of each man’s life: his personal life, which is the more free the more abstract its interests, and his elemental, swarmlike life, where man inevitably fulfills the laws prescribed for him. Man lives consciously for himself, but serves as an unconscious instrument for the achievement of historical, universally human goals. An action once committed is irrevocable and its effect, coinciding in time with millions of actions of other people, acquires historical significance. The higher a man stands on the social ladder, the greater the number of people he is connected with, the more power he has over other people, the more obvious is the predestination and inevitability of his every action.” (605)

“It was strange for Princess Marya to think that now, at a moment when such grief filled her soul, there could be rich and poor people, and that the rich would not help the poor.” (726)

“For Kutuzov this was mathematically clear, as it is clear that, in a game of checkers, if I have one man less and keep trading man for man, I will certainly lose, and therefore I should not keep trading. When my opponent has sixteen pieces and I have fourteen, I am only one-eighth weaker than he; but when I have traded thirteen pieces, he will be three times stronger than I.” (753)

“To study the laws of history, we must change completely the object of observation, leave kings, ministers, and generals alone, and study the uniform, infinitesimal elements that govern the masses. No one can tell to what extent it is given to man to achieve in this way an understanding of the laws of history; but it is obvious that the possibility of grasping historical laws lies only on this path, and that on this path human reason has not yet made one millionth of those efforts the historians have made in describing the deeds of various kings, commanders, and ministers, and in setting forth their reflections on the occasion of those deeds.” (823)

“He suffered, as people suffer who stubbornly undertake something impossible—not because of its difficulty, but because of its unsuitability to their nature; he suffered from fear that he would weaken at the decisive moment and, as a result, would lose respect for himself.” (924)

“He experienced an awareness of estrangement from everything earthly and a joyful and strange lightness of being. Without haste or worry, he waited for what lay ahead of him. The dread, the eternal, the unknown and far off, of which he had never ceased to feel the presence throughout his life, was now close to him and—by that strange lightness of being he experienced—almost comprehensible and palpable.” (982)

“The totality of causes of phenomena is inaccessible to the human mind. But the need to seek causes has been put into the soul of man. And the human mind, without grasping in their countlessness and complexity the conditions of phenomena, of which each separately may appear as a cause, takes hold of the first, most comprehensible approximation and says: here is the cause.” (987)

“The satisfaction of his needs—for good food, cleanliness, freedom—now that he was deprived of them all, seemed perfect happiness to Pierre, and the choice of an occupation, that is, of a life, now, when that choice was so limited, seemed to him such an easy matter that he forgot that a superfluity of life’s comforts destroys all the happiness of the satisfaction of one’s needs, and that a greater freedom to choose one’s occupation, the freedom which in this life was granted him by education, wealth, social position—precisely that freedom made the choice of an occupation insolubly difficult and destroyed the very need and possibility of an occupation.” (1013)

“Pierre’s insanity consisted in the fact that he did not wait, as before, for personal reasons, which he called people’s merits, in order to love them, but love overflowed his heart, and, loving people without reason, he discovered the unquestionable reasons for which it was worth loving them.” (1124)

“Country dwellers, having no clear concept of what causes rain, say, depending on whether they would like to have rain or fair weather: the wind has scattered the clouds, the wind has gathered the clouds. It is the same with general historians: sometimes, when they want to, when it suits their theory, they say that power is the result of events; and sometimes, when they need to prove something else, they say that power produces events.” (1184)


21 thoughts on “Book 248: War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy”

  1. What a way to end the year – reading the creme de la creme of the Russians. Its been many years since I read this one but I agree with you that the war bits just got in the way. the name changes confused the heck out of me until I made a bookmark listing all the variations. Of course that works only for paper versions….


    1. I’ve never been one to keep lists! I just make up new names if I have to. But surprisingly the diminutives all made sense to me so I pretty much knew who was who with the exception of the two Nikolas. That I had to wait on clues but luckily one was significant younger than the other.


  2. Congratulations! I completely feel apart with my challenges this year, and War and Peace is quite an intimidating book to end on. Glad to hear you really enjoyed it!


  3. I love Tolstoy. I fell in love with his writing (perhaps not all his characters) when I read AK at 14 so he has a special place in my literary heart. I read W&P several years later in the summer, but it also only took me about three weeks. It’s much more readable than most people think, but then again, I love big books. The love stories and the characters are much more engaging than even in AK (i liked Lenin/Kitty though). Like you, I wanted all the war parts to be over so I could get back to the characters I loved. Tolstoy is an incredibly emotional writer which I think surprises a lot of people. He’s really able to capture history and emotion. He said that W&P is not a fiction because he wanted to capture that point in Russian history. I forgot which translation I read, but I think I may have one wherein the translator did translate the non-Russian text. I read French almost fluently so I’m not sure if I’m misremembering. Translation for Russian works matter so much.

    If you get the chance, there is a 1950s Hollywood film adaptation which is not the best, but not too bad. Audrey Hepburn is Natasha (perfect) and Henry Fonda is Pierre. The film makes the war parts more bearable too. It’s a bit long, but that’s what the FFwed button is for.

    Happy New Year, Geoff! I really like your reviews and thanks for dropping by blog at times too. Cheers.


    1. Thanks! I’ll definitely have to check out that film version. I don’t watch a lot of films and there are hundreds of classics I’ve never even thought of watching! Hope you have a happy, healthy and successful 2014!


  4. Yay! You finished it! I also was surprised by how much I liked this book–well the family bits at least. Honestly I even kind of liked the war bits, especially the scenes with Napoleon. Did you make it through the second epilogue? I tried but just couldn’t. I have an old fashioned paper copy which was SUPER heavy to hold…so even though the flipping back and fourth on the iPad was annoying maybe it caused less physical pain in the long run? 🙂


    1. The war part was great! Even when he started to get philosophical talking about who writes what and how battles are won. I did make it through the second epilogue but it was really just going through the motions I only have a vague idea of what it was about. And I definitely would NOT have read it if it wasn’t a digital copy! It would just be too big it was mostly just tech pain inconvenience.


  5. Hey Geoff, I know you read this quite a while ago, but I just finished it. I also enjoyed it, but not quite as much as Anna K, and yeah I coulda lived without epilogue II. Otherwise, it’s a pretty astonishing accomplishment for the writer. Plus, I got a little bit of history, in a palatable format, about a period/event that I am largely ignorant (there were pretty significant goings on this side of the pond the same time, and my traditional American education focused on those). My review: http://100greatestnovelsofalltimequest.blogspot.com/2016/06/war-and-peace-by-leo-tolstoy-69-down-31.html

    Liked by 1 person

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