War and Peace

 

I’ve finished it. After over half a million words, I’ve finished this “masterpiece of world literature”.

486px-Leon_tolstoi

First, a warning. I am not a literary critic- I stopped studying literature at 15. (I am generally grateful for this, as it has enabled me to read what I like and form my own opinions. However, I am also grateful for being introduced to Shakespeare, Browning, Hardy and e e cummings at school.)

I started ‘War and Peace’ with a great deal of enthusiasm. Having seen the excellent BBC TV dramatisation I broke my long-standing resolution not to read novels in translation, which I had adopted because there is so much I will never have time to read in English alone.

I read it on a Kindle; the eldest Miss Oblique pointed out its unwieldy size as a physical book. The Kindle show how far you hve read. I didn’t at first see it as a challenge, but did gulp at realising I’d only got to 30%. I stalled at 70% and started to read Trollope’s ‘Dr Thorne’, again inspired by a (somewhat less good) TV adaptation. The two novels continued side by side, but inevitably the good Dr Thorne finished way earlier.

At the 70% mark, I must admit to finding the ‘spiritual’ passages of ‘War and Peace’ tedious. Possibly this is just a personal problem- I’ve always been a plot-driven reader. Additionally, I started to find that the analyses of historical motivation, causes and effects dragged.

So, reverting to my old principle that life is too short to persist with a book you are not enjoying, I stopped and a little guiltily skimmed through to the end. (After all, this is Tolstoy, right? It’s meant to be uplifting and improving.) I’m glad I took this decision.

Now purists may say that I have done this all the wrong way, especially by starting with the TV series. I have very successfully done this before with Dickens and others. ( See In praise of our mutual friend, Mr Dickens) However, it does mean that the “discovery” aspect of the plot loses impact. To be honest, I don’t think I would have followed the plot without an introductory guide. Now here I get a little controversial, and will no doubt be dismissed by serious literary types. I found the plot rather thin. Some of the characters are very appealing: I especially liked Pierre Bezukhov, although this may also be coloured by the very sympathetic TV portrayal. Generally, though, I thought it lacked a main narrative thread. ‘Our Mutual Friend’ has a similar cast of characters, but the plot, although tortuous, is strong.

The narrative thread is diluted by the passages, mentioned above, of spiritual and historical philosophising. I must be missing something here. I have a different view of what a novel should be; I think the fiction itself should develop ‘insights’, rather than them being spelled out explicitly. Wow, I’m developing a literary philosophy. Or theory. Or rationale.

In the end, I didn’t care too much about the fate of the characters. I like a happy ending; I suppose it was. Two long epilogues dissipated the effect of the conclusion, such as it was.

Anyway, I’ve read it. Perhaps I should have learnt Russian first… or not have watched the TV version… or have read it with no distractions. I wouldn’t recommend it; it has made me decide to revert to my principles of not reading literature in translation and not finishing anything I am not enjoying.

Footnote: while checking a few facts, I noticed that Tostoy said ‘War and Peace’ was not a novel.

 

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2 thoughts on “War and Peace

  1. You’re completely right about the spiritual and philosophical passages dragging, and I found the extensive detailed battle plans and descriptions pretty dull as well. I personally felt as though there were supposed to be several strands of character stories as well as just Pierre’s, even though the TV series focused on him. Unfortunately the lengthly random philosophy and morality seems to be a bit of a habit in classic Russian literature…

    Liked by 1 person

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