At lunchtime today I finished reading War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. (Tolstoy pictured here, courtesy of NYPL Digital Gallery.) I read the Louise and Aylmer Maude translation, which moved along very well, and I read the whole thing on an electronic reader. It took me just about two months to read, starting it exactly this past July 1. I have wanted to read it for awhile, and I am glad I did. However, I have a lot of mixed feelings about the book. It wasn't too hard to read, as the story flowed well, although it was hard to keep track of all the characters. I was up to about page 600 before I got a real sense of who the main characters were!
I know that when we read an important work of nineteenth century literature that much of it may already be a part of our consciousness to the extent that it may seem a bit unoriginal. Even taking that into account, I was puzzled why this book seems to be so highly valued. I got a lot more out of reading Anna Karenina a number of years ago. But I did enjoy the historical parts of it, especially the French taking over Moscow. I thought the issues of war were handled the best; I didn't feel Tolstoy lingered over or glorified the battle scenes, but he did emphasize quite well the devastating effects, both macro and micro, of brutal hand-to-hand combat as well as ever more effective armaments used and its ability to kill more people.
The bravery and patriotism of the Russian people in fighting Napoloen shines through, although Tolstoy is critical of the Russians at times, also. Some of his characters, even the Russians, revere Napoleon while others revile him. The last number of chapters are essentially an essay by Tolstoy on power and free will. It didn't really seem to quite fit.
I know that the novel was serialized before publication, as a number of famous nineteenth century novels were. Maybe this accounted for the sometimes disjointed feel of the book, but then again maybe that is the feel that Tolstoy wanted.
Bottom line: if you have ever wanted to read War and Peace, I say go for it, but I wouldn't suggest dropping everything and running to your nearest public library to get a copy. If you really want to read some great books, read Moby Dick by Herman Melville or Ulysses by James Joyce. (And if you find them difficult, you can surely get a reading guide at a local library.) But that is probably for the subject of another blog post!