Reviewing classics is always a touchy thing to do… but I’m so freakin proud of myself for reading this book that I had to document it some way. How did I do it? Simple, I read it online with little bits being sent to my email each day… that way I never knew how many millions of pages I had left, and believed that I was making progress.
I have had this book mentioned to me, and quoted to me for years, but I have never met anyone who has actually read it. True the size is daunting… but then again… so is the material. To be honest I didn’t have the first clue what this book was going to be about. It turns out that the reader follows several people, of nobility through the Napoleonic invasion of Russia. When I say several, I mean it… you’ll want to keep a list, and leave lots of room because each person has several variations of their names that are used interchangeably. We follow about 12 main characters and a few other extraneous ones from before the invasion through the end of the conflict. Most of them are nobility and they go through all kinds of soap opera drama, generally self inflicted. Guy A is in love with Girl A but she’s poor, so he marries Girl B who’s really in love with her brother (Guy B I guess) who loves Guy A’s sister (Girl C?), but she tries to run off with Guy C who was just screwing with her head, so now she’s tainted and no one wants to marry Girl C. But Girl C is best of friends with Girl A so they hang out and throw little pity parties for themselves. Meanwhile Guy D is everyone’s pal, who’s married to Girl D who’s really a bit of a hoe, so he wanders about joining clubs and thinking to himself. Then Guy D figures out that he’s in love with Girl C, but she’s still in love with Guy B. Then the war breaks out and all of the guys other than Guy D go to war, and the Girls whine and cry about it… oh, and they move around a lot… seems like they are always packing up and moving… not that they do any of the packing… that’s what servants are for!
So just when we think we are getting a handle on who is who, who they are in love with at the moment, and what the heck is going on… we have a cut scene to – history class… Tolstoy will rant and rave for a bit about war in general, Napoleon, or the idiocy of both Historians and the Russian Military leaders. Okay you think, I can deal with a bit of sarcastic Russian historical education, but just as soon as you get your mind in gear for that – BAM you are knee deep in fighting and trying to remember just who the German guy was and how he was related to all of the people you were reading about before the cut scene.
This book ends up feeling like 3 books mixed into one – a satirical historical text, a family drama, and a wartime epic. Now each in its own is a very interesting tale, but when mashed up together, they can be rather jarring to the mind. I do have to agree with the others that the battle scenes are very well written, and I did enjoy Tolstoy’s commentary on the Russian leadership during the war… and after a while I liked some of his characters. But don’t get too attached to them… Tolstoy has no problem killing off the people you like, and when you get to the end, and are expecting a huge revelation, or some sort of major explosive dynamic finale… the curtain closes without even a spark.
Still, this is a brilliant work… I’m glad I read it, and I wish I knew someone else who had because it would be interesting to discuss it with someone. It will never go down as one of my favorite novels, but it will go down as one of my lifelong accomplishments. Tolstoy’s writing appears excellent (remember, we’re reading a translation so we have to give them credit too) and he has a brilliant wit and handle on his subject matter. I don’t agree with much of his philosophy but it is certainly an interesting topic to read on. If you can make it through 1300 pages of one book, I recommend at least giving this a try.