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War and Peace

War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy,  Aylmer Maude,  Louise Maude "What is the power that moves people?"
"What force moves the nations?"

Neither as onerous as I feared, or as good as I hoped. Can I say that the great classic, ‘War and Peace’ was… just OK?

Much is made of the book’s ‘epic’ nature, but really, it’s mostly the story of Pierre (think: nerdy trust fund kid trying to ‘find’ himself) and his associates, in Russia during the years leading up to and during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812.

Since the book was written around 50 years later, it’s definitely a ‘historical’ rather than contemporary novel – the equivalent to a WWII story released today. Still, it gives a lot of insight into the social realities of a certain time period in Russia – served up with a heaping portion of Tolstoy’s own philosophies regarding war, politics, religion, social issues – you name it. Some of his ideas (especially regarding the evils of war) I certainly agreed with, others I certainly did not (especially the proper role of women). (He’s specifically anti-feminist, and thinks a good woman’s job is to be a good ‘listener’ and helpmeet to her man.) The character in the book whom I liked/sympathized with the most was definitely Helene Kuragin, which, I’m sure, would horrify Tolstoy, who clearly wants his readers to sympathize with Natasha, who is just horribly boring.

Still, there’s a lot of interesting things going on here. The whole dynamic of a nation at war with a country whose culture it idolizes is fascinating. And there’re duels, battles, tragedies, romances… you name it, there are plenty of pages for it. (Although, honestly, plenty of today’s ‘epics’ are far longer, due to this multiple-book thing we’ve got going on these days.)

One thing I did not get. What was up with the whole thing about Marya could not marry Nikolai if their respective siblings (Andrei & Natasha) married each other? Does Russian culture have a taboo on more than one marriage between two different families?

One note - although the portrayal of the complexities of social interactions and the forces that work together and against each other to form history is a great strength of this book - the writing is not. The phrasing is frequently surprisingly awkward and repetitive. I wondered if it was due to the translation, but I checked several passages in different translations, and retained my opinion. I did also read an essay on Tolstoy that noted that he was not known as a prose stylist. Ah well.