Sunday, April 17, 2011

Book Review: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

I'll get back to writing about real things at some point, I promise. But until then I'm going to keep up the book reflection part of this blog while I watch Bashkortostani public access news because that's what there's to do in Cleveland. I'll start when I start. Until then, well, books.

As I write this I realize, I'm not born to be a writer. I might be able to turn a phrase, to tell a story, but I will never be able to really weave something true to life, or even a gross enough approximation. You might think you have style, maybe some class, and then you look up and compare to - not even Tolstoy - but Grann or Tyler the Creator and realize that it is hopeless to start. All you'd be doing is beating against the current.

Heaping praise on War and Peace isn't even an attractive thing to do. It's a goddamned classic of literature, it hardly needs my validation. But it is relevant. If you happen to be unemployed for a decent stretch of time, it's worth picking up.

Why did I pick it up? Because I was told to, and I listen to my elders. A Real Person Writer told me I ought to get into Russian fiction, so I asked him what. After going back and forth between his collection and what I could find in the Cleveland house, we settled on W&P. So what I'm trying to say is, I did it to try to impress, to try and validate myself. Not sure if it worked, but at least I picked something up along the way.

The plot is simple, actually. The setting is Napoleonic, from Austerlitz in 1805 to about 1820. There are 5 major families, but really 4 main characters: Natasha and Nicholas Rostov, Andrew Balkonsky, and Pierre Bezhukov. Everyone has their favorites, I'm sure, but Natasha is a Audrey Hepburn-type, Nicholas is a headstrong man who wants to have a rustic/heroic streak. Andrew is an older, wiser, Nicholas and Pierre is Tolstoy's mouthpiece, a man who falls into money and then fences with the consequences. They all have their pros and cons (I'm #teamandrew) to be sure, and the side characters are just as full and often more interesting, like the dastardly Dolokhov or probably my personal favorite, the speech-defected Denisov. It's fairly enjoyable that Tolstoy feels no need to wrap up everybody's story and make sure we have a Fugees-esque finality to everyone, even if there are two wholly separate epilogues.

It's about more than Napoleon, of course. Tolstoy takes his time, going on monologues to destroy the 1860's concept of greatness, attempt to reconstruct historiography, or prove that God exists and there is no such thing as free will. All heady stuff, for sure. And it's difficult to pretend these are all some soft subtleties, Tolstoy hits you over the head with these things and talks like a college professor for ten, twenty pages at a time. The book is certainly one of those big important books, and again, I wish I was a better writer so I could take some lessons of the craft from Tolstoy. The way he describes characters, the way he continually talks through people's heads is fun to read and interesting to look at.

But as I said, I'm hardly a writer. All the same, using rich people as a lens through which to view history is a more interesting plot device than it sounds. Tolstoy says straight off, "I don't know the serf classes and I will not pretend to" in one of his monologues. And with rich people you can travel, speak French, and do a whole lot in that sort. And the protagonist of the book, Pierre, is an only moderately opaque version of Tolstoy himself. And all of the war scenes are of officers riding around, taken from Tolstoy's Caucasus years into the steppes west of Moscow.

W&P is probably most known for its war scenes, widely lauded as some of the most accurate in the history of literature. I wouldn't know, of course, but there's lots of interesting looks at the concept of bravery, the indefinability of glory, and such and sundry 19th century concepts that still live on today. It's interesting to read about how these concepts were tired and irrelevant in the 1860s, and yet we still use them today. How we still talk of Napoleon's glory, of the pomp of battle, like we're still marching out in red wool coats in a line of battle, shooting 3 shots a minute under Major Sharpe.

Tolstoy refers to the guerilla war in Spain at the time, and talks degradingly about the Russians' version of the same. It's clear that he didn't like how war was, but certainly doesn't care for where it's going. Making Dolokhov a guerilla was probably not a coincidence.

There's lots to talk about, about war, about class, in War & Peace. I'm not going to pretend to be the Spark Notes version, though. It's a good book to read if you have a month or two to kill.

No comments:

Post a Comment