Disclaimer: I’m going to get a little Andy Rooney on you (but I feel entitled after all the time I’ve put into reading this book). I am definitely not a qualified literary critic, so just take my words for what they are, a rant of a girl who doesn’t feel she’s gotten a good return on her investment.
A few nights ago, my family shared a hotel room on our way to Prince Edward Island, and my brother was concerned he wouldn’t be able to sleep.
“Mom, do you have any sleeping medicine?” he asked.
I looked over at him, lifted up my two-hundred pound tome and said, “You can have my copy of War and Peace.”
“Why are you reading that book? Seriously?”
I’ve fielded this question many times in the last three weeks, and the answer, “because I want to read all of Tolstoy’s great works” now convinces myself even less than it convinces my friends and family.
In an episode of Seinfeld, Jerry tricks Elaine that Tolstoy originally wanted to name his magnum opus War, What’s it Good For, instead of War and Peace. After reading almost 900 pages and being none too impressed, I am inclined to meld the two titles. This may sound like blasphemy to loyal Tolstoyans (not the cult, just his faithful readers), but if War and Peace were submitted to a publisher today, I suspect it might be trashed.
With no real sense of plot, long, drawn out descriptions of the exact set-up for every single battle, and random philosophical musings that border on dreamlike stream of consciousness makes War and Peace one of the novels that I am sure I will not endeavor to read in the original. Tolstoy himself did say that War and Peace wasn’t supposed to be a novel, but to me, that seems like a bit of a cop out, a loophole that allows him to do whatever the heck he wanted and string readers along for an agonizing 1220 pages. But I am not one to give up, so I will keep pushing through the last 300 pages.
Reading War and Peace is like fishing: you sit there for a long time hoping to latch on to something good. Sometimes it happens, but
often it doesn’t. The book does have its redeeming moments, and these are so great that they make you almost forget how boring the last 100 pages have been. I imagine it’s somewhat like how a new mother forgets the pain of childbirth while holding her newborn for the first time. And I actually do love the characters; they are so well-developed that you feel you may have actually met them, and Tolstoy has the gift of giving each of his hundreds of creations a defining nuance. It is just that so much of the book doesn’t focus on the individual characters, but on the details of (not surprisingly) the war.
If War and Peace was the first piece of Russian lit I had picked up, I probably would have given up. I love Anna Karenina. I really like The Death of Ivan Ilyich. And I wanted to be able to say that I like War and Peace. So far, not so good. But who knows, I still have 300 pages left; maybe the ending will redeem the many hours spent with the soporific volume, wishing that Napoleon Bonaparte would just give up already…