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Monday, December 27, 2010

Well Begun and All Done: War and Peace

The book: War and Peace

The author: Seriously?

Opening line: "'En bien, mon prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now merely estates, the private estates of the Buonaparte family.'"

Closing line: "While they were away Pierre, Natasha (now a countess in her own right), Marya and her nephew Coco, the old Count Rostov and his wife and Sonya also stayed on at Otradnoe for the whole summer and the winter of 1813 until Nikolai and Andrei could finally return."

Yes, Nation, the Solipsist just read War and Peace. To answer your next question: Because it was there.

As a supposedly literate type, the Solipsist has always felt somewhat ashamed at the gaps in his literary experience. So occasionally he takes it upon himself to fill one of these gaps. Think of it as a public service: We read the classics so you don't have to. We can proudly report that we have read many of the great unreadables: Remembrance of Things Past; Moby-Dick (yes, the whole thing--honestly, the first 100 pages and the last 50 are terrific--it's those 700 pages about penguins in the middle that kill you); a heap of Dickens; and now War and Peace.

The problem comes when one tries to comment on the thing: What is one supposed to add to the discussion? We feel pressure to come up with some statement of awe--to explain to our assembled masses just why this novel is considered the greatest literary masterpiece of, like, ever. We're not really sure. Let's put it this way: We're glad we read it, but it's never going to make our top-ten list of un-put-downable prose.

Of course, the novel is impressive. What strikes us is Tolstoy's ability to create a truly multi-dimensional character. Take Pierre (aka, Petya, aka Bezukhov, aka Count Bezukhov--you have to get used to characters having multiple names). When we first see him, through the eyes of a St. Petersburg socialite, he seems somewhat buffoonish; when we see him through the eyes of Prince Andrei, a friend, he appears likable; by the end of the novel, he has attained a certain nobility--in more than just title. In this respect, Tolstoy's characters are among the most realistic you will find in any books.

We can appreciate, too, the work and thought that go into a novel like this, dealing with the most profound of issues. For us, Tolstoy's major philosophical point, at least in terms of war and peace, is best expressed by one of the generals, Kutuzov: "He did not know how things stood, but he knew, as old people wise in life know, that time would do everything--everything would happen of itself. And of themselves is the best way for historical events to happen." Throughout the novel, the author intersperses historical analyses, debunking any sort of "great man" theory of military success: The retrospective laurels heaped upon winners of great victories are merely attempts by later generations to rationalize the workings of fate. Battles are won and lost not because of brilliant planning, but because of the nearly random and unpredictable actions of thousands of individuals.

At the same time, Tolstoy the author revels in his own ability to dictate the outcomes of his characters' lives. If "war" is an instrument of fate, then "peace," in the form of romantic and family dramas, is the instrument of the novelist. By the end of the novel, all the major characters have been satisfactorily paired off--we find this out, indeed, in the very last line when we read, as an aside, that Natasha is "now a countess." Perhaps the overall message is that war is ultimately a chaotic, unpredictable affair, but peace and happiness require careful planning.


  1. I'm glad you read it so I don't have to. And if Stacy suggests it for our next classic for the book club, I'm quitting. Hear that Stac?

  2. I like your conclusion and wonder if Tolstoy's message is applicable today too: Wars are easy to start but messy (and may not turn out the way you predicted); Peace requires hard work.

  3. O.K. NOBODY (least of all, me) would deny that W/P is a great novel (to do that, I'd actually have to read the damn thing!) BUT, and here's a pet peeve of mine, to quote from a translation and say that Tolstoy "says/writes/whatever" is simply wrong! We know from the translation WHAT the book is about, but the SPECIFIC felicitous/infelicitous turn of phrase/quote/whatever we cannot attribute to the author, the translator, or the editor, say, without reading the original IN the original. Pedantic? Maybe. BUT let's consider: Victor Hugo NEVER wrote "The Hunchback of Notre Dame". He wrote "Notre Dame de Paris", which places THE CHURCH as the main character, NOT the Hunchback! Marcel Proust NEVER wrote "A Remberance of Things Past". The closest accurate translation is "In Search of Lost Time". This changes the focus from the accuracy of the memory to the quest fo trying to FIND accuracy in memory! I could go on all night, but Professor Higgins is calling.

  4. We somewhat agree with Anonymous' diatribe about the impossibility of judging a writer's style through the medium of a translator--indeed, you're judging the translator's style. Not that that's always a bad thing: Gregory Rabassa, for example, is an absolute master. You will note, though, that we largely avoided commentary on the style of WP and discussed themes and content. Frankly, we must say that the prose left something to be desired, which we will lay at the pen of the translator.