Book Review: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (Five Stars)


Book Review: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

(Five Stars)

“It is not beauty that endures, it’s love that makes us see the beauty.”

This is a book about love: love of self, love of country, love of others. A monumental work: over a thousand pages of text with a huge cast and historic sweep. Yet draws the reader intimately into the lives of a circle of families on the eve of a catastrophe which will transform their lives and their culture.

“The entry of the famished army in the rich and deserted city resulted in fires and looting and the destruction of both the army and the wealthy city.”

Two stories intertwine: the intimate inner life of a circle of young friends worthy of an Austen or Dickens and a detailed analysis of Russia’s role in the Napoleonic wars worthy of a Gibbons or Churchill. For the young adults, the real war is within. For the soldiers, the conflict is as often with and between their own leaders.

“Drain the blood from men’s veins and put in water instead, then there will be no more war.”

Wide-ranged critique of his society from the unconscious blight of classes (all major characters are nobility) to the shallowness of celebrity to free thinking to mysticism. Even Freemasonry gets a look. Because so few of us know anything (no matter what we think) about Europe two hundred years ago, this reads like epic fantasy, creating a culture and conflict so other as to seem imaginary. Comparisons with The Lord of the Rings are entirely in order.

“Physical and spiritual wounds alike can yet heal only as a result of a vital force from within. Love awoke and so did life.”

There are stumbling blocks. The Russian practice of having many names for the same person bewilders the inattentive reader. Some characters are so hopeless that one wishes for their early demise, but Tolstoy has a better plan. Place names, especially directions within Moscow, cry for a map. (Who know: Red Square was Red Square before the Reds; and guerilla warfare, both the concept and term, were not twentieth century inventions?)

“By loving people without cause he discovered indubitable causes for loving them.”

Laced with quotable epigrams and foreign phrases. Unfortunately some of the latter are mistranslated. For example, “au nom de Dieu!” is not “For heaven’s sake.”

Du sublime au redicule n’y a qu’un pas.” (From the sublime to the ridiculous is but a step.)

Much has been made of Tolstoy’s later spiritual conversion and his influence on Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, but this novel testifies that Tolstoy was already troubled by the variance he observed between Christianity as practiced in his nation and day and that portrayed in the Gospels. His spiritualism may strike others as naïve, but it is not uninformed.

“The Russians [army], half of whom died, did all that could or should have been done … and they are not to blame because other Russians, sitting in warm rooms, proposed that they should have done the impossible.”

Skip the Epilogues. The first is an unsatisfying drawing together of plot threads which didn’t need tying off, the second is an exercise in historicism as egregious (and boring) as the supposed laws of history which Tolstoy critiques.

“Watching the movement of history, we see that every year and with each new writer, opinion as to what is good for mankind changes.”

Glad I read it. Wish I had read it years ago, but suspect I would have been bored with the soap opera or the historical analysis, the play of which contribute to the sense of being there. Could it have been done in less than a thousand pages? Sure, but a lot of good stuff wouldn’t be there.

“Just as those who have taken part in a battle generally describe it, that is, as they would like it to have been … and as sounds well, but not at all as it really was.”

3 thoughts on “Book Review: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (Five Stars)

  1. Embarrassed to say I’ve never read War and Peace. Maybe an abbreviated Cliff Notes thing around college age. You make it sound wonderful and it must be. It has stood the test of time, as befitting all classics.

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