In the English world, if War and Peace comes up in conversation, it’s rarely discussed as an actual book that you read. Instead, it has become a semi-mythic symbol for a work so gigantic in scope it’s beyond the understanding of mere mortals. So the first thing that comes up is its length. The second thing: its alleged unreadability. Take a look at the inexplicably hostile TV Tropes entry for War and Peace. Or the countless comments to the effect that a person’s life goal is to read War and Peace cover to cover at some point. The mere act of reading and finishing War and Peace has become an achievement in itself. The book is a colossus, indomitable, towering over all, and yet the discourse surrounding it in popular culture rarely has anything to do with the contents.
Which is a shame. I’ve recently finished my re-read of War and Peace, this time the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation; while I’m usually reluctant to approach highly-regarded classics thanks to general weariness from hearing about them so much, War and Peace is an incredible…thing (more on that later) and one of the great achievements of world literature as a whole.
To review War and Peace is utterly pointless. I know there are one-star reviews on Amazon but seriously, nothing I’m going to say is going to sway anyone’s decision whether to read it or not, and if you don’t recognize the artistry and ambition of Tolstoy enough to at least respect his gigantic project I don’t think there’s much hope for you anyway. Rather, I’d like to collect some thoughts and personal reactions after this re-read. It’s difficult to grapple with a text of this magnitude, so I’ll start with some basic observations.
1. It’s not that long.
The TV Tropes page claims that the book is actually 8,000 pages long, but that current editions have the type reduced to fit a more reasonable length.
This is a filthy lie.
The P&V translation, which has reasonably sized type, clocks in at 1,200 pages. Tolstoy is also quite readable—I’d even say compulsively so; I found myself averaging 100 to 200 pages a day and I don’t consider myself a fast reader. Keep in mind that the last time I read War and Peace I was 12 years old, so I might as well have been coming to the text fresh.
Brandon Sanderson writes books this length for individual volumes of 10-part series, and those aren’t nearly as engaging. As a point of comparison, I referred to China Mieville’s The Scar as “the book that never ends” once I got to the second half, and that was half the length of War and Peace but a real slog all the same. I didn’t even finish Embassytown, which is half the length of The Scar, because it bored the snot out of me. In comparison, War and Peace was a breeze.
War and Peace’s legendary length has been greatly exaggerated. I don’t see how finishing it is some sort of momentous accomplishment, either…I mean, you read a book. Whoop dee doo.
2. It’s not, strictly speaking, a novel
I’m not really sure what War and Peace is. I mean, you could call it “the saga of three noble Russian families in the years 1805-1813” but there are chunks you could just as easily call “Tolstoy talks history” and stuff that’s just plain historical chronicle sprinkled throughout. There’s no discernable plot, though the interactions between families and between characters have definite arcs. The characters have incredible depth to them, they feel like real historical figures; meanwhile, the real historical figures are ciphers and obviously fictionalized—this aspect puts it in stark opposition to most historical novels today, but that’s rather expected. There are certainly themes, oh yes, and War and Peace is definitely about something, namely, exploring the relationship between history, literature, historical memory in relation to Napoleon’s 1812 campaign in Russia, the idea of Russian character, patriotism, historical agency, life, death. This was Tolstoy’s most ambitious work and all geared towards the Big Questions, and providing Big Answers.
And Tolstoy had to invent a new form for such an enormous project, one that hasn’t been replicated since. He himself seemed confused about exactly what he’d created:
What is War and Peace? It is not a novel still less an epic poem, still less a historical chronicle. War and Peace is what the author wanted and was able to express, in the form in which it is expressed. (“A Few words Apropos of the Book War and Peace”, 1217 in the V&P edition)
Uh…thanks, Tolstoy. That really clarifies things.
As the pages go by, more and more philosophy of history finds its way into the text; however, these don’t feel like interjections detracting from the text by straight polemic, but instead organic to the narratives it accompanies. Like broken fractures reflecting back on the straight prose fiction before and after. The extent to which this odd structure works is a testament to the author; War and Peace has multiple layers and styles working in concert, seldom faltering.
I won’t say Tolstoy was wholly successful. The Epilogue feels out-of-place after the rather perfect combination of narrative threads that ends the main text though is still, I think, necessary. But I don’t believe any work is perfect, and with ambitions so high even “mostly successful” puts War and Peace above other, more compact works.
3. It doesn’t matter what translation you read
Unlike the rather dismal record for Polish-to-English translations of Henryk Sienkiewicz, only recently corrected, Tolstoy translates oddly well. Even the earliest translation by Constance Garnett, for all its supposed shortcomings, is still engrossing. We could say Tolstoy’s vision was so strong it shines through the process of translation regardless. I think there’s a simpler explanation: the kind of translator who tackles a project as enormous, complex, and multi-layered as Tolstoy’s work is the same sort who’s going to do a good job. The weight of ambition ends up carrying through.
My favoured Russian translators are, of course, Pevear and Volokhonsky, enough that I’ll read their translations for works I had no desire to read beforehand.
I also happen to own the Bromfield “original version”, which I don’t actually recommend. While billed as shorter than the “final version” and graced with pictures, a more accurate title would’ve been “Tolstoy’s first draft.” For the life of me, I don’t know why this is advertised as an alternative to the P&V translation. It’s only of interest if you’ve already read War and Peace, since you can then appreciate just how much Tolstoy expanded the scope of his work.
4. Tolstoy’s Theory of History
Long before the historical profession moved passed Ranke, Tolstoy questioned the “great man theory” of history and instead posited that the force of history lies with the masses of people who don’t make it into historical accounts. This follows from the questions that came to consume Tolstoy as he researched War and Peace:
Why did the 1812 campaign happen as it did? Why, despite Napoleon winning every battle he fought in Russia, did he end up losing his army in a disastrous retreat?
Tolstoy found the explanations of various historians working from the great man theory wanting when faced with the strange flow of events during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. The outcome ran contrary to reason; by all accounts, Napoleon should have won.
Tolstoy married together fiction and non-fiction to play out a reversal in power: that the great men, the most powerful men, were in fact the weakest; that it was in the actions and ideas of the people supposedly ruled that history plays out as it does. Napoleon, to Tolstoy, was not a great man, but a pathetic one, slotted into a role prepared for him by forces outside his control. War and Peace became the ultimate expression of that fact to Tolstoy; using fiction to glimpse the truth behind why, not just the War of 1812 happened as it did, but why human history happens as it does.
Perhaps this touches me more than others, being a student of history and all, but there’s something profound in how Tolstoy marries the two in a time when historians were gearing towards the empiricist school of objective history concerned, it was claimed, with facts alone.
Again, for a work so massive I’m surprised how many translations are available. I’m even more surprised how many times War and Peace has been adapted to film, both on the large and small screen. If anything, it’s the work most difficult to capture outside of its form. The historical arguments so intrinsic to the text are nearly impossible to represent visually. I have yet to watch an adaptation in full, but I’m taking a look at the 2007 mini-series (running time: 6 hours). It should still be an entertaining family melodrama, if nothing else.
And there you have my pithy thoughts on War and Peace. As I said, it’s not perfect, but its good qualities over-ride the rest, and while there are books more technically accomplished, War and Peace still manages to outstrip them. Re-reading it was a pleasure, especially at an age when I could actually understand it.
I only wish the popular discourse around War and Peace in the west wasn’t on the level of the TV Tropes page. War and Peace isn’t considered one of the great works of world literature because some out-of-touch academic (Harold Bloom, maybe?) said so; it’s considered one of the great works of world literature because it’s just that good.