“War and Peace” by Leo Tolstoy


Started reading about 4 months ago…the hefty hardcover weighs about 4 pounds, so I guess I can read/tolerate 1 pound of Tolstoy per month?

This is a story which spans at least 5 major characters (Andrei, Pierre, Natasha, Nikolai, Marya) and about 20 years, although really focuses on Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812.  Overall I liked the characters a lot.  They all seemed very real, with very human, very real and complex motivations.

Tolstoy says a lot about wars, mainly how pointless they are.  There’s always a big buildup and grand strategizing beforehand, but then just confusion and powerlessness and senseless brutality and waste of life during actual battle.  (Before Borodino, Andrei posits a paradoxical solution to war: that war should become more savage and less governed by “rules of war”, because then the aristocracy would not go to war unless really set on risking their own lives, property, and positions.)  Tolstoy says that the whole Russian response to the invasion was largely pointless — first the Russians tried to delay French progress towards Moscow, but driving deep into the Russian hinterland without adequate supplies was what actually broke the French; then during the French retreat after Borodino, the Russian army didn’t need to do a thing, yet kept on picking fights and delaying the French exit.

Pierre is my favorite character.  He cares deeply for a rotating variety of worthy causes and is well educated and virtuous, but can never seem to find his own comfortable niche in life (until the epilogue, that is).  He’s always somehow out-of-place and uncomfortable with the responsibilities and expectations placed on him by others.  At one point, he turns to Masonry and finds temporary peace, but becomes frustrated with his Mason brothers’ lack of real zeal.  During the fall of Moscow, he is captured by the French and put into a prison camp.  After he is freed, he enters a state of well-being: still awkward and confused by things, but at least life isn’t as bad as it can be.  An encounter with a happy-go-lucky fellow prisoner has a profound effect on his outlook.

The emotional high point of the book was when Natasha, young and gullible, broke her engagement with the noble Andrei and nearly eloped with the scoundrel Anatole.  Oh, Natasha, Natasha…*sigh*

Tolstoy frequently goes on at length about his theory of history.  He discounts the influence of any one individual in determining the flow of events; rather he puts the people as a whole as the main driver, pushed on inexorably by a multitude of causes, many unknowable.  France did not invade Russia because Napoleon commanded it; rather Napoleon was swept along with all the rest of the French on their way to Russia.  Not sure I really buy it … I think there are plenty of examples where the actions of a single individual had profound consequences.  (As an example from a book on Churchill I’m listening to and will write about soon, consider Admiral de Robeck‘s abandonment of the Dardanelles naval campaign, when really all he was up against were a handful of naval mines and empty guns on the shore.  WWI would have been over a few years earlier if he had just pressed on for another day or two.)

“War and Peace” ends on a happy note, and with a worthwhile message.  Nikolai & Marya and Pierre & Natasha all find happiness and contentment in their children and family life.  All the politics and war and stuff – it doesn’t really matter; and we can’t really control it anyway.  What we can control is how we live at home.  We all just want to be happy with our families.

What do you think?

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