Wednesday, 21 March 2012

War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy

I never thought I would finish this. Indeed, it went back on my shelf more than once, but I am not one who gives up a challenge easily (stubborn, rather than determined or driven!). I reminded myself of the point of reading it: I had already read it once, in 2006 I think, and I read it fast. So fast it was a blur. One thousand four hundred and forty-four words in four days. Simply not advisable. So, the point was to read it again, slowly. Two chapters a day, which would have taken me until June. Even if you don't know the precise date, you'll know it's not June, so you know that didn't happen.

Firstly, I can't commit to reading something every single day. I don't recall a day where I haven't read at least something, but if the day has been long and busy, I'm more likely to want to curl up with something I enjoy, and I did not enjoy this at first. So, there were phases of playing 'catch up', during which I decided I didn't like it. Then, there was the period of neglect: end of January - early March. All the time, I knew I ought to be reading it, so I forgot the good intentions and it became a chore and nothing more. When I decided to finish it before the first day of spring, which I managed, it was the third and final chore-read along with Middlemarch (also didn't go well) and Bleak House (also not spectacular) on my winter reading list. I braced myself, and prepared for another miserable time, thinking at least that spring would start with a list of books I wasn't familiar with, or in the case of Les Misérables, The Bible, and Ted Hughes, books that I was already enjoying. Although my intentions were very positive, that is no way to enjoy a book.

So, it was down to Tolstoy, purely and simply, that I ended up mildly liking War and Peace. With more effort and a better frame of mind, perhaps I would have loved it. I do believe that sometimes you can read a book wrong, and I ran that risk with this, but somehow, somewhere along the line, the greatness shone through like the odd beam of light on a cold, winter's day. My watery conclusion: War and Peace was fine. 

One thing that surprised me - how easy it was to read. War and Peace has the reputation of being difficult, many people who like reading (though perhaps aren't so dedicated to the classics) think of it as "one of those books". Too long, too complicated. And it was long, but it needed to be. I never held it's length against it. Complicated, too: so many characters, and even more names. But it was readable, completely readable. It was engaging, and time went by fast as I read it. It didn't take forever, and I thought 'reading it properly' would. There were some beautiful passages, for example,
A spiritual wound caused by laceration of the spirit is like a physical wound and, strange as it may seem, slowly closes over. And after the deep wound - physical or spiritual - has cicatrized, and the torn edges have come together, it only heals completely as the result of a vital force thrusting from within.

So healed Natasha's wound. She believed her life was over. But suddenly her love for her mother showed her that the essence of life - love - was still active. Love awoke, and life awoke.
It was worth reading, and I'm glad I enjoyed it. I'm surprised, too. Did it make me want to read more Tolstoy? Not particularly, but on the other hand I wouldn't be opposed to it. What it did make me want to do is revisit the books I read in university: I studied, and was fascinated by, early sociological theory and methodology, and focused on religion. When I read Napoléon's comment, "Incidentally, a large number of monasteries and churches is always a sign of the backwardness of a people," it reminded me first of the French philosopher Auguste Comte who believed that society went through three phases of belief: superstition, religion, and science, the latter being the high point of an evolved society. Reason is the peak, and any less would, as Napoléon remarked, be regarded as backward. The impact this had on anthropology, the study of religion and of ancient religions, and sociology was immense, and it does make me want to re-read some old classics of the anthropological / sociological kind!


  1. Wow... this book has always intimidated me. After reading Anna Karenina earlier this year, I've found that Tolstoy is readable, but I was still a little scared of this one. You've made it less so.

    It is also interesting how you mention the possibility of reading a book wrong. I totally agree with you - and I feel as though I've done it more than once myself. Trying to read too fast, focusing on page numbers instead of text, not noticing underlying themes, etc... I will wait for the right time to tackle War and Peace. But I promise you that I will!

  2. You shouldn't be intimidated by it - honestly it is fine. The hardest part is keeping track of the characters, but my edition has a list at the beginning divided up by families - that helped!

    And as for reading wrong - counting page numbers, speed reading, not noticing things I really ought to have noticed - yep, all my bad habits as well! I love reading, and people (not people who read my blog) assume I must be pretty observant, and they say "you should do English Lit at uni" - dude, I'm telling you, I'd be kicked out in a week! For me, it's pure fun and I don't mind admitting it! :)

  3. I really liked the information you provided about Napoleon's and Comte's attitudes towards religion. Fascinating!

  4. I'm really behind on my reading of this book. I'll toss up a post tomorrow morning where you can link that you finished, if you like. I want to get this one off my reading list! It's not that I dislike it, or that's it's difficult. It's not, and I don't. I just never seem to feel pulled to read it. I'd always rather be reading something else.

    Congrats on finishing a second time! You are amazing. :)

  5. Diana - Reading Les mis at the moment, and these attitudes have come to mymattention there, as well. Going to have to dig out Comte and do a proper post some day!

    Jillian - Thank you :) I shall go read your post now. And I know exactly how you feel - my main motivation was finishing it! Plus, as I've said, all I have read is chunksters this month! I'm sort of looking forward to finishing Les Mis and having a period of ... what's the opposite of chunksters?! Skinnysters! I need a few skinnysters :)

  6. I am truly impressed. Tolstoy is okay with me. I've read some of his short stories and stories for children but don't have the stamina for War and Peace. Maybe if I could find a book with the characters listed like you did it would be bearable. As for now I'm backing away. Good job on sticking to it and finishing that huge book.



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