War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (Translated by Anthony Briggs)

The lives, romances, and fortunes of 3 prominent Russian families play out against the backdrop of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.

It’s absurd to blog about War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy’s sprawling behemoth of a novel. The title alone is ludicrous and unfathomable. People laugh when you say you’re reading it, not because they think it’s not worth reading, but because of its reputation as one of the longest books ever written. Nevertheless, I, the Superfast Reader, who read this book for the Summer Reading Challenge, and as a personal goal before my baby comes in November, will try my best.

Let me start by saying that I loved this book. My heart was captured from the very start, and the soaring romanticism of such passages like Princess Marya’s flight from Moscow or Natasha’s near ruination left me breathless. It’s such a life-affirming work, and not in a facile way, either. Tolstoy’s vision of the abundant life necessitates the acceptance of death–the embrace of death–and only those characters who face the darkness are allowed to enter into the fullness of joy. I can’t imagine I’m saying anything new about this work, but Tolstoy’s exploitation of this motif was a revelation to me on a profound spiritual level.

I must confess that I found the “war” sections tedious and ponderous, but that’s because I’m not very keen on history, particularly military history. I loved the way he brought the characters to life within the conflict and on the very battlefields themselves, but I couldn’t get myself interested in Tolstoy’s analysis of how Napoleon managed to get as far as the heart of Russia itself. I feel like the sixty-year-old me might really get into it, though, so I’m already looking forward to that rereading.

There is nothing, nothing like getting lost in another world, and Tolstoy transported me to Russia. I’ve been there just once, ten days in Anna Karenina’s Petersburg and Andrei Rublev’s Novgorod, but never to Moscow. I’m dying to see true Russia, “round Russia” as Pierre puts it when contemplating Platon’s charisma, and hope someday to ride the Transiberian railway from Moscow through Mongolia to China. It’s a dream that I’m craving even more, now that I’ve indulged in such an excess of Russianness.

I’m so glad I read this book, but I’m kind of embarrassed by what I’ve written already. I’m nowhere near conveying the experience of reading the book, or communicating how it’s worked on me over the last three weeks, or my sadness at having to say goodbye to Pierre and Natasha and Marya and Prince Andrey (oh!) and the rest. Some books are too big for anything but reading.

So read it, wouldja?

PS–This translation was outstanding, in the readability department.

11 thoughts on “War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (Translated by Anthony Briggs)”

  1. I remember watching ‘Dr. Zhivalgo’. I never got the urge to read the book, but I did get all the Dr. Zhivalgo references in the ‘Must Love Dogs’ movie. I did read one book that seemed to capture part of the character of Russia.

    Donald Kingsbury. ‘The Moon Goddess and the Son’. Dated SF, now, except for the passage where a group of geeks are challenged to run a sim on the heart of the character of Russia. The sim is part of one of the many sub-plots, one regarding negotiating with a poorly understood opponent. A moderate length novel or maybe a bit less.

    Now I will live my life in fear. When I least expect it, I will likely stumble on a copy of ‘War and Peace’ .. and need to read it. Thanks a bunch. Maybe you would like the copy of ‘Valley of Decision’, by Marcia Davenport my Aunt Joan left after a visit 40 years ago. I shudder to think what all this predecessor to bodice rippers and most soap operas is responsible for. Note it never got an award of any kind. Yet I recall the maid in the house of the steel mill owner’s family, serving three generations through crisis and entanglement. I know I read it once, and I seldom let books go, but I don’t recall where it would be today, so never mind.

  2. I can’t believe you remember the name of that book… and admit reading it 🙂

    You’re absolved from picking it up if it’s a bad translation, though. I highly recommend this one.

  3. I’m with you, I loved this book, but I ALWAYS find the war bits in ANY book tedious beyond description. That’s what skimming is for, I guess!

    I had a Russian lit class in college, so I had to read piles of Chekhov and Tolstoy. It was a great class! I just can’t remember if I read this for that class or not. Probably not, it’s pretty long to be assigned for a semester-long class. Next, read Anna Karenina, if you haven’t!

  4. I read this last summer; the same edition/translation too. Briggs did a great job. I love Tolstoy. AK is one of my favourite books, and this became one as well. I will agree with Dew and you that the war bits bored me a bit as well. Haha. Though some people critise it for being too much peace and not enough war.

    I feel exactly the same way about expressing the beauty, joy and greatness of the boy. When I finished I was, “Whoa, I can’t wait until I reread it in X years.”

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