How can I possibly write something about this ginormous book that stands proud against the motley crew of my random books of mass markets, hardbounds, and trade paperbacks, and shying these on the sheer basis of breadth? A novel that spans four volumes, each volume divided into parts, and each part further divided into chapters, I struggled to finish this not without iron will and determination.
First, I was motivated by the reading support group spurred by local writer Jessica Zafra. I think we were about ten, periodically posting our inputs on the writer’s blog, including the writer herself, and I think I was the first to read my way across the finish line. I even think that only three of us really finished the book, this suspicion arising from the simple fact that the support-group-slash-challenge wasn’t capped off, unless we consider the article the writer wrote, an article that quoted the participants, as the waving checkered flag.
So you see, I really don’t know how to properly start this without the reader skipping to another random Internet article. But if you have reached this part, my effort is not in vain.
“Love? What is love?” he thought. “Love hinders death. Love is life. Everything, everything I understand, I understand only because I love. Everything is, everything exists, only because I love. Everything is connected only by that. Love is God, and to die–means that I, a part of love, return to the common and eternal source.” These thoughts seemed comforting to him. But they were only thoughts. Something was lacking in them, there was something one-sidedly personal, cerebral–there was no evidence. And there was the same uneasiness and vagueness. He fell asleep.
I lied. That’s not a random quotation. But the manner of picking it is quite random. I sifted my thoughts through my mental silkscreen. What is this about? Of course, it’s about war and peace, no? Sure, there’s a lot of war in here that would suffice for tremendous reference if you wish to lie about being a war veteran. There are characters in here that are real people, people who are forever a part of the world’s history. Like Napoleon. And who else?
I don’t remember. Rather, I don’t know, because after reading this, I suspect that Napoleon is just a product of Tolstoy’s pen. But let’s not dwell on that; let’s return to that quote, a dust mote of a narrative from this book that could break wrists. Okay, I picked a love quote because the major characters, the major fictional characters, are caught in a love triangle of sorts, but not that type where two men go after the same woman. Our characters Pierre Bezukhov, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, and Natasha Rostov are better than that.
There are harder Russian names than that. It would be great if you also know French, because there’s a lot of French going on here. I think some editions have the all the French dialogues translated, but my edition, the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation, reputed to be the most loyal, left all the French untouched. There are footnotes, don’t worry. But given that I set out to read every single line in every volume, I still read the French lines. And whatever historical footnotes that I came across.
I don’t wish to go through the plot because really; all you need to know is that this is about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia with a lot of side twists and commentaries. I said commentaries because the author usually forgets that he is writing fiction and proceeds to write essays. Or it could be the other way around.
It is hard to convince someone to read this book, what with the popularity of classics, humongous classics at that, waning. But really, this is one good read. You don’t have to be a high-strung reader to understand it. Never mind the French, or go get another edition if you are Frenchophobic. The scenes are well-propped against exact descriptions. If you’re reading a part where a soiree is going on, you feel like a waiter eavesdropping on the conversations of the Russian high society.
The characters are well-developed and dynamic. I particularly like the polarity of Pierre and Prince Andrei, men who are supposed to bash in each other’s teeth but are the best of friends despite their vast differences. If you ask me, I prefer the dashing Prince Andrei, not only because he is dashing, but I like his thoughts and philosophies. Not to say that Pierre is uninteresting. It’s just my preference.
The plot is, yes, convoluted, but it can be tolerated. There’s just a lot going on. There are a lot of characters that could make up for a television series. That’s to be expected because it screams at over a thousand pages, but it doesn’t feel crammed. There’s comedy, drama, romance, and action, so it’s safe to say that readers of varying genres can have something to look forward to.
And yes, you can have the ultimate bragging rights of having set a reading milestone after flipping the last page.
But really, not everything is as good as I am trying to say. As much as I want to encourage everyone, I have to air this out. Tolstoy, in this novel, has a tendency to repeat himself over and over again. This is particularly evident in the essayish parts. He would wind up with a longish introduction, say about war and history, bring up a thesis, present an antithesis, conclude with a synthesis, and repeat all over on the same subject.
There are times that I wanted to scream at the book. Fine, I get it, can we please move on? Something like that. It can get annoying, but it could be exactly this why finishing this book gives you a sense of achievement. It even made me feel a little smarter. Of course, bus passengers would be intimidated if you whip out this book out of your backpack, which I did, but really, you will understand a thing or two about war and history, like the role of each other in each other.
Perhaps this should have been entitled War and History instead.