More than a Novel

“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.”                                                                                                           – Leo Tolstoy

When I first read War and Peace, I treated it as many do: as a slog, a final march one has to complete before he can say ‘Yes! I have read far and wide and, at long last, I am finally well read!’ naturally with an attitude like this the book is extremely difficult and left little impression on me. A month ago I was browsing Galignani on rue Rivoli looking for something new to read – a good friend of mine recently moved from Paris to St. Petersburg and I had Russians on my mind. I picked up Anna Karenina and remember reading that Tolstoy had declared this to be his novel, where War and Peace was some nebulous story that even Tolstoy couldn’t put a finger on. A week later, having finished Anna Karenina, and having begun to glimpse what others saw in Tolstoy –  I returned and purchased War and Peace.

And there it stood on my shelf. Thirteen hundred pages glaring at me as I sat at my little desk. As the immediate euphoria of Anna Karenina  wore off I began to recall the difficulties I had had with War and Peace so many years ago. After a week or two of nonchalantly covering the book or being ‘too busy with my studies.’ I gave in, picked it up, went to the park and read. Three hundred pages later I was sold. It was a masterpiece.

A few days later I finished and couldn’t believe it – it felt like it should never end! Everything was so real and the world so vast, how could it just be gone? A familiar feeling, to be sure, when one finishes a particular wonderful novel (or book, I should say). But now it was magnitudes greater and feeling very palpably weighed on me.

Why? Because War and Peace is not a novel. It follows none of the standard clichés and tropes that one would find in a novel (especially a self described novel of that period in history). There are no heroes, there are no heroines. The problems are all real and shown from every imaginable perspective. Count Rostov might have financial problems but to the soldiers with whom his son serves he seems unimaginably rich. Dolohkov is a loving son and brother who searches for a pure and wonderful girl for a wife. But he is also terribly spiteful and constantly destroying the lives or his friends on accident as much as on purpose. Then this same man is a hero on the battlefield.

Natasha herself, probably the most famous character from the entire book, is impossible to describe without writing another book. Her youth and subsequent coming of age is so convincingly written that she might well be real. In many ways the description of her growing up reminds me of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man sure the means of telling the story is different: Natasha’s youth is described from a indifferent 3rd person perspective. But they are similarly convincing. And the most incredible thing is that Natasha is just a facet of the entirety of the book.

I really can’t recommend it enough. Having returned to it once, I am sure I will be returning to War and Peace many times in the future.


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