Friday, October 7, 2011

"War and Peace" by Lev Tolstoj (vol.2)

In the second volume of this almost never-ending and sometimes dragged on novel (come on, don't be shocked, Tolstoj really lacks in concision), you will find a lot of war and not as much peace. A great deal of pages are devoted to an important field battle and to the fire in Moscow, when the Russian army inexplicably left their capital city in the hands of Napoleon. In spite of this, there is still time to witness Count Pierre Bezukhov's life-changing experience as a war prisoner and his humanitarian experiments. This was my favourite strand of the novel: I could not help but feel sympathy for Pierre, in spite of his foolishness (at a certain point he starts believing that he is destined to kill Napoleon because of an obscure cabbalah-related calculation he has made). Natasha also changes a lot in this second volume and by the end of the book she is finally a woman. Prince Andrej, instead, ends up being almost the hero and his story line is harrowing but also uplifting. You could argue that “War and Peace” is, among many other things, a buildungsroman. I know that most scholars speak of it as the historical novel par excellence and I am not saying it is not that as well. Only, it is difficult to ignore that every character matures somewhere between page 1 and page 1425 and in order to do that each of them has to live through a war and several tribulations.

The primary intent of the book becomes clearer than ever by the end of the book. The last thirty pages of “War and Peace” are actually an essay, pure non-fiction inserted in a novel. This of course makes you think. More than a family saga, “War and Peace” is the medium employed by Lev Tolstoj to write about history. Tolstoj believed in fatalism and thought that revolutions and wars did not happen because of the ambition and desire for power of single leaders. In Tolstoj's world, great men – Napoleon first of all, but also Kutuzov or Murat – are only one of the many factors that make what we like to call “history”. A part of me would like to say that Tolstoj's attempt in these last thirty pages to explain how history works was a failure: instead of showing us what history is and how it works through the characters in the book, Tolstoj ends his novel with an essay, departing from the narrative texture never to return to it. Nonetheless, it is quite possible that this was perfectly acceptable in the 19th century when Tolstoj wrote the book and I must confess that his opinions (and his metaphors to explain how he thinks history functions) are alluring to say the least. However, I found the philosophical parts slightly redundant. 

"War and Peace" is an old-fashioned novel, this I can say without feeling guilty. It has become a classic, not only of Russian literature, but of world literature. It is vast and contains many things. It can provoke frustration ("is this book ever going to finish?") or admiration ("how can Tolstoj describe the world so well?"), but surely you cannot dismiss it very easily. It makes you keep thinking about what you have read. In other words, you feel its weight even after you've finished it.


  1. This book is on a challenge list and I never knew it is that voluminous! That's a month's reading! Now I am beginning to think of how I'll get through this.

  2. Yes, it is quite long. It's a must read, anyway.