War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy

So it’s been two months since my last book review. Why? Because War and Peace is obviously a beast. Hehe! It was a genuine slog, but you can’t not read it I think. At least once.

My husband loves Russian language and culture, and is making his way through a lot of Russian literature at the moment. We also decided to read this because of this cute part in the Peanuts Movie:

(apologies for poor quality)

‘Russia is snowy and cold’ pretty much sums up the book.

Heh. No, but really. Tolstoy’s language is exquisite. I love that he contests traditional historical perspectives, highlighting that individual humans are more complex than understood by historians – therefore it is difficult to discuss reasons behind war, as it goes far beyond individuals and far beyond mass beliefs. It’s complicated, essentially.

Tolstoy brilliantly contrasts a deep understanding of his character’s inner thoughts and feelings with overall war movements, displaying that wars are made up of hundreds of thousands of individuals.

His character descriptions are absolutely amazing, i.e. –

His thin, lean, sallow face was covered all over with deep wrinkles, but they always looked as wholesome and scrupulously cleansed as fingertips fresh from a bath. All the variations of his facial expression were played out in the manipulation of these wrinkles. One moment his brow would furrow up in thick folds as his eyebrows rose, the next his eyebrows would plunge, leaving deep lines all down his cheeks. His small, deep-set eyes looked out openly and shone with good humour.

And at the same time, he delves deep into the workings of his character’s minds, which often reflect our own –

With a young person’s dislike of well-trodden ways, the urge to avoid imitation, to express oneself in a personal and original way, not to do the conventional things that older people did, often hypocritically, Nikolay felt like doing something special on meeting his friend. He wanted somehow to pinch his arm or give him a little shove, anything rather than kiss him, which was what people always did on these occasions.

He’s very philosophical –

According to biblical tradition the absence of work – idleness – was a condition of the first man’s state of blessedness before the Fall. The love of idleness has been preserved in fallen man, but now a heavy curse lies upon him, not only because we have to earn our bread by the sweat of our brow, but also because our sense of morality will not allow us to be both idle and at ease. Whenever we are idle a secret voice keeps telling us to feel guilty.

And, he beautifully explores the delicacies and subtleties of the Russian culture and language –

‘Sonya, do you feel good?’ he asked once or twice, with a meaningful shift to the intimate ty form.

‘Oh yes. You too?’ answered Sonya, also calling him ty.

Tolstoy also brilliantly describes the bizarreness of war and its results –

Meanwhile Moscow was empty. Some people were still there – up to one in fifty of the inhabitants had stayed behind – but in essence it was empty.

It was as empty as a dying beehive with no queen.

All in all, this is a beautiful read that would require many reads to come to fully understand and appreciate. I must admit, I lost track of who was who a bit (there are a lot of characters) and it is difficult to read through Tolstoy’s hundred-page philosophical explorations of war.

It will take you a while to read (maybe 2 months…) but it’s well worth it.


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