War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy

I’ve had this book on my shelves, meaning to get round to reading it, for years.  I think this is fairly typical for this book.  Somehow it always looked and felt a bit daunting so I never started it.

What convinced me to read it was the recent BBC production which I found unsatisfying in that it didn’t allow the characters time to develop, time for us as viewers to get to know them.

So, I downloaded the book onto my Kindle.  I’ve found that it’s a good way to read heavy (in all senses of the word) books because you can’t see how big they are.  Plus we were heading off on our travels so it wasn’t adding weight to my luggage.

Anyway, to the book.  I think this is a book of two parts and that Tolstoy forgot the book he set out to write about half way through.

As someone who is interested in people I enjoyed the “storybook” element; the development of Pierre, the relationships between the various characters and the picture of upper class life in Tsarist Russia.  It shows a way of life that we have no understanding of and, I think, helps us to understand why Russia was ripe for a revolution with casual comments such as “he paid 3 families of serfs for his chef”.  In what circumstances is it acceptable to buy something with the lives of a family!

As a person who is interested in the Napoleonic Wars I found the other stand of the book interesting but also quite annoying.  I don’t know much about Russian involvement in the Napoleonic War other than a little about the French retreat from the French perspective so it was a good starting point to read about it from the point of view of fictional characters; a bit like reading the Sharpe novels as starting point to the British perspective.  However, Tolstoy makes several diversions into the background and history of Napoleon’s invasion and this is where I think he loses track of his novel.  These sections are heavy going and quite detailed.  I think they belong in another book and nowadays a good editor would strip them out of the book leaving a smaller more generally readable novel.  This is particularly true of the second epilogue which is a treatise on historians, free will and causation; and is truly turgid!

I also found it annoying and astounding that Tolstoy can write so much about the Napoleonic Wars and mention everyone involved and their key Generals whilst completely ignoring the Peninsula War and Wellington!  The inference is that Kutuzov engineered Napoleon’s defeat.  I accept that he did as far as Russia is concerned. And that Borodino marked a key turning point. But you can’t just write a whole army and a major strategist out of history.  Anyway, rant over.

To summarise, I enjoyed reading most of this book.  I’d recommend having a go at it and I’d completely understand if you skipped a few chapters here and there.

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