REVIEW

Book Review: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

July 10, 2006
Vivek Sharma

Tolstoy's War and Peace rightfully ranks amongs the best novels ever written in any language. The master novelist uses Napolean's wars with Russia as the context against which he narrates the story of four families. The four families, along with several timeless characters, live through times of war and peace to provide us with a representation of every aspect of Russian life, Russian thought and imagery of both cities and villages.

Tolstoy's great talent was in providing insights using his extremely good sense of the seemingly trivial. The details, be it of the functioning of a clock or steam engine, or of the idealogy and rites of Masons, or the charge of cavalry in war or the thoughts of a man on his death bed, the details, the insight, the lucidity of expression of such varied themes in one book requires Tolstoy's genius.

There are innumerable unforgettable characters in this mammoth novel. Each one brings out different characteristics of human pysche, each one is made into a being of flesh and blood, strengths and weaknesses. Prince Andrey Bolkonsky, the dashing gentleman who shuns his boring high society to fight in a war to achieve glory, is as compelling as a soldier as he is a wounded person, wounded both in love and in war. His death scene, touted as one of the greatest scenes in Russian Literature, is perhaps unmatched in its ability to engage a reader and his tears.

The other equally important character is Pierre Bezukhov, who is a close friend of the Prince. Pierre is always so unsure, so uncertain, dabbling with different ideas and ideals, falling, failing, has a wife who nearly ruins him, and yet Pierre by the end of the novel comes of age, redeems himself, and in the climax attains Natasha in marriage. Natasha is the heroine of the novel. She is a bright spark, the resplendent laughter, full of energy and life, a beautiful and engrossing female character. Whenever she breaks into the story, the tale becomes a remarkable love story. Music and smile pour in, dances start to occur.

Be it Natasha's family members or those of Prince Bolkonsky's or any of their acquaintances, the characterization is such that one can visulaize each one separately. If there is villainy in Doholov, Natasha's brother Rostov has his inexperience leading him into a near ruin. If Marya, Bolkonsky's sister is a god-fearing, charming but simple looking girl, Ellen is a seductress, the souless counterpart who possesses a father and a brother equally despicable. A whole array of characters is present in this novel, which, if human characteristics be different species of animals, makes Tolstoy's War and Peace a Noah's Ark.

The novel is at the same time a swashbuckling romance, family saga, philosophical query, a historical fiction, a war memoir and more. It is a timeless classic that through its pages develops a whole crop of humanity, representative of our passions and traits, and is a chronicle of our deeds and choices and what guides them. The novel has one of the best last quarter I have ever read, where the climax arouses so strong feelings at every page, that I was laughing joyfully on one page and crying inconsolably on next page. (This is before the epilogue).

I have often stressed that classics deserve respect, slow and patient reading, and War and Peace is no different. There are sections where I was forced to move like a stream of water going downhill, and other places where reading each page was an effort. Yet once the plot is set up, once you have finished reading over one third the novel, once the Russian names and their universe is created in your head, the novel becomes friendlier. It fills your head with images, emotions, ideas and you are carried to Tolstoy's world.

For anyone seriously interested in reading great literature, Tolstoy is a must. Inarguably, War and Peace is one of the brightest prose pieces ever written and I heartily recommend it to one and all. Again I have figured that Constance Garnett must have been a great translator, and like other great Russian novels I read translated by her, this one also calls for my gratitude to her. But above all, all credit to Tolstoy for creating this epic saga. Must read it.

Vivek Sharma is a poet, an engineer, a scientist and a writer. He is published in both refereed literary and science journals, and his poetry was recently nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He contributes articles to Divya Himachal (Hindi newspaper in India) and online to himachal.us, desicritics.org and blogcritics.org.
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#1
aatish
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July 10, 2006
06:44 PM

Thanks for a very good review.

The significance of the novel lies in the fact that Napolean's invasion of Russia forced the Russian aristocracy to turn away from French to the Russian language. It also began to turn to the Russian peasantry which is what had stood up against the French Army.

Through the various characters, it aims to reveal the "Russian soul" that is apparently latent in all Russians- the part where, for example, Natasha breaks into a Russian folk dance without having conciously learnt it.

A good historical and even literary perspective on the novel is by the British historian Orlando Figes in his book "Natasha's Dance".

#2
Vivek Sharma
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July 11, 2006
08:43 AM

Aatish, as you point out, while reading War and Peace, I realized that French was to Russians was English is to Indians now. Perhaps we need a neo-Napoleanic invasion, and some good writing in our mother languages to make them as the preferred languagae of the classes as well as the masses.

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