Friday, September 12, 2014

Telling Lies About Tolstoy's War and Peace: The Short Version

My recent post on Tolstoy's War and Peace has been getting a lot of hits lately, and so I thought it worthwhile to write up a quick summary of my thoughts on the book.

Exactly what I had to say about the book is the following.

The length of the book; its crowding with a huge cast of at times confusingly named characters; its loose, even plotless structure; and its frequent digressions into lecturing about ideas which are in some cases abstruse, in others deeply against the grain of twenty-first century attitudes; make it a challenging read.

It must also be admitted that the book has its limits of perspective. Tolstoy is in the main focused on Russian aristocrats here, and takes little interest in the strata below them, or in the modern, urban side of life. He also subordinates the variety, balance and color of his tale to his expounding of certain ideas about life and history. Unsurprisingly the story often seem sanitized, poorly paced and even dull in places--the contrast with his contemporary Dostoyevsky, for example, quite marked--while his relation of his ideas gets repetitious.

Still, along with its challenges and its arguable defects, it has very real strengths. Tolstoy's eye for detail, and the vividness this often gives his characterizations and scenes, often elevates the interest of his material beyond what might be expected from its limitations. As one might hope from he title, he is particularly good at writing about war (and as it turns out, especially the fog of war), and while his presentation of his ideas is one-sided (and frequently self-contradicting) the ideas themselves have enough interest to engage a reader ordinarily disinclined to consider such views.

The result is a book that may not necessarily live up to the claims made for it as the greatest novel ever written, but which remains deservedly a classic, and which I found worth my while.

Telling Lies About Tolstoy's War and Peace

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