Reflection on War and Peace (the novel)
March 10, 2006
I first fell in love with Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Illych. Several years later I read Anna Karenina, and with it too I was, figuratively speaking, in love. Sure, it had had its slow moments—and what 19th century novel doesn’t?—and yet his characters were some of the most vivid and moving fictions ever portrayed. Recently I finally finished reading his other magnum opus, War and Peace. And I did not fall in love.
The characters were still magnificent; few male authors work so hard to get in to the female psyche, displaying many multidimensional (and some one-dimensional) women playing major roles. Charles DeLint may achieve the same intensity of feminine intellect and emotion, and there are a few other favorite authors who can write a good womanly part… but only these two truly work to dig deeper. I digress.
Yes, the characters are excellent, and the settings artfully, beautifully described. Count Tolstoy’s philosophical adventurism is always interesting. He first time anyway, for that is his undoing here. For pages and pages he goes on about how historians have the wrong view of, well, everything (but specifically the role of individual wills in shaping societal destiny). And then 50-100 pages later he says it all over again. In between we’ll watch the growth and development of a half dozen characters or so and occasionally bring in detailed, boring retrospectives on various battles in Russia… inevitably bringing us full circle with the historical ramblings.
His points are interesting—but not so the second time I think. This repetitious theme is certainly not restricted to War and Peace. It is surely apparent in Karenina, though I can no longer remember that work well enough to say, and I’ve felt it strongly in his Confessions (for which reason I’ve yet to complete them).
One day I’ll return to Ivan Illych again. One day I’ll revisit Levin and Kitty (the real stars of Karenina). But I doubt I’ll ever re-read War and Peace. At least I can rest easily now with the knowledge that I’ve made my way through (most of) it once.