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War and Peace

I finally finished War and Peace. The story starts on page 5 (never really got why they don’t just start on page 1), and the epilogue ends on page 1358. There are also 13 pages of footnotes, most of which I did not read, 2 pages of character names and summaries, some maps, a section containing summaries of each chapter, the introduction, translator’s note, etc. etc.. Let’s just say that I read 1350 pages. This is the Penguin Classics version, translated by Anthony Briggs, in case you were wondering. Having finished, I can now say that the longest book I’ve ever read is 1350 pages. Don Quixote (books I and II) and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix are close contenders, coming in at 940 and 870 pages, respectively. It should be noted that the font in Harry Potter is very kid-friendly. Why did I read a book this long? The main answer you see on Amazon reviews is “so that I can say that I read it.” My answer is kind of similar. Two summers ago, I was talking with a friend. We were trying to figure out what book to read, and (if I recall correctly) she suggested War and Peace. I had suggested some shorter titles, but she didn’t seem very interested. I didn’t know much about War and Peace at the time; a few associated words in my mind were big, long, Russian, novel. I was skeptical that we would ever start reading the book, let alone finish it, but I went along with it; reading War and Peace seemed like an interesting thing to do. We proceeded to both buy the book, talk about reading it, and got 100 pages in before giving up. That is, until more than a year later. By that point, I knew a little more about War and Peace. I still didn’t really have a strong incentive to read it; I wasn’t that interested in Russian history or Napoleon or stories with super general titles. My interests were more strongly aligned with that of the masses: read it for the sake of reading it (and to be able to say I’ve read it). Anyways, my friend and I figured our fall terms weren’t that busy, and set out for a pace of ~100 pages a week; in this way, we finished in time for winter break. On a related note, you can read the thoughts of Katherine (the friend) here. I just read it and it's actually kinda similar, probably because we exchanged words irl. Just go read it it's good. Also on another related note, the BBC show is pretty good. Pierre looks kinda weird. Helene looks good. I'm not sure if it would make any sense if you haven't read the book though.

I won’t bore you with a detailed plot summary; I’m sure you can find that somewhere else on the internet. I will, however, give my version of a very high level summary. Let’s do it in five sentences. War and Peace is about the French invasion of Russia, which began in 1812. The peace parts follow the lives of various Russian families. Their storylines often intersect and are affected by the war. The war parts follow the narrative of the war, talking about the soldiers as well as higher ups like the Tsar, Napoleon, and Kutuzov. There are also more philosophical sections during which Tolstoy lectures the reader about history, free will, etc.

I found the peace parts much more interesting than the war parts, which seems to be the general consensus amongst the Amazon reviews that I read (not a huge sample size, I have other things to do). There are a ton of characters, and they’re all relatable in some way. Tolstoy is really good at writing sentences that you read and then think: “oh yea, that’s totally true,” or “oh yea, that’s me.” In general, Tolstoy’s writing is really nice and easy to read. He jumps easily from the big picture to personal minutiae, interweaving all the different narratives and characters together in a seamless fashion. I like to think of the peace parts as a soap opera, or an old-fashioned sitcom. Maybe a sitcom isn’t the best description because people die and stuff (spoilers!!!), and I don’t really know what a soap opera is, but hear me out anyways. I say they’re similar because you have a core group of characters whose personalities are thoroughly developed and displayed, and then you’ve got all these other characters on the periphery who are not as well developed and can be described by just a few essential qualities or scenes. Throughout the narrative, the core characters interact with each other and with the secondary cast. There’s a lot of personal and interpersonal drama, stuff that you would gossip about with your friends: “he likes her?”; “she said what in that letter?”; etc.. A lot of this is conveyed through dialogue, which is often very entertaining and relatable. The main characters also change a lot, whether it’s forced upon them by some big event or a revelatory decision made on their own. In summary, you have a core group of characters, who change a lot but who still retain distinct personalities, and who interact with each other and with the outer cast. And the story is about these people, their lives and thoughts and growth. So it’s basically like How I Met Your Mother.

The war parts are not as interesting. They talk about what it’s like to be a soldier in war, so there are some action scenes. They also talk about what it’s like to be an adjutant, or a commander, so there are a lot of scenes from their perspectives talking more about the strategic/communicative/political aspects of war. There’s a lot of discussion on power, or the causes of war, and what actually makes certain events happen. For example, Tolstoy will question why the Russians retreated from Moscow. I’m too lazy to really discuss this here, but his main point is that historians who attribute events to single people are wrong. That is, if you say that the French won a battle because Napoleon is a genius, you are being ignorant of a whole host of other factors. One needs to consider the entirety of the situation, the individual soldiers fighting, the whole chain of command, in order to truly determine why events happen as they do. I include a quote about this below (the one on page 914). I found Tolstoy’s musings about all this philosophical stuff to be a bit distracting from the story, and they weren’t particularly clear or convincing.

A few more random opinions I’d like to express. The beginning and ending sentences are pretty terrible. The last 40 pages are Tolstoy’s philosophical musings, which was very unsatisfactory. I had just read 1300 pages for this guy, and he throws a bunch of complicated logic about free will at me. C’mon man.

Finally, here are some quotes that I liked. I probably bookmarked around 50 places in this book, so I won’t list all of them. I will still list a lot of them though. It was kind of a pain to copy these because my particular version is not very conducive to laying flat open. I really wish Penguin would more strongly consider than when thinking about page dimensions and such. Ah well, here are the quotes - spoilers ahead.

About relationships “Even in the very warmest, friendliest and simplest of relationships you need either flattery or praise in the way that you need grease to keep wheels turning” (31).

Pierre in confusion “Pierre was in such a confused state of mind that the word ‘stroke’ made him think of a blow from some heavy body” (83).

About the time of departure “At a time of departure and change thinking people usually find themselves in a serious frame of mind. At such a time you tend to review the past and make plans for the future” (108).

About seeing the enemy before battle “‘One step across that dividing line, so like the one between the living and the dead, and you enter an unknown world of suffering and death. What will you find there? Who will be there? There, just beyond that field, that tree, that sunlit roof? No one knows, and yet you want to know. You dread crossing that line, and yet you still want to cross it. You know sooner or later you will have to go across and find out what is there beyond it, just as you must inevitably find out what lies beyond death. Yet here you are, fit and strong, carefree and excited, with men all around you just the same - strong, excited and full of life.’ This is what all men think when they get a sight of the enemy, or they feel it if they do not think it, and it is this feeling that gives a special lustre and a delicious edge to the awareness of everything that is now happening” (150).

Description of Bilibin “Bilibin enjoyed talking as much as working, as long as the conversation was stylish and clever. In society he always hung back, waiting for a chance to say something very striking, and would not enter any conversation unless he could do so. His speech was invariably salted with polished phrases, original, witty but of general application. They were fabricated in some inner laboratory of Bilibin’s mind, portable and ready-made for social nonentities to commit to memory and take around the other drawing-rooms. Bilibin’s bons mots, widely peddled in every Viennese salon, often went on to influence what people thought of as important matters” (162).

Description of Anatole “Besides that, in his dealings with the fair sex Anatole had mastered the special attitude that most effectively arouses a woman’s curiosity, awe and even love - an attitude of disdainful awareness of his own superiority. His manner seemed to say to them, ‘I know you, yes I do, but why should I make the effort? That’s just what you’d like me to do!’” (236).

Anatole on the glory of battle “‘Death, wounds, the loss of my family - nothing can frighten me. I know many people are dear and precious to me, my father, my sister, my wife - my nearest and dearest, yet, however terrible and unnatural it may seem, I would give them all up for one moment of glory, triumph over men, to be loved by men I don’t even know, and never shall know, to be loved by these people there...’” (281).

About freezing when you see the girl you like (or the Tsar) “But, just as a lovelorn youth dithers and freezes, too scared to force out the words he has dreamt about for nights on end, panics and looks around for help or any chance of delay and escape now that the longed-for moment is here and he and she are alone together, so Rostov, suddenly presented with what he wanted most in all the world, had no idea how to approach the Emperor, and his mind was assailed by thousands of reasons why it would be wrong, inconvenient and impossible to do so” (307).

About being too busy for women “But he was at that stage of a young man’s life when he thinks he is too busy for that sort of thing and he is reluctant to tie himself down because freedom is so precious and necessary when there is so much to be done” (325).

About self-delusion “She did notice him, but she was in such high spirits at that moment, so remote from sorrow, gloom and censure, that she deliberately indulged in a little self-delusion, as young people often do. ‘No, I’m too happy at this moment to spoil my happiness by sympathizing with someone else’s sorrow,’ was what she felt, though she said to herself, ‘No, I’ve probably got it all wrong. He must be as happy as I am’” (369).

About reuniting with a friend “It always happens that when friends come together after a long separation the conversation jumps from one topic to another. Quick questions were met with short answers as they touched on things which they knew ought to be discussed at length” (411).

About being jaded “‘Springtime, love and happiness!’ this tree seemed to be saying. ‘Aren’t you fed up with it all, this stupid, senseless sham? It never changes, the same old trick! There is no springtime, sunshine or happiness. Just look at those dead fir-trees sitting there where they’ve been brought down, always the same everyone one of them, and look at me sticking out broken, peeling fingers wherever they care to grow - out of my back, out of my sides. That’s how they’ve grown, and that’s how I am, and I don’t believe in any of your hopes and shams’” (455).

About meeting someone new “As people often do, particularly those who are highly critical of their fellow men, Prince Andrey, on meeting someone new - especially someone like Speransky whom he knew but reputation - always entertained the hope of discovering in him a perfect blend of human qualities” (465).

About husbands and wives “Berg judged women by the standards of his own wife and considered all of them feeble and foolish. Vera judged men by the standards of her own husband and, extrapolating from him alone, she found all men conceited and self-centred, each convinced he was the only one with any sense whereas he didn’t actually understand anything at all” (510).

About love and possession “Prince Andrey held her hand and gazed into her eyes, though in his heart he felt no trace of his former love for her. A change had come over his inner being. Gone was the former desire with all its poetry and mysterious charm. Now all he felt was pity for her feminine and childish frailty, dismay at her devotion and willingness to trust, and the hard, sweet taste of duty that must bind him to her for ever. This new feeling may have been less glorious and poetical, but it was stronger and more serious than before” (522).

About idleness “And there is one such state of enforced and irreproachable idleness enjoyed by an entire class of men - the military class. It is this state of enforced and irreproachable idleness that forms the chief attraction of military service, and it always will” (533).

About love, now “At that moment Natasha felt so overwhelmed by softness and tenderness that it wasn’t enough for her to love and know she was loved in return - now was what mattered, she wanted to embrace the man she loved now, to talk about love and hear love-talk from him, because her heart was filled with words of love” (614).

About Napoleon's cold “Many historians tell us that the French failed to win the battle of Borodino because Napoleon had a cold, and if he hadn’t had a cold the orders he issued before and during the battle would have marked him out even more clearly as a genius, and Russia would have been destroyed and the face of the world would have been changed” (870).

About history “In order to study the laws of history we must change the subject completely, forget all about kings, ministers and generals, and turn to the homogeneous, infinitesimal elements that move the masses to action. No one can say how far it is within man’s grasp to arrive at the laws of history in this way, but it is obvious that this is the only possible way of discovering any historical laws, and human intelligence has hitherto not devoted to this way of thinking a millionth part of the effort that historians have put into describing the doings of various kings, ministers and generals, and expounding their opinions of these doings” (914).

About happiness “‘Our ’appiness, me dear, be like water in a drag-net. Swells out lovely when you pulls; take it out and it’s empty. Yes, that’s the way things be’” (1078).

About conversation judges “He felt that now there was a judge listening to his every word and every action, someone whose judgement mattered more than the judgement of everybody else in the world. Here he was talking, and with every word he spoke he was conscious of the impression he was making on Natasha. He didn’t go out of his way to say things that might please her, but whatever he said, he was judging himself from her point of view” (1241).