Saturday, March 15, 2014

Classic Lit: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Publisher: Penguin Classics
Translator: Anthony Briggs
Date: 1869 (2006)
Format: paperback
Source: Christmas gift
Read: for Historical Novel course
Pages: 1360
Reading time: three weeks (or about 45 hours at my rate of reading)

My summary (tongue-in-cheek): There's a bunch of aristocratic Russian characters caught up in the period of the Napoleonic Wars. Andrey's unhappy with his frail pregnant wife. His sister Marya is stuck under the control of their domineering father, finding solace only in her religion. The Rostovs - Natasha, Nikolay, and Petya - are engaged in urban society and finding honor through the army. And Pierre is torn in finding meaning in his life and discovering which direction it should take.

My review: I made it! It actually wasn't that bad. Tolstoy's writing is lucid, and he's not inclined to unnecessarily long descriptions or passages (besides the bits on historical theory and whatnot). If anything, I didn't like how bluntly he tended to phrase things, but at least you're reading 1350+ pages of actual content rather than excess words. It makes the reading so much easier. This is one of the few "classics" I've managed to really get into and enjoy in the past couple years (sad, I know).

Tolstoy's depictions of women are really, really sexist, which annoyed me a great deal. He focuses primarily on negative aspects of their physical appearances and personalities and also explicitly makes them emotionally dependent on men. Fortunately, such descriptions came mostly towards the beginning ("beginning" is relative; I noticed most of this during probably the first 200 or 300 pages) of the novel or in the epilogue, so it wasn't a constant bother.

The other thing that irked me was how inconstant Tolstoy's characters are. It seemed like they were often changing their emotions and views within chapters of each other. Oh, Natasha is in love with Boris and Pierre loves St. Petersburg society right now? Next chapter: Natasha is in love with Andrey and Pierre is a Freemason and hates his upper-crust life. I realize that this is probably truer to life, but it's also a novel, and we like our characters to be more consistent. Plus, after 1350 pages of changes, one is really confused about what Tolstoy actually thinks about his characters and their lives.

But, as I mentioned above, Tolstoy's super-long train of stories actually succeeds in being interesting the majority of the time. It's like the epitome of long, plotless 18th and 19th century novels (which I happen to love) - by plotless, I mean they tend to trace the events of characters' lives rather than highlighting a rather small part of them with a clear climax, etc. Though I thought the war parts were a mite boring, I found it enjoyable to read all about the characters' dealings with each other and society. It's maybe not "the greatest novel ever," but it is entertaining and not as hard a read as the page count would lead one to suspect.

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