Tuesday, June 14, 2011

War and Peace Revisted

I read War and Peace when I was 18, and I would rather read books than talk to real people.  A brick of a book, sitting with it kept people away.  I was so engrossed in it, and it was so incredibly large, that few dared approached me.

After twenty years, I just re-read it. At more than half a million words, it is considered one of the greatest novels of all time. And it is, in way, a showcase for the brand of literary realism of the mid-to-late 19th century. Tolstoy obviously paints on a very large canvas. There are dozens of characters, large and small. There is a mix of historical characters and the purely created (the post-moderns did not invent this move), their minute worlds, the words inside their heads, their thoughts, fears, and actions. Then there is the large scope of history. History is one of the prime characters in War and Peace, and Tolstoy famously ends this novel with his musing about history, how it is told, its deficiencies as a study, and his suggestion of a science of history in line with other scientific endeavors. A curious suggestion from a novelist who has just recreated history over the course of 1,200 pages!

Tolstoy takes on a great deal of course, and it is curious to see how some characters, seemingly important, get the short shrift. Sonya seems prepped to be a major character, but Tolstoy loses interest in her along the way, and she becomes curiously flat and left out of the major action. Even the younger Count Rostov, so important to the plot, has nowhere near the character development of a Pierre or Prince Andrei.

That said, War and Peace is a masterpiece, but it is not perfect! Like all ambitious pieces of art, there are stray bits of string hanging off the edges. But this takes nothing away from the accomplishment of this book. It shows just what heavy lifting a novel can do. 

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