War and Peace

May 30th, 2011

I doubt I have ever read a book that had as significant an impact on me, and my act of reading it had on others, as this one. Conversations like this were frequent:

Someone, upon seeing me reading my Kindle, would ask what I am reading.

“War and Peace.”

“Oh. . . uhm, wow.”

“Yeah, it’s great. I’m reading it for fun.”

“Uhm, OK then, see you later. . .”

It seems to be so revered, and also so loathed, that I had to read it. At 1400 pages, it took me 8 months to finish, though I read several other entire books in that time.

I feel rather unequal to the task of expressing how this book impacted me, let alone a review of it. And nonetheless, I also feel I would be remiss if I let it go past saying nothing.

I was struck by so many things as I read War and Peace. Some of them I won’t mention here and hope to turn into their own blog posts.

Of the others, I felt I gained some sense of how the nobility and serfs in Russia (and, to a certain extent, Europe) thought about life, their position, and how things ran. Being a modern Kansan, this thought process was not familiar to me, and though I head read about it in history texts before, felt far more informed having read it in Tolstoy’s novel.

Although much of the novel centers around Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812, the work as a whole spans nearly two decades of time. Tolstoy’s characters aren’t static; they change over time. Some, yes, die; others go through hardships and triumphs that change them to their core. It evoked a feeling of nostalgia in me at times — for the younger, childlike Natasha who was so full of simple delight in life. But then, a thousand pages later, the older Pierre finally was able to find simple delight in life too.

Sometimes I have missed on the simple joy of being, and Jacob or Oliver or Terah remind me of that. Today Oliver and I read a book together, one that we read often, and we discovered an illustration of a tiny worm we had never noticed before. And the worm had a red hat (“hat” is one of Oliver’s favorite words right now.) The happy laughter as he pointed at the tiny hat, saying “hat” over and over, reminds me that sometimes children know how to live better than adults. Jacob later asked me how my day was, and I told him how I read a book on my Kindle, where I sat, and how I even read it lying down on the couch for a bit. At that he too laughed.

As with some other wonderful, engrossing books, I was sad to reach the end of this one. I felt as if I was leaving a conversation early; fictional characters, yes, but their story wasn’t over. And really, that was part of Tolstoy’s point: things don’t happen in isolation, and stories don’t have clearly-defined start and end points.

The novel touched on politics, religion, philosophy, free will, and just about every topic imaginable. It is, really, unfair to call it a just a novel.

Here are some random quotes from the book, which I highlighted:

his heart was now overflowing with love, and by loving people without cause he discovered indubitable causes for loving them.

How often we sin, how much we deceive, and all for what?… All will end in death, all!

A pleasant humming and whistling of bullets were often heard.

Looking into Napoleon’s eyes Prince Andrew thought of the insignificance of greatness, the unimportance of life which no one could understand, and the still greater unimportance of death, the meaning of which no one alive could understand or explain.

“If there is a God and future life, there is truth and good, and man’s highest happiness consists in striving to attain them. We must live, we must love, and we must believe that we live not only today on this scrap of earth, but have lived and shall live forever, there, in the Whole,” said Pierre, and he pointed to the sky. Prince Andrew stood leaning on the railing of the raft listening to Pierre, and he gazed with his eyes fixed on the red reflection of the sun gleaming on the blue waters. There was perfect stillness. Pierre became silent. The raft had long since stopped and only the waves of the current beat softly against it below. Prince Andrew felt as if the sound of the waves kept up a refrain to Pierre’s words, whispering: “It is true, believe it.” He sighed, and glanced with a radiant, childlike, tender look at Pierre’s face, flushed and rapturous, but yet shy before his superior friend.

In Natasha Prince Andrew was conscious of a strange world completely alien to him and brimful of joys unknown to him, a different world, that in the Otradnoe avenue and at the window that moonlight night had already begun to disconcert him. Now this world disconcerted him no longer and was no longer alien to him, but he himself having entered it found in it a new enjoyment.

All the kings, except the Chinese, wear military uniforms, and he who kills most people receives the highest rewards.

“But what is war? What is needed for success in warfare? What are the habits of the military? The aim of war is murder; the methods of war are spying, treachery, and their encouragement, the ruin of a country’s inhabitants, robbing them or stealing to provision the army, and fraud and falsehood termed military craft. The habits of the military class are the absence of freedom, that is, discipline, idleness, ignorance, cruelty, debauchery, and drunkenness. And in spite of all this it is the highest class, respected by everyone.

From the moment Pierre had witnessed those terrible murders committed by men who did not wish to commit them, it was as if the mainspring of his life, on which everything depended and which made everything appear alive, had suddenly been wrenched out and everything had collapsed into a heap of meaningless rubbish. Though he did not acknowledge it to himself, his faith in the right ordering of the universe, in humanity, in his own soul, and in God, had been destroyed. He had experienced this before, but never so strongly as now. When similar doubts had assailed him before, they had been the result of his own wrongdoing, and at the bottom of his heart he had felt that relief from his despair and from those doubts was to be found within himself. But now he felt that the universe had crumbled before his eyes and only meaningless ruins remained, and this not by any fault of his own. He felt that it was not in his power to regain faith in the meaning of life.

When Princess Mary began to cry, he understood that she was crying at the thought that little Nicholas would be left without a father. With a great effort he tried to return to life and to see things from their point of view. “Yes, to them it must seem sad!” he thought. “But how simple it is. “The fowls of the air sow not, neither do they reap, yet your Father feedeth them,” he said to himself and wished to say to Princess Mary; “but no, they will take it their own way, they won’t understand! They can’t understand that all those feelings they prize so—all our feelings, all those ideas that seem so important to us, are unnecessary. We cannot understand one another,” and he remained silent.

“Love hinders death. Love is life. All, everything that I understand, I understand only because I love. Everything is, everything exists, only because I love. Everything is united by it alone. Love is God, and to die means that I, a particle of love, shall return to the general and eternal source.” These thoughts seemed to him comforting.

“People speak of misfortunes and sufferings,” remarked Pierre, “but if at this moment I were asked: ‘Would you rather be what you were before you were taken prisoner, or go through all this again?’ then for heaven’s sake let me again have captivity and horseflesh! We imagine that when we are thrown out of our usual ruts all is lost, but it is only then that what is new and good begins. While there is life there is happiness. There is much, much before us. I say this to you,” he added, turning to Natasha.

During that twenty-year period an immense number of fields were left untilled, houses were burned, trade changed its direction, millions of men migrated, were impoverished, or were enriched, and millions of Christian men professing the law of love of their fellows slew one another. What does all this mean? Why did it happen? What made those people burn houses and slay their fellow men? What were the causes of these events? What force made men act so? These are the instinctive, plain, and most legitimate questions humanity asks itself when it encounters the monuments and tradition of that period.

Categories: Reviews, War & Peace

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  1. Adam Jones

    Which Kindle version were you reading? I’ve had a lot of bad luck with shoddy print-to-kindle transitions on the cheaper books. It doesn’t take much in the way of typesetting goofs to make me just want to stop reading.


  2. John Goerzen

    I read the Project Gutenberg version, translated by the Maudes. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2600 It seems to have butchered the French characters but everything else was pretty good. I don’t know French so it didn’t bother me, and it actually got the English translations rendered reasonably. I too am easily annoyed and distracted by that stuff.


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