My first exposure to War and Peace came as a young boy when I saw a ridiculously fat book sitting on a counter at one of my grandparents’ houses. I was intrigued enough to crack it open, but the endless pages of small print about Napoleon and the Russians meant absolutely nothing to me. Still, I was fascinated by the idea that someone would sit down and read a book over 1,000 pages. After returning from my mission to St. Petersburg, Russia, I ended up deciding to double major while at BYU, and Russian was the major I added. One of our classes was a survey of Russian literature (in translation). We read a number of books during the one-semester class (the reading assignments were killer), but I gained a larger appreciation for some of the Russian classics. That class probably inspired me, in general, to seek out more classical literature in addition to the history and politics books that I typically enjoy. At some point, I knew I’d tackle that ridiculously fat book from my childhood.
War and Peace (ISBN: 978-0-19-953605-4) by Leo Tolstoy (Louise and Aylmer Maude translation) is arguably what we would call historical fiction today. The only difference is that it was written soon after the events it depicts and likely had some direct impact of one sort or another on its author. He definitely paints his version of the events surrounding Napoleon’s campaigns. There is a lot of Tolstoy’s philosophy woven into the story, but essentially, the story follows a few main characters through their youth and into adulthood as they embark upon their careers and family life. Tolstoy’s characters are varied and present all kinds of different people with all sorts of different character traits. The reader also gets to become acquainted with the characters in all kinds of situations, which lets one see the best and the worst of the characters. There are hundreds of members of the supporting cast, some playing a more important role than others. With so many people in the book, it’s probably a legitimately arguable point just who the main characters are, but I think it was Pierre and Natasha, the two that one sees from beginning to end in the book. Natasha, young, beautiful, and fun-loving, is the object of just about every young man’s fancy. She falls in love, spurns her fiancé for the temporary affection of a married man and known womanizer, later repents of that mistake, but must suffer when, seemingly through chance, her original fiancé, wounded severely in the war, is evacuated from burning Moscow along with her family and dies as they make the trek. Pierre as a young man is short-sighted, rash, and searching for something more in life than the dissipated life he leads drinking, playing cards, and chasing women. Throughout the book, one sees him struggle to figure out what life is about. He tries Masonry, civil service, an ill-advised marriage, and philanthropy. None of them really do it for him. When captured by the French while observing the battles near Moscow, he meets a peasant soldier from whom he learns a lot about the meaning of life. After Napoleon’s retreat, the changed Pierre is re-acquainted with Natasha, and eventually they go on to form a happy family.
Many Russians with whom I have discussed literature have told me that if one enjoys Dostoevsky, one will likely not enjoy Tolstoy. I had previously found this to be true, as I thought Crime and Punishment was a great book, but found Anna Karenina to be excruciatingly painful to read (it can be summed up like this: some rich woman has an affair and then kills herself). I, therefore, approached War and Peace with some trepidation, but was pleasantly surprised. Others may, of course, get something different out of the book, but I found Pierre’s change from a going-nowhere youth to a respectable family man with an overwhelmingly positive attitude on life that rubbed off on others to be a great message, especially since it coincided with him coming to terms with his belief in God. I was intrigued by the thoroughly pro-Russian view presented by Tolstoy throughout the book, especially as it concerned the war years. He was quite dismissive of foreign leaders, both civilian and military, although — somewhat surprisingly — the Russian tsar didn’t really escape his scorn, either. Tolstoy presented the great Russian general Kutuzov as a fallible man and even soft in his old age, but also one who was above the fray, which I found to be a quality worthy of emulation. Some of Tolstoy’s discussion of fate versus agency was difficult to follow philosophically, and even given a little time to digest it, I’m not one hundred percent sure I completely understand what he was trying to say. What I got out of it, though, was the part of the book I liked least. Tolstoy argued that fate or pre-destination determines the way our lives play out. He claims that we need the illusion of free will or agency to function, but that we really play little to no role in how it all works out in the end. He argues that in a given moment, it seems like we are making choices, but when you step back from the moment and see the whole timeline laid out before you, it becomes apparent that it was, in reality, impossible to make any different choice. That is, of course, the exact opposite of what I believe, and what is taught by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in which agency is central to all that happens to us. The choices we make have a direct effect on what happens to us as everything has consequences, good or bad. So, the story was enjoyable, the Russophile viewpoint was interesting, although Tolstoy may dispute that he was presenting that outlook, and the philosophy was difficult and disagreeable. Overall, War and Peace was a worthy read.
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