War and Peace is "Heavy Reading"

War and Peace is heavy reading.

Finally, finally . . . I have finally finished War and Peace.  That book sure takes some stamina!

I went to brunch with a friend yesterday when I had about 50 or so pages left in the book, and she asked, “Well, was it worth it?”  And I found it difficult to give a direct “yes” or “no” answer.

On the one hand, the enormous number of characters involved, each with multiple variations of their names, made it so that I spent the first few hundred pages confused about who was who and even ¾ of the way through the book, I would still stumble across names that were vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t remember why I should know them.

Eventually, I began to get a feel for the characters and their families and how their lives related to each other as they started to intertwine.  The story began to carry me along, as good fiction normally does in my experience, but once I had the main characters sorted out, I found myself disappointed in them.  It’s not that they were bad people per se, but each had glaring flaws.   More than one was unnecessarily arrogant. One man was miserable and on a bumbling, misguided quest for the meaning of life in spite of being fabulously wealthy and respected.  One woman was obsessively religious which made her weak and timid in the face of her father’s mental abuse.  One particular woman was flighty and shallow, falling “deeply” in love multiple times with different men after a single meeting.  Another woman became the family doormat in spite of her devotion and service, just because she was adopted and not wealthy.  And she never stood up for herself.  As a matter of fact, almost none of the women did, and the exceptional ones who did, did so because they were vain and spoiled.

These character flaws would not sound so bad, normally, because one would expect, as I did, that there would be balancing positive qualities that would make the suffering admirable.  They did have good qualities, but not enough to offset their flaws and make them sympathetic and truly interesting.  Again, it wasn’t as though these were evil people doing horrible things, but with perhaps one exception (and that’s being generous,) I don’t think I would want to know or be friends with a single character in this book.  It led me to believe that the characters were almost secondary in Tolstoy’s telling of this epic story and tumultuous period in Russian history.  Certainly, future generations of Russian politicians used the book as a propaganda tool to raise morale about mother Russia, not for its insightful character analysis.

And the philosophical departures that I mentioned in a previous post . . . the ones that started out seeming so interesting and insightful to me?  Well, they soon became cumbersome and repetitive.  I recognize what blasphemy this must be, but I easily could have reduced this book from 1400 pages to about 800 pages without much harm to the character driven plot.  I have to admit that I (really) quickly skimmed the last 20 or so pages because Tolstoy, once again, went off on a lengthy rant about history and what moves nations.  I kept looking to see if he would get back to the characters at the heart of the book, but he just left them hanging out there without really wrapping things up.  I don’t normally have to have the end of a book tied up in a neat bow with a happily ever after, but to end it in a tangentially related philosophical discussion was dissatisfying to me.

Even with these criticisms, I cannot really say that I disliked War and Peace.  In general, I am a fan of the historical fiction genre to which this book more or less belongs.  I like being entertained by a story and accidentally learning some real history in the process.  In this, Tolstoy was absolutely successful.  It was not difficult material to read for which at least partial credit must be given to the translator of this edition Constance Garnett, and there were times where I was eager to get back to the book to see what would happen next.

But I have a feeling that the biggest part of my hesitation to say whether or not reading War and Peace is“worth it” was the sum total of literary history that proclaims this book to absolutely be worth it, and worth it much more than many other books that I have read and enjoyed.  My lack of ability to embrace the novel makes me wonder about myself.  All of these amazingly talented and smart people adore Leo Tolstoy and his most famous novel. 

On the cover of the book I just finished, there is a quote from Virginia Woolf that says, “There remains the greatest of all novelists – for what else can we call the author of War and Peace?”

The greatest of all novelists?  Who am I to say it isn’t so?  Certainly not a literary legend like Virginia Woolf.

But then again, this is MY blog, and in my modern American cockiness, I’m not worried about what those talented and smart people think.  In a similar way, it’s as though if I prefer to drink my red wine with ice but refuse to do it because I’m worried that wine snobs will look down on me.  Instead, I drink my warm wine and don’t enjoy it or even forego it altogether.  It’s just grown up peer pressure and that’s just silly.  Aside from the fact that I got some impressed glances from people who saw me reading it and the satisfaction that I now have in being able to say, “Yeah, I read War and Peace.” . . . my overall recommendation would be to skip it. 

Sorry, Leo.


The war may be over, but I’m still cold

Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky, pictured in 1871.

Image via Wikipedia

So, it’s about time to get this virtual party started which means I have to pick the first book.  I’ve chosen Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (or Dostoevsky, depending upon what resources you use), and I’ll tell you why.

 I am a member of Generation X and a child of the Cold War.  We (meaning the good guys, the Western World, and more specifically, Americans) had a defined nemesis:  Communism and the Soviet Union.  I was taught to think of it as a classic conflict between good and evil, and I saw it over and over again on the news, in books, in movies, and in history classes.  And unlike today, we knew who they were, where they lived, and what they wanted to do, which was mainly blow us up with a nuclear bomb.  Granted, it was a very simplistic view, but I was young and we had a movie star for a president, so what do you want?

 There was a pervasive dread that infused everything in my school years.  I’m sure it was at least as dramatic in the preceding years with the East versus West conflicts that played out in Korea and Vietnam.  When I think about it, though, I wasn’t consciously aware of the undercurrent of fear that colored my every day.  It was like I lived in the fog.  We all did.  It was normal and we didn’t know anything else, until some point in my college career when the fog lifted . . . the Berlin Wall fell, all of Eastern Europe came out from behind the Iron Curtain, and the big, bad Soviet Empire crumbled and became just Russia.  Someone took away from me a burden I didn’t even know I carried.

 And very quickly after that we bombed Iraq, but that’s another story.

 The point is that even though the United States is all buddy, buddy with Russia now (though I’ve definitely got my doubts about Putin), you don’t just shake off twenty years of fear, wondering when the bomb is going to drop and the world is going to be annihilated.  There’s something in me that is still a little scared.

 As is my habit, I USUALLY like to face the most unpleasant item on a list of tasks first.  When presented with a plate of food, I used to eat the vegetables first, just to get it over with.  (At this point, though, I’m a big fan of broccoli, spinach, asparagus and a number of other veggies I once considered disgusting.)  Then I can really enjoy the dessert, knowing that it’s the taste that will linger.  So I’m going to read the scary Russian writer first because I have it in my head that it’s going to be difficult and unpleasant, even though everyone says it’s good for me.  I mean, really, look at that picture.

 Wish me luck!