I finished reading War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy today. Take that, rapidly spreading illiteracy! Somebody, in the United States, finished reading War & Peace today! HAHAHA! And it wasn't even an e-book, book on tape, or graphic novel representation! Hoo-YA!
So. Big book, big ideas. Big names. Big epoch (1805-1819, with the meat of the book focused on 1812, when Napoleon decided to really invade the fuck out of Russia with a 600,000 man army and managed to occupy Moscow for a few fun, looting-filled weeks before he apparently freaked out and decided to head back east again and pretty much destroy his already deteriorated army along the way). Big rep for this book-War & Peace is often thought of as one of the great, if not greatest, novels of all time.
Well, it's not. According to Tolstoy, it's not even a novel:
"(I)What is War & Peace? It is not a novel, still less an epic poem, still less a historical chronicle. War and Peace is what the author wanted and was able to express, in the form in which it is expressed." -"A Few Words Apropos of the Book War and Peace"
What War and Peace is, I suppose, it the biggest and baddest attempt at experimental/historical fiction ever attempted. I read the more recent Pevear & Volokhonsky translation (Oprah made them famous when she picked their Anna Karenina for her little book club), and in his introductory notes Pevear claims to have felt as if he were editing two different novels at the same time. "One is a very deliberate and self-conscious work, expressive of the outsize personality of the author, who is everywhere present, selecting and manipulating events, and making his own absolute pronouncements on them" and "The other is an account of all that is most real and ordinary in life, all that is most fragile and therefore most precious...and can be grasped only by a rare quality of attention and self-effacement."
As you might expect, we here at Blogagaard, being modern readers, much preferred the more "literary" moments of the work and were forced to slog through many of the more pedantic, history-book like sections. When you think of Tolstoy, you invariably think of the God-like, omniscient narrator (at least I do) and for good reason: the man had a lot of opinions and he enjoyed opining, over and over again, until you the reader wants to holler back, "I get the point already! History is not easy to pin down!" Especially, I suppose, since he usually shifts into this mode when describing a war that's now two hundred years old and just as idiotic as any other war, if not more so.
That said, I really got into reading this massive, 1,200 page tome. I sort of rediscovered my inner bookworm, reading no longer out of a sense of writerly duty but reading because I really wanted to read, wanted to know what happened next (on weekends, I woke up and reached for the book). When Tolstoy puts away his own voice and focuses on his characters, and all the many revelations that occur to them, all the heat of their lives and personalities, you feel delighted to be along for the ride. Think of it as playing chess with a gruff old chessmaster-he might be a little dry and off-putting at times, a little wind baggy, but if you pay close attention to what he's doing you learn a lot, you learn about chess and something about the force that lies behind it, the force that drives creation.