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3.0 out of 5 stars Skinning a whale, April 11 2001
This review is from: Penguin Classics War And Peace (Paperback)
It isn't enough. That's my starting point. It isn't enough to say this is the greatest novel ever written. Or: this is not the greatest novel ever written. Certainly when I'm told that size matters, I disagree. The great artists - the people I regard as great artists - aspire to brevity. Great artists don't say everything. Or rather, great artists don't feel the need to use fifty gazillion words to get the point across. Great artists (I'm labouring this, I know, but: think Beckett, think Kundera, think Borges) aspire to brevity because in brevity you have the pure unadulterated moment. Think Keats. The kiss that never was. You with me?
Second thing. Actually no. The second thing can wait. Because, importantly, this is "War & Peace". This isn't a walk in the park. This is one of the towering novelistic achievements. This isn't regarded as one of the great books of the century. This is regarded as one of the greatest books ever. If you don't start reading with open eyes and an open mind, you might just let that trick you. You might just let that convince you that any - gulp - failing you chance across is your fault and not Tolstoy's. Before that second thing. An obvious thing. Tolstoy was only a man. All Tolstoy did was write a huge book. Okay? Don't be afraid. Just look out for the others.
Because that's the second thing. Reading "War & Peace" - getting all the way through from page one to page fourteen hundred and whatever (excuse me, I'm not going to get up, take the book down and look, there are more than fourteen hundred pages, that's all you need to know) - is an accomplishment. Unfortunately that accomplishment can be a little like climbing Everest without oxygen. By the time you're done, you think all life is here. You've been holding the book up against your face so long, you can no longer understand what you're seeing, you can no longer be critical. Be critical. Start the book critical. Read the book critical. Finish the book critical. Think about the book critical. Do all that. Make up your own mind and be strong.
The point being, I think, that nothing so vast can inspire such honest devotion. Treating "War & Peace" like a natural wonder - treating "War & Peace" like the Grand Canyon or something - is a mistake.
The book itself. In sixteen words. The travails of a group of people against a backdrop of the Napoleonic invasion of Russia. Importantly, those sixteen words also illustrate something vital about the experience of reading "War & Peace". You're reading about a group of people within an enormous historical context. (I'm making an effort to simplify here because the book is difficult and awkward. Bear with me.) The group of people make up the novel. The enormous historical context is something else altogether. As the book proceeds, the influence of Tolstoy (enemy of the historical reinvention of the past by historians, despite the fact that - yes - "War & Peace" is also one of those historical reinventions of the past by a historian) exerts itself to a greater and greater extent. As the book proceeds, Tolstoy goes to war on historians (and diatribe goes to war on novel).
In lots of ways, the experience of reading "War & Peace" is akin to that of reading Melville's "Moby Dick". The novel is fine, the novel is good, the characters are engaging, you are interested, you want to know more but - uh-oh, here comes another 180-page digression explaining how to skin a whale.
If "War & Peace" was just a novel, then perhaps you would merely concern yourself with the impetuous young Nikolai Rostov and his on-off love affair with the house-cat that is Sonya. If "War & Peace" was just a novel, it could be you would spend time asking yourself whether Pierre was right to duel with Dolohov over Helene or whether Prince Andrei should have forgiven Natasha and not gone off to war. Of course, "War & Peace" is not just a novel. These people act out their tiny business against a backdrop of the Napoleonic invasion of Russia, and the Napoleonic invasion of Russia intrudes upon the action of the novel in much the same way that documentary film-footage intrudes upon the action of a romantic comedy. Not that the fictive action of "War & Peace" is in anyway similar to the action of a romantic comedy. (You see how difficult this is?)
Afterwards - having got to the other side and clasped my hands over my head like a champion - it occurs to me that novel is not the place for an extended rant about history. History, the art of history and the artfulness of the historian. Especially when, paradoxically, that's what you are doing. Tolstoy's feelings about the Napoleonic invasion of Russia, Tolstoy's feelings about Napoleon, Tolstoy's feelings about historical versions of Napoleon intrudes upon the action of the novel in much the same way that Brecht hoped his actors changing on stage would intrude upon the action of a play. Except Brecht hoped to alienate his audience, wanting to constantly reaffirm the fact that the audience was in a theatre watching a play (hoping that the alienation technique would allow the critical faculty to remain engaged). I truly believe that is not Tolstoy's intention. Tolstoy just gets worked up enough to let his rants intrude.
Still. To be brief. "War & Peace" does not provide (or does not provide me) with the thrill that Dickens does, or Dostoefski does. "War & Peace" is hard. It's a challenge. It sits there on your shelf saying come and have a go if you think you're hard enough. Reading it is, in places, a little like waging a military campaign yourself. I feel like the blasted bombshook individuals making their shaky way back to the burnt out Moscow at the book's climax (well, in the last three hundred pages). It's an experience. I can say that I did it. It took me just a little over four weeks, but I did it. Which feels good. (And makes me some kind of dilletante probably but, hey, what are you gonna do?)
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