So now, at last, we are finished with War and Peace. The two-part epilogue consists of a few chapters with the characters Natasha, Pierre, Nikolai, and Marya, eight years after the war with Napoleon, aging and changing; and lots of Tolstoy-essays about the nature of war, history, freedom and power. The Appendix, published originally partway through the final text’s publication in a respected journal, consists of Tolstoy himself explaining some of his intention and outright stating that he blames a sense of predestination on the events of history—which I view as something of a cop-out and resist.
As these last sections are for the most part underwhelming and unnecessary and lack passages that jump out to a close reader and as the novel itself is so bloody long, I think I’ll take a page out of Harry Bagot‘s book and opt for general appraisal of the novel rather than summary.
Last week, as she watched me near the end of this book, my girlfriend asked me if it was very difficult. I thought for a moment and answered that it wasn’t; that it’s grouped in with other extremely long white whales of literature for other reasons:
- Its length
- Its scope and therefore the time-span it covers and large number of characters
- The fact that a lot of people consider it to be one of the greatest novels ever written.
There really isn’t any way to criticize those who are intimidated by its length; there’s no denying that it’s very long. As it stands, I believe that War and Peace is the longest book I’ve ever read, at least in terms of page number.
While its scope is quite large, the number of characters is not particularly high, and they aren’t that hard to follow. Yes, something like 200 characters are mentioned, most of them real historical people, but the vast majority either don’t appear at all (and are only discussed by others) or appear once or twice. I kept a notebook (a Georgian Spiderman notebook, for the record) of characters, but didn’t really need to; most chapters concern the same 20 or so characters and, even if, say, a general appears in the battle of Austerlitz and comes back at Borodino (two battles near the beginning and end of the book, respectively), it’s not essential that all readers understand it’s the same character. Your appreciation of the novel won’t change significantly if you aren’t entirely aware of all the skill Tolstoy used to fold this narrative together—that much should be obvious to even the most casual reader.
Pages and pages have been written by people far smarter than I on the danger of calling something a “classic” or “great” novel. It comes down to implying not only that a reader is wrong if they don’t enjoy it, but that they are still wrong if they don’t think it’s the best thing ever. The bronzed over busts of great authors litter the classics section of the university library, their figures lovingly dead, while new students who otherwise may have really appreciated Moby-Dick or Crime and Punishment opt out of eating their vegetables, so to speak, and feel cool by reading Bukowski or Murakami.
In his introduction to the novel, translator Richard Pevear suggests that War and Peace is two novels simultaneously. Not, as the title implies, a novel of war and one of peace alternating, but two novels running simultaneously. One of things great in the world: Napoleon surveying the battle at Borodino and his illusion of power yet his powerlessness once the first shot has rung out, Andrei leading his company in a moment of passion at Austerlitz, and Nikolai’s rapture at the feet of the sovereign Alexander I; and one of the smallest things in life: Natasha’s first appearance in society at which Andrei dances with her and becomes enraptured, the children “riding to Moscow on chairs” in the playroom (1151), Pierre as the “master” of a group of soldiers at the battle of Borodino. I can understand what Pevear brings up, but the implication of his wording is that they stand in contrast. I think that the two aspects of the narrative are woven together flawlessly and inextricably. Tolstoy recognizes the nature of extremes: without one, you would never notice the other.
Long though it is, War and Peace isn’t a word too long until the epilogues and appendix. Like has been my experience with other books I consider great, I never wanted the main text to end; the feeling that it’s too long didn’t come until the epilogues. Readers who want a neat wrap-up will appreciate the first part of the epilogue, those who wish that characters’ futures be left open probably will not.