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warpeaceGreetings, my fellow port swillers!

Well, some small celebration may perhaps be in order due to the fact that ol’ Robbo has just completed a task he assigned himself about thirty years ago.  Yes, I’ve just finished reading War and Peace.   First attempt.  All the way through.  

Well, now.  I can see why Henry James referred to the book as a “large loose baggy monster”.   This opus is all over the place, part novel, part history, part technical discourse, part screed, with the author’s viewpoint constantly zooming in and panning back.  It’s a bit dizzying until you get used to it.

Indeed, Tolstoy defended the criticism that the book didn’t adhere to any particular traditional form by stating that he wasn’t concerned with traditional European”forms” but instead of simply telling a story and letting it shape itself.  Interestingly, this sort of “writing from the heart” was also championed among a group of contemporary Russian composers known as the “Mighty Handful”, most of whom had little formal musickal training but simply sought to “express” themselves in an “authentic” Russian manner.  Probably a connection there.

Probably the weakest parts of the book are those in which Tolstoy goes off on tangents about his personal theories of history, historickal writing, free will and what I will call collective determinism.  So far as I can tell, their main purpose seems to have been to beat down the notion that Napoleon was an important figure whose actions changed the course of history.  I won’t attempt to summarize the argument here, only suggesting that it reminds me of the sort of thing I used to hear in late night dorm-room bull sessions.  However, it seems to me that if Uncle Leo insisted on getting his chops in, instead of taking time out in the narrative, it might have been better to consolidate all of them and toss them into  an appendix.   (Then we wouldn’t have to read ’em.)

Yeah, I’m thinking some professional editorial assistance might have been a good thing.

For all that, however, I really actually like the book and would certainly read it again.  When you start picking your way around the soapbox stuff (much of which is repetitive) , the story of the tangled interrelationship among the Bezukhov, Bolkonsky and Rostov families and the various side characters that periodically wander in and out of their orbits is just first-rate.  And the broader military scenes – especially Tolstoy’s description of the fighting at Borodino – are superb.   It seems to me that perhaps next go round I could simply skip some of Uncle Leo’s side-rants in the same way that everybody skips some of the technical and economic chapters in Moby Dick and not suffer for it.

Well, now that’s done, perhaps I’ll go back to another long-time assignment that’s been sitting in my “In” box since college, namely re-reading Paradise Lost.


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January 2014