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Reading the Classics: Starting Big!

“If the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy.” – Isaak Babel, Russian writer, journalist and playwright

In an effort to eliminate some world classics from my To-Be-Read list, I’ve decided to dive into a massive project…Leo Tolstoy’s epic, War and Peace! The giant book, at nearly 1400 pages, has always been a daunting read but I must proceed! Also alarming is the fact that nearly 600 characters inhabit the work–some real life and others who, while not historical, are based on aristocrats that Tolstoy knew personally–and quite a few of them have major roles in the story!

Before I go further, a warning about translations! Any time one chooses to read a work written in a language other than one with which the reader is familiar, the question of translation arises. And the choice of translator can make a difference! I have chosen the Constance Garnett 1904 translation of the book which I find to be smoothly readable.

Tolstoy himself refrained from calling War and Peace a novel, saying that his intent was a blend of fiction and history; and that great literature should “transcend genres”. Transcendentalism jokingly aside, I think it’s safe to say that Tolstoy’s masterpiece is one of the best novels ever written in any of several genres. It obviously fits nicely into the Historical Fiction genre with its detailed scenes on the battlefield and in the ballroom alike! Tolstoy’s narrative makes for sweeping, almost-cinematic scenes! His knowledge (first hand by the way, as he was a Crimean War veteran) of the logistics, tactics and strategy of an army on the battlefield is akin to some of the more familiar historical adventure stories à la Bernard Cornwell or C. S. Forester and fans of those authors will not be disappointed! A MUST READ for history buffs of the Napoleonic War Era! But, not only are the epic battle scenes exciting and (as far as I’ve researched) historically accurate, they serve as tools with which Tolstoy is able to portray real emotional ramifications of war on the characters involved. Sons, brothers and husbands serve in the armies of Tolstoy’s battles and these men are killed or wounded; or forced to kill or wound and are deeply affected by the horrors they witness. Letters and visits home by the soldiers make sure that families left behind are not spared from the atrocities of war either. Some real tear-jerking scenes!

But it’s not ALL horrible! Tolstoy’s intimate knowledge of the life of a Russian Aristocrat (he was one himself, after all!) gives glimpses of the happy times of the Russian Court. Ballroom dances, soirées and court life are all elegantly staged! Young love is the theme of many scenes at the country estates of the Russian Landed Gentry and marriage proposals abound! Readers more familiar with the Historical Romance genre will appreciate Tolstoy’s softer side. But just as with any romance novel, our storyteller is not afraid to step on feelings, throwing a handful of jilted lovers and erstwhile admirers into the mix! I think poor Leo had some first-hand experience here as well!

Even with all of the evidence that this novel should be included in the Historical Fiction genre or that of Historical Romance, I think it might fit better in another area of readership–that of Philosophical Fiction. Every battle won or lost; every marriage proposal made, accepted or rejected; and every birth or death leaves somebody pondering something! Whether it’s questioning one’s existence, how one should best honor his Czar or simply which gown one should wear to Anna Pavlovna’s soirée, philosophical notions flow and Tolstoy is a master of making them all feel real. And more importantly, he makes it all enjoyable!

- Dan W, Acquisitions


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