The first time when I took the book on my hand to start reading, the first thought that came to my mind was, “How a single human being can write so voluminous a book”? After reading first few pages my first-impression thought was transformed into a new one, “How a single human being can write so voluminous a book in spite of not injuring the quality of writing a bit?” The awe that the book instilled in me at the very first time I looked at this massive piece of literature has been multiplied many times as I continued reading it. I have found multiple reasons to be completely driven by the book and from time to time I regularly reach to the conclusion that I had underestimated the genius of human beings beforehand; with all of our limitations we can sometimes produce such non-human almost supernatural creation as ‘War and Peace’, unarguably one of the greatest novels ever written.
So, why this book ought to have such a massive size? Is it full of superfluous details and repetitive occurrences? This sort of questions must pass to any reader of this book as one cannot naturally think of such massive size of a book without having many repetitions and unnecessary details. I have finished almost one-third of the book and amazingly discovered that though the book has been full of details, they never seem to be superfluous or irrelevant. Every detail perfectly suits the single recurring theme of the book. And, about repetitions, yes, there are many. For example, the descriptions of a war scene or the detailed activities of a soiree seem often repetitive to me. But, this sort of repetitions is also needed to fulfill that very recurring theme of the book.
So, what’s that recurring theme in the book actually? Why Count Tolstoy had to write a 1500 page book? The first thought that comes to my mind in attempting to answer this question is that Tolstoy had an ambition to reach every possible human activity in the time of war. No doubt it is too difficult a task but to my utter surprise, I find that the writer did succeed to do so! This kind of achievement cannot be achieved by a writer unless s/he has a keen observational power. To me, Tolstoy, above everything, was a great observer of human actions, and the motivations behind these actions. There are many parts of the book when I find myself in a position of deep meditation because of some great observations elucidated by the Count. These situations come so many times in the book that I often have to be filled in awe by seeing the strength of a great observer. An example should suffice what I am saying: When Prince Andrey get hit by an enemy bullet he almost instantly forgets about his surroundings and his mind starts pondering about only one thing that is the infinite blue sky over his head. Everything including his whole life, his cherished hero Napoleon, the war in which he is at the moment, seems so insignificant to him in comparison to that big blue sky. He feels like the sky is the only thing that matters, everything else is just nothing.
How difficult it is to picture a near death experience without having any! Yet, Tolstoy shows his magnificent genius by making us feel the moment one experiences when one knows s/he is going to die after some time!
The number of the characters in the book is in proportion to the great size it has, understandably. The important thing is that almost every character is absolutely distinct, which is one the most significant features of any great novel. I often get befuddled by the fact that how Tolstoy could remember so many different characters and also the peculiar features of each character? Of all the characters, up to now, Prince Andrey and Count Pierre have attracted me most, completely for two different reasons. While Andrey is always sure of what he is doing, Pierre is never. Andrey is attractive because he is intrinsically an attractive character. Whatever he does creates a great significance. He is a hero. On the other hand, Pierre is attractive because he is so human! All the human confusions, limitations, inabilities are present in Pierre. Whatever he does turns out to be a great failure. He is nowhere near a hero; he is only a flawed human. Their contradictory characteristics are much evident while they meet and start conversations; here we meet a calm and confident hero meets an angry and confused ordinary human. Such a joy to watch them talk!
Though I have mentioned only these two, I should not refrain from saying that no character in War and Peace has been created only for the sake of increasing the number count and almost each character has a significant part in the novel. Through creating and maintaining so many characters, Tolstoy, I think, tried to cover all the human features he observed and found in his vicinity. Imagination of an artist added up to this. As a result, we found what the perfect combination of deep observation and artistic imagination can produce.
Reading War and Peace is like leading a parallel life to your everyday monotonous life. Each day I am filled up with some refreshing, sometimes joyous and mostly pessimistic, ideas of war, peace, relationship, psychology and what not! This book continuously gives me new reflections on my life.
To end up this short review, I would like to share a recently read excerpt of the novel. While visiting a forest, Prince Andrey, by watching an Oak, gets a new feeling, which, he supposed, was communicated to him by that lonely Oak. Here is the excerpt:
“A whole fresh train of ideas, hopeless, but mournfully sweet, stirred up in Prince Andrey’s soul in connection with that oak. During this journey he thought over his whole life as it were anew, and came to the same hopeless but calming conclusion, that it was not for him to begin anything fresh, that he must live his life, content to do no harm, dreading nothing and desiring nothing.”
(January 17, 2014)