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War and Peace - Larissa Volokhonsky, Richard Pevear, Leo Tolstoy I have officially finished the book that is usually used as a benchmark for "hard to read" and "hard to finish" in what amounts to two months or so. I feel suitably smug.

In [b:Midnight's Children|14836|Midnight's Children|Salman Rushdie|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1166661748s/14836.jpg|1024288], Salman Rushdie writes of a mania (a specifically Indian one, according to the book's narrator, although I would disagree) that centers around a desire to capture the whole world in a book or a piece of art or whatever else. He discusses people who start trying to tell one story and just expand and expand and expand and the farther they do so the less of "everything" they seem to be showing. One could describe that novel as such, but it seems an even better description for War and Peace. Tolstoy set out to write about a specific event in Russian history, and realized that to describe it he needed greater context. So he moved back to show the lives of the people involved in that event, only to realize the need for greater context; so he moved back and back and back until he had a book that began at the turn of the 19th century, was mostly about the Patriotic War of 1812, and never even gets to the Decemberists, as originally intended. His ideas do very similar things to his chronology, as he tries to encompass so much, and then more, and more. This all leads to why it is such an unconventional book, and at times one in which the author's desires hamstring parts of it--but they are hamstrung so spectacularly.

It is probably fitting that I read such an iconoclastic and sprawling book in an unusual way. Do not let the "Read from February 05 to October 05, 2010" up there fool you, it actually took me about two months and ten days to read this book--there were extenuating circumstances. I am such a nerd, that when I gleefully signed up for a Tolstoy and Dostoevsky class in my last semester of college, the centerpieces of which were this book and The Brothers Karamazov, I went and ordered all of the books immediately, with two months before the class started, because I was just that excited. Each of these momentous novels was given about a month of our syllabus. I don't know if anybody in the class actually managed to read War and Peace quite that quickly, but I decided that it was my top priority (other classes were technically more important, but ehhhhh...) and plowed away until I'd gotten to page 986 on March 16th, and realized that I just could not finish the book and continue my semester. Most people probably skimmed, but I loved War and Peace too much to do that to it, so I just stopped reading it entirely, and waited to finish once I had graduated. This did mean that class discussions spoiled the ending for me, but it's not exactly a shocker anyway.

Fast forward to September 5th and I finally felt free enough in my time to finish the novel. It's worth noting that it took me a whole other month to read a chunk that was about a third the length of what I read back in February--but it's also worth noting that jumping back in after reading and studying so much in the interim, nothing felt removed and none of the characters had been forgotten. Not even a little. It was difficult, however, because it is near the end of the novel that Tolstoy starts really doing the things that have annoyed so many readers for generations. I think that some people come away from War and Peace especially sour because of these ending bits, and remember it as a book filled with overlong author's screeds, when really it is an exciting, amusing, funny, moving, interesting, and beautiful novel for the most part, that gets a bit too didactic just at the end. (In a book of this length, a small problem can still take up a few hundred pages, of course...)

War and Peace is a book that has had so very much written about it already, making it kind of useless to go into too much depth--and that's fine, because to sum up my feelings about every major aspect of this book would mean a review at least half the length of the novel itself. Surprise! There is a lot going on here! You can get a pretty good feeling for a lot of my thoughts just by looking over the status updates I wrote about it while reading, but in the end I give it five stars even though there are some serious flaws, and this is for two reasons:

First of all, the novel feels like it's author trying to grapple with something. Well, with many things, but a few issues above all others, and in that sense even his failings are fascinating and, often, spectacular. Tolstoy was an extremely smart motherfucker, and he poured everything into this novel, and if that means a few times when the author stops writing his novel to rant at you in-person, well that's still pretty fascinating. It's only at the very end that these rants become unwieldy and frustrating, because they're unnecessary--near the end, Tolstoy will make a point beautifully in a sentence or paragraph, and then use pages upon pages to explain the point he already made. However, again, this is fascinating if one is looking at the character of the author himself. Also, his ideas are interesting to see laid out... he just maybe should have done a little less of it.

Secondly, because these asides only begin in the last third or so, and only get really bad right near the end, and frankly by that time Tolstoy has given us so much good novel that he can be excused for a few problems. Every character in War and Peace feels like a human being living their life, and each one gets many of the sort of character arcs that are usually only designated one to a character in your average (or far, far above-average) novel. Despite the length, the prose (when it's actually still a novel) moves briskly, the chapters are short (it was originally serialized, after all), and the events and characters are funny, heartbreaking, exciting, all while being as profound and thoughtful as people expect when they think "Russian novel," but they do it effortlessly, which is not, I think, the expectation. In all that time, there is enough material (and not just in terms of length) for three or four masterpieces of fiction writing--those three or four novels would be quite similarly written, and about the same characters, but they would be masterpieces nonetheless, and so again, I can excuse some didactic flaws near the end.

Will I skip one or two chunks right near the end when I read War and Peace again? Probably. Will I be excited to read War and Peace again someday? Extremely--many, many, many times. People like Nikolai, Pierre, and Natasha will stick with me the rest of my life, that's a given, but smaller ones like Denisov, Dolokhov, and even Tikhon will do the same. Certain scenes were so beautiful, so perfect, that even being entirely aware of how the bottom will drop out when the consequences come won't keep me from thinking back to them and sighing, and other scenes gave me the sort of genuine physical reaction that only the best of books ever have (like, ahem, [b:The Count of Monte Cristo|7126|The Count of Monte Cristo|Alexandre Dumas|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1309203605s/7126.jpg|391568]). Maybe it isn't for everyone, but I dunno, it should be.