War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
That was the one thing I thought was missing from Leo Tolstoy's title, War and Peace. I was wrong. Love is in the title, you just have to look for it.
Certainly there is love in peace. It is the time of children, serenity, growth. The mother peacefully raising her children. The farmer lovingly tending his fields. The elderly passing their final days in comfort surrounded by family.
But there is love in war as well. The love for one's country. Such is a person's violent attachment to their motherland that they will die for it. To give up your own life so another should live, that is love indeed.
What is this preoccupation with love? Well, the Leo Tolstoy I've read is incomplete without this aspect within his writing. I knew this book would be about war, specifically Russia's involvement in the Napoleonic Wars, but I didn't right off see where the love would come in. It arrived in spades. There are peace-loving characters and there are those who are uber patriotic. Then there is man's love for the good he sees in another man's actions. And then there is the love that weds a couple for life.
Tolstoy's genius as a writer lies in his ability to dash his pen across all this with the same level of integrity regardless of whether his subject is a gallant officer in love with death or the daisy-fresh, springy step of a blossoming girl smitten by good looks and dash. Tolstoy transcends himself to become these hearty or hapless creatures. Then he marries them to our soul. Over these seemingly effortless hundreds upon hundreds of pages, these characters become family to us. We love them like brothers. We root for them. We are annoyed by them. We hate a few of them, but after all, they are family and therefore we must abide by them at least to a certain degree.
And when you step back from the book and see your attachment to these characters, it amazes you…and then it disheartens you, for you realize they are nothing but Tolstoy's puppets used in a grand way so that he may slash and burn the icon of his hatred, Napoleon Bonaparte.
Tolstoy seethes with loathing for this man. In large spurts through out, he devotes half the book to lampooning the man and his military deeds, and then as if that weren't enough, he piles on an average-sized book's worth of epilogue on essentially the same topic. In an effort to portray fairness, he also fillets his own. The Russian military leaders of the day come in for their share of condemnation. At times Tolstoy pours so much vitriol upon his own that you have to stop to recall who "the enemy" is.
Why is this a 5 star book? After all, it's not perfect, being neither fully a novel nor a military treatise, but rather both and not always successfully joined. For all its many pages, there was only a small handful of moments where I felt my heart fly or crash. Perhaps it is the vast scope of it all and the effortless way in which it is carried off. So much happens. Tolstoy gives us many rare experiences, puts us in battle after battle - whether it's upon the field amidst cannon and rifle fire, within the home during a dangerous pregnancy, or between an embattled couple bereft of love. Each of these scenes rings true, ringing to their own tune and yet all combining into one beautiful symphony.
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