Wow. I see I have been absent from Shelf Love for nearly three weeks. That time has included a vacation to Chicago (with Teresa!) and the very busy start of my school year, but mostly I have been entirely absorbed in completing my Summer of Long Classics by reading Leo Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace.
War and Peace begins in 1805, with the Russians at war with Napoleon. It continues through the war of 1812, when Napoleon and the invading French army were finally defeated by the Moscow winter and had to return to France, and it ends with an epilogue seven years later, in 1820. The book essentially tells the story of two families: the stiff, proud Bolkonskys, including the soldier Prince Andrei and his loving, pious sister Princess Marya, and the easygoing, lively Rostovs, including the brash soldier Nikolai and his sparkling sister Natasha. The third main character is Pierre Bezukhov, perhaps the most like Tolstoy himself, who almost accidentally inherits a huge estate and (also almost accidentally) makes an unfortunate marriage, and then tries different methods of finding happiness for most of the book. The members of these families fall in love, rack up debts, go to war, dance at court, manage their estates, serve the tsar, pray for peace, mourn their dead. The many other characters swirl around them, each with their own private lives and motivations and secrets, in a book whose living texture I’ve never seen equalled. It is a whole world, rustling alive on the pages.
It would be impossible to give a short summary of what happens in the book. Tolstoy moves back and forth from war — elaborate scenes of battle, seen from a single soldier’s perspective — to peaceful home life and elegant courtly scenes. His sense of observation and detail, his use of contrast and language, is stunning. I read the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation, and I was absolutely blown away. Certain scenes stand out. A battlefield that starts out crisply beautiful, a golden autumn scene, and gradually transforms into a muddy hell. A long, cheerful night waiting for an attack, listening to drops dripping and horses shuffling and sabers being sharpened, waiting for sleep. The sudden surprise of love awakening a heart that had been closed. Children playing, riding chairs to Moscow. The death of a soldier, awakening out of this life and into a new one. Tolstoy ignores no one, of any condition. The rich, the poor, the old, the young, men and women: no one is beneath his keen and tender regard. He records foolishness and wisdom with equal accuracy.
I didn’t know what to expect from this book. I haven’t read much Russian literature, and this is my second novel by Tolstoy (I loved Anna Karenina when I read it a number of years ago.) I had heard many people say that the Russian names and nicknames were hard to keep track of, but actually I found them quite easy. I vaguely expected the parts about war to be skimmable, rather masculine and dull. Instead, they were passionate and personal, just as personal as the peacetime portions. I cared deeply for the characters. The beauty of the prose forced me to read slowly (which is why I’ve been absent for three weeks!) and really consider what was happening. I considered blogging about this book as I went along, perhaps by volume, as I did with The Story of the Stone, but I found Tolstoy to be so lifelike and unpredictable that in the end I wanted to read the whole book before blogging about it. I had to know how “my” characters — after 1200 pages, they were my friends! — fared before I could write. Some died (and I cried like a baby.) Some changed unrecognizably. Some became happier than they could have imagined. You’ll have to read the book to find out which is which.
One thing I hadn’t heard about War and Peace is that it isn’t a novel. Tolstoy says in his appendix that “It is not a novel, still less an epic poem, still less an historical chronicle. War and Peace is what the author wanted and was able to express, in the form in which it is expressed.” And it is unconventional in many ways: Tolstoy uses real historical figures as characters. Large parts of the book are in French (these are translated in footnotes.) He includes long essays on history, on the meaning of power, on freedom and necessity, on how to understand Napoleon and Alexander’s war. These reflections are obviously as important to Tolstoy as the story of his characters, but to someone who’s used to reading for plot, it slowed things down. Still, I read them, and in the final analysis I think it did add to the experience of reading the book. Tolstoy was writing about a period in the history of Russia that had changed everything for his people. He wanted to show that the people themselves made up this change, one person at a time. The whole living texture of people, from the highest (the tsar himself) to the lowest serf, makes up history, makes up war and peace. It’s what he tried to create in this work. It’s the nearest approach to it I’ve ever seen in power, humor, beauty, tenderness, and insight. War and Peace is often held up as one of those novels, daunting in scope: people groan when you say you’re reading it. But I am here to say I not only survived it, I loved it. It might not be for everyone. But it might be just the thing for you.