War and Peace

war and peaceWow. 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.

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10 Responses to War and Peace

  1. Jeane says:

    Wow, it sounds fantastic. I’ve always found the sheer length of it daunting, but you make it sound so wonderful I feel someday I’ll get up the bravery to try. It will probably take me longer than three weeks to get through!

  2. Eva says:

    I read this last year, and like you I was shocked at how much I absolutely adored it. :D I want to reread it next year for sure! Also, Pevear & Volokhonsky are the best!

  3. litlove says:

    I’m tremendously impressed by anyone who can just get through so many pages. I have a lot of trouble with books over 500 pages long. I just want to edit them. But I’m delighted you enjoyed it!

  4. adevotedreader says:

    Good on you for finishing this Jenny!

    When I read Anna Karenina I was shocked by how much fun it was, and have been meaning to start on War and Peace. (This year I hope).

    The only problem is that when you get caught up in loose baggy monsters it’s hard to say goodbye to all the characters, which I suppose is why I love to re-read things.

  5. lizzysiddal says:

    Absolutely delighted that this absolutely wonderful novel has found another fan. Absolutely!

  6. Jenny says:

    Jeane — I took it on at a time when I had fewer distractions (summer) for the very reason you mention. But it is really, really worth trying!

    Eva — I’m thrilled you’re another fan! I agree – every P&V translation I’ve read has been splendid. Loved their translation of The Master and Margarita.

    Litlove — I can see that many long books deserve editing. But some are so good, I just wouldn’t know where to start. And W&P draws you into the world so thoroughly, the only thing I could think to take out would be the historical essays, and that would damage the work too much. I promise, it’s worth the investment!

    Devotedreader — I’m so glad you loved Anna Karenina. I adored that book when I read it. I honestly think you’ll love W&P.

    Lizzy — yes, absolutely and totally!

  7. Kaye says:

    I started it and loved what I had read so far but the length is somewhat daunting and things needed reviewing etc etc so you know how that goes. Every time I see it on the bookshelf I tell myself to start it all over again. Anna Karenina is one of my all time favorites, having read it 3 times.

    You might just be the kick in the reading rear I need to get back to War and Peace. Wonderful review!

  8. Brett says:

    Glad to read your praise of this new translation. I asked Santa Claus for it last Christmas. It is waiting for me.

    I can also recommend “Parade’s End”, by Ford Madox Ford. which my wife the English major gave to me, and Anthony Powell’s truly gigantic, 12-volume, “A Dance to the Music of Time”, which I read last year, and will read again.

    In my mid-fifties, I find I welcome works like these, with great scope. It is my ambition soon to embark upon Gibbon’s “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, in the Womersley edition, (I was a history major).

  9. Jenny says:

    Kaye — I hope this does encourage you to forge ahead with it. Such a wonderful novel and it does develop its own momentum.

    Brett — Thanks for the wonderful recommendations! I am doing Proust next summer, but I will keep these on my list — I find that I love long, deep works (when they are done well.) And Ford’s The Good Soldier is one of my top-ten books for greatest prose, so I’m already inclined to like him.

  10. rebeccareid says:

    Oh this sounds so wonderful. I mean, I’m pretty intimated by the length, but to hear you say you “LOVE” it eases the fear a little bit.

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