I’ve finished reading War and Peace!
Ahem. Sorry about that.
I like big books (and I cannot lie…). I can read Lord of the Rings in a long weekend quite comfortably, so I didn’t think War and Peace could take that much longer. Usually I read classics when I travel, but the sheer bulk of War and Peace (about 1,400 pages) means it has never quite made it into my hand luggage, so I decided to read it during my lunch instead.
Three whole months it took me.
Sometimes I’m just too tenacious for my own good.
Tolstoy himself says in the epilogue (the second epilogue – that’s how big this book is) that this is not a novel. Well, I wish someone had put that in big letters on the front cover – I might have approached it with slightly different expectations.
It is the story of several aristocratic Russian families (mainly the Bezukhovs, Bolkonskys and Rostovs), set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars, 1805 – 1812. I enjoy Jane Austen, I enjoy a bit of Sharpe, so I thought a book that looked at the Napoleonic wars from both perspectives could be fun.
But this isn’t the book for me. There’ll be a chapter describing a ball in Moscow in extremely repetitive detail (no, I don’t want to hear yet again that someone is wearing a swallow-tailed coat) and then a whole chapter about war being a bad thing – or an essay on the nature of history – or a rant about how Napoleon wasn’t brilliant, just lucky.
While some of these rants are interesting, and the war scenes seem quite accurate, it does help if you know some Russian history. And by the time you get back to the story, you’ve lost track of where you are. Characters disappear for what feel like years, and by the time they come back, you’ve forgotten how they fit into the plot. If only more of them had speech impediments, like Denisov, it might have made it easier to tell them all apart.
When Moscow is being invaded by Napoleon’s army, Tolstoy compares it to a beehive. Then he spends nearly two pages explaining exactly how it is like a beehive. Then, several pages later, he compares it to a beehive again! Clearly ‘show, don’t tell’ hadn’t caught on back then.
Oh, I really struggled with this book. (Anyone remember that episode of Cheers, where Sam forces himself to read War and Peace in a week so he can have something to talk about with Diane – only for her to dismiss it as overrated? I now have a whole new respect for Sam.)
But about four hundred pages in, just when I was ready to throw the book away, there was a bit I liked. So I waded through another hundred pages or so, and there’d be something else. Just the odd bit of philosophy here and there, usually thought by Pierre – the only character I sort of liked, even though he’s a very weak individual.
There are hundreds of characters, but I don’t really like any of them (it’s like Wuthering Heights all over again). They’re mostly idiots, or evil, or doormats – and as for Natasha! I haven’t wanted to slap a character this badly since Bathsheba Everdene in Far From The Madding Crowd (well, and Anastasia Steele, of course – but she’d probably enjoy it).
Natasha’s so fickle! She thinks she’s in love with pretty much every man she meets. To summarise: has a crush on Boris, then on her singing teacher – flirts with Denisov, has a soft spot for Pierre, then gets engaged to Andrei – decides to elope with Anatole Kuryagin (reasoning that he wouldn’t be trying to seduce her unless she loves him – d’oh!) – breaks off her engagement with Andrei, tries to kill herself, then realises she loves him again when he’s dying (Andrei seems to spend most of the book dying) – then marries Pierre, and lets herself go completely. Hardly surprising, really – that’s a lot for a girl to fit into seven years.
(And it seems to be a family trait – her brother Rostov has a huge man crush on the Tsar – far more convincing than anything he feels for his wife Maria.)
Pretty much all of the aristocracy are depicted as useless – gamblers, adulterers, selfish, shallow, stupid, superficial, weak. The only really decent human being is a peasant, Karataev. I could see the point of this if Tolstoy wanted to be critical of pre-revolutionary Russia – but serfs still want Nikolai to buy them, as he’s seen as a good master!
It is a bit like Austen, in that it’s well-observed – but without any touch of humour that might make me care for the characters. Maybe something has been lost in translation (I read the Maude version). Maybe it’s more fun in Russian. Maybe it speaks to something in the Russian soul.
For a Russian novel, this has a lot of French in it. Apparently, by this point in history, it had become the fashionable language for the Russian aristocracy. It does make it seem a bit strange, people worrying in French about what will happen when the French get there… If you’re going to try to read it yourself, and you don’t speak French, make sure you get an edition with end notes or footnotes that have translations.
Actually, the book is quite interesting from a body image perspective. Several times, larger ladies are mentioned as being attractive – including an opera singer with plump arms, and one woman with a double chin so large she can’t tilt her head down. I don’t know whether that was Tolstoy’s personal preference, or a Russian thing, or a historical thing…
And according to the book, Natasha “was not pretty” (I’m not making this up – book 1, chapter 8). Not pretty – a description which seems to have been ignored by casting directors ever since – Audrey Hepburn, Lily James, not pretty?
Anyway, Tolstoy certainly deserves credit for managing to keep track of all those characters, and the continuity – there are a few discrepancies, but that’s hardly surprising in something this massive. It took him five years to write, seven drafts – which his wife wrote out for him, by hand. Now that’s love.