Well, cautious optimism applies…! The weekly reading of a section seems to definitely be a hit so far; I’m reading other books alongside War and Peace, and not feeling cross about having restricted reading. Plus, I’m really enjoying Tolstoy’s masterpiece!

Part three is a mixture of war *and* peace sections, and brings several plot strands up to an exciting climax. At home, the marriage game is still underway; Prince Andrei’s wife Lise is living with her fierce father-in-law and repressed sister-in-law, Marie. Visitors arrive in the form of Prince Kuragin and his dissolute son, Anatole, the latter being a suitor for the hand of Marie. The poor woman is seduced emotionally by the thought of being a married woman and escaping her life of drudgery with her father, but a cruel disillusionment awaits her.

Another romance is blossoming between the newly rich Pierre and Kuragin’s daughter Helene, encouraged by all around them. Pierre himself is a callow and conflicted young man, still finding his way and not comfortable in society. He’s simultaneously attracted and repelled by Helene, but finds himself being inexorably nudged towards a marriage he really isn’t sure if he wants.

Meanwhile, back at the war! Here we head into what Wikipedia tells me was one of the crucial clashes of the Napoleonic War, the Battle of Austerlitz. Andrei is still dreaming of glory in battle, Nikolai is recovering from his injury and feeling guilty about not keeping in touch with his family, and both men are in love with the Emperor. That might sound like a slightly over-the-top description, but the way they react to his appearances is quite dramatic, and even Tolstoy mocks their infatuation with their leader a little.

The battle, however, suffers from the usual confusion, lack of understanding and cohesion amongst the leaders, and the fact that the fog-bound troops often don’t seem to know what they’re doing or where they’re going; and they retreat rather madly when attacked by the superior French force. Can’t wait to get onto the next part.

This particular section of the book was fascinating; the juxtaposition of the war and peace strands showed what different worlds the various characters were moving in, and the peacetime people really had no idea what it was like for the wartime ones. The latter found themselves regretting their comfortable Petersburg life while dealing with the visceral reality of conflict and, reading this, you wonder why anyone would want to go to war.

Another intriguing element was the appearance of a real-life, larger than life character – Napoleon Bonaparte. He made his vivid entrance towards the end of the section and I rather felt that Tolstoy admired the man who was leading the fight against his countrymen. French was, after all, the language of choice for sophisticated Russians of the time so it may be that despite the war, Napoleon was regarded as representing a cultured country.

Napoleon Bonaparte. Portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte 1769-1821 at the battle. Detail of a painting by Joseph Chabord 1786-1848. Museo Napoleonico, Rome Italy

There is some wonderfully atmospheric writing in this section of the book, particularly in the battle scenes where the men were stumbling through the mist which was gradually clearing; and powerful passages conveying the drama and alarm of the fight. He also captures the emotions behind the will to fight and the awareness all of the men have of belonging to a larger whole which transcends their individual destiny – a feeling that no doubt explains the willingness of humans to go to war and certain death.

Not only the generals in full-dress uniform, wearing scarves and all their decorations. with slender waists or thick waists pinched in to the uttermost, and red necks squeezed into stiff collars; not only the flamboyant pomaded officers, but every soldier with face newly washed and shaven and weapons clean and rubbed up to the final glitter, every horse groomed till its coat shone like satin and every hair of its mane had been damped to lie smoothly – all alike felt that something grave, important and solemn was happening. From general to private, every man was conscious of his own insignificance, aware that he was just a grain of sand in that ocean of humanity, and yet at the same time had a sense of power as a part of that vast whole.

Book 1 ends with the battle lost and Andrei heading for an uncertain future. The events have been dramatic, and the immediacy of Tolstoy’s narrative made me feel as if I’d been in the middle of the conflict myself. So another successful and enjoyable read – I wonder where the focus of the next part will lie?

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