And so we reach week 4 of the “War and Peace” readalong, and my! what an action packed week it’s been! I realise now that it’s going to be hard to discuss each section in detail without giving spoilers, but I’m trying not to give too much away; just be aware of this if you haven’t read the book yet and are planning to.

Look how far I am into volume 1! (thanks for the idea, Liz!)

There seems to be a bit of a lull in the fighting to begin with, and so we see a lot of the military characters in a domestic setting, which is quite fun. Nikolai comes home on leave and is feted by all around him, but what a pompous young man he’s turned into! Of course, he’s much too important for his childhood sweetheart, Sonya, and so he breaks with her. However, he’s not so grown up that he can be sensible and he ends up with a massive gambling debt after a session with the nasty Dolokhov and he returns to the army with his tail between his legs.

Andrei, meanwhile, is initially believed to be dead, and mourned by his wife, sister and father. Lise, his wife, goes into labour and Andrei re-appears from the dead just in time, though all does not end particularly well. Andrei then goes into a period of depression, becoming hard and cynical, and this state only begins to be lifted a little with the arrival of Pierre on a visit later in the book; their deep discussions bring some relief to Andrei though what will happen to him in the long term remains to be seen.

As for Pierre – well, what an irritating fool he can be! His marriage is of course not going well, with his wife Helene very bored and rumoured to be having an affair with the dastardly Dolokhov. Pierre does not deal with this well, and eventually a duel becomes inevitable, which leads to an irreconcilable split. Pierre then heads off to his estates and attempts to put a lot of well-meaning changes into place (spurred on to being enrolled as a Freemason); but he’s such an impractical twit that he’s rooked by his Steward and nothing improves. Pierre is obviously searching for something, but what that something is neither he nor anybody else knows, and he’s so naive and impressionable that he can be suckered into just about anything!

Who is right, who is wrong? No one! But while you are alive—live: tomorrow you die, as I might have died an hour ago. And is it worth worrying oneself when one has only a second left to live, in comparison with eternity?

The fighting takes up again, and Nikolai is delighted to be back in the formal, controlled atmosphere of the army where everything is straightforward and a man knows where he is. However, the war does not go well and the troops are suffering from lack of rations, which leads to Nikolai’s foolish colleague Denisov taking drastic action – with unfortunate results. Denisov does not have a good time of it generally, as his proposal to Nikolai’s young sister Natasha was rejected, and his maverick actions leave him in a dire situation – which is a shame, because he’s one of the most entertaining characters! This section of the book ends with a truce being declared between Napoleon and the Tsar, a truce which is not received well by all – Nikolai in particular is horrified and gets very drunk and aggressive about it, his hero-worship of his monarch edging closer to disillusionment. But I’m sure the truce will not last for ever….

The Tsar – slightly less imposing than Napoleon, methinks…

That’s a very sketchy summary, because Tolstoy packs SO MUCH into “War and Peace” and the story rattles along merrily at a breakneck pace. He really keeps you on the edge of your seat as one event follows another and there were some real shocks that I didn’t see coming. The book is so immensely readable and because Tolstoy doesn’t keep you hanging about there’s no time to get bored. The only part I felt slightly dragged was the section where Pierre became a Freemason which I’m afraid all seemed a bit silly to me; though I think much of the point is to prove that whatever Pierre undertakes never goes anywhere for long, because he’s so mentally all over the place!

I really felt with these chapters that I was starting to become properly invested in the characters and their lives, and some of them in particular are a real joy. The lisping Denisov is very amusing and I hope his fate is not a bad one; Dolokhov is an unpleasant yet interesting piece of work, and seems to revel in causing chaos wherever he goes; Andrei is becoming more nuanced as the narrative goes on; and Pierre’s wife Helene is a real society type, flirting and enjoying trivialities. In fact, Tolstoy’s view of society is wonderfully cynical and critical, which I liked, and he doesn’t pull his punches when portraying the deals, favours and manipulations that go on behind the scenes. He also doesn’t hold back in his portrayal of war – the mud and the blood is real, and the visceral portrait of the realities of the army hospital is stark and memorable.

I notice I’ve mainly been writing about the male characters, and they do seem to have dominated the narrative so far. Of the female characters, Marie Bolonsky stands out; a troubled woman in thrall to her father, she comes into her own a little more in this part of the story, having taken on the care of her nephew and support of her brother. However, her strong religious belief is portrayed a little ambiguously, and I wasn’t sure if Tolstoy was condoning or condemning her patronage of a number of ‘holy fools’. Natasha is starting to blossom, and her vivacity and eagerness for life are obviously contagious; she certainly manages to captivate poor Denisov!

So I’m really loving my read of “War and Peace”, and I’m starting to have a bit of a battle with myself! Part of me wants to just keep going and read the whole thing in one go, while the other part is enjoying pacing myself and reading other books alongside. I wonder which side of me will win the war of “War and Peace”? 🙂