I know myself as a reader; and I had my doubts when I started my reading of “War and Peace” as to whether I’d be able to stick to the schedule. Well, I haven’t I have to confess – but not necessarily in a bad way… The trouble is that I became so invested in the story of these characters and their lives that I found it impossible to stick to the restriction of reading and reviewing a couple of sections a week. That isn’t the way I normally read, and although it worked at the start while I was busy at work, I found that when I set off for my recent round trip of visiting my Aged Parent and Offspring I just wanted to read the rest of “War and Peace” straight through. Which I have, and it was a wonderful experience.

I was conscious with my previous posts that they were veering towards just giving a summary of the action of the sections I’d read, and I did doubt whether I would sustain weekly posts of any substance. Therefore, I think I’ll just give some overall thoughts in a kind of bullet point way, drawing on my thoughts and reactions to the book. I would say, however, that I can’t recommend highly enough that you read “War and Peace” – definitely one of the reads of the my life. So, some thoughts:

* Plot-wise, after some years of fragile peace, war breaks out again when Napoleon invades Russia. Andrei, Nikolai and Petya fight; Pierre becomes embroiled in the fall of Moscow and comes up with some harebrained schemes at one point; the Bolonsky family flees the French and hooks up with the Rostovs eventually; Natasha and Marie become BFFs; St. Petersburg society carries on much as normal; the common soldier suffers (of course); the Generals and those in charge of the armies attempt to strategise and fail; Napoleon is *not* apparently defeated by the Russian winter alone, but by a number of factors including the fact that his army is human and undisciplined and exhausted; some characters survive, some don’t, some (rather pleasingly) get their comeuppance, and life will eventually resume a calmer course for those who remain.

* Perhaps the things that strikes me most strongly is Tolstoy’s masterly handling of his material, expertly juxtaposing the lives of his characters against the vast panoply of war. In fact, I guess the point of the book is to show the effect of great events on ordinary people, and this he does brilliantly.

On the 12th of June 1812 the forces of Western Europe crossed the frontiers of Russia, and war began; in other words, an event took place counter to all the laws of human reason and human nature. Millions of men perpetrated against one another such innumerable crimes, deceptions, treacheries, robberies, forgeries, issues of false monies, depredations, incendiarisms and murders as the annals of all the courts of justice in the world could not muster in the course of whole centuries, but which those who committed them did not at the time regard as crimes.

* The war sections, even when Tolstoy was pontificating on the point of conflict and how grand events come about, were fascinating; I’d somehow expected these to be a problem, but I didn’t find them so at all. Tolstoy makes no bones about what happens in a war, about the death and horror and gore, and there were some real shocks and tragedies to come. He doesn’t shy away from showing not only the effect on those wounded and killed, but also their families back at home, and some of the events really put me through the emotional wringer. Andrei’s final fate, for example, was perhaps inevitable but no less painful; and the outcome for Petya was hard to take.

Andrei looks a tad poorly

* Much of Tolstoy’s genius seems to me to come from his skill at building up a big picture from small events: there are wonderful little vignettes that stick in your mind, like the three soldiers helping Pierre after the battle of Borodino, and this kind of approach is much more human and approachable than something like, say, “The Glory of the Empire”; this latter took a broad brush approach to grand events, but was much harder to relate to because of that detachment.

War is not a polite recreation but the vilest thing in life, and we ought to understand that and not play at war. Our attitude towards the fearful necessity of war ought to be stern and serious. It boils down to this: we should have done with humbug, and let war be war and not a game… What are the morals of the military world? The aim and end of war is murder…

*Napoleon (and indeed all the historical characters) were entirely convincing; Tolstoy’s version of him was not just a cardboard cut-out villain and I felt that he entertained a certain sympathy with the emperor of France.

Napoleon in the BBC 1972 adaptation

* The book conveys a strong sense of the random forces that come together to cause a huge historical moment. Tolstoy is clear that it is never just one person or happening that causes a war to be started, won or lost, but a combination of factors, from personal ambition and politics, through planning (good or bad) to pure chance.

* The character development is wonderful – we watch each participant on their journey through the story to their final destination, whatever that may be, and I for one became completely involved in their lives and fates.

* The behaviour of human beings in the middle of a cataclysmic conflict was another strong element in the story; and when war and peace collided, the contrast between the fall of Moscow and the flight of the Rostovs, set against St. Petersburg society blithely continuing its frivolous pursuits as if nothing had happened, was striking.

* The treatment of the male characters was interesting; they often broadly fell into the categories of superfluous or sneaky and conniving, but even when stereotyped a little were very nuanced. I certainly felt that Tolstoy’s sympathies did not lie with the society characters, but more with the landowners or the lower ranks of the army or the ordinary people; although he is often a little cynical in his outlook generally, and no-one escapes criticism!

*As for the female characters; well, their lot is not usually a happy one. Again, there is often the split of conniving society woman or nice and naive. As usual, different standards are applied for women: a man can behave as badly as he likes, but for a woman to be seen to transgress at all is the end of everything for her. One of the most dramatic episodes in the book is Natasha’s involvement with Anatole Karagin, and his attempt to seduce her. She’s an impulsive, emotional and unworldly girl who’s out of her depth with a serial womaniser like him; so it’s no real surprise that she falls completely under his spell and is prepared to run off with him without knowing anything at all about him. Fortunately, Sonya proves to be a wiser young woman than her cousin, and disaster is averted; but as usual in society of the time, her reputation is at stake while a man in the same position is praised. So a young and inexperienced girl can have her life ruined by a nasty rake for no reason other than being immature; had she been a mature and experienced woman like Helene, able to carry out her affairs discreetly, she would have met with society’s approval. I’m not sure I entirely approve of Natasha’s final place in life, as the solution for her seems a little stereotypical, but we’ll pass that by.

Anthony Hopkins as Pierre

* It seemed to me that Pierre was in many ways the focus of the book; his moral struggles and search for meaning in the middle of chaos, as well as his experiences during the occupation of Moscow, made him a lynchpin of the story, and I grew to love him as a character very much. He comes out of the war changed, but for the better, and is rewarded in a way that is entirely satisfying for him. In fact, spiritual searching is a consistent thread in the story, and both Pierre and Marie end up with a shining happy belief and a new extended family, which perhaps ties in with Tolstoy’s views.

Whatever he tried to be, whatever he engaged in, he always found himself repulsed by this knavery and falsehood, which blocked every path of action. Yet he had to life and to find occupation. It was too awful to be under the burden of these insoluble problems, and so he abandoned himself to the first distraction that offered itself, in order to forget them. He frequented every kind of society, drank too much, purchased pictures, built houses, and above all – read. (Pierre gets his priorities right at the end there…)

* No book can be without criticism and if I had to make one, I would like to have strong words with Tolstoy about some of his characters’ names and their similarities, which really don’t help the reader. For example, Dokhturov and Dolokhov; Kuragin and Karagin; I mean, that latter one is like having two main characters in an English book called Smith and Smythe. Why?!?!

I should state upfront that I took a decision when it got to the epilogues and only read the first one; as I read somewhere (and I wish I could remember where) that a commentator said they wished they hadn’t read the second one as it added nothing, and they advised not reading on. The first epilogue certainly wraps things up nicely; set seven years after the events of the main book, it brings the reader up to date with the lives of the surviving characters and allows us to see how they’ve developed. That in itself is interesting, as they haven’t all necessarily become what we would expect. Natasha, for example, has become a devoted mother and jealous wife; Pierre a happy, saintly husband who loves all; Marie an unexpectedly happy wife; and Nikolai a successful, if somewhat rigid, landowner. All of their basic characteristics have come to a kind of fruition and final stage, and they have the life they want in their re-adjusted family. I was particularly pleased to see Denisov making a reappearance, as he’s such a wonderful and entertaining character!

A final word on the translation; it worked absolutely perfectly for me and I salute Rosemary Edmonds. The book was readable, gripping, the language never got in the way of the story and I felt as though I was reading a book about Russia and Russians. The English is my sort of English (late 20th century no doubt) and I wouldn’t want to have experienced any other version.

So there you go: 1400-odd pages in about 6 weeks and a remarkably powerful and involving read; one that gripped from the start and that I really couldn’t put down. Having read “War and Peace” once, I’m sure that I’ll return to it again at some point, and pull out even more from it than on my first visit. I have to thank Laura for coming up with the War and Peace Newbies read, because I don’t think I would have particularly picked up the book at this time; but I’m extremely glad I did, and now I just have to try and shake off this book hangover I have and move into a new fictional world!

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