I did not grow up reading many classics. Louisa May Alcott, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Charles Dickens were my most-read classic authors. I don’t remember coming into contact with many classics even in school, though I must have and probably just can’t remember most of them. But because of this, over the last few years I’ve determined to read more classics.
Whenever I’ve perused lists of classics or “books everyone should read,” War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy is almost always mentioned. Whenever I read a short description of it, I never could get a clear idea of what it was about. After reading my first Dostoyevsky last year and finding him not as difficult as I’d thought, I determined one day to read War and Peace. Over the last few months I’ve listened to the audiobook version with occasional forays into the library’s paper and ink version.
And now I know why the descriptions of the book didn’t really give much substance. It’s such a massive book with so many characters, it’s hard to sum up in a few sentences what it’s all about.
It covers the period from the time Napoleon is first seen as a threat in Russia in 1805 to his invasion of Russia in 1812 during the reign of Tsar Alexander and is basically about the lives and interactions of five aristocratic families and how the war affects them.
Pierre Bezukhov is one of many illegitimate sons of a crusty old count. He is kind-hearted and sincere but socially inept and awkward. He’s not afraid to speak his mind, even on controversial issues, but is too naive to realize when it is not socially appropriate to do so. Surprisingly, when his father comes to his death he has Pierre legitimized and leaves the bulk of his fortune to him. But Pierre is ill-prepared for the responsibility and doesn’t realize that everyone’s being nice to him now is because of his new wealth, not because they finally got to know him well enough to like him. He makes a disastrous marriage and spends much of the book searching for the meaning of life.
The Bolkonsky family consists of a cantankerous father and two adult children. Andrei is tolerant of his father, intelligent, ambitious, cynical, married and expecting a child but dissatisfied with his wife and indeed much of life. His sister, Marya, is very religious and tries to show her father love though he takes out the bulk of his eccentricities and bad moods on her.
The Rostov family, with children Nikolai, Natasha, and Petya, are a loving, fairly normal family whose finances are constantly a problem. An orphaned cousin, Sonya, lives with them. Sonya is quiet and dependable, but the three Rostov children are impetuous and immature at the beginning.
Prince Vasili Kuragin is crafty and wily, and his two adult children, Helene and Anatole, are good-looking but immoral.
Anna Drubetskaya has great ambitions for her son, Boris, and doesn’t mind asking for consideration and favors for him. Boris, in turn, has great ambitions for himself and learns quickly how to work the system to move ahead in life.
Tolstoy takes us from the ballroom to home scenes to the battlefield and back again. The lives of these characters intertwine and intersect with each other and historical figures. Some fall in love and marry; some don’t make it to the end of the book.
He also intersperses his story with essays about a number of things: his view of a particular historical event, his disagreement with the general consensus, his low opinion of Napoleon, the belief that great men and great events do not make history but rather there are innumerable small issues that work together to direct the course of history. The last is one of his major themes. In fact, the Encyclopaedia Britannica entry for War and Peace says:
As Tolstoy explains, to presume that grand events make history is like concluding from a view of a distant region where only treetops are visible that the region contains nothing but trees. Therefore Tolstoy’s novel gives its readers countless examples of small incidents that each exert a tiny influence—which is one reason that War and Peace is so long. Tolstoy’s belief in the efficacy of the ordinary and the futility of system-building set him in opposition to the thinkers of his day.
One of the main ways this is shown is on the battlefield. It’s hard to see how anything got done on the battlefield when the information relayed to the commander would have changed by the time he got it, when his orders were disobeyed or not received or when someone acted of their own accord without waiting for orders.
Tolstoy said of this book that it “is not a novel, even less is it an epic poem, and still less an historical chronicle.” He doesn’t say what he does call it, but it is kind of an amalgam of the three.
I had heard that Tolstoy was a Christian, so I was surprised that at first the religion in the book was mixed up with icons, superstition, and freemasonry. I read in various places that after his religious conversion, he renounced his earlier works. But reading about his conversion was confusing as well: it seemed to center primarily in non-resistance to evil (which led to pacifism) and in trying to divest himself of his property (which his family resisted and resented). There are nuggets of spiritual truth in this book, but it’s not where I’d send someone who was seeking to look for answers.
I wondered why so many Russians were speaking French at the beginning of the book. Wikipedia explains that it was the fashion of the day and for some years before in the upper class. But when Napoleon started attacking Russian territory, speaking French fell out of favor.
There is so much I feel I am leaving out, but with a book of 1,316 pages, it would be hard to include everything. I am indebted to SparkNotes, Wikipedia, the online Encyclopaedia Britannica, and the introduction and notes of the library copy I had for giving me more insight into the book that I would have gleaned on my own. I enjoyed the audiobook version narrated by Neville Jason in two parts over 60 hours. It did take a while to settle into it and get the characters straight. I do admit that my mind wandered a bit during the essays, especially the last appendix – I have a harder time listening to nonfiction and usually need to reread it parts of it a number of times to truly “get” it.
As with many older classics, there were parts that were a little dry, and due to the different time period and nationality there were ways people acted that didn’t always make sense to me. But I liked following the characters on their journey, especially Pierre, Natasha, and Marya and one minor character, a peasant named Karataev whom Pierre meets while in captivity. I liked where the ones mentioned at the end of the book ended up. There were moments of great pathos in the book, moments of truly feeling a character’s pain and joy. Though not a “keep you on the edge of your seat” type of book, there were a few of those moments, such as when Andrei is waking up from surgery in a battlefield hospital and in his hazy state sees someone who looks familiar and is trying to figure out who it is. When I realized who it was, I think I gasped out loud. One of my favorite moments was during beloved oldest son Nikolai’s first battlefield experience when he is astonished that people are shooting at him, thinking, “Me, whom everyone loves!”
Years ago I read a couple of Richard Wurmbrand books about persecution behind the Iron Curtain, and he pleaded then that people not be prejudiced against the whole Soviet Union because of the Communists, remarking that the average Russians were big-hearted people. That came back to mind while reading this book, especially in the characters of Pierre and Count Rostov.
There is a 1970s BBC miniseries starring a young Anthony Hopkins as Pierre that I’d love to see sometime, but it would be quite an investment of time. I just learned that another BBC miniseries is in the works to be shown in six parts this year. Now I am even more glad I read this now!
I was dismayed when I saw a ballet segment from War and Peace in the opening ceremony at the Sochi Olympics that I didn’t know what was going on in it. I was delighted to find that segment on YouTube and watch it again after reading the book. This is Natasha’s first ball and the first time to dance with Andrei. The video quality isn’t great and there is an annoying sound like a rocking chair squeaking, but I was just glad to be able to see it again and understand it this time:
(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)