It’s been a while since we finished the War & Peace read-a-long and I hope everybody’s finally got used to reading whatever the hell they want again! It took me a few weeks to get rid of the pervading feeling of guilt I felt because I was reading something that wasn’t an epic Russian classic. Now we’re a few months on, I thought I’d take the time to write a proper, overall review of the book, with the benefit of hindsight, time and space.
Plot summary (HA!): Tolstoy’s epic
masterpiece intertwines the lives of private and public individuals
during the time of the Napoleonic wars and the French invasion of
Russia. The fortunes of the Rostovs and the Bolkonskys, of Pierre,
Natasha, and Andrei, are intimately connected with the national history
that is played out in parallel with their lives. Balls and soirees
alternate with councils of war and the machinations of statesmen and
generals, scenes of violent battles with everyday human passions in a
work whose extraordinary imaginative power has never been surpassed.
prodigious cast of characters, seem to act and move as if connected by
threads of destiny as the novel relentlessly questions ideas of free
will, fate, and providence. Yet Tolstoy’s portrayal of marital relations
and scenes of domesticity is as truthful and poignant as the grand
themes that underlie them.
I love how even the blurb can’t be arsed to try and unravel the various plots…
War & Peace can best be summed up in one simple sentence – ‘not as bad as I expected.’ I mean, come on. It’s one of the most intimidating books available in the English language; people who have never touched a page of this tome use it as a simile for something unecessarily long or arduous. It’s long, it’s huge and it’s filled with teeny tiny little text.
So why read it then? Well, while I concede this makes me an awful human being, I wanted to Have Read It. I know, right? In my defence, I don’t intend to trot it out at dinner parties (like I have the type of friends who host dinner parties anyway) or bludgeon people with my reading history. I just like secretly holding the fact to myself, that I have read War & Peace.
In truth, it was alright. I will admit that it started a great deal better than it ended as it suffered a gradual decline into tedium. To begin with, I was looking forward to picking up War & Peace, which is a statement I never thought I’d say. I was managing to read other books alongside, but I didn’t mind putting them aside to go back to 1800s Russia.
It opens in the city itself, with a lot of gossip, scandal and drama. To be honest, it could be a Jane Austen novel if you replaced all the furs with ribboned bonnets. Who wants to marry who, who’s too poor to marry, who needs to settle down and stop messing about with the boys… etc. It’s interesting.
We then flit to the war with Napoleon. I found the wars bits mildly less interesting, but it was somewhat reassuring that I could pick out odd parts that I remembered from A-level history. The problem with the military parts is that Tolstoy assumes you already know and intimately understand the Napoleonic Wars. He refers to the Russians as ‘we’ and occasionally tangents into discussions of what should have been the appropriate cause of action.
This does sound a little odd, but if you were reading a historical fiction novel about World War II, aimed at English-speaking audiences, you wouldn’t really expect it to bother explaining the war and how it happened and who was Allied with who, would you? I suppose Tolstoy didn’t really expect his epic novel to become the renowned worldwide staple that it is today, and therefore didn’t bother explaining himself all that much.
Anyway, I managed to struggle through the war parts with a combination of Shmoop and my slightly foggy A2 knowledge. I admit that I did spend most of it wishing we could hurry up and get back to the court gossip though. The two parts tend to alternate, at least for a while – War, Peace, War, Peace, War, Peace. Unfortunately, as the war becomes more serious and Russia starts to lose, it becomes more: