As I finish the first month and the first 200 pages of our 6-month, 1200-page journey through War and Peace, I have to be honest. I’m enjoying some parts more than others.
Peace is a dance—parties with ice cream and champagne, flirtation, gossip, the naïve uncertainties of young men, the wiles of old women, the jostling of heirs, love and resentment.
War, on the other hand, can be rough going. Napoleon’s troops lurk in the mist while the Russians, with their Austrian counterparts, slog across bleak terrain, strategizing about the taking of hills, the crossing of bridges. I feel that I should read a history book to keep up, but doing so would pull me away from the narrative; I’m not even all that keen on hauling myself to the notes to find out about the “civil and military order of St. Vladimir” or the battles of Lambach, Amstetten, and Molk. Though I can imagine that a well-written history of the Napoleonic Wars might enthrall me at some other time, trying to put that history together while reading War and Peace is a little like doing a jigsaw puzzle while watching a movie: distracting.
And, yet. Whenever I begin to feel that I can’t read about another adjutant taking leave of another general, Tolstoy astonishes me. When you hear about War and Peace, the praise often includes the word “epic” because the novel covers so much ground. For me, though, it’s the details that make the book glisten. Take, for example, this description of the Russian diplomat Bilibin (page 154 in my Pevear and Volokhonsky translation): “His thin, drawn, yellowish face was all covered with deep wrinkles which always looked as neatly and thoroughly washed as one’s fingertips after a bath.” When I read that, I look down at my own fingertips, look at my own face, and I not only see Bilibin on the page, but I also think of my own body differently.
Other passages strike me because the language is beautiful, passionate and compelling. Once, in the midst of battle, Nikolai Rostov, who had been nearly crazed with a desire to fight, pauses and looks out toward “the distant blue hills beyond the Danube, the convent, the mysterious gorges, the pine forests bathed in mist to their tops.” Now, with death all around him, that faraway landscape makes the young man realize how much he wants to live: “There’s nothing, nothing I would wish for, there’s nothing I would wish for if only I were there.” (p. 148)
War and Peace is a little like doing a jigsaw puzzle while watching a movie: distracting.
I know that Tolstoy aimed, in part, to use this book as a means of contemplating history in general, Russian history in particular, and the human toll of war, but those are not the aspects of the book that I am finding most meaningful so far, or even, I think, the ones that will stay with me most vividly after I finish. I think, instead, that I’ll remember these moments when Tolstoy seems to lift some veil and show me a glimpse of the complicated nature of being human. I turn, for example, to this description of the long-suffering Princess Marya trying to follow her elderly father’s lessons: “The princess glanced fearfully at her father’s bright eyes, so near to her; red blotches came over her face, and it was obvious that she understood nothing, and was so afraid that fear would prevent her from understanding all of her father’s further explanations, however clear they were.” (p. 89). A lesser writer might describe a menacing parent bullying a stupid child, but it takes a mind as supple as Tolstoy’s to so neatly delineate the complexity of this scene: the girl is capable, loves her father, wants to learn; the father loves his daughter and wants to teach her. It is his bullying that makes her stupid, her shyness and fear that make it impossible for her to absorb what he’s saying. The situation is complicated and subtle, but it’s dynamic. And that dynamism hints at change, the sense that time can pass, that emotional tangles can become more jumbled, or clearer, that individuals evolve. It is this possibility of change that keeps me turning the pages to see what might happen next. This complexity makes the characters feel alive on the page. It is in such moments that I most clearly understand what Isaac Babel meant when he said, “If the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy.” (See the first page of our introduction.)
So, what about you? What are your thoughts so far? Are you flabbergasted over the dopey Pierre? How did you react to the machinations of Princess Anna Mikhailovna Drubetskoy, whom you might remember as Boris’ crafty mom? What about the oh-so-smooth Prince Vassily Sergeevich Kuragin and his beautiful and equally slimy children? What do you think of the structure of the book, that shifting between the social world of the cities and the booming, smokey battlefields? And what about the fact that Tolstoy takes real characters from history and makes them characters in his book? What amazes you? What moves you? What confuses or bores you?
This is a book club, after all, so these are just a few of my thoughts and questions. Please chime in. I’m curious to know what you’re thinking.
Dana Sachs is a contributing editor of LitChat. Read her full bio here.