How do I review such a lengthy book without it turning into a 3-page report??? I apologize in advance because I really can’t.
For reference purposes, I’m quoting the Signet Classics version.
Yes, it’s 1,456 pages long. Not surprising, since it spans the years 1805 to 1819 (including the epilogue).
However, the chapters were short, and the book split into sections. When I got to less interesting parts, I knew it was only a matter of time before it jumped to something else.
Another helpful thing was the character chart at the beginning and the modern feel of the words. You know how when you read Jane Austen or Shakespeare, it can feel bogged down by archaic phrases? I didn’t get that here, which I know has a lot to do with the translation.
One thing that seemed jarring, though, was the abrupt end to many conversations. Two people could be having this serious, interesting, in-depth talk and then all of the sudden, one would say, “Well goodbye!”
I don’t know if this was just the way things were at the time, issues on the part of translation, or Tolstoy’s inability to wrap things up with smoother transitions.
Finally: Tolstoy could really beat a good analogy to death. For example, on page 1048, he writes:
Meanwhile, Moscow was empty. There were still people there, perhaps a fiftieth of the population had remained, but it was empty: empty as a queenless, dying hive is empty.
In a queenless hive there is no longer any life, though to a superficial glance it seems as much alive as other hives.
Great imagery. Until Tolstoy goes on for two more pages about it, making sure to take all the joy of imagination out of it.
As I read, I researched a little about Napoleon and the Napoleonic Wars. Without that extra knowledge, I would have been completely lost at all times (as opposed to only partially lost in certain places).
Did you know Russian nobility spoke French during this time period? Most of the French was left untranslated in my version, which was fine – even without knowing the language, there was enough context for me to understand.
There was one particular section I didn’t enjoy that involved sport hunting, but I did like that it showed the day-to-day of families.
There was a ton of military talk, too, which I also didn’t care for. I obviously got the necessity, and enjoyed the basic narrations and camp scenes, but it went on and on in some places with Napoleon’s supposed musings and chapter upon chapter of philosophical ramblings. At times it slipped between past/present tense which drove me nuts.
Admission: I skimmed through most of the epilogue because it felt unnecessary. It was 45 pages of what felt like Tolstoy’s personal philosophy. Which is fine, somewhere else, but not as part of the story.
Firstly, a note: Some characters had the same names and/or titles, which got confusing on occasion. I had to go back a paragraph or page to clarify.
Tolstoy was fantastic with his descriptions. I could easily picture Pierre as this big absentminded bear of a man and Natasha as this pretty little free-spirit.
And everyone was complex. One moment I was charmed by Natasha and the next I wanted to slap her for being silly and overly emotional. I admired Nikolai’s sense of duty, but his pride made him arrogant.
There’s this one description that sticks in my mind, of Count Rostov (Natasha and Nikolai’s father):
His eyes, inclined to water, were particularly bright, and sitting in the saddle wrapped up in his fur coat he looked like a baby taken out for a drive. (p 601)
It brings about a definite image, no doubt, but it also seems like a sly allusion to how childlike and naïve the Count is when it comes to business matters.
There were other little hints about things, like how Pierre begins a courtship with Princess Ellen basically after looking at her boobs. It was pretty clear that there would be problems with the marriage even before it began.
I think it’s a credit to Tolstoy that he could make me care about many of these characters who lived in aristocratic la-la land most of the time. It was through moments of humanity and situations that still ring true to this day, like teenage Natasha nervously attending her first dance or Marya being scared of her demanding father, but still wanting him to be proud of her.
Or those *perfect* moments in time we’ve all experienced:
“Where to now, Your Excellency?” asked the coachman.
“Where to?” Pierre asked himself…All men seemed to him so pitiable, so wretched in comparison with this feeling of tenderness and love he was experiencing, in comparison with that softened, grateful last look she had given him through her tears.
“Home!” said Pierre, and despite the twenty degrees of frost, he threw open the bearskin coat from his broad chest and joyously inhaled the air. (pgs 725-26)
Which brings me to:
There was a lot of it. Some which was years in the making and some that was more like insta-love (or lust).
And, oh, the emotional ups and downs. Everyone was constantly crying and a few times, I seriously wondered if they all suffered from undiagnosed mental illnesses.
But it wasn’t all couply love – there were such strong familial connections, especially among the Rostovs. I loved the jovial old Count and Natasha’s bedtime talks with her mother, as well as the realistic bond between the siblings. They were supportive of one another, but still teased just like brothers and sisters always do.
Did anyone else read Les Misérables and cry when the young boy, Gavroche, is killed, not just because of his age, but because of his devotion to his country and the way he epitomizes the human toll of war?
There were several passages that gave me a similar feeling in War and Peace, especially when Pierre goes to the battlefield because he’s curious. In a sense, this is maddening because, seriously, who does that? But then I have to remember his personality and the fact that most of these aristocrats are so far removed from the everyday that war is more of a concept than a reality. And it gave a completely different perspective of a non-soldier.
In this scene on page 913, Pierre has come upon a regiment, including a cart of wounded soldiers.
“It’s not only soldiers I’ve seen today, but peasants too. Peasants – even they have to go,” said the soldier behind the cart, addressing Pierre with a melancholy smile. “They’re not so particular nowadays. They mean to throw the whole nation against them – in a word, it’s Moscow! They want to make an end of it.”
And later, on page 914:
Pierre was struck by the strange thought that of the thousands of men, alive and well, young and old…twenty thousand were inescapably doomed to die or be wounded.
“They may die tomorrow; how can they think of anything but death…The cavalry go into battle, meet the wounded on their way, give them a wink as they pass, and never for a moment think of what awaits them.”
…Pierre was again reminded…”They mean to throw the whole nation against them.” The sight of these bearded peasants at work on the battlefield, with their queer, clumsy boots, their perspiring necks, here and there with shirts unbuttoned obliquely across their chests exposing their sunburned collarbones, impressed Pierre with the solemnity and importance of the moment more forcibly than anything he had yet seen or heard.
It’s not a spoiler to say that Moscow is captured by the French (that’s just history) and it’s nearly burned to the ground. Not so much by the French, but by the residents who would rather destroy their home than have it taken over by the enemy.
That’s some fierceness there.
I really liked the contrast that Tolstoy presented between different areas of the country. In Moscow, the fleeing residents wept as their city burned; four hundred miles away in Saint Petersburg, high society prattled on about the “tragedy,” while dancing the night away.
Was abrupt. I mean, I knew what it was all leading up to (a wedding), but it was almost like the book ended mid-thought.
It went on to the epilogue, which confirmed everything I suspected. But then it got all rambly and I was annoyed again.
Despite the excessive wordiness, I’m glad to have read the book. It really was as epic as I imagined and I understand why it’s remained popular for so many years. Babies are born and men die, sometimes of old age, but more often way too young. It’s about a revolution, about loyalty and love and heartbreak.
I watched the Hollywood version the day after I finished reading and it captured the major plot points, but it missed the little subtleties, like Pierre’s constant inner struggle, Denisov’s rascally charm, and Sonya’s self-sacrificing nature. Of course, it’s hard to condense a 1,500 page book into a three and a half hour movie.
At some point, I may have to reread it (although not for a long time) because there is just so much to take in, especially at the beginning when I was trying to remember who was who and probably missing an interesting or beautiful description.