Thursday, September 5, 2019

"War and Peace" by Leo Tolstoy

How does one even begin to review a book like War and Peace?  A book that's sooooo famous, sooooo long, sooooo... scattered?

Yes.  Scattered.  There, I said it.  This is not a perfect novel, in my opinion, be it humble or otherwise.  I'm not even sure it's a great one.  I haven't really made up my mind about it one way or the other yet.

In Tolstoy's own words, from his 1868 essay "Some Words About War and Peace" (included in my copy as an appendix), this book "is not a novel, even less is it an epic poem, and still less an historical chronicle.  War and Peace  is what the author wished and was able to express in the form in which it is expressed."  Tolsoy insists that "in the recent period of Russian literature there is not a single artistic prose work, rising at all above mediocrity, which quite fits into the form of a novel, epic, or story."  His book is quirky and weird, and that means it's great.  Or, at least, above mediocre.  In Tolstoy's own opinion.

Certainly, the scope of this story is massive, and therefore achieves greatness in that way.  We follow gazillions of characters for decades.  There are so many characters that the people who led the read-along I participated in made us bookmarks that listed the major ones, and many of the minor ones, to help us keep them straight at least a little.  That was invaluable, and I can't think Laura @pixie.hallows and Andrea @miss.havishams.clock enough for it.

(All pics from my bookstagramming)

My husband read War and Peace in college, and his one real remark about it down through the years has been, "After a thousand pages, you've gotten to know Natasha really well."  Want to know something crazy?  I still don't really quite get Natasha.  Actually, not totally true -- I didn't get her until the epilogue.  Then, when she'd gotten married and "let herself go" so she could devote herself to her life as a wife and mother, I got her a little bit.  I understand that brand of relief over not having to go through that whole routine/ordeal of presenting yourself, preening yourself, basically selling yourself that was so much part of her pre-married life.  Once she was married, she relaxed.  Me too.

I keep seeing people criticizing this aspect of the novel, saying they "hate what Tolstoy does to Natasha at the end."  What?  Argh.  That's so annoying.

Look, she was never described as pretty -- in fact, Tolstoy went to great pains to explain that it was who she was inside that made her interesting and attractive, not her face or figure.  So when he says that after having four babies, Natasha "had grown stouter and broader, so that it was difficult to recognize the slim lively Natasha of former days in this robust motherly woman," how is that degrading?  As Mammy told Scarlet O'Hara, when you done had a baby, your waist ain't never gonna be no eighteen inches again.  Tolstoy adds that Natasha's "features were more defined and had a calm, soft and serene expression."  Does not sound like an unhappy, overburdened, squashed-down-by-men sort of person.  She renounces high society in favor of her home and family, and when she got married, she "at once abandoned all her witchery."  She STOPS being artificial.  This is NOT BAD.  

Nobody ever says to her, "Natasha, now that you're married, you need to stop being flirtatious, stop singing and dancing, stop wearing makeup, stop thinking and feeling and understanding the world."  She chooses to abandon certain things and keep doing others.  She finds her vocational calling and fills it, and she feels great satisfaction and pleasure in her vocation.

And I can see how that can be incomprehensible to people in today's society, which pushes us to believe that a woman who devotes herself to being a wife and mother is somehow belittling or wasting or demeaning herself.  Here's the thing, though, folks.  That's a lie.  

Like Natasha, I've had multiple children.  Like Natasha, I have lost my girlish figure.  (Like Natasha, my figure wasn't much to shout about to begin with.)  Like Natasha, I have found great fulfillment and joy in caring for my husband and children.  

Do I have outside interests?  Sure.  I read incredibly long, pedantic Russian novels and then write incredibly long, pedantic blog posts about them.  I write novels.  I'm into Bookstagram a lot right now.  I lead a book club at my church.  I watch a fairly absurd number of movies.  But I don't do everything that I enjoyed before I got married and had kids.  I don't write poetry much anymore.  Natasha stopped singing much.  I'm betting she still sang little ditties and lullabies around the house, but she doesn't study singing anymore.  Possibly because that takes a lot of discipline and practice, both of which require time, and she has other things to occupy her now.  This isn't a sacrifice so much as her recognizing she has other responsibilities now.

Also, Tolstoy never says that only by marrying, settling down, raising kids, and devoting herself to her family, can any woman be worth anything.  This is Natasha's path.  Marya also gets married, but retains her outside interest of helping impoverished, devout people.  She's not shown as being lesser than Natasha because she doesn't throw herself so fervently into her role as wife and mother -- Marya is a different person.  She's reserved and cautious, while Natasha goes whole hog about everything, always.  Tolstoy doesn't seem, to me, to be saying one of them is better than the other.  Not at all.

He does, however, give us a contrasting example in Helene Kuragin, who marries the man her father chooses because he's rich and powerful, then carries on multiple extramarital affairs, becomes pregnant by one of her lovers, and dies while trying to abort her child.  She lives only for herself, and her selfishness ultimately destroys her.  In Helene we have a very blatant condemnation of Russia's high society -- she's convinced that by being popular with them, she's become important, but in the end, she's ignored and forgotten, not mourned or missed.  Tolstoy seems to me to be using her as an object lesson about shallowness and hypocrisy, never really fleshing her out as a character.

Um, anyway.  My favorite parts of this book were actually the parts about the war.  Not the endless pontificating about how Tolstoy understands the true nature of power, history, and human behavior, unlike all those other morons in the world who only think they understand them.  (Dude, chill.)  But the parts about Andrei and Nikolai and Denisov and Kutusov and Tushin and all their fellow soldiers, living life while at war.  That was fascinating.  I love learning about the day-to-day existence of soldiers, no matter what war they're in.  How they learn to cope and carry on, or don't.

My favorite character?  Steadfast, stalwart little Tushin, the artillery officer who's only in a couple parts of the book, but who was just absolutely awesome during those parts.  Loved him to bits.  Would happily read a whole book about just him.

My kids would tell you my least-favorite character was Pierre, but that's not true.  I just complained about him a lot to them because he's such a dolt.  My actual least-favorite was all of the Kuragins in general, as they were icky, and Prince Nikolai Bolkonski.  He was an awful, manipulative, emotionally abusive tyrant, and I rejoiced when he died.  (It's okay to rejoice when fictional characters die, right?)

I feel like Tolstoy's biggest point with this whole book is just exploring how people deal when the worst possible thing happens to them.  Do they crumple?  Freeze?  Fight?  Relax?  And where do they go from there?  It's a question he asks about the Russian people as a whole, in a way -- how do they deal with the French invading their country and repeatedly trouncing them, and what do they do afterward?  As he says at one point, the population of Moscow "awaited the enemy unconcernedly, did not riot or become excited or tear anyone to pieces, but faced its fate, feeling within it the strength to find what it should do at the most difficult moment" (p. 892).

Man, this book is so long that I have lots to say about it, but I think I've hit the main things.  I'm really glad that I've read it, as I've been sort of guiltily avoiding it for basically all my adult life.  No more guilty avoidance! 

I've read War and Peace.  I can read anything.

Particularly Good Bits:

"there is nothing stronger than those two, patience and time, they will do it all" (p.799).

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It: PG-13 for mostly veiled discussions about people having extramarital affairs and war-related violence.

This was my 36th book read and reviewed for my second go-'round with the Classics Club.


  1. This was a really good review. I have never read War and Peace but now I want to; mainly so I can know Natasha and then we can rant together about people who believe all women should want the same thing and that being a wife and mother is a lesser choice. I do have a copy of Anna Karenina. I keep looking at it and then putting it aside but maybe I will finally give Tolstoy a try.

    1. Thanks, Jennifer. I would love to rant with you about that subject!

      I bought a copy of Anna Karenina a couple weeks ago and want to read it next year sometime. I did enjoy a lot of W&P and want to read more of his work.

  2. I haven't read this, mostly because I've read "Anna Karenina" and I know what I'm in for (like you said, a thousand characters, and random disconnected plots, and lots of philosophizing and pondering and pontificating and frankly, some arrogance on the part of the writer) but I have seen various film adaptations of it (I DO NOT recommend the Andrew Davies one of a few years ago; he, like, misses the entire point, as usual; but the longer one, half in Russian, with Clemence Poesy is good) and...

    Isn't his point about Natasha that she is naive, easily led, childish, and falls in love too soon? That she trusts too soon? That she is not at all grounded, but somewhat flighty and immature? If so, then her maturing and settling into being a wife and mother is a good thing, because it teaches her not to let her heart lead her around anymore. She falls in love with all the wrong people, she's used by them, and only comes to common sense about the TRUE person who is right for her after a long, hard struggle. Pierre is similarly foolish, marrying out of attraction and then finding only unhappiness, and Pierre, if I remember right, is somewhat preoccupied with melancholy and what he cannot have. In true Tolstoy form, everyone is rather self-destructive, but he does give Natasha redemption in her learning to CALM DOWN.

    I leave you with a last thought, for kicks. If YOU thought it was long and pompous and confusing at times, imagine Tolstoy's poor wife having to copy it out six times. :P

    1. *Sorry, I said Pierre twice. I meant Andrei the second time.

    2. Charity, I haven't read Anna Karenina yet, but I've seen two movie versions :-D And I bought a copy recently because I'd like to see it.

      Now that I've finished W&P, I'd like to watch the Audrey Hepburn version and see what it's like.

      I would say Natasha's biggest flaw is that she's impetuous. She plunges into situations and doesn't know how to hold herself back. Pierre is kind of the opposite, always a little untouched by what's happening to him, so I think they balance each other out.

      Yeah, Tolstoy's wife was very patient, I guess.

    3. I kinda love Anna Karenina, so I've seen almost all the adaptations there are (minus the foreign one from a couple of years back). I skim-read a lot of the book, at least the parts that didn't involve Anna and Karenin. (I find the subplot a little tedious.) Anyway, be interested to hear what you think, when you get around to it. Tolstoy goes on more rabbit trails.

      I haven't seen the Hepburn version, but I imagine she'd be a more likeable Natasha than most, simply because she is Audrey Hepburn, and it's impossible not to like her.

      Yeah. Natasha and Pierre are kind of ... both dreamers but opposites. She's the extrovert and the feeler, he's the introvert and the thinker. Both of them do stupid things, but they find each other in the end.

      Tolstoy's wife was borderline, I think (a manic personality) but she did put up with an awful lot, and got a pretty lousy treatment at the end of his life. He had established a religious cult by that point (or rather, his fans built one around him, and he indulged them) and wanted to exclude her from his will. She had to fight for the right to inherit the profit off his books. There's a movie about it called "The Last Station," but I'm not sure how accurate it is (and it is rated R, sadly, so there's some content in it) but it really made me mad on her behalf!

    4. Charity, gotcha. I've seen the Sean Bean and Sean Connery versions. Cowboy read it a couple years ago, and he liked the Levin parts, but got fed up with Anna and Vronsky and Karenin, lol.

      Yes, Natasha is all rush-headlong-into-everything and Pierre is all stand-back-and-try-not-to-let-life-touch-you, so they kind of balance each other eventually.

      How fascinating about his wife! Wow.

  3. This was a great post! I read Anna Karenina before I read War and Peace, and I have to admit I prefer that one-- W&P was just a little too rambly for me! But it was definitely an experience.

    Have you heard of the musical "Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812?" It's based on a 70-page slice of the novel, and it's really weird but some of the songs I've heard are good (if really long), and Pierre is played by Josh Groban in the original cast recording. The musical has kind of a troubled history, from what I understand, but it might be worth checking out if only because it's so...unusual, haha.

    1. Thanks, Hayden! I bought a copy of Anna Karenina a couple weeks ago, so I'm hoping to read that next year.

      I've never heard of that musical, but it sounds bizarrely fun in a skewed way? Hmmm.

  4. I'd say you figured out just fine how to write up a post about one of the longest classics in history! I enjoyed reading your opinions very much, and they were very entertaining. Thank you.

    I believe (if I remember correctly) that I gravitated toward the war sections even more than the relational parts, too. They were fascinating. In other words, Tolstoy did a great job writing about military life and battle scenes.

    Now I realize I need to reread W&P. It's been so long and I've forgotten so much.

    1. Awww, Ruth, thank you. I'm glad you enjoyed this. I finished it at 11:30 last night and was like, "I'm not sure this even makes sense anymore. Oh well. Publish it anyway!"

      The war sections were less... sanctimonious or something? More relatable? Something.

      I'd like to read the Constance Garnett translation if I ever read this again because I hear that was Hemingway's favorite.

  5. Congrats on reading such a huge book! That is awesome!

    1. Thank you, MC! I really do feel like I've accomplished something big.

  6. Way to go! This is one book I don't think I'll ever read. But I'm always impressed by anyone else who does it. :D

  7. This was really great -- thank you!! I passionately love Crime and Punishment, but got hopelessly mired in War and Peace (I know, different authors... but both famous Russians). You think someday I should persevere and just get through it?

    1. Heidi, I haven't tried Crime & Punishment yet. But my reading muscles feel very pumped now, so you never know!

      I did enjoy about 75% of this, and learned from the other 25%. It's worth the read, I'd say, but it helped so much to be reading with a group, for the encouragement and just to help me stay on task, as it were. So... find a read-along when you want to tackle it?

  8. I've never read this book and never really wanted too, but now I do. I love what you were saying about there being nothing wrong with how Natasha changes when she marries and becomes a mother.

    1. Thanks, Erudessa! That's a pretty big compliment :-) I hope you give it a try one day! It had a lot of thought-provoking stuff in it. And, you know, "I've read War and Peace" is a pretty cool thing to be able to say ;-)

  9. "Do I have outside interests? Sure. I read incredibly long, pedantic Russian novels and then write incredibly long, pedantic blog posts about them." Madam, you are a queen. XD XD

    Seriously, I really enjoyed this review! I don't think I'll LIKE W&P when I read it, but . . . it doesn't seem to be the type of book that you read to enjoy, necessarily? I dunno. We'll see.

    Love what your examination of Tolstoy's treatment of the different women in the novel. From what you said, it doesn't sound like there is ANYTHING WRONG with his depiction of Natasha and it seems silly that people would get in a huff over it. :-P

    Great review, again!

    1. Haha! Thank you, Olivia, I accept your coronation offer.

      There were parts of this book that I really enjoyed. It sucked me in several times, and I had to read and read to find out what happened next. Other times, I had to slog through stuff that didn't interest me. I think this is a book you read for the experience (and bragging rights, lol) more than because it's a book you'll come out loving.


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