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.
|(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.