I have no idea how to approach this review. I finished reading War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky) on February 16th and literally every day since then I have thought about how to write this review. And come up with nothing. Honestly, this is a book that is supposedly intimidating to read but let me tell you how much more terrifying it is to talk about.
Even if you’ve never read War and Peace, odds are you are at least vaguely familiar with it. At least that is what I am hoping since I am not going to go into detail about the plot and all of the characters. Instead, please enjoy some slightly disjointed, rambling thoughts on a novel that I fell completely in love with as soon as I started reading.
There are grand events here – the war sections, unsurprisingly – but I was surprised by how much of the novel revolves around the domestic woes of its central characters. And what beautifully complex characters they are. No one is perfect here and each character has enough flaws that the reader can easily understand why others characters may dislike him or her. But, perhaps because of their flaws, each character is sympathetic. I may not have liked Prince Andrei but I did come to understand his character and his motivations, to feel pity for him rather than the contempt I would have felt for anyone else who behaved as he did. I did hate him when we were first introduced – how could you not despise someone who spent all this time ignoring or insulting his pregnant wife? – but by the time he met and fell in love with Natasha, I wanted him to find peace and happiness. Not necessarily with her, it must be said, but conceptually that was what I desired for him.
Then there was Pierre, so awkward and exploitable but with such a very good heart. He is emotional rather than rational, putting all his passion into all the projects or people that he loves, trusting that what he lacks in knowledge and patience can be compensated for with enthusiasm and emotion:
Pierre’s insanity consisted in the fact that he did not wait, as before, for personal reasons, which he called people’s merits, in order to love them, but love overflowed his heart, and, loving people without reason, he discovered the unquestionable reasons for which it was worth loving them.
Of course, it does not always work out well but it is difficult not to warm to someone who wants so much to do good and who loves so freely. At the same time, it is very, very easy to see why other characters view him as a sad joke. Pierre has a rough and very eventful go of it, what with his awful wife, his entanglement and subsequent disillusionment with the Free Masons, his eager but ill-considered attempts at social reform on his estates, his hopeless love for Natasha, his experiences in battle and as a prisoner in 1812…Pierre is quite busy from 1805 to 1813. And yet as much as I came to love him for his open heart and generosity, for his naiveté and eagerness, there was still something that kept me from liking him. I cannot quite put my finger on what that was. As with Prince Andrei, I wanted him to find peace and happiness but I never saw him behave with a woman in a way that made me certain he would be the right husband for Natasha. But then that’s one of the problems with Natasha: she is so wonderfully loveable and charming that it is hard to conceive of anyone good enough for her.
And what of Natasha? I loved her immediately, was enchanted by her energy and emotiveness. One of the reasons I picked up War and Peace (having been scared off of Tolstoy altogether by numerous failed attempts at Anna Karenina) was to finally meet her, after years of hearing nothing but praise. Margaret Kennedy called her “an entirely charming girl”, saying that she was the only literary heroine who could match Elizabeth Bennet. Natasha doesn’t match Lizzie; she bests her. Yes, Natasha spends most of the novel as an emotional teenage girl, tossing quickly and completely from one emotion and one romantic attachment to the next without a thought, but Natasha’s appeal is emotional. Even those who love her best cannot describe her as an intelligent or clever woman. Her strength lies in her ability to feel and to love and when she loves, she commits herself completely and beautifully. The most beautiful, most memorable moment of the novel belongs to Natasha, when she casts off the countess she has been trained to be since birth and dances a folk dance so freely, so exactly as it should be danced, with only her spirit and the music to guide her:
Where, how and when had this little countess, brought up by an émigré Frenchwoman, sucked this spirit in from the Russian air she breathed, where has she gotten these ways, which should have been long supplanted by the pas de châle? Yet that spirit and these ways were those very inimitable, unstudied Russian ones which the uncle expected of her. As soon as she stood there, smiling triumphantly, proudly, and with sly merriment, the fear which had first seized Nikolai and all those present – that she would not do it right – went away, and they began to admire her.
She did it exactly right, and so precisely, so perfectly precisely, that Anisya Fyodorovna, who at once handed Natasha the kerchief she needed for it, wept through her laughter, looking at this slender, graceful countess, brought up in silk and velvet, so foreign to her, who was able to understand everything that was in Anisya and in Anisya’s father, and in her aunt, and in her mother, and in every Russian.
It is such a happy moment and a lovely, fanciful image: the aristocratic girl with the soul of a peasant. Tolstoy does not tell us the music or give any idea of the steps but it is so easy to know exactly what those onlookers saw and to feel what they felt when Natasha danced.
I had no real quarrel with the Natasha shown in the epilogue, though I understand it troubles other readers. She is a woman completely devoted to her husband and to her children, with no interest in other people or even her appearance. She lives for them and they provide her with a purpose and an identity:
She, as they put it, let herself go. Natasha took no trouble either about her manners, or about the delicacy of her speech, or about showing herself to her husband in the most advantageous poses, or about her toilette, or about not hampering her husband with her demands. She did everything contrary to these rules. She felt that the charms which her instinct had taught her to make use of before would now only be ridiculous in the eyes of her husband, to whom, from the first moment, she had given herself entirely – that is, with her whole soul, not leaving one little corner that was not open to him.
Other readers see this as the loss of the enchanting young woman we got to know over the course of the novel, but I’m not so sure. Young Natasha was passionate but indecisive, falling in love with every man she met only to change her affections a few days later. But while she loved, she loved completely. To me, it makes sense that once she had a family of her own, all her passion and energy was focused on them, all her devotion given to Pierre, and her constancy is a sign of the maturity she has finally achieved. Yes, much of it is probably Tolstoy’s fantasy of feminine perfection and it may be unrealistic but at least it is consistent with the character’s earlier behaviours.
Everything else about the epilogues (oh yes, there is more than one) is a touch peculiar. Natasha’s beloved brother Nikolai has turned into a grumpy despot, snapping at his wife and children and generally showing very little of the charming young man he had once been. I was particularly upset by this change since Nikolai in his youth had provided some of Tolstoy’s most amusing material. His rapture as a young, untried soldier listening to an address from the sovereign was one of the most perfect scenes of the novel, highlighting the absurdity of such passionate yet blind devotion:
‘My God! what would happen to me if the sovereign addressed me!’ thought Rostov. ‘I’d die of happiness.’
The sovereign also addressed the officers.
‘I thank you all, gentlemen’ (every word Rostov heard was like a sound from heaven), ‘with all my heart.’
How happy Rostov would be if he could die now for his sovereign!
‘You have merited the St George standards and will be worthy of them.’
‘Just to die, to die for him!’ thought Rostov.
The sovereign said something more which Rostov did not hear, and the soldiers, straining their cheers, shouted: ‘Hurrah!’
Rostov also shouted with all his might, leaning towards his saddle, wishing to hurt himself with this cry, only so as to fully express his rapture for the sovereign.
The sovereign stood for a few seconds facing the hussars, as if undecided.
‘How can a sovereign be undecided?’ thought Rostov, and then even this indecision seemed majestic and enchanting to Rostov, like everything the sovereign did.
From that disappointment, the epilogues just got stranger, with much (terrifyingly dull) pondering on the forces that shape the world. For someone who managed to write hundreds of pages of terrifically entertaining narrative (not to mention wonderfully vivid battle scenes), this was a particularly stupefying way to conclude it. I have to admit I skimmed most of it.
It is not a flawless novel but is there such a thing? Some judicious editing would have been a great help in the sections where Tolstoy wanders off a bit and the writing in general isn’t particularly genius. But it is a brilliantly entertaining novel, full of humour and emotion and characters so captivating that I am not sure I have ever met their equals.
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