I wish it was but this is not my photo...
After ages of just watching this book from afar, I was finally able to finish every bit of War and Peace two weeks ago. Yes, yes, the impulsion was from the BBC drama with the new hottest Brit actors and yes, yes, they are all fabulous but the main reason as to why I read it through this time was because, I finally had the time.
The translation I read was that of Pevear and Volokhnosky or the P & V. If you want to get on with a novel containing 1,225 pages, the P&V will grip you from the first paragraph. It’s practical but does not compromise meaning, at least I like to think so. This translation was proficient enough to hold you through Tolstoy’s philosophizing which contains so much more than the love story in the novel.
For my own clarity, I made a chart of the characters with their respective traits though I threw that out the window after key characters either died or their personality practically pivoted 180 degrees . As for the death of major characters, I found out that the first George R.R. Martin was Leo Tolstoy. It may also be advisable for one to at least have a cursory review on the Napoleonic Wars because it’s a good guide to understanding the ideology and timeline as one reads the book.
This was my first full on Russian lit other than reading some Chekov and watching Doctor Zhivago because, the Russians do have the penchant for making even musicals like "Fiddler on the Roof," well, dejecting. May I say as a post script that if one will read War and Peace only for the love story element of it as was shown in the TV drama, important contexts and pretexts will be missed especially the mindset of the author which is crucial to understanding the entire book and having a great experience with it.
War and Peace:
The story unfolds at a time when Russia was still luxuriating under Catherine the Great’s majestic shadow with her grandson Alexander I as the sovereign. It is glorious all over and our main protagonists Prince Andrew and soon to be Count Bezukhov, Pierre, are introduced in a grand fete at hostess du jour Anna Pavlovna Scherer’s palace. In this party there is enough nobility to throw around that one will wonder if peasants ever existed in Russia at all. The main characters are: Prince Andrew Bolkhonsky, a soldier ready to serve the motherland as an adjutant; Pierre Bezukhov, the illegitimate son of the dying Count Bezukhov, the third richest man in Russia; there is the family Kuragin which all of them from the father Prince Vasily and offspring Princes Anatole and Hippolyte and Princess Helene you’ll find cringeworthy; there is the Rostov family where our heroine Natasha comes from, they are generous and trusting, and there is mother and son tufthunter-tandem, Anna Mikhailovna Drubetskoya and Boris Drubetskoy.
Extensive depiction of the characters, locations, internal dialogue and description of events fill up the pages and are only interrupted by Tolstoy’s discourse on the philosophy of man, war, science and existence. War breaks out at first in 1805, the Battle of Austerliz begins and the Russians are very well defeated and Prince Andrew is wounded. After this, a truce is met between Napoleon and the Alexander I and peace ensues but not without casualties.
The temporary armistice gives way to the love story between Prince Andrew and Countess Natasha Rostova; also, Pierre (now Count Bezukhov), marries the insatiable and capricious Helene Kuragin and the fruitful ascent of the Drubestskoys in Russian society's pecking order unfolds. Supporting but notable personages such as the insidious Dolokhov who becomes Countess Helene’s consort; the highly irritable Prince Bolkonsky Sr. (father of Prince Andrew), along with the pious Princess Mayra (Prince Andrew’s sister); the rest of the family Rostov and the plucky comic relief Denisov (with the “R” defect) are portrayed and expounded. Quite a highlight was given to Freemasonry at this juncture as Pierre Bezukhov chooses to join the brotherhood and we are even afforded an extensive view into their views and funky rites and rituals.
Extravagant balls are conducted in Moscow and Petersburg and here the reader's imagination will soar to the heights of opulence of Imperial Russia. However, since all good things must come to an end in Russian lit, Prince Andrew and Natasha’s romance suffers an about-face when the former takes a sabbatical at the behest of his father and crafty Anatole Kuragin entices innocent Natasha to elope. Though Natasha fails to abscond with the dastardly Kuragin thanks to the help of her sweet and suffering cousin Sonya, the damage has been done because a letter of refusal to Prince Andrew has been dispatched by the misguided Natasha. Blast. With her reputation tarnished, their family’s wealth dwindling and brother Nicolas off to war, Natasha falls ill and though she recovers, she becomes a changed woman, no longer the carefree songbird that we were first treated to.
On the war front, namely Borodino, Napoleon gets the itch to go to war again in 1812 and war indeed ensues. This time the consequences are of "Game of Thrones” proportions, or shouldn’t it be the other way around? Prince Andrew is mortally wounded, Pierre joins the army finally as Countess Helene’s licentiousness catches up with her, Kuragin Jr. dies and Dolokhov redeems himself by apologizing to Pierre for his past misdeeds. Though the Russians technically won the Battle of Borodino both in the book and historically, the French were still able to lay Moscow under siege as the inhabitants burned and left their capital. The Russians' act of pillaging their own villages instead of graciously surrendering to him was a tactic that frustrated Napoleon and one he could not comprehend. General Kutuzov, the Russian army chief, decides to retreat but not before barricading the French around the surrounding towns, locking them in and depriving them of food and supplies during the brutal winter. With this, Napoleon departs Russia and not long after that he goes to Waterloo where he falls spectacularly under the Duke of Wellington.
On their journey out of Moscow and unbeknownst to them at first, the Rostov family and the injured Prince Andrew were traveling in the same caravan all along. When Natasha learns that the Prince was with them, she devotes her time to nursing him in his last days and redeems herself in his eyes. Meanwhile, not all was turning rosy for Pierre, he was arrested and sentenced to hang for a plot to assassinate the Lilliputian General Napoleon but because circumstances were falling like dominoes for the French, his execution did not come to fruition but he, along with other prisoners were still held captive and were being taken to France. It was on the way there, near Borodino, where Dolokhov and Denisov rescue Pierre. With the war unwinding and everyone just having to improvisate with what’s left of people and country in Russia, the epilogues begin for ca. 1813 to 1820.
The first epilogue tells about what became of the major characters after Napoleon leaves the Russians for good. With the death of Prince Andrew, Natasha finds solace in Pierre Bezukhov and they end up together; though their families were not in good terms once, Princess Marya marries Nicholas Rostov and on this end there is a sense of victory. However, one will surmise where Tolstoy’s heart really belongs, it is in the second epilogue. It consists of eleven chapters of his dissertation on History, Philosophy, Religion, Humanity, Science and even Mathematics. In here I believe he wants to attempt to solve the puzzle that man has vis á vis his world, the Cosmos and his existence and though it is a formidable thesis, it remains only that, a thesis.
Being one of the longest novels ever written, War and Peace is a feat among literature feats. In our modern day it is touted as "one of the central works of literature,” it was Newsweek’s number one novel among 100 in 2009 and Time Magazine’s third out of the top 10 books in 2007 and accolades have been and still continue to be written for it. While the book itself is not required to have a blissful eternity, it is good for one's curriculum vitae of books read, not in a high brow manner of speaking, but just in a bibliophile kind of way. One will feel as though they have picked up something worthwhile, it is a window to a robust history of a once grand empire, human frailties, conflicts and deficiency in war strategy are portrayed and so is depravity. It shows a madman’s desire to conquer but also, there is hope, the natural inclination to survive and the clamor for victory.
To conclude, for those born only during and after the Cold War, this book will elucidate that there was once a fluid Russia, not a Russia that’s made of iron, damp cement and "Vodka Videos" we see on You Tube but a Russia that was unmolested by despots. Everyone recommends this book and so do I, the curiosity is there but the question though is only that of time, Da?