I read this novel for the first time 20 years ago when I was living in Moscow. Back then, we didn’t have internet access, laptops, or cell phones, and over there, I didn’t have TV or radio either. What I had was a stack of novels (in English) left behind by other Americans and War and Peace was one of them. I would read it at night and I remember absolutely loving it. I decided that it was time to reread and see if my impressions from 20 years ago would hold up. Here goes.
War and Peace is a sweeping epic Russian soap opera with lots of boring commercials. The novel focuses on three noble families — the Bolkonskys, the Rostovs and the Bezukhovs — and their lives during the Napoleonic Wars (1805-1813). An historical novel, it includes real historical figures such as Napoleon, Tsar Alexander, and General Kutuzov. The fictional part of the story is great stuff, genuine soap opera fare: rich beautiful people trying to make good marriages and/or spoil others’, girls attending their first balls, guys hanging out and getting in trouble with the law, infidelity, duels, financial ruin and desperate deals. One of the main characters is Pierre Bezukhov, the illegitimate son of a fabulously wealthy (and deathly ill) aristocrat. Pierre is constantly searching for the meaning of life (through gambling, drinking, whoring and eventually the Free Masons). Helene Kuragin is the gorgeous socialite/gold digger with questionable morals. Is she beautiful but stupid (the words of her husband) or is she very clever (society’s view)? Prince Andrew Bolkonsky is heir of an esteemed noble family but unhappy in his marriage and eager to leave it behind through military service. Andrew’s sad sack sister Princess Mary is kind but plain. Suitors are willing to overlook that given how incredibly wealthy she is. Mary is also deeply religious and roundly abused by her father, but in her kind and self-deprecating way, she forgives dad and continually offers her suffering up to God. Natasha Rostov is the lively and lovely daughter of a noble family that is falling on hard times. Her brother Nicholas feels constrained by his family obligations and looks forward to military service and a life of camaraderie and honor in the Hussars. A couple of my favorite characters are Anatole Kuragin and Dolokhov. They are the cads, the rakes, the amoral young men leading lives of dissipation and hedonism. Their scenes are riveting reading. They’re truly bad men.
As a social commentary, War and Peace shows the lives of the rich in all their glamor and ugliness. These are people who reside in St. Petersburg and Moscow when not on their country estates, who speak mainly French and spend a lot of time making advantageous connections for themselves and their children. They attend salons and learn what witty things to say and sport the latest fashions. They gamble a lot and lose more than they can afford. And it is from this pool of people that government and military leaders are chosen, with merit not often playing much of a role in that process.
What throws readers off this novel, in my opinion, is Tolstoy’s coverage of the wars and his long-winded explications of military strategy and history. When Tolstoy follows Prince Andrew and Nicholas Rostov into battle in 1805 and then again in 1812, putting these characters into the action, the descriptions of the battles come alive and we care about the end result (even though you know how it all ends historically speaking). But Tolstoy goes on for hundreds of pages giving the histories of other battles, Napoleon’s exploits in Europe, political history and, in the epilogues, explaining what has been wrong with the way historians do their work. It. is. boring. And I say this as an historian of Russian history. God knows I tried to stay in there through it all, but by about book 10 (15 books and 2 epilogues in this monster), I started to skim the stuff that didn’t directly involve our main characters. And those poor people endure some horrible stuff — deaths (of favorite characters, dammit!), the evacuation of Moscow and the burning of the city, imprisonment. Not to mention the incompetence of their own rulers and generals. The one thing that sticks with me out of the political/military history stuff is that the Tsar was a ditz and his generals were too busy trying to get favor for themselves to really pull it together for Russia. Thank heaven for the Russian winter, strained supply lines, disgruntled French soldiers and Kutuzov’s ability to get the Russians out of Moscow before Napoleon arrived.
So overall, while I mostly enjoyed reading the novel, I think I enjoyed it less than I did 20 years ago. Perhaps not having access to so many diversions back then played a role or perhaps living in the city where much of the action occurs made it more immediate for me. It is a great, sweeping story, full of romance and, in typical Tolstoy fashion, it does end with some of our characters finding meaning not in the material things of life but in their faith in God. And not being so shitty toward the serfs. It still really annoys me that my favorite character died though.