Trying to write a summary for War and Peace is hard. It's a novel that spans the years 1805-1820, through the tumultuous years of the Napoleonic wars, and follows the interlinking stories of three aristocratic families: the Rostovs, Bolkonskis, and Bezukhov. The novel opens as the old Count Bezukhov is dying and his relations are jockeying for his favour in the will. The major characters are Nicholas Rostov, the Rostovs' eldest, who buys a commission in the army as a cavalry officer; Natasha, his sister, who is just coming of age; Andrei Bolkonski, a young man who also goes into the army, against his idol Napoleon, but struggles with unhappiness; Maria Bolkonskaya, his sister, a deeply religious young woman who is stuck in the countryside with their father, a distinguished retired general; Pierre Bezukhov, the illegitimate, awkward son of the count who ends up inheriting the title and immense wealth. The novels draw in a huge, sprawling cast of characters that interact with the core families, including both supporting characters that reappear periodically, like the Kuragins and various aristocratic members; and others appear once and are just incidental, but the overall effect is a very dense novel with a lot of elaboration even at the level of small everyday incidents. In addition, especially as the novel progresses, Tolstoy uses the story to illustrate or encapsulate his theories on how history is created: not only how it is recorded, which is not his focus, but what events and people create the headlining events that stand out, like war, the actual influence of historical figures, and especially in the end, the relative impact of free will in the events of history and the way he believes the "science of history" does and should operate.
I read the Duke edition, which was translated into English by Aylmer and Louise Shanks Maude. They worked with Tolstoy on their translation, although that's not why I picked the text. I think I was just looking for an edition that the library had and that was not abridged. If their translation is accurate and faithful to the Russian text, and I have no reason to believe it's not (readers in Russian definitely add your input!) the prose is extremely straightforward and the ornamentation entirely lacking. I would call the prose completely unadorned and that the stories are conveyed with a dry recitation of actions. Sometimes the emotions of the character whose perspective the novel is focusing on at that moment, or else a recounting of various political moves made over some time. This is not a novel with elaborate, indulgent descriptions of landscapes or settings. There are no prose tricks. The depth of the book is really in its many, many, many small stories. There are full-length adaptations in their own right that only use material from a few chapters, like the musical.
I generally enjoyed reading the narrative/story sections, whether it was drawing rooms of the wealthy or the battlefield, or whatnot. Increasingly towards the end, Tolstoy uses the novel to discuss his views on how history works. The novel takes place against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars, and of course the person Napoleon as well as the other major leaders - the Emperor of Russia, the generals that lead the armies - are conventionally seen as directing and changing the course of history, a view Tolstoy disagrees with. He argues that the leaders are pushed by the actions of the armies and people that they head, that the chaos of the battlefield and army make it impossible to actually direct them and enforce real orders. And this is supported, of course, by the densely layered stories all piled together in the novel, because no matter how trivial the scene is, Tolstoy handles them with the same kind of prose, point of view, etc, no matter whether it's a snippet of the boredom of the cavalry and going off and having little amusements or Kutuzov meeting with his adjutants. They all get space and arguably the smaller stories receive much more.
The last epilogue (which is several chapters long) is almost entirely devoted to the question of free will and history, how history could be scientifically treated, which I won't encapsulate here, mostly because I found them incredibly uninteresting and disagreed in several parts. I do generally agree that the view of history which only follows the actions of the very top to be pretty incomplete. Tolstoy argues that it's essentially not the genius or vision or whatever other quality of Napoleon (to take the most prominent example of his time) that shaped that era of history; it's just that Napoleon inhabits a highly-visible role that all these momentous events get attributed to him. I agree and disagree - I definitely agree that given communication technology of the day, orders would be relayed with extremely variable reliability and speed. Your couriers could die on the way to delivering your message and you might not find out till much later! But it's not true that Napoleon had no impact, or that his decisions did not have an outsize impact compared to an man who did not have his position or his personal influence. And the army is composed of many individuals, and acts because each of them acts, and they will make their own decisions to some degree - but swapping out someone random into a role like Napoleon's would not present the same choices to individual cavalrymen. Even some of the Russians, like Andrei Bolkonski, are admirers of Napoleon, and it's hard to see how Napoleon's decisions are all inconsequential.
Incidentally, as the novel goes on, the feeling that Tolstoy did not like Napoleon strengthens, which I found amusing.
I also think that history's focus has broadened considerably from his day. There has been a lot more scholarly research into how the rest - the majority - of the population lived, even those who couldn't read or write, who lived away from urban centers, who couldn't leave their individual histories the way the rich could. I know medieval history best, so what's studied are, for example, the manorial court rolls, where the peasantry could seek redress for various grievances, some small and some large. Not a complete picture but at least a glimpse.
One of the things I noticed about the characterization is that it's quite neutral and compassionate. One of the first characters seen in the book is Prince Vasily Kuragin, who is at Anna Petrovna's party in order to curry favour with the wealthy and powerful attending her (not very interesting) salon. Neither his daughter nor son are very nice either, which doesn't suggest good things about Prince Vasily either. But I wouldn't say that the text ever calls or even really implies that he's a slimy little thing. Instead it says that Vasily probably didn't even think of it as a deliberate attempt to climb - just that he was made like that and he felt it was the right, instinctive thing to do. Characterization of Nikolai Rostov was also similarly drawn. I personally think that Nikolai is a spoiled young man who's never had to survive in the world - son of a count, with a commission in the cavalry, he mostly does as he's told and tries to appear dashing and gallant. When his family's finances start to plunge, he returns home, half-heartedly tries to do something about it, and, upon failing after speaking to the estate manager once (once), he just goes back to going to parties and gambling and such. After all, what can he do? If he were
competent and good at this, he would be frankly a strange character. Where would he ever learn to have this spine for dealing with distasteful or uninteresting work?
Finally I want to say that I hated a few characters and found them personally repellent. Like the older Prince Bolkonski, the father of Andrei and Maria. Maria lives with her father in the countryside, pretty much buried in obscurity, and she's constantly bullied by her father, who the narrative describes as treating her that way because he loves her. Yes, he may do so - but he constantly berates and belittles her, and makes her life a complete misery, even though she's probably one of the kindest characters in the novels. What is in your heart doesn't matter much when every action you take hurts the person you love! What difference does it make to Maria? Andrei Bolkonski - I tried to come up with a description but an eyeroll interrupted me. He repeatedly cycles through being extremely cynical and depressed, then having this epiphany of his capability of happiness and bliss, and then back again, in a way that suggests that he'll always be in this cycle. He's someone who will keep having the same epiphanies over and over again, and none of them will ever stick. I was honestly cheering for his death midway through the novel (before the shell - just wanted him gone) and the trope of losing the will to live is not my favourite either.
And finally. The treatment of Natasha Rostova. My overwhelming impression is one of "wow, Tolstoy is such a man writing about a young girl becoming a woman". There's no other way I can put it. I could not think of anything else while reading her story. It's not exactly creepy. It just leans so much on the innocence and the unartfulness - Natasha's as-of-yet mostly untaught voice is one manifestation, beautiful and of course never learned
, then that would be unnatural
- and joy and such. And maybe this is way too much influence of growing up in the recent century, but have you met
an adolescent girl before?! We were not so joyously gay and springing of girlish glee. Young girls have a range of emotions greater than wide-eyed happiness. Where Maria Bolkonskaya represents the soulful, pious woman, Natasha is the giggling, child-like dream girl. Natasha does become depressed after the Anatole incident - but bleh, it's caused by a man, of course. There's nothing else that could cause characterization shifts - not war sweeping the whole continent.
So - should you read War and Peace? Well, what do you like in a novel? If you're after a lot of small, interlocking stories, or a novel with decades' worth of scope in a time of a lot of political tumult, probably! Do you want to hear someone's views on the prevailing theories of history and his suggested framework? Skip to the end to save some time, but yes. I don't regret reading it, and there were parts where I liked it and wanted to keep reading because of the storyline, but there were equal parts where I trudged through, hoping something more interesting would reappear.
[Note: the latest review I have ever written. I finished the book in February, started writing the review mid-May. To be fair, there were some extenuating circumstances. But this would probably be more fulsome if I'd written it earlier.]Crosspost: https://silverflight8.dreamwidth.org/187840.html.