Now, obviously, I didn’t read War and Peace in a single day. I’ve been reading it since January. A chapter here, a chapter there, every now and then I’d get swept up in the story and read it for an hour or two and a time. But today — oh, the glory of it, today! — I finished the thing.
I am now someone who has read War and Peace. And not as I attempted to read it as a pretentious thirteen-year-old, puzzled but dogged, and eventually giving up, but properly. All the way through, and I understood it and everything.
Even liked some of it.
What I found most fascinating about reading it, as my friend Clara had suggested I would, was to see the Napoleonic Wars dealt with from the Russian perspective instead of the English one. Clara and I are both big fans of Georgette Heyer; we’ve even written essays about her; and in Clara’s she discusses how her college Russian Lit class was made so much easier because of all the backstory she got from our favourite historical novelist. She is so right, but what I also felt was a sense of heady realization that I have been ignoring the “other” side of too many conflicts for too long. When Napoleon showed up in this book, even though he is something of a figure of fun, it suddenly occurred to me that, forget about the Russian perspective, I have never encountered this era of history from the French perspective. I’ve read Heyer and Forrester and Cornwell and O’Brien — hell, I’ve even read Naomi Novik’s version with dragons, now.
I really should do something about this blindside I have so recently discovered. History is, after all, written by the victors, but the… do we call them losers?… have a story to tell, as well.
Anyway. Back to War and Peace.
In such a long and sprawling narrative, of course there are many, many characters to keep track of, and many, many plotlines to attempt to follow. (And, equally of course, since this is a Russian novel, all of our many, many characters each have many, many names.) But it mostly hung together, I found, even with my incremental reading of the epic, and I developed some favourites — poor misguided Pierre! Troubled, but kindhearted Natasha! — and some less favourites — shut up, Boris! Grow a spine, Maria! — even while I got involved in the battlefield derring do. (Could have done without a lot of the long passages about military strategy, however.)
The best part of the book, for me, was the evacuation of Moscow, when Napoleon is advancing on the city and rich and poor alike are scrambling to take what they can with them into the countryside, and to safety. It’s a thrilling scene — it’s where Natasha became my favourite — and perfectly encompasses the many horrors of war, even for those not directly in the thick of it.
The worst part of the book, by far, is the epilogue, which is so long you have to wonder if Tolstoy originally planned it as a sequel. If so, it would have been a pretty bad one. The first part of it is just “and this is what happened next” and it’s pretty dull and kind of upsetting, when you see Nikolai mistreating his serfs so badly. (No wonder the revolted… like, a hundred years later.) But the second part is just interminable. Basically, Tolstoy has taken a look at your history books, historians, and you are doing it wrong. At best, it’s an Appendix — it is certainly not an epilogue. It took me a month to read it, in very grudging installments, and I hated it all the while.
But today I finished it, and I am glad. So glad. I can’t remember the last time reading gave me such a profound feeling of accomplishment — no, not even when I finally made it through Ivan’s epic religious poem in The Brothers Karamazov. (Seriously, shut up, Ivan!).
I’m feeling very proud of myself right now, but I also feel a bit empty — I’ve been reading this book for so long that it feels weird to not be reading it anymore.
Time to start on Crime and Punishment, I guess.
TBR DAY 150: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
GENRE: Classics, Russian Literature
TIME ON THE TBR: 20 years.
PURCHASED FROM: Alice’s Bookshop.