Wednesday 28 December 2011

Epic book review

When I joined the read along of War and Peace back in September 2010 it didn't seem such a tall order, I mean it is a mere 4 pages a day if you take a year over it, but it became a bit of an endurance test for me. I got left behind so stopped visiting the posts about the book, because I did not want to have the plot spoiled, and slogged on alone, reading with my breakfast most mornings. I'm going to be blunt here, I only stuck with it because I had already invested so much energy it seemed a waste not to complete the challenge. I find Russian books hard because of the names being so complicated and unpronounceable, and this one being exacerbated by the fact that there are three people called Nikolay, that was just irritating.

It was long, so very long, and yet relatively little seemed to happen in it. To a certain extent it is a history, and on that front I felt I did learn something from it, assuming that the history is accurate. There is a great deal of discussion about the war, but also about war in general, politics, history and what role war has and if it is a good way to conduct politics. Tolstoy also examines the course of history and the way decisions were made and how the events unfolded. I liked the way he shows that of course history is a reinterpretation of the events in light of the outcome and that often things turned out well (i.e. for Russia that is) in spite of decisions rather than because of them. His closing concluding chapters about the war were not part of the story but were more academic and very interesting. All through the book he makes interesting observations about the politics of favour and how it influences military decisions and actions. I liked this one, a clever analogy:

"All members of this party were fishing after roubles, decorations and promotions, and in their chase simply kept their eyes on the weathercock of Imperial favour: directly they noticed it shifting to one quarter the whole drone-population of the army began buzzing away in that direction, making it all the harder for the Emperor to change course elsewhere. amid the uncertainties of the position, with the menace of serious danger which gave a peculiarly feverish intensity to everything, amid this vortex of intrigue, self ambition, conflicting views and feelings, and different nationalities, this eighth and largest party of men preoccupied with personal interests imparted great confusion and obscurity to the common task. Whatever question arose, a swarm of these drones, before they had done with their buzzing over the previous theme, would fly off to the new one, to smother and drown by their humming of the voices of those who were prepared to examine it fully and honestly." (p.754)

Another nice analogy on the downfall of Napoleon:
"The Russians at Borodino won - not the sort of victory which is specified by the capture of scraps of material on the end of sticks, called standards, or of the ground on which the troops had stood and were standing - but a moral victory, the kind of victory compels the enemy to recognise the moral superiority of his opponent and his own impotence. The French invaders, like a maddened wild beast that in its onslaught receives a mortal wound, became conscious that it was doomed, but could not call a halt, any more than the Russian army, of half its strength, could help giving way. By the impetus it has been given the French army was still able to roll forward to Moscow; but there, without further effort on the part of the Russians, it was bound to perish, bleeding to death from the wound received at Borodino. The direct consequence of the battle of Borodino was Napoleon's causeless flight from Moscow, his return along the old Smolensk road by which he had come, the destruction of the invading army of five hundred thousand men and the downfall of Napoleonic France, on which at Borodino for the first time the hand of an adversary of stronger spirit had been laid." (p.973)

It is a bit of an impossible task to review such a long book. Apart from the war, the book makes me think of Pride and Prejudice, and I was irritated by it in the same way. The bits that are not about battles are solely about the concerns of the upper classes, their lives, their comings and goings, their money troubles. I had trouble making myself care too much about them because it all felt so removed from real life (see quote here from last year). The women have such narrow concerns, the death and destruction of the battles is unreal to them and the shallow round of balls and parties seems to continue unabated. The upper classes don't do that badly even when they are in the war, someone still seems to bring them dinner and see to their horses for them. The only episode I found interesting was when Natalya, Nikolay and Petya went hunting with their uncle and then return to his house and join in with the entertainment that the servants are enjoying. It was the only time in the entire book where we had any view of what life was really like for ordinary people. The main character in the story is Pierre, he is weak and ineffectual, easily manipulated, but who I did eventually come to like after he is captured by the french in Moscow and spends quite a time imprisoned and finally learns the life lessons he has been struggling with for the entire story, mainly to stop being so concerned with himself.

I recorded several dozen quotes but most of them are about the war and now it is so long ago I am not so sure why I liked any of them. Here is an example of why the book is so long:

"Prince Bagration screwed up his eyes, glanced back over his shoulder and seeing the cause of the confusion turned his head again with indifference, as much as to say: 'Is it worth while bothering with trifles?' He reined in his horse with the ease of a good rider, and slightly bending over disengaged his sabre which had caught in his cloak. it was an old-fashioned one, of a kind no longer in general use." (p.206)

Tolstoy has a tendency to like describing people's movements in minute detail, and always uses at least two adjectives where one would be just fine. In the space of a single page we have smiles described thus: "firm and contemptuous smile", "the smile of a doctor to whom an old wife tries to explain how to treat a patient", "subtly ironical smile", "that smile which said it was absurd and strange for him to meet with objections from Russian generals" and "smiled sardonically". He can take a whole page just to have someone to get up and walk across a room. Although it is not in any way a funny book there are brief moments of humour that lighten the atmosphere: when Prince Kuragin is expecting Pierre to propose to Heléne he just walks into the room and congratulates them as if he has proposed, sweeping the whole moment along to his wishes, and Pierre is so pathetic he daren't contradict him and ends up married. Then, at the end, after his prison ordeal is over, Pierre again:
"he fell ill and was laid up for three months. He had what the doctors termed 'bilious fever'. But in spite of the fact that they treated him, bled him and made him swallow drugs - he recovered."

I have read it admitted elsewhere that Tolstoy did not honestly know how to end the story. It felt more like he wanted to write a history of the period and felt that it would be more interesting and readable if he made it into a story, introduced characters and romance, but then when the fighting stopped he couldn't really be bothered. There is a little bit of suggestion of social reform, with Nickolay Rostov freeing his serfs but really life is just going to carry on as normal, the rich rebuilding their estates and fortunes, the poor getting back to the fields (having been slaughtered in their countless thousands). The whole tale is wrapped up very neatly in the last few dozen pages, erasing all possible complications and marrying off the appropriate people and giving them neat happy families by the end of the book. It was politically and historically an interesting read, but if you want the human interest I would suggest you stick with Miss Austen.

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