You might remember that I finished Book 2 of War and Peace full of enthusiasm. I loved all the scandal and drama of those Moscow chapters and, although I knew the focus would now shift back to the war, I was feeling pretty optimistic. I mean, I got through Schongrabern and Austerlitz quickly and without struggling, why should this be any different?
It was no time at all before I was forced to eat. my. words.
Much of Book 3 is devoted to the Battle of Borodino, Russia’s last stand before Moscow is sacrificed to Napoleon and the invading French army. The battle itself feels almost apocalyptic and it’s an easy enough read. There are some great scenes where the blundering Pierre gets inadvertently caught up in the bloodshed and another with Prince Andrei in a field hospital, both of which I thought were really movingly described. The trouble is, however, that Tolstoy takes his own sweet time getting to a stage where he can tell us how the main characters are experiencing the battle. In the meantime there are pages of analysis: what French historians think of Borodino, what Tolstoy thinks, Napoleon’s motivation, French military tactics, Russian military tactics, where the French went wrong, why none of it was enough to save Moscow, and what this all tells us about the very nature of history and life itself….
I know that Borodino is pivotal to the plot but, oh my God, the introduction to it drags on for far, far too long. And, to make matters worse, I’m a stickler for detail: I’m completely unable to skim read so I have to read EVERY LAST WORD, multiple times if necessary, to make sure I’ve fully grasped what’s being said. And if I still don’t get it I’ll turn to Wikipedia or I’ll plot the route of Napoleon’s army on Google Maps (no, seriously, I actually did this) until I’m up to speed. I’d have gotten through Borodino so much quicker and more enjoyably if I could just relax instead of getting all finicky about it.
The upshot of all this is that I felt like I was bogged down in Borodino for ages when in actual fact it was just a week and a half. It really wasn’t half as bad as I remember but in the end I was starting to question whether I really was enjoying War and Peace as much as I’d previously thought. It was a huge relief when the action switched away from the battlefield. I never imagined I’d be so glad to see that conniving Helene Bezukov again.
After Borodino, Book 3 improved immensely. I loved the chaos of the abandonment of Moscow, the Rostov escape, Pierre’s mad ramblings through the burning city and the (probably temporary) reappearance of a Bolkonsky. I’m pleased to say that I’ve returned to my normal happy reading frame of mind and all is right with the world again. Phew!