After two months of steady reading I finally (reluctantly) finished War and Peace last night. I know of several people who claim to have read this book in just a couple of weeks but I’m glad I took my time to enjoy this one at a slower pace. I’m genuinely sad now it’s over but I always feel a bit like this when I finish a particularly long book. They bring on the worst book hangovers.
I’ve been updating here fairly regularly with my progress so there isn’t a great deal to add to all my previous posts. Book 4 contained a death I hadn’t seen coming (having deliberately not listened to the last episode of the radio play), the pursuit of the retreating French army, a rescue, some friendships and a final reunion. It ends on the promise of both good and bad things looming in the future and I can almost understand why some readers believe that Tolstoy should have just left it there. Following this is the epilogue, which is a both an update on where the main characters are several years down the line and an essay on why ‘History’ will never be fully able to grasp why and how these events all came to pass. It’s a weird way to end such an epic piece of fiction – not with a bang but with a whimper, you might say – but it seems quite fitting to me. Tolstoy strove to provide a true glimpse into life in all its glorious and petty detail, to show that there’s a thin line between war and peace and that there’s never really an end to this cycle; I think I’d have found a neater ending disappointing.
And I think it is all the detail that makes this book so completely engrossing. Nothing is too small or insignificant for Tolstoy to describe. The discussions of the war council, the preparations for Natasha’s first ball, Anatole’s coachman, and the troublesome peasants on the Bolkonsky estate: Tolstoy casts the same searching eye over them all. You might think that this could get boring quite fast but I found that the opposite was true. All of Tolstoy’s descriptions feel really vivid and some images stayed with me long after I’d moved on to the next page:
“Some of the dust was kneaded by the feet and the wheels while the rest rose and hung like a cloud over the troops, settling in eyes, ears, hair and nostrils and, worse of all, in the lungs of the men and beasts as they moved along that road. The higher the sun rose, the higher rose that cloud of dust and through the screen of its hot, fine particles one could look with naked eye at the sun which showed like a huge crimson ball in the unclouded sky. There was no wind and the men choked in that motionless atmosphere.”
Another side effect of all this attention to detail is that you feel like you have a much deeper relationship with the characters, even the ones you instinctively disliked at the beginning (*ahem* Natasha Rostova). I can’t think of many other books that so meticulously describe the emotional workings of each character or create such believable inner worlds for them, complete with all their contradictions, whims and caprices. I think it’s his sympathy for his own characters that I like best. He shows that people, like wars, are indescribable. There’s a horrible scene describing the execution of Russian prisoners by French soldiers where he even warns the readers not to condemn too harshly but to try to understand how a myriad of random circumstances and choices brought the world to this point. It’s kind of hard not to admire the way he does this.
There were a couple of occasions, particularly towards the end, when I felt like I was struggling through very thick mud with this book. The fact that I came out of it and still think it’s one of the most impressive things I’ve ever read is probably testament to how readable and enjoyable this is. I can understand why it’s rated so highly and loved by so many people. On the flip side, I can also completely understand why one of my colleagues hates it with a passion. Each to his own, I guess.
While I was reading I often had the curious feeling that this was life and that everything else was just revolving around the book. Does anyone else ever get that feeling? It’s been a long time since any book has made me feel so completely and utterly absorbed in another world like that. I have another brief post on this book to write (just tips for any future readers) and then it’ll go back on the shelf. It’s probably about time I moved on with my life!