Saturday, June 23, 2012

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Napoleon invades Russia and Natasha is exceptionally charming

Wow. This was the final book in my Rereading the Classics project and it turned out to be the best, though I was reluctant to put this one on the list, reluctant to read it. The book was so very thick and the typeface was so very small. Did I really have a whole month to devote to a single book?

But rereading War and Peace turned out to be quite a moving experience. This is a historical novel, with actual people, such as Napoleon and Alexander I, interwoven with the fictional characters. The three main characters, whose struggles with life and love and the invading French Army provide the plot structure, are: Pierre, the once illegitimate and now astonishingly rich nobleman; Andrei, the intelligent Army officer who turns influential people off with his hard edged sense of superiority; and Natasha, the black eyed beautiful singing darling of the happy Rostov clan. The reader cares deeply about these three flawed people.  Tolstoy had such compassion for his characters. He was a keen observer of human nature.

There are scores of minor characters as well. Figuring out who is who among all these similarly named Russian characters is a problem at first, but soon the reader pieces it out. Some of the cynical villains are sentimentalists at heart and some of our noble heroes have a despicable weak streak. What is bravery? What is nobility? What is innocence? They are a lot of successful society frauds in this book who believe themselves dependeable honest people. Society is hypocritical, and morality is something recognized only in the soul, not in society at large.

And there is Napoleon, of course, a key figure obsessing all the characters. Napoleon had quite an influence on European consciousness, didn’t he? Maybe his competence frightened the old relaxed elite, although virtually every engagement of the war on both the Russian and the French sides is a series of miscommunications and botched executions. The war scenes and the chain of command reminded me so much of the business world.   Russia defeats Napoleon, not because of a grand strategy, but because of bull headed inertia.

Tolstoy had an equal understanding of both male and female characters. How does he know what it feels like to breast feed an infant? How does he know what it feels like to charge into battle?  The key thing is that Tolstoy made the characters sympathetic, irresistible. You root for them. I wanted to call up Natasha on a nonexistent cell phone to warn her off Anatole. (Although this is yet another novel with a key plot point being the subjugation of women – women as untouched property.)

I sobbed a couple of times, the first time when the grouchy old prince died. 

The novel wraps up with only a few convenient plot twists. Pierre's wife’s opportune illness, Prince Andrei ending up in the Rostov's house just as Napoleon rolls into town. It's a little like a telenovela, but it works. The only thing that doesn’t work is that dreadful second epilogue.

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