Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been reading War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. It’s a book, which length and intensity make for difficult reading. And I’ve been busy and exhausted so it’s been a challenge to read it.
War and Peace chronicles the history of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and shows us the impact Napoleon and his ideas/policies had on Russia through the story of five families.
The novel is made of fifteen books or four volumes and two epilogues.
As I mentioned it was a difficult read because it felt like reading History; as you can imagine Napoleon is a major element of what is studied in French school and to be perfectly honest it’s one period of French History that I’ve never been particularly fond of.
There’s a strong ambivalence about Napoleon in France: it’s hard to deny that he had a major impact on French society – the Civil Code dates back to 1803 and we still are ruled by laws that were established under Napoleon – and on European History. But at the same time, he was a tyrant who invaded numerous countries for his own glory and power. Sure he may have sported the idea of the Revolution but at the same time he imposed them on people who didn’t want them.
So yes reading War and Peace was like studying French History from the Russian point of view; or I should say from multiple Russian points of view. Because really each character we meet has a different understanding, concept of what Napoleon is about. Pierre agrees with the revolutionary ideas and seeks to act as an egalitarian, only to realize he failed in the end. Bolkonsky’s father is against Napoleon through and through and regrets generals the likes of Potemkine who would have essentially kicked his proverbial butt.
It’s complicated to comment the writing or the translation seeing as I don’t speak Russian at all. Sometimes the style felt heavy but at the same time maybe it’s the original style. There are some lengthy descriptions that made me think of Victor Hugo’s writing. You’re made to recall that the writers were paid by the words and sometimes wrote in many words what we would thrive today to write as few words we could: it’s a different way.
On the other hand it addresses – obviously or not, at length or not – other matters of social or philosophical importance. One of the things that I couldn’t help but notice was the ways men and women sought to further their personal interests or goals. It’s hard to miss the obvious manipulation from women, how they use their smiles and viles and favours to obtain what they want. Even among men – from inheritance to another soldier’s purse – anything goes. It seems to be a comment on Tsarist society, which Pierre doesn’t seem to understand or conceptualize. He doesn’t fit in.
The question of appearance of wealth or actual riches is also at the core of relationships between people… but not much changes by the end of the book: a comment on the limits of the Napoleonic impact?
An interesting but difficult book. A bit too much reminiscent of my History classes from high school but well. And impossible to read in one week. I barely managed it in two and I know I missed a number of things because of exhaustion 😜.
Do pick it up though it’s good.
Have you read it?
What did you think?