12.04.2013

Finally Finished Reading: War and Peace

For the sake of my own respectability, this is not a proper review; it's just a few key details of personal engagement with the book. FYI. :)
"When loving with human love one may pass from love to hatred, but divine love cannot change. No, neither death nor anything else can destroy it. It is the very essence of the soul. Yet how many people have I hated in my life? And of them all, I loved and hated none as I did her." And he vividly pictured to himself Natasha, not as he had done in the past with nothing but her charms which gave him delight, but for the first time picturing to himself her soul. And he understood her feelings, her sufferings, shame, and remorse.
I never would have thought at the beginning that Prince Andrei would end up my favorite character. More on that shortly.

Historical fiction is not a likely favorite of mine, either—not because I don't like history, but because I don't like seeing modern-day thought patterns and agendas imposed, anachronistically and irritatingly, on the people of yore. I can spot an unlikely "Personal Relationship with Jesus" or "Equality Now!" from miles off. But while it's conceivable, I suppose, that Tolstoy imposed some 1860's Russian thought on the Russia of fifty years earlier, I'm not familiar enough with either to tell, so I was free of my usual hangup and could simply enjoy history and story alike.

The Battle of Austerlitz
by François Gérard
Which I did, very much, despite being occasionally bored by the long descriptions of war tactics—I'm ashamed to admit it, but it's true—or frustrated with the repeated bashing of Napoleonic war historians. Not that Tolstoy didn't have me convinced, mind; I just wanted to yell back through time and let him know that his reader had gotten the point, so he could freely return to whichever character he'd cliffhangered most recently.

The difficulty with that last matter is that Tolstoy often got bored with his characters just when I was getting most interested. When he did go back to one, he frequently summed up the scenes I'd been looking forward to and launched the character into a new set of challenges, sometimes with a new personality to accompany them.

Which is how Prince Andrei—whom I disliked outright at the beginning—ended up as my favorite character, though he's arguably tied with Pierre, whom I loved from the book's front cover to its back. Both men kept a consistent, believable nature throughout the book, and both of them went through spiritual journeys that I understood and sympathized with, right through their final scenes. Tolstoy does nothing better than spiritual journey, and Pierre's and Prince Andrei's were responsible for many of the most beautiful passages in the story.

Natasha Rostova
by Elizaveta Bern
The other characters left me with a more complicated response. Nikolai jerked me around, making me love him for his goodness one minute and detest him for his arrogance the next. Natasha, with whom I sympathized passionately, kept my heart close to hers right up until she hit the epilogue; from there, she was taken someplace I could not follow—could never have followed, even if my life had gone the same direction as hers—and I resented that. Sonya's development got shafted, and I resented that, too. Princess Marya was lovable, but I couldn't like Nikolai consistently enough to get on well with her. And I wound up not minding that Tolstoy apparently forgot about Boris and Julie, both of whom I had originally been much intrigued by.

Probably I'd make peace with most of that on a re-read, which will have to be accomplished with a print copy so I can skip around to the relevant sections. I'm not sure whether to blame my Kindle or my edition for losing pages every time I looked back through my bookmarks, but e-readers are really only good for single cover-to-cover reads anyway.

The story didn't lack for truth, beauty, goodness, or love, of course, even when it frustrated me. I got more out of the history than I thought I would—Tolstoy's perspective on Napoleon being far more interesting and comprehensible than Victor Hugo's—and I left several bookmarks in the philosophy at the end, despite moments of comparing Tolstoy to St. Augustine with amused disfavor toward both.*

I got a kick out of his referring to "the diffusion of printed matter" as "that most powerful engine of ignorance", however.** There's nothing like a little self-conscious writerly deprecation.

Minor frustrations and inconsistencies aside, Tolstoy's characters and their development—especially in spiritual things—are always a delight. I don't regret reading this book at all, despite the brutal scene I commented on last week. Hopefully none of you regret my reading it, though, seeing as how I'm now thoroughly enjoying that Tolstoy-provoked re-read of Twilight. :)

* I've been reading the Confessions for five years. Five years. And the reason for that is that the great saint spends an immense amount of time asking questions like: why does God mention the surface of the deep before mentioning the Spirit of God's movement across it?—and I tend to respond with, "Does. It. Matter?!" Tolstoy had his moments with that sort of thing. To be fair, those moments might've been fewer if I hadn't been so sleepy when I read it.

** And he hadn't even seen the internet! :P

10 comments:

  1. YAY WAR AND PEACE

    I'm glad you don't regret reading THE BEST BOOK EVER

    Totally get why the Very Important War Opinions and Napoleon-bashing might have gotten old; I love it because other 19th cen. history-lit guys can be SUCH egregious fanboys about Napoleon and I love the emphasis with which Tolstoy is all, sorry, NOPE. Not that I wouldn't gladly give it all up for more of my favorite characters, but Tolstoy was trying to do a thing, so *shrug*.

    I think I'm the only one who likes Epilogue Natasha :-/.

    Do you think Tolstoy mistreats Sonya as badly as the characters do, though? I have mixed feelings. I don't like the way he gives Natasha the final word on her, but I also don't believe it's really the final word, if that makes sense.

    I wouldn't mind a spinoff Boris and Julie novel; Boris was one of my favorite "side" characters and there's lots of room for characterization with both of them. ACTUALLY THEY ARE ALL MY FAVORITE. Also, if there were a TV series in which Boris and Julie and Vera and Berg were all neighbors (e.g., "I Love Vera") I would watch it FOREVER.

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    1. I'm glad you don't regret reading THE BEST BOOK EVER

      HAHA. Oh, gosh. This is what I get for posting in a flaming hurry yesterday... I totally didn't mean to make it sound like that!

      As for Napoleon, I absolutely agree, and ninety percent of the time I loved reading Tolstoy's perspective. The frustration only came when I thought he was repeating himself while he had characters waiting in uncomfortable places. That's something I'd forgive without question on the re-read, by the way, since I'm not in suspense anymore. ;)

      SPOILERS FOLLOW

      Epilogue Natasha is happy, so I SHOULD like her. Even though she gave up part of herself, she gave up the part that was making her unhappy, and she did so for her husband and children, which is even noble... but she gave up her spiritual and artistic side, and I just... I never could have done that. Imagining losing that part of myself is like imagining hell. It's an unbearable thought.

      Ah, Sonya. That's a very good question. I felt like Tolstoy wrote her off, like he didn't give her a chance to experience, let alone express, any kind of final emotional response to Nikolai's devaluing of her and the countess' verbal abuse. She was pressured into freeing Nikolai by letter, and she had a little bit of jealous altercation with Princess Marya, and that was all. And I'm not sure whether to blame Tolstoy or Nikolai or both for the comment that "There was nothing in her that could have made him love her." Well, there was once. Back when Nikolai was a good kid. Grr.

      I'd read that novel or watch that show! Boris and Julie were interesting, especially at first... I thought there was enough to them that they could have recovered their youthful decency in time. Which could make for a really good story.

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    2. SPOILERS below.

      I like Epilogue Natasha because she's so completely self-possessed. There's Tolstoy trying to do a sermon on What Is Marriage, with her as Exhibit A, but she just gets up and walks away, the way nearly all his characters do at some point. It probably helps that I don't read her "giving up" her artistic side as either total or permanent. I feel like she'll probably run through a couple more Complete Transformations as her kids grow up and end up a likeable old person like Marya Dmitrievna, I also find her relationship with Pierre totally believable and non-ideal and loveable for the most part. And babies are pretty absorbing sometimes; what can I say? (Nikolai may disagree, but whatevs; he's just jealous because his hands are too small).

      What I can say in defense of Tolstoy's portrayal of Sonya is that he leaves a lot of room to disagree with the characters' estimation of her. As readers, we get a broader view of her story than Nikolai and Natasha can experience. We see that there really was something between Nikolai and Sonya, and can remember it after the other characters are actively forgetting and diminishing it.

      She does seem to be a mystery to Tolstoy, but I think he does her a solid in acknowledging that and stepping back and not trying to "understand" her the way he likes to.

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    3. I can totally see Natasha turning into a lovable Marya Dmitrievna someday!

      As for Sonya, this is where a re-read would help (and it's so hard to do a write-up on a book like this based on just one read!!) There WAS something between Nikolai and Sonya... even though "the other characters are actively forgetting and diminishing it"... and life and memory really like that, where we shape the past to fit the present or at least to make the present bearable.

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    4. "life and memory are really like that" #jennafail

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  2. I want that t.v. show..

    In Sonya's defense, she's almost completely based off of a Real Person in Tolstoy's family..who was one of those people he never really understood..so she sort of becomes the unknowable character here..

    Natasha in the epilogue is..eh. yeah. I feel like she lost something of herself and I'm not a huge fan of her-as-ideal-wife-&-mother. But we all have failings, right! My favorite in the epilogue is Andrei's little boy -the intense one - what's his name??

    And it kind of makes me cry that The Best Book Ever inspired a Twilight re-read..just a little..and that St. Augustine is not as absorbing as he should be..

    but my ultimate favorite character is that French guy Pierre meets in Moscow..the one who tells all the overblown stories of himself: "I saved your life, and now, I have saved your honor" guy..I LOVE him! :)

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    1. SPOILERS

      Oh, I'm all in favor of poor Sonya. It's Tolstoy and/or the other characters whose treatment of her annoyed me. :P

      I love Andrei's son! It's Nikolai, isn't it? He needs his own novel--I could see Andrei and Lise both in him, and he is beautiful.

      Marya came off as more the ideal wife and mother to me. I would have been a hundred percent in sympathy with her if I had been able to like her husband more consistently. But perhaps Natasha was meant as the ideal by Tolstoy? I could see her all-or-nothing personality in her letting herself go, and I loved that she was making Pierre happy, but yeah. She made herself into a different person, and if that's what makes someone happy I'm not going to stop them, but... ugh. I could never do it.

      And it kind of makes me cry that The Best Book Ever inspired a Twilight re-read

      I didn't say inspired, I said provoked! And that's totally what Tolstoy gets for putting in that random brutal scene where the prisoner was murdered. I needed to read something comforting after that. ;P Anyway, you can come argue with me in the combox when I start posting commentary. Will that cheer you up? Or do I need to reiterate that I still love you and Tolstoy both? Because I do. <3

      and that St. Augustine is not as absorbing as he should be

      I TRY to be absorbed! And there are parts of the Confessions that are splendid, beautiful, powerful--they're just so interspersed with questions and answers that I have not managed to find anything interesting in... I'm sorry!!! If you can tell me WHY it's supposed to be interesting, I might get more out of the last chapter. I still have that one chapter left...

      Hahaha, that French guy! Ramballe? I forgot about him.

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    2. I know!! In reality.. the Sonya character had to deal with 'Nikolai's' proposal-of-convenience after his wife died young..sort of a 'I never really loved you, but now I need a step-mother for my kids, and you still love me anyway, right?" She said no.

      I will argue happily in the combox! And yeah, I'm kind of looking forward to it..I wish I'd know before using most of my copy to light the stove!..sorry..

      Ramballe!!! I love him, I never forget him! It's interesting because:

      1. Augustine P'OWNs self-reflective writing..and his Latin totally rocked the Latin-speaking world with it's magic!!!!
      2. He so completely captures the questions of the human heart and makes them look good on paper.
      3. He's relate-able and fascinatingly modern
      4. He was obviously attractive..I mean, right??
      5. Baby Jesus snotted at him one the beach, so ...

      :)

      Provoked..hmmm..maybe you didn't drink enough while reading..that helps?

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    3. I for one am looking forward to rocking out to the mopey anthem that is Twilight.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4oS0811IU8Y

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    4. Masha, hahahahah! Using a book to light the stove... I guess that's practical when you're off grid. :)

      I would be a lot more interested in what Augustine was saying if he were talking about Baby Jesus snotting him on the beach! But I'll try and remember that he's capturing the questions of the human heart even when he's not capturing MY questions. ;P

      That sidecar I was drinking maybe wasn't enough--should've been straight vodka?

      LAURA. That song! I LOVE Imagine Dragons. (Fab art, too!) And that is perfect for Twilight. I need to include music in these posts, I just do!!!

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