So I read War and Peace. It really felt like an accomplishment.

I think I’ve read more complex books and if not longer, not much shorter, but there seems to be a whole rite of passage associated with W&P. You feel you must prepare for it like you prepare a camping trip in the wilderness: you decide to do it and carefully plan a route and what to pack.

So from the height of my experience, let me give you some advice for a successful W&P reading:

1) Go to Wikipedia and read a bit on the Napoleonic Wars and the invasion of Russia.

2) Make it a read-along. At first my friend and I decided to make it a year-long project and read only 200 pages a month, but we were so surprised by how easily we were getting along that we sped it up to 400 pages/month. It was really good to have someone to discuss the book with every 15 days or so: it motivated me in the slow bits, made me notice things I’d missed and helped clear most doubts.

3) Read it in a digital format, not only because of the weight, it also helps if you’re able to quickly look-up names and places mentioned on page 43 and that you’ve forgotten by page 967.

W&P‘s story follows the events just before, during and just after the French invasion of Russia, as seen through the eyes of five Russian aristocratic families. We get to know them during the peaceful times and once war strikes the narrative splits into following the men at the front and the lives of those left behind.

For lack of better words: I really liked it. It surprised me how much, really, but I do admit to a prejudice against The Russians. In fact, if it wasn’t for that last third it could have been one of the best of year. Taken by themselves, those last chapters should have been called “Setting the Record Straight” or “How Historians Got it Wrong”.

It might have been Tolstoy’s agenda from the start, but at the end of W&P it became much more obvious that he wanted to myth-bust some of the accepted truths about the Napoleonic invasion. And he has no qualms blaming historians for the misconceptions:

“C’est grand!” say the historians, and there no longer exists either good or evil but only “grand” and “not grand.”

History (or what is called by that name) (…)

All that strange contradiction now difficult to understand between the facts and the historical accounts only arises because the historians dealing with the matter have written the history of the beautiful words and sentiments of various generals, and not the history of the events.

Yet Napoleon, that greatest of all geniuses, who the historians declare had control of the army, took none of these steps.

Tolstoy’s biggest qualm with the established History as it teaches us that all major changes happen because of  the will of great men like Napoleon of Czar Alexander II. He was a firm believer that at  what really mattered was the movement of the masses.

To study the laws of history we must completely change the subject of our observation, must leave aside kings, ministers, and generals, and study the common, infinitesimally small elements by which the masses are moved.

It’s a great argument, and he presented powerful arguments, but by the end of the book his wish to bring this point home (often in a repetitive way) is done at the cost of the characters he made us care about. At some point the parts about the families become very rare and most pages were filled with long essays on What Really Happened.

Credits: Theresa McCracken, CartoonStock

This being said, it was a great ride to accompany the fortunes and misfortunes of these characters. The balls, the intrigues, the romance, the innocent and the cunning, the hangers-on and the intellectual wanna-bes. It was very easy to imagine the St Petersburg’s salons illuminated by hundreds of candles, or the patriotic fever that possesses the young gentlemen at the front, still romanticizing the idea of fighting for their country and soon to have the reality-check of their lives.

As Claire (The Captive Reader) very well put it,

In Anna Reid’s history of the siege of Leningrad, she mentions that War and Peace was a popular reading choice during the first deadly winter of the siege, when half a million civilians died. I can completely understand why Leningraders, starving, freezing, and watching civilisation disintegrate around them, sought to escape their surroundings with this massive, enthralling novel.

I can also easily understand. There is some extraordinarily compelling about these characters and their lives. Every one of them is so layered that you can never easily tag him or her as the villain of the good guy. What you can’t help is immediately chose a favorite.

In my case (as it happens with almost everyone), Natasha got me at hello. She’s full of life and really stands out among the other, less spontaneous, characters. Natasha seems to live without great concern for what society might think so this is why,

*spoiler*

I felt a bit cheated about how we see her at the end, tamed by marriage. Her personality is diluted and she thinks and acts only as she thinks Pierre would wish her to. Am I being too harsh or did I miss Tolstoy’s real intention with this Married Natasha?

* end spoiler*

Another character that fascinated me (and this will probably only make sense to those who read the book) was Helene.

Do you believe there are characters that escape their creators? That become more than what the authors meant for them to be? I always did and Helene is a great example. Tolstoy keeps telling us how stupid she is, but look at her actions: she quickly becomes the leader of one of Moscow’s leading intellectual salons and it’s hard to believe that she did it being as dumb as Tolstoy wants us to believe. To me she’s a very smart social strategist, ambitious and cunning. A great example is,

*spoiler*

how she ensured that society would go along with her idea of divorce. She started carefully spreading the idea here and there and then planted it in the mind of her confessor. Brilliant!

* end spoiler*

My friend and I spent a long time discussing the book (and made a bet about who would marry Natasha… I now owe her a package of good tea) so I know there’s a LOT more that could be said, but I’ll stop here. I’m glad I read it and finally understand the fascination of generations with War & Peace. If any book has the right to be called an epic, this is it.

By the way, I read Project Gutenberg‘s edition and was really surprised at the quality of the translation. Highly recommended.

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