Imagine a carefully made structure of lego. And then suddenly a big football crashing down on it. Multicolour pieces scatter everywhere, parts fall of the table, everything is a mess and chaotic. And that’s what War and Peace is like. Society builds all these refined social structures full of soirees and champagne and social frivolity during times of peace. But when the big monster of war comes along everything breaks down. Suddenly there is chaos, the narrative structure breaks down, and the war itself becomes the most important thing. A huge gravitational force, the reader, like all the characters in the book, is pulled into its all-consuming embrace.
It was a contemporary Russian novelist, I think, who described War and Peace as a ‘loose baggy monster’. That description is quite fitting; there is certainly a lot going on without anything that could really be described as a plot. The novel has themes of personal growth, death, finding God, fatalism. And, of course, the philosophy of war. Tolstoy rails against hero worship and wants us to understand the mechanics of the machine, not just the man whose job it is to push the button.
I’m still 35 pages from the end at twenty past twelve on a Thursday, and I promised myself I would finish it today. I don’t think that I enjoyed reading this as much as Anna Karenina. I found parts of it a little boring, especially the science of war parts; by and large I just didn’t care about Tolstoy’s opinion on this. He gave it so often and so repeatedly that I can only assume that, on publication, it was profound and contrary point of view. But I found the opinion a rather obvious one. That said, I think W&P has a lot more too it than Anna Karenina, and certainly doesn’t warrant criticism - occasionally hurled at Anna K - that it is about only the frippery of aristocratic society.
PS - I read the version translated by Volokhonsky and Pevear as I think it is most faithful to the original text. It retains the French and provides a translation in the footnotes. I found this slightly hard work during the opening part of the book which is French heavy (I had to keep looking down and then up) but overall I think it was a good trade off.
See also: Part 1, Part 3