I previously read War and Peace (1869) for a Tolstoy class, mixed undergraduate and graduate, mixed language – I was in the easy division, under- and English – twenty-six years ago, using the Norton Critical Edition of the Maude translation, the same book I just finished.
The professor, a Nabokov scholar, wanted the entire text available for class discussions, so we had double reading for the first third of the class – reading and discussing the novellas in The Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy while simultaneously reading War and Peace, then reading Anna Karenina while discussing War and Peace, and finally re-reading for our papers while discussing Anna Karenina. The bare minimum reading load for a respectable literature class, yes? That was a good class.
War and Peace is hardly the piece of worked-up art that Anna Karenina is, and how could it be? It is so big. That Leo Tolstoy could handle the mass of material as he did was his first achievement. Many subsequent writers of historical fiction have written books – or series – of comparable, or greater, size and complexity, paralleling and criss-crossing the lives of a small (or large) number of characters across a big historical landscape, having them wander into “real” scenes populated by Napoleon Bonaparte and the equivalent.
Tolstoy only had the one example in front of him. This was my single great “discovery” about War and Peace, the influence of Victor Hugo. Save that for later. The bigness of the book is a real achievement, and a real difficulty for me, since it is hard to remember so many details across so many pages.
Vladimir Nabokov called War and Peace “a rollicking historical novel written… specifically for the young” (1969 interview in Strong Opinions, p. 148 – he also says it’s “a little too long,” snort), which is dismissive but insightful. The beauties of the novel – or, more accurately, my guess is that the beauties of War and Peace – do not depend so much on the kind complex motifs of which Anna Karenina is built, but on a more direct feeling for the reality of the characters, even on an identification with them.
As languagehat wrote in 2009, after he had completed the novel in Russian, “I get mad at Prince Andrei with the same sort of exasperated affection I direct at my own brothers, not with the distanced feeling of irritation I experience with, say, Proust’s Marcel.” Oh, let’s not get into Marcel – that guy gets on my last nerve. Maybe Tolstoy’s novel is best read with the immersive identification of childhood. I am not just watching Natasha Rostov at her first ball or Nicholas Rostov at his first battle, but for a time I am Natasha, I am Nicholas. Not that the identification is always that close.
Two characters, Nicholas and Prince Andrew Bolkonski, are if anything too empty, too generic, early in the novel, their characters kept a bit blank to allow me to more easily wander around the Battle of Austerlitz in their bodies, akin to the officer in Sevastopol Stories (1855) who gives me a semi-fictional tour of the besieged fortress.
[Prince Andrew] is monotonous, boring, and merely un homme comme il faut in the whole first part. That is true, but I am to blame, not he. I intend not only to depict characters, their actions, and their encounters, but also to work history in. This greatly complicates my task, and I’m not succeeding at it, or so it seems. (letter to the poet Anafasy Fet, 1866, p. 1361 of the Norton edition)
But this all gets fixed pretty fast. All five main characters – or six, counting His Supreme Highness General Kutuzov? – are good company. I never cared which thread of the story I was reading – was never eager to get back to someone else’s story – as long as it wasn’t a section featuring that blowhard amateur historian Leo Tolstoy.
I feel that given the bulk of the thing, I ought to be able to spend a month with War and Peace, but I think it will just be the rest of the week. My notes say: point of view, Victor Hugo, the wolf hunt, death.