Rating: 4 stars
The BBC have recently shown Andrew Davies’s adaptation of Tolstoy’s classic. I was underwhelmed by it. The only character who I felt was well represented was Pierre Bezhukov, played by Paul Dano. Nobody else really lived up to the people I met in the novel. I was also disappointed by the choices Davies made in what to strip out of this sprawling story about life. I understand that you can’t fit almost 1400 pages into 6 hours of television, and that everyone finds different points of connection when they read this book, but as I watched this adaptation, the way Davies had reduced Andrei Bolkonski, played by James Norton, to a brooding sub-Darcy who stomps in and out of scenes, glowers a lot, sits on a horse, sits in a carriage, and doesn’t do, think or say a fraction of what he does in the book frustrated me. I should have re-read my notes from 2014, though. I had remembered the Andrei I loved by the end, not the one who frustrated me at the beginning! I still think Davies’s version was lacking, though.
I know people who enjoyed the BBC series, so perhaps I wasn’t the target audience. I do have issues with watching adaptations after I’ve read a book. I am immersed when I read. My imagination is vivid. Actors rarely live up to my expectations. I prefer to watch an adaptation first and read the book afterwards.
But this post isn’t supposed to be a TV review. All of the above is a preamble to the jottings I kept as I was reading War and Peace two years ago. This is what I thought at the time. If you haven’t read it yet, there are spoilers, so read on at your own risk.
Book One, chapters 1-2
Anna Pavlovna – reminds me of Mrs Dalloway, but more intelligent, more informed, more likeable.
The characterisation of each of the players being introduced is perfection. Tolstoy’s style makes them seem alive, as though I am observing them now. They are spirited. The scene is set by jumping into a conversation. There is no turgid exposition.
Book Two, chapters 18-19
The descriptions of the battle are in stark contrast to the lethargy of the chapters leading up to it. Tolstoy captures the confusion, fear and joy mixed together. I enjoyed the description of Prince Andrei assessing Bagration’s actions as commander, and realising that he commands less than assures the troops that things are going as planned. The description of Bagration finally coming to life as he leads his troops into battle is also well observed. The contrast between Prince Andrei, who admires Napoleon but wants to make a name for himself as a tactician who defeats Napoleon, and Rostov, who wants to be brave but never is when the opportunity arises, is well written. Rostov seems more human because of his weaknesses and his sense of self preservation. Prince Andrei seems to hold himself a step away from reality, moving through the war as if in a dream.
And all the rest of Book Two speaks of the disorganisation and mess of warfare, not of the imagined glory and precision.
Book Three, chapter 11 opening
After the previous chapter, with Rostov and others falling in love with Tsar Alexander I in his regal magnificence, Tolstoy makes a sweet point about the sensitivities of regal men. The poor Emperor, far from being a hardy man of war, was indisposed from “the strong impression made on his sensitive mind by the sight of the killed and wounded.” If only those characters proclaiming their willingness to die for this man under his leadership into battle knew what a delicate flower he really was, Tolstoy seems to be saying. Now, I’m no fan of war, and military theory leaves me cold (occasionally a problem with this novel), and I have nothing against anyone who is emotionally affected by scenes of death and injury, but even I know that sensitivity isn’t a characteristic you need in a supreme ruler who intends to lead you into battle.
Book Four, overview
Book Four left me a little wrung out. What an emotional roller coaster. From Andrei’s epiphany and his meeting with Napoleon, to Nikolai returning home and trying to deny his love for Sonya, to Pierre fighting and winning a duel despite never having held a gun before then breaking with his wife, to Andrei’s presumed death and virtual resurrection just in time for his wife to die in childbirth.
I am enjoying the way the characters are developing. People who seemed shallow and unlikeable at first I now find that I care about. Some odd things happened in this book, though – the whole duel scenario and the aftermath, especially the trajectory that sends Nicolai to a card game where he abdicates control over his actions and ends up 43,000 roubles in debt.
Book Five, overview
It feels as though the characters are sleep walking through their lives. Pierre starts off as an outsider trying to fit in, going along with the dissolute behaviour of Nikolai and his friends to be accepted. Nikolai is immature and sheltered by his perfect position within his family who love him regardless of what he does. Andrei seems stuffy and fixed in his ideas, too rigid to let life touch him with joy, too serious. All have epiphanies along the way. Pierre inherits his father’s estate, despite being illegitimate, and doesn’t know how to behave, so allows himself to be guided by someone who doesn’t have Pierre’s interests at heart, ends up in a bad marriage, almost kills someone and now, suddenly, after a chance encounter (almost Damascene) decides believing in God and joining the Freemasons is better for him than atheism and laughing at the Masons. Nikolai survives two hellish battles, realises that as well as being adored by his family it’s also good to have a sense of self-worth that derives from achievement and the confidence of his commanders in the army, then comes home and learns that his boorish friend isn’t what he seems following the duel with Pierre, but allows himself to be led by this friend out of guilt for Sonya’s rejection of him during the card game, thus bringing his family close to ruin, which in turn makes him realise he’s selfish and unworthy of their love. Andrei’s first epiphany happens on the battle field when he realises that life is worth living, only to return home and lose his wife before he can make amends for his former distance from her. His second epiphany (or epoch as Tolstoy describes it) is when he re-encounters Pierre, who tries to convert him to Freemasonry, and undergoes an inner change, vowing to live life in a way that does no harm, causes no disturbance and in which he desires nothing.
Nobody seems aware that, in order to take control of their lives, they have to actually take control – not allow others to dictate the direction they go in or simply allow life to happen to them under the illusion that they’re in control.
My head is swimming with the oddness of it all, because it’s simultaneously real and surreal. I can at once understand why the characters behave the way they do, but at the same time want to ask them what the hell they’re thinking. It’s great!
The chapters describing Andrei Bolkonski and Natasha Rostova’s courtship and romance are beautiful. The tension between falling in love, not wanting hopes to be dashed, and the proprieties of polite society is perfectly described. My favourite passage is the one that describes the change that Andrei Bolkonski undergoes when Natasha tells him she loves him. The wildness and poetry of romance gives way to a love that is more serious, more grounded in responsibility and the reality of a future life together. It is the first time I have seen a man’s perspective written down in what is, at this point in the novel, a romantic story. Perhaps because most of the romantic novels I’ve read were written by women, and I suspect most women are unaware of how love can change for men. Tolstoy articulates it wonderfully well here.
Another set of romantic chapters, following Nikolai Rostov from the army back home, where his mother hopes he will have more success in managing the estate than his father. Instead Nikolai rekindles his love for Sonya, and shatters another of his mother’s hopes – that he will marry the heiress she has lined up for him and rescue the family from ruin.
Interlaced with Nikolai’s romantic reawakening is the blossoming of Natasha, as she stoically copes with Andrei Bolkonski’s absence. Tolstoy develops both Rostov children beautifully through this series of chapters.
The only element I didn’t enjoy was the hunt. I don’t understand hunting, or why people are so excited by it. I found myself rooting for the wolf. I did enjoy the interlude with the distant uncle and the surreal, dreamlike nature of the mumming trip.
The account of Boris Drubetskoy and Julie Karagina’s maudlin and sentimental courtship in Chapter Five made me laugh so much. Boris with his eye on the prize of Julie Karagina’s estates while repulsed by Julie’s desperation to be married, and Julie playing at being fashionably melancholy in Boris’ presence, in contrast with her giddy behaviour with Anatole Karagin.
And then poor Natasha Rostova’s encounter with Marya Bolkonskaya, hampered by Mlle Bourienne and interrupted by mad Prince Nikolai Bolkonski, made me think of times when I have wanted to make an excellent first impression. I was growing to love Natasha as a character up to that point, she seemed to be maturing, but Tolstoy throwing handsome Anatole Kuragin across her path and ruining her future happiness with Andrei made me despise her for her stupidity. A lot of the romantic storylines make me think of the intrigues and machinations described by Jane Austen in her novels. Anatole’s dalliance with Natasha in particular reminds me of Wickham’s abduction of Georgiana Darcy and his elopement with Lydia Bennett.
So Book Eight was another rollercoaster, and now Book Nine is here, with the fateful year 1812.
Chapter two of Book Nine contains a passage that made me laugh out loud at the stupidity of people. I had to read it out to my husband. Napoleon gives an order for the brigade of Polish Uhlans to find a ford to cross the river. The colonel decides he wants to show off in front of Napoleon so asks permission to swim across the river. An aide de camp gives the permission, the soldiers enter the river on horseback and many of them drown along with their horses. So far, so exasperating. Then Tolstoy’s turn of phrase made me laugh: “They tried to make their way forward to the opposite bank and, though there was a ford one third of a mile away, were proud that they were swimming and drowning in this river under the eyes of the man who sat on the log and was not even looking at what they were doing.” The aide de camp tries to draw Napoleon’s attention to the Uhlans’ devoted idiocy and Tolstoy tells us “…the little man in the grey overcoat got up and … began pacing up and down the bank [giving instructions to another officer] … and occasionally glancing disapprovingly at the drowning Uhlans who distracted his attention.” So that all went well, then. Totally worthwhile.
I was a little worried as I started Book Nine, knowing that it would be predominantly about war again, that the prose would grow dull, concerned with tactics and strategy in battle. Initially, Tolstoy introduces the war within the setting of Alexander’s court, before switching to a portrait of Napoleon that presents his descent into egomania and fizzes with energy. The pace and sense of tension is exciting. The satirical humour that Tolstoy employs is engaging. Unfortunately, in chapters nine and ten, he uses Andrei Bolkonski as a cipher to deliver polemic on all that was wrong with Alexander’s military command at the start of the 1812 campaign and his own theories on the nature of men from different countries, and the prose deadens again. It put me in mind of the passages in Dorian Grey where Wilde uses the novel as a vehicle for his own pompous opinions, detracting from the narrative flow. At least with Tolstoy the passages make sense in the context of the story, but for me they weren’t particularly interesting or helpful in moving the story along. Flat exposition rarely is. Much better are the handful of chapters recounting Nikolai Rostov’s adventures on the battlefield and off, and better still the return to Moscow and the fortunes of the Rostovs and Pierre Bezhukov.
Tolstoy returns to the fortunes of the Bolkonskis at Bare Hills. The French are pressing forward and are a matter of miles from the estate, but Prince Nikolai Bolkonski refuses to believe the news Andrei sends him by letter. Eventually, they realise that the French are almost at their door, and move to Andrei’s estate at Bogucharovo, which is still not far enough away. Their error is compounded by the nature of the peasants on the estate, who are self-directing and contemptuous of their masters. Events move on, and Princess Mariya Bolkonskaya is left alone to deal with the peasants, on an estate marooned between the Russian and French forces. It’s an interesting set of observations on the tensions between peasants who believe themselves to be autonomous and gentry who can’t understand that their peasants aren’t actually their possessions. The peasants are a little crudely sketched, but Tolstoy isn’t unsympathetic to their cause.
I am starting to feel that things need to move towards resolution, though, in the novel as a whole. Tolstoy needs to stop setting up trajectories only to change them within a matter of pages and give some of his characters, and me the reader, some satisfaction. For instance, in Chapter 14 of Book Ten, Count Nikolai Rostov, pretty much engaged to Sonya against his family’s wishes, rescues Mariya Bolkonskaya from her plight and instantly starts to think of her in terms of marriage. Is this something that Russians did back then, or the gentry at least, fall in love within 10 minutes of meeting and determine to marry? It seems to happen in every book, two people decide to marry, but then someone else comes along and one of them falls in love with that person, and then everything is off, but the new love doesn’t work out so everyone is miserable for a few more chapters until someone has an epiphany (epoch is Tolstoy’s word) and gets over themselves. It’s starting to feel tediously predictable, like a soap opera based in one location where new characters don’t last long and the regular cast jump in and out of bed with each other so often you’d think they’d be dizzy or diseased. Like East Enders, basically. I don’t know whether it’s documentary, or whether it’s commentary by Tolstoy on the idleness of the rich who have nothing better to do than fall in and out of love and go to salons.
The second half of the book is surreal, with Pierre taking it upon himself to visit the front line, like a tourist, and not be turned away. His bright green coat and white hat draw curious looks, soldiers wish to challenge him but somehow are charmed by his appearance and he remains in the thick of the battle, getting in the way, oblivious to most of what happens around him. Odd.
It has been exhausting, this book. Compelling as well as perplexing. And now I don’t know whether one of my favourite characters is dead or not, just as he’s had another epiphany. But I can’t bring myself to start Book Eleven just yet.
Book Eleven, overview
This book is mostly historical exposition, with Tolstoy recounting the events his characters are living through, putting his own spin on what is recorded in the history books. Moscow is taken, its residents for the most part have fled. Pierre remains. The Rostovs are late to leave. In between the straight narrative explaining the decisions by the military leaders on both sides, we experience the fall of Moscow through Bezukhov’s and the Rostovs’ eyes. Soon into the book, Pierre is told that Andrei Bolkonski and Anatole Kuragin are dead. I felt sad for a moment, but then remembered that Tolstoy had “killed” Bolkonsky before. Sure enough, Andrei pitches up again, miraculously not dead and all set for a tender sickbed reunion with Natasha Rostova. Pierre, meanwhile, is in disguise, plotting to kill Napoleon and bringing his usual ineptitude to his task.
This book contains two beautifully written explorations of what it is to be human. Chapter Eleven is one of the most moving things I’ve read in literature. It gets across the subtle horrors of war, beyond those experienced on the battlefield, and the impossible position ordinary men conscripted to serve find themselves in as a result of war. It was a sobering read. Chapter Sixteen is a mesmerising reflection on what goes through a person’s mind when they start to accept that death is inevitable, and brings this particular part of the story to the saddest end for two of my favourite characters.
Books Thirteen and Fourteen
A lot of theory in these books, and less human interest from the characters in the novel. At this point I can understand why people with little interest in history generally, and still less in Russian military history, might give up on War and Peace. I have found Tolstoy’s exposition of his own thoughts on the 1812 campaign interesting. I knew very little of it before I started reading this novel that is more than a novel, and I feel I have been educated in a subtler way than reading an academic history would have achieved. My knowledge of Russian history is focused around World War One, the October Revolution of 1917, and the consequent Soviet state up until Stalin’s regime during World War Two. Tolstoy has furnished me with an understanding of events that led to the social and political conditions necessary for revolution, and that’s why I’ve been able to keep going through Tolstoy’s polemic against the historians of the 1812 campaign and his polemic against Napoleon.
On the home stretch now: one book and two epilogues to go!
Some nice summing up for three of the characters, but we’re left dangling as to their collective and individual futures at the end of the book, and a fourth key character is only referred to in passing. Hopefully everything will be resolved in the first epilogue.
Only three chapters in so far, and it’s hard going. Lots of essay, not so much novel so far. I’m tempted to skip ahead through a few pages to see if there’s any mention of the characters any time soon. I wouldn’t mind the theory so much if Tolstoy didn’t keep saying the same thing in three or four different ways.
From chapter 5, I got the resolution I wanted. Story arcs combine and a hint of the future remains, without being expanded.
This seems to be the crux of the book: an extended essay on free will, inevitability, the causes of events, the bias of historians in recording events, humanity’s innate inability to understand its own existence. The novel, or romance, or whatever else you want to call the fictional part of the book, illustrates Tolstoy’s thinking. It isn’t a novel in the accepted sense of the word. It is a philosophy, a theory, an allegory, a history, a fable. It is confusing and frustrating, but above all wonderfully written. The characters are beautifully observed. The essay parts might be repetitive, pedagogical, didactic, but they are an interesting insight into Tolstoy’s thinking.
A grand book. If I had the luxury of time, I would have devoured it in half the time it has taken me to read it through snatches of reading in between life.