Saturday, April 4, 2009

“War and Peace”: The End

I’ve realized that Maine winters and War and Peace have more in common than I ever thought: I love both very much, but both are so long that I’m always glad to see them end. Tip for betting people: I’m far more likely to reread War and Peace within the next 10 years than move to a climate with no snow, but that’s a topic for a completely different blog.

My honest opinion on blogging about War and Peace: it’s not easy. For me, the problem wasn’t so much that everything’s already been written about War and Peace. It’s Tolstoy’s tendency to recycle themes: mistakes in combat, the propensity to lie, etc. That repetition meant that I felt like I was rehashing old topics over and over in each blog entry. So, a few random thoughts to close out my War and Peace series:

What I enjoy most about War and Peace is that Tolstoy manages to express his messages through both form and content. The idea that life is not completely knowable, for example, appears in his essays, in the fictional passages of the book, and in the very structure of the novel itself, a mashup of genres that covers a lot in 1,200 pages from various angles… but still can’t cover everything, despite all the minutiae. It must, in the end, end!

Oddly, on this fourth reading, the book’s fictional epilogue struck me as more final than it ever did before. Of course Pierre’s ultimate fate is unclear – he might change his mind and quit the Decembrists instead of being exiled – but Pierre seems settled into a new phase in life. And, sure, the fictional portion of the book ends with a new generation, in the person of young Nikolenka, who is afraid of the dark but dreaming of heroics worthy of Plutarch. Still, even the end of the section -- “…” -- felt more like a wrap-up than a new beginning.

Again, not all of life is knowable, but Tolstoy left me with a clean break. I know where most of my characters are, and they seem relatively content. Another factor that signaled “The End”: some of the epilogue’s descriptions felt rushed or programmed or glued on, particularly the mention of “what would Platon Karataev think?” and the fable-like story of Nikolai’s short temper, with its symbolic cameo ring.

What surprises me most about the epilogue, though, is that some readers evidently resent Tolstoy’s depiction of Natasha. The complaint is that she has gained weight, let herself go after giving birth to lots of children, and become a nag. I don’t quite buy those complaints because, for one thing, even fictional characters often grow up. I think Natasha’s adult life fits her youth: Tolstoy created Natasha -- who is, after all, a fictional character -- to evolve this way.

The epilogue Natasha feels like she’s developed logically, organically. Natasha has always had a sharp and honest tongue, and she is an intuitive character who loves family. To me, the most interesting phrase of the epilogue’s descriptions of Natasha is this: “сильная, красивая и плодовитая самка,” roughly a strong, beautiful and fertile/fecund female of the species. Tolstoy writes that, at times, Natasha is more attractive than ever before.

I also don’t believe that Pierre has suddenly become hen-pecked. Remember how Anna Mikhailovna guided him at his father’s deathbed? And how he joined the masons because he wanted discipline in his life? Pierre has always searched for a framework for his behavior, only to find a form of freedom in captivity and then, finally, the opportunity to marry Natasha. I also have to think that if Natasha were truly such a harpy, she wouldn’t let him plot against the tsar!

One other section of the book struck me on this reading: the last days of Petya Rostov. Petya’s Rostovian generosity and emotion are on display as he shares raisins and makes sure a French prisoner drummerboy is fed. He declares his love for Dolokhov, whom he sees as a hero. On his last night, Petya experiences his surroundings as a “волшебное царство” (magical kingdom) replete with остранение, where everything becomes defamiliarized and doesn’t fit expected reality. A black spot could be a guard post or an eye of a huge monster. Everything is possible and, dozing off, Petya even starts to hear and conduct orchestral music in his head. A few pages later, he dies after a resounding “Uraaaa!” Denisov howls like a dog, remembering the Petya who offered up all his raisins despite his affection for sweets.

Of course I remembered Petya would die, but his death felt sadder to me than ever, perhaps because the passage with the magical kingdom and music takes place at night and feels so dreamy. The harmony of the instruments and voices, joined by the sounds of horses and a Cossack sharpening a saber, reads as a metaphor for life, and Petya’s joy feels as childlike as ever. The passage even reminds me a bit of the night when Natasha can’t sleep and wants to fly out the window.

Prince Andrei’s death was also sadder for me than before: his physical and psychological conditions somehow seemed especially vivid and painful. Still, despite identifying with him better this time around because of his straightforwardness, his fading life didn’t move me like Petya’s sudden, passionate last hours. 

After reading nearly 1,200 pages (okay, full disclosure: minus the final essay on history) for a fourth time, it’s the characters’ passion for life and the propensity for human error that that passion generates that will bring me back to War and Peace again some year. That, to me, is the soul of the book, so I’ll watch everyone live, grow, argue, love, go to war, err, and die again. Tolstoy creates characters that feel relentlessly lifelike yet programmed for fiction, so I’m sure I’ll discover new words, quirks, and passages I’d never considered much before. That’s just the way life is.


  1. Thanks for blogging through the book as you re-read it. I found my way here from language hat, and your initial posts inspired me to pick up the book again a month or more ago and finally finish it this past week.

    My undergrad degree is in Russian, and I read the language well enough to read War and Peace in the original if I took the time — but my reading of it has always petered out after a while because I read too slowly in Russian. So I finally read it in the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation. Glad I finally took the time, and I look forward to reading it again in a few years.

  2. Thank you, Chris, for your comment. I'm glad you were inspired to reread War and Peace. And that you enjoyed it!

    Your mention of slowness reading in Russian reminded me that I've thought about writing a post for people who read Russian as a second language. I'll have to do that soon. It took me years to develop enough speed to feel ready to pick up big books, but it was fun getting there!