Sharing just my initial reactions are not enough for War and Peace, given its length and depth. I feel I should think about it some more. I’m ready to do so, now that I’ve let it sit for a week.
I think I needed that week. I have not read much at all this week so far (about 70 pages since I finished War and Peace last Tuesday morning). I’ve organized my thoughts into discussion questions for my book group (which met Wednesday night), and now I’m returning to the novel after a few days where I honestly didn’t think of Tolstoy, the War of 1812, or Napoleon at all.
Revisiting the novel through my initial reaction on finishing it and by reading all of your comments has been beneficial in organizing my afterthoughts. Emily says that when she feels impatience with a book, she slows down and asks herself, “Huh, this is an interesting choice the author is making…wonder what that’s about.” That is exactly what I didn’t want to do for this particular novel, but she’s right.
As I reflect on the novel, I see how the historical bits are integral to the tome. Tolstoy was capturing the entire (upper-class, at least) Russian people during the war. If I were his target audience (a Russian of 1865), I probably would have loved his insights in to how the battle of Borodino progressed. I would have appreciated the political discussions, and I’d have felt at home with Kutuzov, since he was (at least from Tolstoy’s fictional or political bias) a Russian hero.
I don’t read a lot of historical fiction, and this may be my problem in approaching the text: I don’t particularly like historical fiction any more1 and I don’t know how it works normally (i.e., in modern but literary historical fiction).
For you historical fiction readers (anyone? anyone?), I’d love to know, does the author jump in and describe why and how the battle (for example) is progressing as it is? I have noticed that Pulitzer-Prize winning The Killer Angels is about Gettysburg (a battle that I’ve been fascinated by), but I have not yet read it. I’ll have to pick it up and see how a modern author treats a legendary battle. In War and Peace, Tolstoy goes so far as to inform us that he has visited the battle field for his research; he includes a map of how the map must have happened, given the terrain of the land.
Here’s another question for readers of historical fiction. In modern historical fiction, does the author include asides about the historical and/or political development or happenings? Beyond the Blossoming Fields did this (thoughts here); I was also rather annoyed by that author’s inability to determine if he was writing a novel about Ginko Ogino (a historical figure) or a history of medicine in nineteenth-century Japan. Once again, Tolstoy seems to be going a step farther in his political asides. It seemed to me that he’s making sure we know why Pierre’s comments are politically scandalous, for example, and he’s illustrating the political environment with the language change (French goes increasingly out of favor with the aristocracy, because it was seen as unpatriotic.)2
And finally, one more question. In modern historical fiction, does the author ponder the deeper impact of how he’s describing history? Iris commented on how Tolstoy seemed ahead of his time in weaving history into the story. I’ve said twice just above that Tolstoy went a step farther. That extra step is, I think, the reason Tolstoy’s War and Peace is a classic, besides the fascinating story of Natasha and Pierre and Andrei and Marya. Although, remember that I am not a historian, and I don’t know when the first historical fiction novel was written. Was Tolstoy first?
Regardless of the history of historical fiction, Tolstoy is experimenting with both the writing of fiction and the recording of history. He’s rewriting history for us, but that is what historians (that is, writers of nonfiction) do as well. His point is that no one really know what happened in the past and why. I believe that is what the horridly boring second epilogue is about. He’s pondering, after all is said and done, “What is history? How does one determine what really happened? Which historian do you trust? Why not believe in Natasha and Pierre as well?”
In that sense, I find it very interesting that Karen’s college professor made them read the entire novel and then they didn’t discuss the second epilogue at all. My guess is, the teacher doesn’t get it either? Or just doesn’t care? Don’t worry, then, Erin, if you don’t “get it” on your first read! Apparently none of us really do. I don’t think anyone needs to read that second epilogue to enjoy the story, honestly, because it’s completely outside of the story. Tolstoy is trying to figure out history. So Allie, if you too don’t get it on the first read, don’t be discouraged and just enjoy the story part. Tolstoy still hasn’t figured out what actually has happened either. I think he’s trying to figure out history as he writes about it.
What other books have you read that seem “ahead of its time”? What made it so novel ? (Feel free to groan at the pun!)
Tomorrow morning (I think), a spoilerific post about the women in War and Peace.
- I loved it when I was younger, even in high school. But now, I’d rather read either a novel or a nonfiction account, take your pick. ↩
- In the end, I liked the fact that Pevear and Volokhonsky did not translate the French and German inline in the text but rather kept their English translations of those in the footnotes. It helped me follow who was being foreign (German) and who was being aristocratic (French). I thought switching down to the footnotes would bother me, so I was pleased it did not. ↩