by Leo Tolstoy
I finished reading this 1350 page tome for my Classics Club Spin. I had begun it on January 1 and was attempting to read one chapter a day with an online group, but although I was mostly keeping up, it was driving me crazy. When the spin challenge came up I decided to add this book in the hope it would give me the excuse to just keep reading and finish it, and it came up! At the time I was also half-way through Dr Zhivago, so I have had a really good dose of Russian history over the past few weeks!
I know lots of people have struggled with the names in this novel, but one thing that really helped me get to know the characters was watching the sumptuous BBC series – 6 hour-long episodes. (I waited until after finishing the book before watching the final episode!) The visual characteristics and mannerisms of the major players helped enormously, and I especially loved Pierre – so apparently hopeless and ineffectual and yet so fundamentally caring and good. The actor was perfect for this demanding role, as were all of the others!
There are so many themes in this novel – the futility of war, parental neglect, sibling love, romantic love. Then there is the history of the war with Napoleon, and lots of philosophising about all sorts of things. I read every word, including all the descriptions of battle, but gave up during the final epilogue where Tolstoy is lecturing us about his beliefs. This novel really could have been at least three separate books – a history, an essay (or several), and then the narrative about Andrei, Nikolai, Natasha, Marya, Pierre and the rest. I do love Tolstoy’s writing, with his keen insights into human behaviour of all kinds, but I did wish he would be a bit more concise sometimes. The chapters are generally very short (most between 2 and 5 pages) so that also helps when reading such a long and dense novel.
My version of the book had a list of characters at the front, with all of their various nicknames, as well as translations of the French as footnotes – both of these things helped enormously. I chose this version after reading reviews of the various translations, and was very pleased with it.
Highly recommended, but do also watch the BBC series.