War and Peace

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Posted (edited)

So...... this was supposed to be a September selection, but a) Arcadia Project Book 2 was due at the end of that month and b) it's 1000 pages long, so I'm not even 100% sure I'll finish reading it by the end of October.  Hopefully I'll get back to a book-per-month schedule eventually.

As of today, I've read through the first section, and I'm enjoying it, but I'm not quite ready to comment yet.  Anyone is welcome to join this little forum and give your thoughts.  If not, I'm more than happy to continue publicly talking to myself.  Whatever keeps me reading!

Edited by Mishell
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My thoughts on part one:

My personal reactions, without peeking at Spark Notes etc - As with Dostoevsky's work, I love the vivid quality of the people in this novel.  Tolstoy introduces a huge number of characters with (for an American) confusing names, and yet even I had very little trouble remembering who was who.  He has a wonderful way of giving each person a prominent "tag" such as a mole, or just being "that guy who tied a policeman to a bear," so when you are introduced to the character in a different context, your memory is quickly jogged.  That was a really interesting thing, for me: the way I kept running into the same characters in different context.  I felt I was looking at the same complicated 3-dimensional puzzle from various angles, and that it gave me a much deeper picture of the whole.

For example, I had read quite a ways into the chapter about poor sad lonely Mary before I realized that was the same woman who was suggested as a match for the roguish Anatole in the very first chapter (or was it the second?).  When I finally made that connection it gave me a satisfying feeling of a puzzle piece sliding into place, but even before I knew how she connected to previous characters I was already very sympathetic to her.  My favorite line in the entire first section is the one that comes right after she reads her friend's letter describing her as having a lovely gaze, or something like that, and she looks into the mirror and decides her friend is just flattering her.  Because, as my translation puts it, 

"But the princess never saw the beautiful expression of her own eyes - the look they had when she was not thinking of herself."

That just got me right in the heart.

Only after looking at the Spark Notes on the section did I notice the titular metaphor in play: the social scene with its warlike strategies, its generals, its victors and conquered.  Looking forward to reading the next section, which seems to involve itself with war more literally.

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Love that quote, too. Also I love that you can say, "...just being 'that guy who tied a policeman to a bear.'" :D

Interesting, I was just thinking of it as mostly being a section about Peace, except as affected by War with the discussions of Napoleon, talking about men leaving, and especially Prince Andrew and his pregnant wife. Okay, so a lot about War. :) Hmm.


Speaking of which, aaah. I can understand why Prince Andrew said it to his father in context, but this horrible quote:

"I know that no one can help if nature does not do her work," said Prince Andrew, evidently confused. "I know that out of a million cases only one goes wrong, but it is her fancy and mine. They have been telling her things. She has had a dream and is frightened."

Um. Wut. In 1805? No. One out of a million isn't even close to true now. Le sigh.

Edited by Marcy
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"Both were talking and listening too eagerly and too naturally, which was why Anna Pavlovna disapproved." :D

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"Both were talking and listening too eagerly and too naturally, which was why Anna Pavlovna disapproved." :D

Oh yes, I adored that one too.  Anna was the "General" of which I spoke in my first post.  Merciless!

And yes, Andrew's complete lack of concern for his wife's health, in that day and age... it's like he's never met anyone who had children.  What happened to Andrew and Mary's mother?  Did it say and I forgot?  If she died in childbirth I'm going to punt him off a cliff.

Edited by Mishell
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Ah, yes!

And YES. If it said I don't remember either, but... My goodness. I feel like almost every mother I know who's somewhere around my age (so I've heard them talk about their pregnancies) has had some complication or other. And a rather alarming number of those life-threatening, especially without modern medicine. I... just... aaaah.

I mean, if I were a woman in Andrew's social circle I certainly wouldn't talk with him about it. *snort* But you'd think he'd at *least* hear about various women dying? Or is that too gossipy for him? >.<

Edited by Marcy
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I've finished the second section of the book now, and while I have tremendous difficulty understanding the details of war: hierarchies, strategies, formations, etc. - it didn't keep me from enjoying the other stuff that Tolstoy is good at.  The characters continue to be interesting and vivid, and I loved many of the more personal, emotional moments and small ironies.  My difficulty with wartime details doesn't so much decrease my enjoyment as simply slow me down.

I loved the bit where Nicholas is unable to accept the fact that the French soldiers might actually intend to kill him, when everyone else seems to like him so much.  Really illuminated the complete detachment from reality that comes with wealth and status, compounded in his case by the naivete of youth.  I hope his arm's going to be all right, but I have absolutely no idea.  He seems like a good kid, if spoiled.

Prince Andrew surprised me by being rather likable in this section, whereas I couldn't stand him in the first.  He is definitely more in his element on the battlefield than in the ballroom.  A bit overly idealistic, perhaps, but I think it's good to balance out some of the cynicism, meanness, and sheer ineptitude that's seen elsewhere in the military.

Tolstoy's ability to evoke the sensory detail in the setting is really amazing.  Even having zero experience with that part of the world, or with war, I finish the section feeling as though I'd been immersed in the battle, both the beauty of the setting and the horror of the carnage.  I can't help but wish I were fluent in Russian and could read the poetry of it in its original form.

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I finished it on Friday, so looks like we are reading at a similar pace for now.

I wish everyone was always referred to by name, but I liked Tolstoy's descriptions of army placement and strategy. Seemed like he's good at quickly getting across the important points, in contrast to my memory of Victor Hugo in Les Miserables, who as I recall would spend LONG chapters describing the setup for a battle in excruciating detail and ENOUGH ALREADY. (I love that book, but there are parts I'd like to cut.) And it seems like Tolstoy describes strategy and such for the purpose of the characters, and their reactions to it, which I like. Hugo... maybe eventually got there, but after a long chapter of geography and army placement, with nothing about characters to break it up, until the end of it. I particularly liked how Tolstoy explained in Chapter 14 why Prince Bagration was needed to delay Napoleon's army so the rest of the Russian army could retreat without being destroyed or cut off from reinforcements. (I mean, I couldn't visualize where they all would be on a map, particularly in relation to where reinforcements would come from, but I can take Tolstoy's word for it.)

Well, and I guess I liked all the parts about how the characters affected the war, too. I think it's tempting to think of war as just movement of pieces on a game board, and to forget that human decisions affect it (and that doesn't just mean the officers and commanders). Like this bit,

"Zherkov, not removing his hand from his cap, turned his horse about and galloped off. But no sooner had he left Bagration than his courage failed him. He was seized by panic and could not go where it was dangerous.

"Having reached the left flank, instead of going to the front where the firing was, he began to look for the general and his staff where they could not possibly be, and so did not deliver the order."

And this part made me laugh, in a sad way, heh: "The general and colonel looked sternly and significantly at one another like two fighting cocks preparing for battle, each vainly trying to detect signs of cowardice in the other. Both passed the examination successfully. As there was nothing to said, and neither wished to give occasion for it to be alleged that he had been the first to leave the range of fire, they would have remained there for a long time testing each other's courage had it not been that just then they heard the rattle of musketry and a muffled shout almost behind them in the wood."

Liked the part in Chapter 20 about "That moment of moral hesitation which decides the fate of battles had arrived." It continues with the sort of writing setup that normally culminates in the tide turning, but then, "The moral hesitation which decided the fate of battles was evidently culminating in a panic." :D

And later about that same general (I believe) who couldn't get his soldiers to obey him and stop fleeing,

"'When I saw, your excellency, that their first battalion was disorganized, I stopped in the road and thought: "I'll let them come on and will meet them with the fire of the whole battalion"--and that's what I did.'

"The general had so wished to do this and was so sorry he had not managed to do it that it seemed to him as if it had really happened. Perhaps it might really have been so? Could one possibly make out amid all that confusion what did or did not happen?"

Anyway. I know I've read in other novels about the idiocy of political admirals -- in David Weber's Honor Harrington series, but I think maybe in something that was more directly about Russian military too, though I can't remember what it was -- but I liked the way Tolstoy, in comparison, just had subtle digs at all of that. Especially the contrast between appearances and dress versus actual competence and courage. I think that general I mentioned above was the same one that was so proud of his record and his soldiers in parade dress and everything in Chapter 1, and upset with Dolokhov being in a blue coat.

Then Timokhin is Dolokhov's commander, scolded for Dolokhov's dress, mentioned as a drinker, but then right after the quote about "moral hesitation" in Chapter 20 Timokhin saves the day with his sharpshooters. "It was Timokhin's company, which alone had maintained its order in the wood and, having lain in ambush in a ditch, now attacked the French unexpectedly. Timokhin, armed only with a sword, had rushed at the enemy with such a desperate cry and such mad, drunken determination that, taken by surprise, the French had thrown down their muskets and run."

And the other hero is Tushin, who we first meet before the battle being scolded for not even wearing his boots. But he stays with the artillery, and Prince Andrew says in the end, "...'we owe today's success chiefly to the action of that battery and the heroic endurance of Captain Tushin and his company.'"

Good point about Nicholas. I'd just been thinking of it as one of those things where it doesn't seem *real* that people actually want to kill you, but you're right, it doesn't seem to be just a weird emotion for him, but an actual belief that they couldn't want to kill him! Hope he'll be okay, too. I really have no sense in this book of who Tolstoy might or might not be willing to kill off, it's too different from other novels I've read. Prince Andrew seems like a main enough character he won't be killed, but maybe Tolstoy will be willing to kill main characters too, who knows? He certainly has enough of them!

Yeah, I... could stand Prince Andrew in the first section, but was definitely rolling my eyes at him. But his impatience with social niceties serves him well in the military, though you're right, he's idealistic. Or was until the end of the section, I hope his disillusionment doesn't start him down a dark road. They need someone who so sincerely tries to do the right thing, instead of just keeping up appearances.

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I am still reading this!  Life just got reeeeeallllllllly weird for a bit.  I'll be posting my thoughts on section 3 shortly.

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Yay! Except the weird life bit.

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Posted (edited)

My reading of Part Three was broken, distracted, and strung out over some rather difficult months, and so I don't have it in my head as a particularly coherent whole.  That said, I was surprised to find that the battlefield sections captured me more thoroughly in this section than the domestic.  I did enjoy watching Pierre get trapped into a marriage with the chillingly calculating Helene.  I especially love his final (internal) words on the subject:  "It is too late now, it's done; besides I love her."  Besides I love her.  Besides.  Heh.

My favorite part of this section is poor Nicholas Rostov and his terrible, glorious crush on Emperor Alexander.  The culminating scene speaks so, so personally to me it's almost uncomfortable: him finally having the chance to be alone with the object of his adoration, and instantly thinking of a thousand reasons why it would be unseemly to actually approach him.  Riding away only to see another man approach and earn a moment of the Emperor's most vulnerable, intimate trust.  That entire scene was just heartbreaking and yet funny.  It amazes me how relevant and personal so much of 19th century Russian literature feels.

Edited by Mishell
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