Dust and Ashes

What follows is a long and rambling post about my reading history with War and Peace. It’s basically a book report. This probably doesn’t have value for anyone except me, so you have my apologies in advance and be aware there are spoilers ahead.

In approximately 2001, I went to my local Barnes and Noble and purchased Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1869), specifically Ann Dunnigan’s translation for Signet Classics. I was an English major home on summer break, and it was A Very Important Novel (TM). Obviously I was meant to breeze through it.

Except I couldn’t crack its shell. The opening section of the book–which concerns aristocratic St. Petersburg society in 1805, including the struggle over a will and the machinations of the marriage market–was impenetrable to me. Russian name conventions are hard enough for an uninitiated American reader, but then there’s also a great deal of name repetition (e.g., Karagina and Kuragin, multiple Andreis, Maryas, Natalyas, and Annas, etc.). I put it down before the first shots were fired.

I picked up the same edition in 2005ish. I was between college and grad school, and the United States was in the middle of an intense debate about militarism and our multiple wars. There were small allusions to W&P everywhere, and I felt out of the loop because I couldn’t follow them. I did manage to reach the war that time, but then Tolstoy introduced about 25 new characters, and my progress stagnated. Maybe Russian literature just wasn’t for me.

More than a decade later, along came Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, a through-sung Broadway musical that adapts a slice from the middle of W&P. As an avowed musical fan, I always try to listen to the scores of the Tony-nominated shows, and Great Comet received a slew of them in 2017. (Digression one: from this year, have you heard Hadestown?)

I was sort of unconvinced when I pressed play on Spotify–it was obviously trying to hop on the Hamilton bandwagon, plus Josh Groban? ew–but as I described here, I freaking loved it.

The show gave me a toe-hold for the characters. I now knew Natalya was Natasha was Tasha was Countess Rostova. But the soundtrack also made me curious: how had Pierre ended up married to Helene (because I honestly couldn’t remember)? Was there any sincerity in Anatole’s attempted seduction of Natasha? And, most of all, what happened to Natasha and Pierre after the events in the show?

I could’ve answered these questions with Wikipedia, I suppose, but that felt like cheating. So in January 2018, I picked up Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokonsky’s translation for Vintage Classics. Somewhere along the way, I’d either lost or pruned my old copy of W&P. I picked this one after a few minutes of browsing on Amazon because the reviews indicated it left the French dialogue/letters intact and I can read a little French. (It’s all translated in footnotes, though.)

And then it sat on my nightstand and taunted me for 18 months. Are we sensing a pattern?

The problem this time was largely that it was a print book and that the Vintage Classics edition is particularly massive. Like trade+ size. It wouldn’t fit in my purse, and it was heavy and awkward to hold. Plus, there was enough trauma in the world; I didn’t need trauma in my reading.

But I’d marked it as “currently reading” Goodreads. I’d told people I was going to read it. And I wanted to read it. I did.

Clearly, there was only one solution: to assign it to myself as homework. I’m not a person who resists required reading, quite the opposite. If the only way I was going to get through W&P was a forced march akin to the French retreat from Moscow, then there was no use dragging my feet. I didn’t expect to enjoy it, but one hundred pages a day, give or take, meant two weeks of reading: dry but doable. And so I girded my loins and started.

Because I’d finally learned the name conventions and who was related to whom, the opening section wasn’t so bad, and, in fact, I was deeply invested in understanding the Helene-Pierre dynamic. Sadly, it didn’t quite deliver as Tolstoy isn’t interested in the interiority of his female characters (as I’ll discuss at greater length below), but that’s sort of a running theme in 19th C literature. Grab a chair, Leo, and join the boy’s club.

I read up on Austerlitz, which helped me follow the first war section, and then I began running into bits that had made it into Great Comet and those propelled me forward. I can report that the book builds tremendous momentum when it hits 1812; indeed, I read the second half of W&P in about three days.

Yes, I am pleased to report that eighteen years after I first attempted it, I finally made it through W&P. I’ve got some quibbles, which I’ll discuss below, but after I settled in, I legitimately enjoyed it. I then watched the 2016 BBC miniseries, spent several days reading W&P fanfiction, and hotly debated free will vs. necessity with anyone who would engage with me. It’s dominated my thinking for the past month.

But is it the greatest novel ever? Does it deserve to sit at the head table in the canon of western literature?

I…don’t even know how to answer that question. I’m firmly in the reader-response critic camp. I’d argue what matters most in the triangle of book-reader-author is the book-reader relationship because without the reader actively making meaning out of it, a book is just a bunch of symbols on a page or e-reader. I’m not saying author intent is utterly unimportant or that only the stuff on the page matters–I’m not a strict New Critic or formalist and in fact I’m deeply interested in both interpretive communities and ever shifting cultural contexts–but readers are primary for me.

This, at some level, de-emphasizes the importance of a canon. Any canon. You can be thoughtful and wrestle with big questions no matter what you read, or you can skim the classics every darn day. You’re the lodestone, not the text.

What I’m trying to say is that I don’t think you have to spend your entire life reading Very Important Novels (TM)–like say, the ones on this list–if you don’t want to. Even if the only things you’ve ever read are books bearing the imprimatur of such lists, that doesn’t make you deep. And, moreover, it’s impossible to overlook how white, male, European/American, straight, middle and upper class, Christian, etc. the canon continues to be.

It’s important to note that those biases are all over W&P. It is, at some level, a book about which rich guy is going to marry a lively, beautiful young woman. The parallelism between the two major strands–who will marry Natasha and why did Napoleon’s invasion of Russia fail?–is impossible to overlook. I don’t think it’s overstating things to say the fate of Natasha’s virginity is the fate of Russia. (Digression two: has anyone read anything comparing William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury–a book in which a young woman losing her virginity ruins her brothers’ lives–to W&P? They felt similar to me.)

I fully admit I started W&P because it seemed like I had to as a person who likes books and I wanted to finish it because it was this mountain I seemed doomed not to climb, but I don’t think that’s a good enough reason in the end. Yes, many people have said it is Important or Worthy and it has found an audience over 150 years, but perceptions of literary merit are unstable and cultural; each book has to make its own case for its inherent value to the reader. And your evaluation of W&P’s value might be different than mine.

For me, W&P was most successful when it explored Pierre and Andrei’s struggles to find meaning in their lives. And this might be why I couldn’t finish the book until I reached middle age. I’m not saying people in their teens or 20s don’t ask those questions, but Pierre’s sense that he has missed his chances in life or Andrei feeling kinship with the seemingly dead oak tree: those moments were far more salient to me now than when I first cracked the spine on W&P. (Digression three: this piece by Tara Isabella Burton for Vox on the musical explains the show’s dramatization of existential debates beautifully.)

But I feel compelled to point out that Tolstoy is only interested in asking those questions vis-a-vis his male characters. When I was listening to the Great Comet soundtrack before I’d read the book, I didn’t understand why Natasha didn’t get a big second act song. Why oh why was there not an exploration of her choice to attempt suicide after she discovers Anatole is married, for example?

The answer, I discovered, was that Tolstoy hadn’t written it. In the book, that choice is presented after the fact in a line of exposition.

/insert record scratch gif/ What?

This is a book that’s deeply concerned with why things happen and what life means. Here’s a character potentially irrevocably rejecting life and love…and the author isn’t interested in exploring that decision point? Nope, he is not.

Similarly, Pierre’s first wife, the calculating Helene, is poorly motivated and has, on the page, no inner life at all. She’s the only character whose roles in the musical and the 2016 miniseries might actually be expanded because she almost doesn’t make sense as written. I’m willing to admit some of this might have been self-censorship. Tolstoy might not have felt like he could represent her having affairs, conceiving a child out of wedlock, and (perhaps) dying from an illegal abortion on the page, but having to read between the lines so much to understand her feels like a cop-out at best and slut-shaming at worst. Justice, or at least better writing, for Helene!

Additionally, Tolstoy’s disinterest in women hits the hyper-moral female characters as much as it does the morally transgressive ones: he rarely reveals Marya and Sonya’s thoughts, and they’re both so self sacrificing it’s almost painful. I was actually hugely relived when Sonya sent the letter to Marya lying about Andrei’s health improving because it felt realistic to me. Why should she give up Nikolai without a fight? Additionally, while Marya’s virtue is rewarded (with Nikolai), Sonya gets screwed–and not literally. I went looking for fanfiction, in fact, because I needed someone to give Sonya a happy ending (more on this in a bit).

A few more observations about the text:

  • The novel’s body shaming of Pierre is tedious and objectionable. We get it, Tolstoy: Pierre is big and you think his size is somehow related to deficiencies of character. This was tired and cliched when you were writing it, bud, and it hasn’t aged well.
  • In the first epilogue, I was hugely frustrated by Natasha giving up her singing specifically and the characterization of her as parochial and diminished in general. I didn’t understand why she needed, basically, to exit public life for the sake of her marriage, especially if Pierre didn’t have to give up his. Both Natasha and Pierre needed to change relative to who they were early in the text, yes, and something about this culture is excessive and rotten (see my next point), but there was something sexist about how this manifested in Natasha’s arc.
  • Related, in the second epilogue, I did not understand why Tolstoy failed to apply his big theories about agency, as contradictory as they were, to the book’s marriage plot. Why was the free will vs. necessity question only relevant to Napoleon and not, say, the actions of Anatole Kuragin? Or Marya facing down her agitated serfs? I suspect that doing so would have forced Tolstoy into an uncomfortable political position. So he chooses the M*A*S*H way out: set your book in the not so distant past instead of the present in order to achieve more abstraction and distance.
  • I tweeted about this when I first came across it, but to preserve it for posterity, I believe there’s a historical anachronism. Shortly after Natasha and Andrei become secretly engaged (so in 1811), the elder countess requests someone play, “[her] favorite nocturne by Field,” but John Field didn’t publish his first nocturne until 1812. /Emma waggles her eyebrows at you meaningfully/ (Digression four: Field’s nocturnes are deeply beautiful, and I aspire to play them someday, which is why that date was in my head. I particularly recommend number 4 and number 13.)
  • I am deeply fascinated that W&P evidently remained popular in the USSR given its focus on aristocrats and its persistent religiosity. If anyone has read anything good on how the book was taught or read in the Soviet period, please point me toward it because I can’t reconcile it at all.

But…despite all of these quibbles, I found W&P to be absorbing, worthwhile, and powerful. I really could not put it down once I’d crossed the mid-point, and given how many times I’d bounced off this book, I was stunned by that turn of events.

I even think I might want to…read it again. After doing more research into the various English translations, I might give Anthony Briggs’s Penguin Classics translation a spin one of these days.

A coda about adaptations and responses: after having read W&P, I’m confident in saying that Great Comet is a truly wonderful adaptation. It succeeds by radically zooming in on one fragment of the story, true, but musical Anatole is more comprehensible, I thought, than book Anatole. I’m curious whether the show will endure or sink into oblivion. But regardless, if you’re at all curious about W&P, you might want to start it. I never would have finished the book without it.

As for the 2016 BBC miniseries, I’d give it a B-. My hat is off to Andrew Davies for condensing the book into 6 hours, but it felt more like the CliffsNotes version than something independently comprehensible. There were also a few serious casting mistakes; the only way I buy Anatole’s seduction of Natasha is if they have absurd off the charts chemistry. This Anatole–I refuse to look up the actor’s name–was the ultimate dudebro. I did not believe Natasha would fall for his brand of bullshit.

Additionally, this version cuts most of the interiority and all of the philosophizing. I’m not certain how they could be included without an enormous amount of voiceover, which the miniseries uses sparingly, but I felt the loss of that dimension of the text.

The war scenes were competently filmed, however, and the costumes and production design were excellent throughout. So I’m not not recommending it, but I didn’t think it was amazing. I’m curious about the other film versions, specifically the 1960s Soviet one. We’ll see if I brave it.

When I was unmoved by the miniseries, I turned to fanfic (I started here), mostly to see if someone had supplied a much needed happy ending for the long-suffering Sonya. Intriguingly, many of the stories I found paired her with Dolokhov. “No,” I thought, “that’s appalling.” But is it? Is it really impossible to believe he might grow from the war into a better person, as Andrei, Natasha, Pierre, and Nikolai do? I will continue to ponder this.

I wasn’t surprised to find a lot of slash; Dolokhov/Anatole and Pierre/Andrei were there, as you’d expect. There was a complete lack of Anatole/Andrei or Anatole/Andrei/Natasha, which disappointed me. The angst potential there is immense, though the writer would have to backfill in a lot of character development and growth for Anatole since Tolstoy seemingly wasn’t as interested in him as he was in Pierre and Andrei.

And thus, with a whimper, I’ll end this long set of notes on W&P. In spite of my struggles with you, W&P, you may have defined my reading year.

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Author: Emma

Emma is a novelist, full-time mama, recovering academic, and former political staffer. When she’s not reading or writing, she loves her twins' hugs, her husband’s cooking, her cat’s whiskers, her dog’s tail, and Earl Grey tea.

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