A beautiful afternoon

What a beautiful, beautiful afternoon! I hope you were able to sit in your green, cool, sun-drenched back yard as I was, and finish reading War & Peace, as I was.

What an odd, odd, enormous book. After the fall of Moscow, after (spoiler alert!) the death of Andrei and the capture of Pierre as a prisoner, the book just sort of dissolves into an essay on the necessity of historical events. Yes, we drag along with the French Armée as they try to flee Russia and are pursued by Russian partisans, and we do finally get back to Pierre and his rescue from the French, and he finally declares his love for the grieving Natasha and everyone’s going to be very happy.

But the book itself ends with Pierre leaving Natasha to go to Petersburg to settle his disgraced dead wife’s debts, and Natasha exclaiming:

“Only what’s he going to Petersburg for!” Natasha said suddenly, and hastily answered herself: “No, no it has to be so… Right, Marie? It has to be so…”

Boom. End of novel proper. There follows an 87-page epilogue, in which we catch up with Pierre/Natasha and Nicolai/Marya, but we just swoop in and out of their story while listening to Leo Tolstoy hold forth about historical imperatives. It doesn’t end so much as evaporate.

Which is probably why the thing was decried as “not a novel” when it was published. I have to agree with Count Lev that it is what it is, and more than anything what it is, is amazing. A huge undertaking (which still took him only five years of writing: did you get that, J.K. Rowling?), it sprawls on a vast canvas, and we are invited to inspect it minutely. It is cinematic in both scope and treatment. One moment we’re overlooking a battlefield and only seeing tiny wisps of smoke in the distance; the next, we’re examining the irrational thoughts of one of our characters who is caught up in the thick of the violence. He zooms, he pans, he cuts, he fades. It’s pretty astounding.

Highly highly recommended.

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