This is my second monthly update on the readalong of War and Peace I’m participating in this year (hosted by Amy and Iris). Unlike last month, when I reported on how much I was enjoying the book and finding it difficult to put down, this month I had a very different experience.
Our goal for February was to read Book 1, Part 2. This is a very male-dominated section of the book, with none of the female characters we met in the first part (no Natasha or Sonya or Princesses Hélène or Liza). Instead we get to learn more about some of the men in the story including Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, Nikolai Rostov, Dolokhov and General Kutuzov. I found it a bit easier to keep track of the characters this month but what I struggled with instead was the fact that Part 2 is spent entirely with the Russian army, on the battlefield and in the barracks. I think my complete lack of knowledge of this period of history and Russia’s involvement in the Napoleonic Wars was a problem here, as well as the fact that I often find battle scenes and military tactics difficult to follow. Some background reading before I started this section would probably have been a good idea!
One thing that did make an impression on me was the sheer confusion and chaos of war and also the conflicts, arguments and fighting that went on in the ranks of the Russian army before they even faced the enemy. For example, there’s an episode where Nikolai’s commanding officer, Denisov, has some money stolen by a fellow soldier.
My favourite part of this month’s reading came towards the end of the section, when we rejoin Nikolai Rostov who has been wounded in battle. He can’t believe that anybody would actually want to kill him, a person everybody likes. Of course, none of that matters when you’re at war; you are simply another enemy soldier and no longer an individual.
“Who are they? Why are they running? Can it be they’re running to me? Can it be? And why? To kill me? Me, whom everybody loves so?” He remembered his mother’s love for him, his family’s, his friends’, and the enemy’s intention to kill him seemed impossible.
It’s through the thoughts of characters like Rostov that Tolstoy succeeds in showing us the harsh reality of war, in contrast to the romantic ideas the characters may have had about it at first. Prince Andrei is another character who had notions of success and heroism but after he visits the Austrian government to report on a Russian victory and discovers that it is not appreciated by the Austrians he also becomes disillusioned with war.
Finally, this is just a minor point but was anyone else irritated by the way Denisov’s speech impediment was handled? I don’t know how it is represented in other translations but in the one I’m reading (Pevear & Volokhonsky) I thought the way the guttural r’s were written was very distracting and annoying.
“They don’t even give us time to dghrink!” replied Vaska Denisov. “They dghrag the ghregiment here and there all day…”
So, this month was less enjoyable for me than last month but I will keep reading, though I’m now a bit concerned that there’s going to be too much ‘war’ in War and Peace for me. The end of Part 2 couldn’t come quickly enough, but I look forward to seeing what Part 3 will bring.
For other participants’ thoughts, see the War and Peace February Check-In.