“I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.” – Woody Allen
There is a time and place for everything. The trick is having a sense for timing; the place will take care of itself, which I believe is an as-yet undiscovered Newtonian law. When I heard/read that there was a new (somewhat bally-hoo’d) translation of Tolstoy’s 500lb (226.79kg) gorilla, War and Peace, I felt it was the right time to tackle it. Santa Claus delivered and I begun my task of reading all 1,224 pages with the aim of finishing by the end of 2008. Now, normally I am not a slow reader, but because this was an exquisite hardcover edition (384cm2 in size and weighing under 3lbs) it was not something I could take with me on the streetcar to work. It became my bedside book for the entire year.
War and Peace follows the lives of several members of Moscow nobility during the Napoleonic wars of 1805 and 1812. In particular, two families are focused upon: the Rostovs and the Bolkonskys. Skirting between the two, becoming the unlikely main protagonist of the book, is Pierre Bezukhov, an awkward intellectual who inherits his ailing father’s fortune at a young age without having any sense of purpose to guide him.
The Rostovs, represented by their patriarch, the well-meaning but indebted Count Ilya Andreevich, feature the principle protagonists Nikolai and Natasha (as well as siblings Petya and Sonya – the latter an orphan). The Bolkonskys, represented by the hard-nosed military man Prince Nikolai Andreevich, feature the siblings Andrei and Marya.
Before I go any further, I bet you’re asking yourself something: “Hey, that’s a little confusing. What with both patriarchs having the name Andreevich and one of them sharing the first name with the other’s son, Nikolai. Wow – how do you keep track?”. One of the nice things about this edition (and I can only speak of this edition as I haven’t perused another) is that it has a handy list of principle characters at the beginning…which you will need for the first, oh, 200 pages.
Right, where were we. Oh, yes, Russia. Introductions are made to the principle characters in a way which seems presciently tailored to a sweeping Hollywood adaptation: colourful fêtes with dancing and ball gowns, the young Count Bezukhov at his dying father’s side, the talk of war amongst the men. It is from this point that the eldest sons – Nikolai and Andrei – ready themselves to join the military: Nikolai as a member of the corps, Andrei as an adjutant. During the build-up to the first battles, Pierre, a reluctant member of the nobility perennially in search of meaning without any family or friends to guide him walks through the lives of both the Rostov and Bolkonsky families, acting as both an outsider and confidante.
If I may take this moment to say the following: it’s a really long book, and so I’m not going to draw a quaint plot summary. If anything, the book follows the travails of the Bolkonsky and Rostov siblings – through war, personal tragedy, love, and faith. Tolstoy renders the winding lifelines of Prince Andrei, Count Rostov, Pierre, and Natasha in a knowing way. He knows that, between idealistic teenhood and adult maturity, people’s lives do not often move in diagonally vertical lines; mistakes are made, passions are erupted, and past conflicts infect our clarity. In short, Tolstoy has formed unique characters who capture the spirit of their day (and class) while also imbuing them with strengths and weaknesses which seem tangible.
It is important to note several things about W&P and Tolstoy. First and foremost, that, as a book, it is not really easy to classify. In his own words (from the Appendix): “[…] it is not a novel, still less an epic poem, still less a historical chronicle.”. Secondly, that it was first published in serial form, which may explain its girth (assuming he was paid by the word). Third, that regardless of its size, its ornate complexity as regards relationships between characters, regardless of Tolstoy interrupting the story from time to time to philosophize about the nature of war or critique the narrow-minded assumptions of historians, you will probably not read (or find) a book like this again.
There are three predominant voices in the book: Tolstoy the storyteller/character-driver, Tolstoy the military historian, and (as noted above) Tolstoy the agit-prop polemicist. I didn’t expect that latter. I thought I was getting a thick slab of story wrapped in history, but what I didn’t realize is that the wrapping is heavily spiced. In several places Tolstoy makes asides to the reader, and whether it is describing the clock-like movement of troops or the erroneous presumption of Napoleon’s genius, I felt closer to Tolstoy the writer; although some will find these sections a bit out of place, his commentaries are poetic and philosophically powerful.
“As in the mechanism of a clock, so also in the mechanism of military action, the movement once given is just as irrepressible until the final results, and just as indifferently motionless are the parts of the mechanism not yet involved in the action even a moment before movement is transmitted to them. Wheels whizz on their axles, cogs catch, fast-spinning pulleys whirr, yet the neighboring wheel is as calm and immobile as though it was ready to stand for a hundred years in that immobility; but a moment comes – the lever catches, and, obedient to its movement, the wheel creaks, turning, and merges into one movement with the whole, the result and purpose of which are incomprehensible to it.” (Volume I, Part Three, Chapter XI, p. 258)
It is at this point where I return (briefly) to the translators of this new edition, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. They have (thankfully) preserved the Russian-ness of the book, unlike previous translations. Character names are left as-is and not Westernized, nor are elements like religious ornaments (such as the ever-present ikons) given Westernized names. When French is spoken, it is left in French w/ English footnotes at the bottom of the page. While this may require a little more dexterity on the part of the reader, this edition also comes with a handy 20-page appendix of reference as well as historical notes.
Will one’s life be less if one doesn’t read War and Peace? Only you can answer that. I’m happy to have read it, yet by the time I’d reached the end I barely had room in my head for Tolstoy’s more essay-like commentaries on Napoleon, his so-called genius, and the philosophical symbiosis between freedom and necessity.
I will say that it is not light reading, in case this hasn’t been sufficiently communicated in this review. Truth be known, there is much (much) more I could write on this book, but this is a blog and not the NYT Book section. I do, however, recommend W&P to anyone catching up on classics, or who are curious about non-traditional styles of literature.
War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy (translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky)[ISBN-13: 978-0307266934], is available at a fine independent bookseller near you, or via any number of places on the Internet.