War and Peace
pub. 1869 Leo Tolstoy
trans. 1957 Rosemary Edmunds
My word, what a book! In the beginning, dear readers, I’ll confess that I anticipated failure. Tolstoy’s epic addressing the nature of history and war, and the various dramas of peacetime — from the search for meaning to love to politics — begins with numerous back to back parties in which the brave soul who has taken War and Peace on is introduced to dozens of characters surveying one another at parties. The topic on their lips is Bonaparte and war, for even now Russia is stirring to confront the Corsican upstart — although Napoleon’s fateful march into Russia is years away. So many characters at once was overwhelming for me, and I dragged my heels……but then, the duel!
My father chanced to see that I was reading War and Peace, and asked me what it was about. It took me a few moments before I could ready any kind of sensible answer. The biggest obvious drama is Bonaparte’s rise and fall; a man regarded as a hero even to young officers who are preparing to resist his war against Austria at the behest of their Tsar will eventually find those same Russians burning their very homes to frustrate him. The hook of the book for me was its personal dramas, however, as many of the characters grow throughout the span of the title, particularly young Pierre — an illegitimate son of a deceased noble, but one elevated into the nobility upon the passing of his father and the reading of his will. Also much of note are Prince Andrei and young Natasha, though Princess Maria is also worth paying attention to. The characters we are introduced to in those parties changed though the book, growing and falling and sometimes getting back up again. Some we viewed from a distance we grow to cherish; some who were initially charming grow hateful, and I personally did not mourn one particular man in the least, nor his similarly malicious sister. Tolstoy’s characters are alive, and they experience enough that they grow in response to those experiences; the depth of the novel means it’s not a single-track from perdition to redemption, a la Ebeneezer Scrooge.
But for Tolstoy, I think, the heart and soul of the book was history. I don’t mean the war, but history itself. Tolstoy is the utter opposite of a disengaged narrator; he’s frequently in the text, talking to the reader and philosophizing. Tolstoy takes issues with both French and Russian narratives, which portrayed the war as a series of definite actions that were themselves the results of strong deciders, men like Bonaparte and the Tsar. But this is rubbish, from the particulars to the general. I will leave the future reader of War and Peace to encounter Tolstoy’s point by point rebuttals of battles covered here that receive extensive treatment in the histories, but in general Tolstoy believes that history is far more mysterious than we can imagine — mysterious not because of mysticism, but because the variables are so many. The outcomes of battles depends, says Tolstoy, not on the ground chosen or the size of the battalions, but the will and the many manifold decisions made by the thousands of individuals on the ground, as their decisions ring against the others and produce a resounding drama. Tolstoy doesn’t just argue this to the reader, he portrays it happening in the text, so that one Russian general’s plan is foiled by a man on the ground deciding these troops are in the wrong spot, and so he orders them somewhere else; in another area, a Russian charge that disrupts the French march is not ordered, but the result of young men with their dander up, who cannot resist the urge to charge against their hated enemy. Historical events cannot be explained to the decisions of a few key men, any more than the motion of a locomotive can be attributed to its wheels moving. Only consideration of all the players involved can deliver a real story of what happened.
Despite my initial concerns, it was not long at all before the novel had taken me, completely,. It’s a rare story that sets both the mind to thinking, and the heart to warming. I am not surprised that those who read it often read it again. I imagine I shall, if only to experience it through another translator to see if the effect is the same. My copy’s translator rendered one character’s accent as a speech impediment, which provided unintended comic relief:
“Since the adv’sawies wefuse a weconcilation, may we not pwocede? Take your pistols, and at the word THWEE both of you advance.”
That chuckle aside, this really is a magnificent book. I hope to share some excerpts from it later in the week.
Next….AND LAST!!!! …in the Classics Club is The Brothers Karamazov.