War and Peace. Leo Tolstoy.

Tolstoy, Leo. War and Peace. Original (Russian) Russian Messenger, 1869. Translation by Richard Pevear and Larisa Volokonsky, Vintage Classics, New York, 2007. F; 11/19

I’m not sure why I occasionally tackle this kind of monster, it has to be a mix of hoping for something wonderful and a weird sort of narcissism. Anyway this was wonderful, even allowing for contingent fulfilment of expectation. I remember reading an interview with the translators, an older married couple, in Paris Review (No. 213). They were impressive in their commitment to transparent translation. Here in their introduction they give examples of their tending to their literal translation as opposed to more interpretive previous ones, emphasizing Tolstoy’s sense of drama which can be lost in another language.

The story takes place in Russia of course, following in the early 19th century four aristocratic families through most of a generation during part of which Napoleon’s armies attack the country, invade Moscow, and then famously suffer catastrophic failure of supplies and retreat, eventually losing 400,000 of their original 500,000 men, in the Russian winter of 1812.

(In this description of principal characters I’m not going to worry about plot alerts…) The families are helpfully named in an introductory section of the book. The Bezukhovs are fabulously wealthy. The old count dies early on and his enigmatic sensitive son Pyotr (Pierre) inherits the fortune through a technicality and becomes one of the two principal characters of the story. The Bolkonskys, princes and princesses, include the old prince Nicolai, a sharp uncompromising man, Andrei (Andre, who fights in the war, falls in love with the daughter of one of the other families, and then is injured and dies), Marya (Marie, who is said to be plain-looking but blossoms and marries one of the Rostovs), and Andre’s son Nicolai who appears at the end of the story as a 15-year-old boy. The Rostovs all in some respects reflect the characters of the father, a dissolute but fun-loving old roué whose financial fortunes collapse, and the mum whose losses crush her at the end of her life. There’s Nikolai, their masculine soldier and hunter of a son, who in maturity and married to Marya Bolkonski devotes himself to disciplined successful management of her wealth. And then his sister Natalya (Natalie), a gorgeous exciting teenager who through the years falls in love three times , ending up with Pierre, forming eventually the principal couple. Their little brother Pyotr (Petya) although underage enlists near the end of the war. Tolstoy’s bad guys are the Kuragins. The dad is a social-climbing schemer, Ippolit the oldest son consistently makes a fool of himself, fatally handsome Anatole seduces lovely Natalie Rostov and almost succeeds in eloping with her, and elegantly sumptuous Elena marries rich Pierre Bezukhov but eventually separates from him and then dies, as Pierre matures.

I can’t imagine anyone making much sense of the above paragraph unless you’ve read the book and, if you have, gleaning much meaning from it. But I felt I wanted to introduce all these diverse and fascinating characters. So what happens to them?

Almost too much to describe, and the same problem as the one with the principal characters applies here: if you’ve read the book you know the story, if you haven’t this may only confuse you. However, in barest outline, we alternate between war scenes which more or less historically follow Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and his retreat, and the social, financial, and romantic fortunes of the four families. All the principal men of fighting age participate in the war except Pierre, who does and doesn’t: as a non-combatant observer he suddenly finds himself in the middle of deadly fighting at Borodino, and is taken prisoner by the French. Poor Andre as mentioned is wounded and dies of infection following the burning and abandonment of Moscow, Nicolai is the most successful officer, acquitting himself bravely multiple times, and sad young Petya Rostov is tragically shot to death in an unnecessary attack on the retreating French.

Romantic involvement includes Natalie’s betrothal to Andre who is away in the war, seduction by bad boy Anatole, and eventually marriage to Pierre; Pierre’s socially-driven marriage to femme fatale Elena and then eventually to Natalie; Nikolai’s appreciation of Marya’s inner loveliness and his marriage to her, and various flirtations involving Marya’s cute French companion Amalia, Sonia the orphaned cousin of the younger Rostovs, and others.

Consistent with the scope of the story there are at least a dozen other minor characters, fully three-dimensional, participating at times in the main flow of events.

War scenes are magnificently chaotic, and Tolstoy makes it clear, waxing philosophical a couple of times on the subject, that what happen in battle is never as orderly and strategic as military leaders foresee, or writers of history describe. People (men here) experience fear, anger, success, injury, and death, all contingent on the changing winds and contagion of soldiers’ perceptions of what’s happening in the moment. The weapons of course are completely archaic by modern standards, men on foot or horseback, sword fighting, canon including exploding shells and canisters of shot, and muskets (much deadlier rifles were introduced only in the middle of the 19th century, just in time for the American Civil War). In one horrifying scene we experience through stark description the interior of a battlefield hospital, appallingly stinking and bereft of cure or kindness.

The characters themselves are as real as any I can recall anywhere. And they are diverse among themselves and also change and develop surprisingly but credibly. I’m reminded a bit of Wallace’s Infinite Jest, another long book but one where I was very rarely bored. Their sentiments, their actions, apparent random events, families, and the impact of great conflict are all rendered here, about 150 years ago, with pretty well timeless impact:

Andre struck with sudden love for Natalie:

The main thing he wanted to weep about was a sudden, vivid awareness of the terrible opposition between something infinitely great and indefinable that was in him, and something narrow and fleshly that he himself, and even she, was. This opposition tormented him and gladdened him while she sang.

Natalie’s natural performance charm:

Where, how, and when had this little countess, brought up by an émigré Frenchwoman, sucked this spirit in from the Russian air she breathed, where had she gotten these ways, which should have been long supplanted by the pas de châle? Yet that spirit and these ways were those very inimitable, unstudied Russian ones which the uncle expected of her. As soon as she stood there, smiling triumphantly, proudly, and with sly merriment, the fear which had first seized Nikolai and all those present—that she would not do it right—went away, and they began to admire her. She did it exactly right…

Pierre reflecting on human thought:

(Y)esterday a deserter was flogged to death, and a priest, a servant of that same law of love and forgiveness, gave him the cross to kiss before the execution… So Pierre reflected, and accustomed as he was to it, this whole general, universally acknowledged lie amazed him each time like something new. “I understand this lie and confusion,” he thought, “but how can I tell them all that I understand it? I’ve tried, and I’ve always found that in the depths of their souls, they understand the same thing I do, but they simply try not to see it. Therefore it must be so!…”

Napoleon’s arrogance:

Clearly it was Napoleon’s long-standing conviction that the possibility of mistakes did not exist for him, and to his mind everything he did was good, not because it agreed with any notion of what was good and bad, but because he did it.

Nikolai’s courage in battle:

Formerly, going into action, Rostov had been afraid; now he did not feel the least fear. He was not afraid, not because he was used to gunfire (one cannot get used to danger), but because he had learned to control his soul in the face of danger. He got used, going into action, to thinking about everything except what would seem more interesting than anything else—the impending danger. However hard he had tried, however much he had reproached himself for cowardice during his first period of service, he had been unable to achieve this; but now, with the years, it had come by itself.

Tolstoy said in effect about War and Peace that it doesn’t conform to any genre. He does step outside the narrative drama at times, and makes statements about character, emotion, conflict and battle, deceit, arrogance… at various times pretty well anything of human significance. In the epilogue, the first half contains some of the most vivid characterization of the four main characters (now two married couples with kids). Then the epilogue’s second half is in the form of a philosophical essay on history, cause and effect, free will, and other topics in metaphysics that just looks clumsy and distinct from the wonderful people and stories that preceded it. I ended up flipping the pages.

But there are all sorts of lovely thoughts more gracefully embedded in the story:

Ironically, about being a soldier:

A secret voice tells us that we should feel guilty for being idle. If man could find a condition in which, while idle, he felt that he was being useful and was fulfilling his duty, he would have found one side of primordial blessedness. And this state of obligatory and irreproachable idleness is enjoyed by an entire class—the military.

On the contingency and chaos of battle:

From the battlefield the adjutants he had sent and his marshals’ orderlies constantly came galloping to Napoleon with reports on the course of events; but all these reports were false: both because in the heat of battle it is impossible to tell what is going on at a given moment, and because many of the adjutants did not reach the actual place of battle, but told what they had heard from others; and also because, while an adjutant was riding the mile or more that separated him from Napoleon, the circumstances changed, and the news he was bringing became incorrect.

About the euphemistic constructs of history-writers:

The stories and descriptions of that time all speak without exception of self-sacrifice, love of the fatherland, despair, grief, and the heroism of the Russians. In reality, it was not like that.

On the impermanence of morality:

(A)s we follow the development of historical science, we see that the view of what the good of mankind is changes with each new year, with each new writer; so that in ten years what seemed good looks like evil, and vice versa. What is more, in one and the same time we find completely opposite views among historians as to what was evil and what was good…

And concluding his attempts to determine what makes things happen in history:

(T)he concept of a cause is inapplicable to the phenomenon we are considering.

I don’t think this review is much use to someone wondering what War and Peace is all about. You’ll certainly need some time and patience if you take Tolstoy’s giant story on, but I rely on what I’ve written here to remind me a little bit of my experience of reading it. Its reputation looks well-deserved to me.

9.7/9.2 (as usual it’s hard to decide who is responsible for style impact in a translated work. Tolstoy may be even better than these thoroughly capable translators make him look.)

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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