I feel like an idiot even thinking about writing a review of “War and Peace,’ but since I just re-read it, by God I’m getting a review out of it, and adding it to my official book count. So what to say about this stunning, confounding, confusing, maddening, amazing work of literature?
First of all, if you’re approaching W&P for the first time, throw away all your preconceptions of what a novel should be like. Forget everything about tightly plotted character arcs and all that nonsense. W&P is a novel, but it’s also so much more than a novel, so the “rules” for novels don’t apply here. What you have here is not art, but life.
Or rather, what you have here is life raised to the level of art, not brought down to the level of artifice. Although W&P is in fact very sturdily constructed, and holds up to repeated reading well, Tolstoy rails against everything artificial and contrived, and W&P is the opposite of the novel that reads like a novel, or the work of art(ifice) that is clever for its own sake. Instead, what you get is a book in which everything is presented simply, naturally, where Life in all its profusion of details, confusion, and heartache reigns supreme. Births, marriages, battles, and dinner parties all appear with equal weight. Which is just as it should be. Today’s dinner party is more important to us than next year’s or last year’s battles, and may be just as revealing of what really matters.
Not that the book is boring, or rather, for each reader there will probably be boring stretches, just as there is in life, but there are also great and tragic romances between seemingly star-crossed lovers, epic battles, duels and executions, the burning of Moscow, and everything that makes a great cinematic extravaganza. Think “Game of Thrones,” but set during the Napoleonic wars, and with a philosophical footing. Because as the novel continues, Tolstoy grows ever more interested in important questions such as “Who makes history?” and “What is fate vs. free will?” Did the War of 1812 turn out as it did because of specific actions of Napoleon and Kutuzov and Alexander I, or were they just corks caught up in the tide of history and the general national spirit, working the will of others even as they thought they were imposing their own stamp on the world? These are the kinds of things Tolstoy the narrator contemplates, as do some of his more philosophically inclined characters.
I almost wrote “self-aware characters” there, but that would have been wrong. All of Tolstoy’s characters are self-aware, or if not, then Tolstoy is aware for them. Perhaps one of the most striking things about the book is how astonishingly modern the characters feel, and how easily they could be transported to the 21st century. They may wear shakos and carry reticules, but, two hundred years before the word “selfie” was invented, they are relentlessly taking internal selfies, constantly taking mental snapshots of themselves, their surroundings, and their behavior, and obsessing over how many “likes” others are giving them, even as Tolstoy is also documenting everything from the outside with his virtual camera. Indeed, one of the more complex things about the narrative is how it switches from third-person omniscient to limited third-person, with interjections of skaz (narration in the form of oral vernacular), letters, historical documents, and philosophical treatises. Not to mention the French.
Ah yes, the French. And the German, and the occasional bit of Italian. “War and Peace” is a book about many, many things, but one of the things it is about is language and, more broadly, communication. The upper-class Russian characters speak French; some of them can really only speak French and struggle to speak Russian, communicating more easily with their ostensible enemies (and even, in one exciting passage, passing themselves off as French while on a mission to spy on the enemy camp) than they do with their “own people.” And yet they are also in possession of the Russian soul, something they can access in near-mystical fashion when necessary.
If this seems like a contradiction, it’s not. Or rather, one of the things Tolstoy is at pains to demonstrate throughout the novel is the limits of logic. Relying too much on logic makes us blind and deaf, and gets us into all kinds of illogical tangles. It’s in our heart where the true truth lies. One can argue with that as also being a limited view, but in the modern, industrial, scientific age, of which Tolstoy was a part just as we are now, challenging the limits of logic is an important stance to take, lest hubris overtake us, just as it did Napoleon.
This is my third read through W&P, and my first of the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation. They’re controversial figures in the Russian translation world, but just due must be given for the service they’ve rendered Russian literature. In their foreword to W&P, they specifically state that they strove to be true to Tolstoy, not “idiomatic,” which they rightly argue is neither definable, nor an essential element of great literature. The result is something that, while it does possess the occasional moment of roughness and foreignness to the English-accustomed ear, is probably the closest one can get to reading Tolstoy in the original without actually doing so. Certainly for me, as a native English speaker, reading their translation was a very similar experience to reading Tolstoy in Russian. Which is a great triumph. Everyone should read “War and Peace” at some point, and if you can’t read it in Russian, this particular translation may be the next best thing.
Want your own copy? Get it here: War and Peace (Vintage Classics)
This blog uses Amazon Associate links.