Classics Reviewed: Tolstoy's Great Meditation on History

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Tuesday, October 5, 2010

At about 1,400 pages (depending on the translation), War and Peace is quite a challenge. The weak of heart, or those who suffer easily from eye strain, need not apply themselves to this work. That said, Leo Tolstoy’s epic is well worth the effort.

This historical novel is set in the early 19th century, during Russia’s wars with Napoleon. Covering about a decade’s time (from about 1805 to 1815), the novel treats about a dozen main characters, exploring how they are affected by the wars and the peace that separates and follows the wars.

What distinguishes this novel from other historical novels dealing with the same period, such as Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey series or Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series, is the depth of Tolstoy’s exploration of his characters’ lives and the way in which they are woven into the fabric of the history of those times. This is not simply an historical novel, but a meditation on history, using fiction to tell history.

It is clear that Tolstoy, in preparation for this, read most of the Russian and French histories of the wars. (Tolstoy wrote the work in the 1860s, and so had quite a bit of primary and secondary materials, as well as his own experience in more recent wars in the Crimea, from which to draw.) This is not just history fictionalized, focusing on the great, but an attempt to summon forth a whole culture – its social, intellectual and spiritual life. We see the salons of St. Petersburg and Moscow and hear their gossip; we see the political machinations of the great and small, the successful and unsuccessful; we see the philosophical and spiritual yearnings of men and women, and of Tolstoy himself.

The novel focuses on Pierre Bezukhov, the bastard son of a prominent nobleman, who has spent most of his life in France; on his friend Andrei Bolkonsky and his family; and on the Rostovs, an impoverished noble family Pierre has known his whole life. Pierre is not heroic – he is overweight, unsure about himself and his future, and he has fallen in with a bad crowd when we first meet him. He is also, as young people often are, rather dogmatic in his pronouncements and has consequently acquired a reputation for being rather boorish in the salons of Petersburg and Moscow. As such, he is easy prey for Prince Kuragin, a social climber and politician who sees advantage in his beautiful daughter, la belle Helene, marrying the rich but uncertain Pierre.

Throughout the book, Pierre stumbles from one encounter to another, learning all the time. For a period, he becomes a Mason, and feels that he has found the real meaning of life in that secret society. In time, he realizes that the Masons cannot provide him with anything that touches his soul and that any such truth must come from within. At another point, he concludes that he has been chosen by God, or Destiny, to be the assassin of Napoleon and the savior of Russia – that plan comes to naught.

Above all else, Tolstoy, in this book, while gently showing many people in their various manias and delusions, is suspicious of the easy solution and of the absolute truth. There is no greater plan for us, at least none we can determine. No pronouncements by philosophers, no dogma from theologians, no decrees from the great men can make it otherwise. Still, life is wonderful and mysterious, and we can and should regard it with awe.

A word about translations: there are three excellent translations of War and Peace available – that of Rosemary Edmonds (the one I read), that of Louise and Aylmer Maude, and the more recent by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. The Maude translation is available online. There is no audiobook of the work – there is a BBC dramatization, which is excellent, but severely abridged and altered from the original.

About the Author

Bernard Norcott is our resident connoisseur of classic literature and a technical assistant at the Lucile H. Bluford Branch of the Kansas City Public Library.