The OF Blog: Leatherbound Classics: Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Leatherbound Classics: Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

'Well, Prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now just family estates of the Buonapartes.  But I warn you, if you don't tell me that this means war, if you still try to defend the infamies and horrors perpetrated by that Antichrist - I really believe he is Antichrist - I will have nothing more to do with you and you are no longer my friend, no longer my "faithful slave," as you call yourself!  But how do you do?  I see I have frightened you - sit down and tell me all the news.'

It was in July 1805, and the speaker was the well-known Anna Pavlovna Scherer, maid of honour and favourite of the Empress Marya Fedorovna.  With these words she greeted Prince Vasili, a man of high rank and importance, who was the first to arrive at her reception.  Anna Pavlovna had had a cough for some days.  She was, as she said, suffering from la grippe; grippe being then a new word in St. Petersburg, used only by the élite.

Reading Leo Tolstoy's 1865-1869 War and Peace is not reading a novel, or at least not a novel that has a definite beginning, middle, and end.  When I re-read this tome for the first time in over a decade, what I found to be interesting was this sense of a "great sweep" or perhaps a tidal wave, which would drag characters and their situations close to the reader, before events would toss them back out into that breaking wave of events.  War and Peace, for me at least, is not so much a novel reading, but an epic experience which has to be judged on criteria other than just plot, prose, or characterization.

From its opening paragraphs, quoted above, War and Peace conveys a sense of transformation that its characters, reactionary as some of them may long to be, cannot overcome.  Opening during the 1805-1809 phase of the Napoleonic Wars, the reader is thrown pell-mell into 1805 St. Petersburg society life.  In this first part (out of 15, plus two epilogues), Tolstoy explores via chats among characters such as Anna Pavlovna, Princess Mary, and Pierre Bezukhov the social dynamics of the Russian aristocracy in the immediate years before the fateful 1812 campaign.  Tolstoy notes the francophiles in this social set, with their preference for French over Russian (some cannot speak more than the rudiments of their presumed "native" language) customs, even when these customs are 50 or more years out-of-date in France.  As their lives unfold before us, with their gossips on the nefarious doings of Napoleon (the more the reader knows of the events of 1804-1805 involving the "eviction" of several dukes, counts, and other European nobility in favor of Napoleon's friends and family, the more fascinating this undercurrent becomes), the reader develops a keener sense of Russian social life.

This stands in stark contrast to what is happening in Austria during the lead-up to the disastrous Battle of Austerlitz:

So the soldiers, after a twenty-mile march, were kept mending and cleaning all night long without closing their eyes, while the adjutants and company-commanders calculated and reckoned, and by morning the regiment - instead of the straggling, disorderly crowd it had been on its last march the day before - presented a well-ordered array of two thousand men each of whom knew his place and his duty, had every button and every strap in place, and shone with cleanliness.  And not only externally was all in order, but had it pleased the commander-in-chief to look under the uniforms he would have found on every man a clean shirt, and in every knapsack the appointed number of articles, 'awl, soap, and all,' as the soldiers say.  There was only one circumstance concerning which no one could be at ease.  It was the state of the soldiers' boots.  More than half of the men's boots were in holes.  But this defect was not due to any fault of the regimental commander, for in spite of repeated demands boots had not been issued by the Austrian commissariat, and the regiment had marched some seven hundred miles.

Much of the action in Ruthenia and Gallicia is seen through the eyes of the young Prince Andrew, who commands part of this regiment.  In stark contrast to the social niceties of St. Petersburg or Moscow, military life is seen as strict, constrained, with an artificial order imposed over the passions that are often found on the battlefield.  There is a sense of doom that lies over these early war sections, as Napoleon, that harbinger of change, sweeps through battlefields like a gale storm, scattering his enemies as if they were chaff in the wind.  The first volume builds slowly throughout, alternating between the vacillations of the Russian court, as Tsar Alexander I and Napoleon go back and forth between the poles of allies and embittered enemies, to the condition of the Russian army during and after the crushing defeat at Austerlitz.  The characters introduced feel more like witnesses to something great and terrible rather than existing outside of their milieu, but this actually serves to heighten the epicness that unfolds in the second volume.

Volume II, released in 1869, opens with a very different tone than what is found in the first volume:

From the close of the year 1811 an intensified arming and concentrating of the forces of Western Europe began, and in 1812 these forces - millions of men, reckoning those transporting and feeding the army - moved from the west eastwards to the Russian frontier, towards which since 1811 Russian forces had been similarly drawn.  On the 12th of June, 1812, the forces of Western Europe crossed the Russian frontier and war began, that is, an event took place opposed to human reason and to human nature.  Millions of men perpetrated against one another such innumerable crimes, frauds, treacheries, thefts, forgeries, issues of false money, burglaries, incendiarisms, and murders, as in whole centuries are not recorded in the annals of all the law courts of the world, but which those who committed them did not at the time regard as being crimes.

From this point, Tolstoy shifts his focus full-bore to the moment, to that seemingly foretold clash between East and West, between the revolutionary fervor of the French-led Western Europeans and the patriotic ardor of the Russians who, with their army in near full-flight over a thousand miles and with one of their two capital cities in flames, with the fierce onset of winter turn back the seemingly inexorable tide represented by Napoleon, driving him out of Russia.  It is in this momentous event where each character's life, whether it be a socialite or a soldier's, becomes (re)defined and recast against the events of 1812.  The panic, the resolve, the cri de guerre merge together to create an epic tapestry woven of these characters' thoughts and lives and how each thread helps in the creation of an event which is still a matter of legend in Russia nearly two centuries later.  Tolstoy captures the epicness of this moment perfectly, as each scene, each action contributes to the sense that well after the fact, we too have become witnesses to a spectacle whose structure cannot be constrained by the usual novel conventions.  By the time the final page has been turned and we see a new generation emerging, one that is scarred by revolution and yet reluctant to return wholeheartedly to the ancien regime. This sense that more is to come creates a sense of "openness" that is fitting for a tale which begins in media res and which hints at future revolutions to occur.  War and Peace simply concerns itself with two poles of human interaction and the result is a staggering achievement.  Highly recommended.


Gerard said...

Did you read the Contance Garnett translation? If so, do you know how this translation holds up compared to other translations?

Chad Hull said...

I've read the Garnett and the Richard Pevear Larissa Volokhonsky editions. Garnett is fine but felt stiff in comparison. The academics love the latter ( I like it better as well ). Pevear and Volokhonsky also have a lengthy forward (you may be able to read it online) in which they discuss translation issues and why they felt the book needed yet another translation.

The only edition that I've found that seems to be universally reviled is by Anthony Briggs who inserts cockney, and some rather colorful vulgarity in addition to not retaining any of the French from the original.

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