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War and Peace (Penguin Classics, Deluxe Edition)

1 rating: 5.0
A book by Leo Tolstoy

Set against the sweeping panoply of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia,War and Peace— presented here in the first new English translation in forty years—is often considered the greatest novel ever written. At its center are Pierre Bezukhov, … see full wiki

Tags: Book
Author: Leo Tolstoy
Genre: Literature & Fiction
Publisher: Penguin Classics
1 review about War and Peace (Penguin Classics, Deluxe...

Paperback Building Block

  • Jan 6, 2008
A new translation by Anthony Briggs, introduction by Orlando Figes. I chose this translation based on the strength of the Penguin Classics imprint, the readable size of the print, and the back-cover blurps promising a new and accessible translation. Overall, the translation read very well, although I agree with two negative comments I read on internet blogs about the translation:

1). The decision to give some of the soldiers and peasants stock "Cockney" accents with dropped initial "h" sounds. While I think the translator was trying to impart a feeling of lower-class camaraderie in this decision, it just sounds too anachronistic. Did Russian peasants in 1812 really talk like that?

2). One character speaks with a lisp that turns Rs into Ws (think Elmer Fudd). Hunh? This decision, again, draws attention to the translation and away from the character. (the internet blogs indicate that in the original Tolstoy identifies the character as having an unspecified speech defect, and Briggs felt this best fit Tolstoy's intent. Elmer Fudd? That I doubt).

On to the book itself. Even in the paperback edition this is a concrete block of a book, 1400 pages (including a few pages of notes, maps, introduction, and biographical essay) and easily a couple of pounds that don't fit easily under the arm. For the first 900 pages Tolstoy's sprawling account of Russian aristocracy in the years 1805 through 1820 (centering on relations with Napoleon and the War of 1812) provides a moving and surprisingly fast moving novel while Tolstoy explicates his theories of free will, history, war, and faith.

Even though I felt that the action in and around the capture (and abandonment) of Moscow at around page 900, which should have been a furious and fascinating centerpiece of the novel, lagged in relation to the rest of it, I still must rate this as a classic. Part of my problem may have been "reader fatigue" in the face of the daunting challenge of reading all those pages. I tackled this book over a two week Christmas holiday, and even given time pleasantly interrupted only by family and holiday gatherings, this represents 100 pages of reading per day for 14 days. You may also suffer reader fatigue, but stick with it; the effort will be rewarded.

At that climactic point when the French reach Moscow around page 900, I found the novel it a lull and dragged about for 300 pages until the pace picked up again in the denouement and a truly elegiac epilogue where Tolstoy shows the remaining key characters in their extended family relationships. This 50-page section is a rich reward for following the relationships, thoughts, and sometimes "appallingly bad decisions" (translator's words in the biographical essay) of these characters we have grown to know intimately.

I was reminded while reading this account of the extended family gathering depicted in the movie "Dan in Real Life" that I have recently seen, where an extended family gathers for a much-anticipated annual holiday gathering, and we enjoy the love, respect, and enjoyment of well-worn relationships earned through years of trust and knowledge. I had the same feeling in both stories that the people genuinely loved each other not just in spite of their (well-known and sometimes mocked) faults, but because of them. A comparative review of these two accounts would make a worthy topic for a college literature class paper.

Tolstoy, like Hugo in Les Miserables which I read and reviewed recently, had in his sights not just a character novel, or a war novel, or even a historical novel of sweeping scope, but a theoretical examination of character, war, history, and those topics I listed earlier, woven into and around the fictional action, which serves as explanation, example, and explication.

Free will - The central theme of the novel is the interplay between free will and determinism. "An inner voice told her that now or never her fate would be decided" (p. 575), a phrase that could be applied to several characters. Tolstoy spends several pages in the Epilogue explaining his theory of free will in a historical essay talking directly to the reader, but it is aptly summarized in the words that Tolstoy gave to one of his main characters: "Do you ever get that feeling that nothing's ever going to happen to you again, nothing at all, and anything good is in the past? And you don't feed bored exactly, but very , very sad?" Another character states the paradox in even more stark terms: "Everything matters, nothing matters" (p. 592).

History - Several times during the novel Tolstoy addresses the "Great men vs. Great events" debate and decides conclusively on the side of Great events, in the process declaring his stance on the Free Will debate. Near dead center of the book (p. 670-671), Tolstoy says: "Every action [great men] perform, which they take to be self-determined and independent, is in a historical sense quite the opposite; it is interconnected with the whole course of history, and predetermined from eternity." This stance, while consistent with his philosophy, is also influenced by Tolstoy's obvious dislike of Napoleon, and his stated desire to counterbalance a strong and growing Napoleon-worship amongst historians and biographers in the 1860's when Tolstoy was writing.

War - Tolstoy's descriptions of war emphasize the realistic and accidental events in battle, not the glorified events of romantic writers. He minimizes the ability of Great Men to influence the outcome of battles and wars, as we have seen, and has high praise for the Russian general Kutuzov who lead the backward movement of the Russian army across the country toward and through Moscow drawing the French Army to its ultimate death at the point of its highest triumph (the capture of Moscow); many contemporaries and subsequent historians had criticized the general for refusing to attack and best the French Army during their march into and out of Russia. "But if there's going to be a war like this one, let there be war," (p. 861) states Tolstoy through a main character.

Faith--So how can Tolstoy, and his characters, and his readers, deal with the final gloom of determinism? Does nothing really matter? Tolstoy, on page 1241, acknowledges the problem: "Yes. It would be hard to live without faith nowadays . . . ", says a character with a strong religious faith.

"Why is that true?", asks a character who is searching for a reason to live and believe.

And Tolstoy provides the answer, through a character who has come to his spiritual maturity through a hard-fought struggle with his own sins and lack of faith: "Only someone who believes there is a God guiding our lives could stand a loss like hers, and . . . yours."

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