It will be nigh on impossible to write anything new or insightful about Tolstoy’s War and Peace that has not be said before, so this will be a collection of loose impressions and thoughts that occurred to me throughout 2020 as I read a chapter-a-day (or more accurately seven chapters a week) with Nick.
The first such point is translation. It is really important to take the time to find the translation that suits you best.
I first read W&P in the Antipodean summer of 2001. I had just bought my first home and I spent all of the January school holidays either ploughing my way through W&P, painting, gardening or decorating my new home.
My edition was a 1942/1970 Sandstone Publishing one, translated and abridged (yikes! how did that slip by me at the time?) by Princess Alexandra Kropotkin. I raced through the 696 pages, skim reading a lot of it. I barely remembered a thing.
For me, a big part of the problem with Kropotkin’s translation (besides being abridged) was the names. She stuck with the traditional Russian patronymics which was confusing for this reader in particular. I know that purist prefer the un-Anglocised names, but if you’re only going to read this huge tome once, then make it as easy for yourself as possible, I say. I also found her writing style to be quite bland, or unforgettable.
The trick then, was to decide, which of the available translations I should read second time around.
- Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (Translation Date-2007)
- Anthony Briggs (Translation Date-2005)
- Ann Dunnigan (Translation date-1968)
- Rosemary Edmonds (Translation Date-1957)
- Aylmer and Louise Maude (Translation Date-1922)
- Constance Garnett (Translation Date-1904)
Garnett’s version is the one most people read as it is the one freely available online. I tried the first chapter and knew we wouldn’t get on. I also did not want to read W&P on a screen. I knew I would be making notes, underlining sections and flipping back and forth between footnotes, appendix notes and the main text a lot. I needed a real book!
At the beginning of winter, Prince Nikolai Andreich Bolkonsky came to Moscow with his daughter. Because of his past, because of his intelligence and originality, and especially because of the weakening just then of the raptures over the reign of Alexander I, and because of the anti-French and patriotic tendencies which reigned at that time in Moscow, Prince Nikolai Andreich at once became an object of special deference among the Muscovites and the center of Moscow opposition to the government.
At the beginning of winter Prince Nicholas Bolkonsky and his daughter moved to Moscow. At that time enthusiasm for the Emperor Alexander’s regime had weakened, and a patriotic and anti-French tendency prevailed there, and this together with his past and his intellect and his originality, at once made Prince Nicholas Bolkonsky an object of particular respect to the Muscovites, and the center of the Moscow opposition to the government.
At the beginning of the winter old Prince Bolkonsky and his daughter moved to Moscow. He had become an object of special veneration in Moscow because of his past achievements, his powerful intellect and unusual character, and this, together with the current decline in the popularity of Tsar Alexander’s regime, which coincided with a surge in anti-French sentiment and Russian patriotism, now made him the natural centre of opposition to the government.
At the beginning of the winter Prince Nikolay Andreitch Bolkonsky and his daughter moved to Moscow. His past, his intellect and originality, and still more the falling off at about that time of the popular enthusiasm for the rule of the Tsar Alexander and the anti-French and patriotic sentiments then prevailing at Moscow, all contributed to make Prince Nikolay Andreitch at once an object of peculiar veneration and the centre of the Moscow opposition to the government.
I was very happy with my choice of Briggs in the end. He was easy to read and his phrasing was more modern than the others. However, if I do reread W&P for a third time, I will try the Pevear and Volokhonsky one for a more Russian experience.
What did I enjoy about W&P?
In his Introduction, Briggs says, ‘it’s strength is the weakness of its characters‘. W&P is populated with authentic personalities. They are flawed individuals who bumble around like the rest of us, with an occasional insight or moment of self-awareness, but mostly just making it up as they go along.
He stood there waiting for a chance to launch forth with his own ideas, as young people are wont to do.
I found many of war sections rather tedious. Tolstoy included lots of descriptions of strategy, positions and blow by blow accounts of the action. I was much happier when we returned to the towns and cities and the various homes of our characters and we could see them interacting with each other and watch them react to the events unfolding around them.
If he had learnt one lesson from his military experience it was that in matters of war the most carefully considered plans count for nothing…everything depends on how you react to unexpected and unpredictable enemy action; everything depends on who takes charge, and how.
It was pretty obvious that Tolstoy was NOT a fan of Napoleon. A part of his journey with this book seemed to be about working through his own feelings for this man.
It was clear that Napoleon had convinced himself long before this that he was incapable of error and that everything he did was good, not because it conformed with any general concept of right or wrong, but simply because he was the one who did it.
Like me, Tolstoy is fascinated by history. Especially the difference between the history we study in books compared to the history as lived by real people on a day-to-day basis.
Meanwhile life itself, the ordinary life of real people with their personal involvement in health and sickness, hard work and relaxation, their involvement in thought, science, poetry, music, love, friendship, enmity and passion, went on as usual, far removed from political considerations.
Tolstoy also seemed to struggle with one of my enduring obsessions – man’s inhumanity to man. For me it is trying to understand how the Holocaust happened. For Tolstoy is was the French Revolution. He was obviously distressed by the bloodshed and brutality. Sadly, he was not to know that his own country would soon add an equally bloody and brutal page to the history books thanks to Lenin and Stalin.
For various reasons known and unknown, the French set about butchering and destroying one another. And with the event comes corresponding justification in the expressed will of certain men who believe it to be necessary for the good of France, or in the interests of freedom and equality.
Right and wrong.
Clearly Tolstoy was a man who took his thinking seriously. He grappled with the big picture stuff. Morality, the meaning and purpose of life, the role of religion and the state, leadership and power, the individual’s ability to exercise free will.
‘What’s bad and what’s good? What should we love and what should we hate? What is life for, and what am I? What is life? What is death? What kind of force is it that directs everything?’
Or human relationships. These are the things that make it all worth while. When our private lives are overrun by historic events, when any semblance of control is taken away from us thanks to war, famine or pestilence, what gets us through is love. Our family and friends can be our strength, our hope and our joy. When despair and desperation are close, they can be the reason to go on. Love is exciting, intoxicating and comforting. It is home and it is adventure. It is a balm and frivolous at the same time.
Natasha made sure she fell in love the moment she stepped into the ballroom, not with anyone in particular, in love with everyone.
Change is inevitable.
After my recent rant about racism and whether or not we should still read books that no longer meet our modern standards, Tolstoy reminded me that ‘the view of what constitutes the good of humanity tends to change, and something that seemed good ten years ago now seems bad, and vice versa. To make matters worse, we discover that in history there are sometimes contemporaries who hold opposing views about what is good and what is bad.‘ It was always so, and will always be so.
Times change. Our view of what is right or wrong, good or bad changes too. We can claim no moral superiority. All we can do is learn from it, try to understand it and see ourselves clearly enough to know that we are not prefect or beyond reproach. We too shall be judged by history.
I’m so glad I took the time to slow (re)read W&P. If you plan to read it one day, do yourself the favour of waiting for the right time. A time when you can read it thoughtfully and in an unhurried fashion. Yes, there are bits you might chose to skim (I’m looking at you battle of Ostrovno) and there are times you may wish that Tolstoy had used an editor. But the book is such a magnificent beast thanks to its epic reach, the vast array of characters, the grandness of Tolstoy’s ideas and its sprawling messy nature.
And thanks to cranky Prince Nikolay Bolkonsky, I have a new motto.
Sleep after dinner is silver, sleep before dinner is gold, was his motto.