Wednesday, December 8, 2021

A Fashionable Pandemic Read: Tolstoy's "War and Peace"

 

The Maude translation, revised by Amy Mandelker
 

During this time of plague, fear, lockdown, masks, and tragic death, we have tried to find solace in the classics.  In 2020 and 2021, many people said they were reading War and Peace, according to numerous articles about reading habits in lockdown. 

I am a great fan of War and Peace, and recently read it for the eleventh time, because I caught myself yearning for a broader perspective on life, a more extensive understanding of human beings. War and Peace is, on the surface, a conventional narrative, an elaborate story of high society and military life in Russia during the Napoleonic wars, but it is also a precursor of modernism, interwoven with short discourses on history.  Critics complained about the sprawling hybrid of form, but Tolstoy crankily said, "It is not a novel, even less is it an epic poem, and still less an historical novel."

         

The Rosemary Edmonds translation

 

This panorama of war and peace is interspersed with lectures and rants about the oversimplified nature of the history of war.  Tolstoy dissects the plans of battles and explains they are never the battles fought, because the generals cannot foresee every contingency, and men  rarely find their way to the right place on time.  Later, in the two epilogues, he continues to write about history.  He says,

The historians resemble a botanist who, having noticed that some plants grow from seeds cotyledons, should insist that all that grows does so by sprouting into two leaves, and that the palm, the mushroom, and the oak, which blossom in full growth and no longer resemble two leaves, are deviations from the theory.

 

But if you do not care for lectures, never fear. This brilliant, breathtaking novel focuses on two families, the warm, vivacious Rostovs, who laugh, sing, dance, and go hunting, and the more serious, intellectual Bolkonskys.  The hero is the naive Pierre Bezukhov, the natural son of a rich count and the  heir of a large fortune - who is funny as well as kind.  He makes a bad marriage to a beautiful, immoral, and very stupid woman,  but never gives up looking for meaning in life.  His friend Andre Bolkonsky is another intelligent, restless aristocrat looking for meaning.  War turns out not to be the answer.  And yet war dominates Russian life in the early nineteenth century.


Two very different women vie for the title of heroine. Natasha Rostov, a lively, talented girl who sings beautifully and becomes engaged to the intellectual Andre Bolkonsky after his wife's death, loves to hunt, dance, tell fortunes, and dress up with the Mummers at Christmas. She is clearly Tolstoy's favorite. I prefer the more complicated Marya Bolkonsky, a plain 20-year-old young woman who lives at home with her beloved but terrifying father, who gives her geometry lessons every day - which she does not understand. She is religious, and supports religious pilgrims who stop at the estate to rest.  She would like to be a pilgrim herself.  But she blooms after her father's death, when she  falls in love with Natasha's brother, Nikkolai, a soldier who rescues her when the French invade. 

There is a huge cast of characters, and I don't want to give away too much.  Do read this wonderful book!

 I wish I knew Russian.  Well, it's never too late.

Have you read War and Peace?  And do you have  favorite translation? 

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