War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.
Vintage Classic, New York, 2008
The following is from the introduction to this translation of War and Peace, written by Richard Pevear. This is a quote from an article entitled “A Few Words Apropos of the book War and Peace” by Leo Tolstoy and published in the magazine Russian Archive in 1868.
It is not a novel, still less and epic poem, still less a historical chronicle. War and Peace is what the author wanted and was able to express, in the form in which it is expressed. Such a declaration of the author’s disregard of the conventional forms of artistic prose works might seem presumptuous, if it were premeditated and if it had no previous examples. The history of Russian literature since Puskin’s time not only provides many examples of such departures from European forms, but does not offer even one example to the contrary. From Gogol’s Dead Souls to Dostoevsky’s Dead House, there is not a single work of artistic prose of the modern period of Russian literature, rising slightly above mediocrity, that would fit perfectly into the form of the novel, the epic, or the story.
I have finished Volume 1 and found it to be quite addictive. I also found Tolstoy’s skill at observing the life around him and expressing those observations quite profound. But we know that, that is why his novels, particularly War and Peace are considered classics.
Volume 1, Part One introduces the reader to the main characters and to the social scene in St. Petersburg and Moscow. Tolstoy takes great delight in describing these parties and social gatherings and all the maneuverings among the wealthy and well-connected. He also begins to explore the main characters of War and Peace.
At moments of departure and change of life, people capable of reflecting on their actions usually get into a serious state of mind. At these moments they usually take stock of the past and make plans for the future. Prince Andrei’s face was very thoughtful and tender. His hands behind his back, he paced rapidly up and down the room, looking straight ahead and thoughtfully shaking his head. Was he afraid of going to war, was he sad to be leaving his wife — perhaps both, but, evidently not wishing to be seen in such a state, when he heard footsteps in the hallway, he quickly unclasped his hands, stopped by the table, pretending to tie the tapes on the strongbox cover, and assumed his usual calm and impenetrable expression. They were the heavy footsteps of Princess Marya. From page 105.
In Volume One, Parts Two and Three take place in the fall of 1805. Prince Andrei, Nikolai Rostov and several others join their regiments in Austria. The Russian army and their allies hope to turn back Napoleon and his army. The French have been cutting a deadly swath across Europe. It begins to be clear that, even with the strength and willingness of the Russian and German troops, Napoleon has the upper hand.
Zherkov, with his shoulders raised high, a familiar figure to the Pavlogradsky hussars (he had recently quit their regiment), rode up to the regimental commander. After his expulsion from the head staff, Zherkov had not remained with the regiment, saying he was no fool to drudge away at the front when he could get more decorations while doing nothing on the staff, and he managed to set himself up as an orderly officer for Prince Bagration. He can to his former superior with and order from the commander of the rear guard.
“Colonel,” he said with his gloomy earnestness, addressing Rostov’s enemy and looking around at his comrades, “there is an order to stop and set fire to the bridge.”
“An order of who?” the colonel asked sullenly.
“I don’t know of who, Colonel,” the cornet replied earnestly, ” only the prince told me: `Go and tell the colonel that the hussars must turn back quickly and set fire to the bridge.’ ”
After Zherkov, an officer of the suite rode up to the hussar colonel with the same order. After the officer of the suite, on a Cossack horse that was barely able to gallop under him, fat Nesvitsky rode up.
“What is this, Colonel?” he cried while still riding. “I told you to set fire to the bridge, and somebody got it wrong; everybody’s going crazy there, they can’t figure it out.” From page 145.
This would all be very funny, if it didn’t mean that Napoleon’s army would appear with artillery, blow up parts of the bridge, kill and wound many Russians soldier and eventually cross the river. Tolstoy makes it clear from the beginning that there was a level of ineptitude within the Russian high command and command structure that was deadly.
The novel has surprised me. I believed it would be dense and a struggle to read, but find that the hardest part is keeping all the characters straight. The Pevear-Volokhonsky translation has a character list, french translations and many footnotes. It is a highly entertaining and enjoyable read. I am in awe of Tolstoy’s abilities as a researcher and an author, at his skill with discription and his observations of people, but mostly at his willingness to take risks and write exactly what he wanted to write.
It is a shame that the label “classic” keeps people from reading War and Peace. There was an interesting discussion on the Books On The Nightstand podcast about this idea. If you are curious, have a listen.