- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 24, 2007


By Leo Tolstoy

Translated by Anthony Briggs

Penguin Classics, $18, 1,424 pages


It isn’t only size that matters. Tolstoy’s massive masterpiece has intimidated readers for more than a century and a half, not only because the book can maim or kill if dropped from a sufficient height, but also because of the aura of hard labor attached to both the finished work and its making. Not to mention the commitment required of those plunging into its depths.

By the time Tolstoy (1828-1910) began assembling notes and drafts for “War and Peace,” he was already a decorated Crimean War veteran, master of his family’s lavish country estate (Yasnaya Polyana), a restless intellectual deeply interested in social and educational reform and husband to the redoubtable Sofya Bers, the soulmate and collaborator with whom he shared a combative yet remarkably productive wedded and working lifetime.

“Lev” was an idealist with all the weaknesses and temporizing self-justifications of an egoist and sensualist. His intrepid “Sonya” matched his emotional intensity, reproved his failings, picked him up and dusted him off whenever he drank to excess or chased too many servant girls or wallowed in depression — and in some ways had nearly as much to do with the completion of his great work as did its author.

The story of their mutual dependency is briskly told in A.N. Wilson’s interesting recent biography, in which we re-learn the startling fact that “by the time the book was finished, Tolstoy’s wife (who copied it by hand, at his insistence) had written out the equivalent of seven fair copies of the whole work.”

Even the most weak-willed among us must agree that the least we can do is read the book that exacted such a price and elicited such devotion.

Anthony Briggs’ new English translation (originally published in hardcover early in 2006, and recently as a Penguin Classics paperback) does much to render the anticipated hardships far more tolerable than the wary reader might expect. It’s fluent, graceful and agreeably colloquial, and it moves at a sprightly pace.

The first English translation in 40 years, it is clearly more attractive to a present-day readership than Constance Garnett’s estimable (though depressingly stately) 1904 version and Rosemary Edmonds’ very, very British-inflected 1957 one — and is perhaps as essential for its generation as was Louise and Aylmer Maude’s acclaimed 1923 version (for which the translators consulted the aged Tolstoy, who expressed approval and gratitude for their efforts) in its time.

“War and Peace” was originally published serially in the magazine Novy Mir from 1865 to 1869. (Amazingly, it was made available to that periodical’s astonished and grateful readers at the same time when Dostoevsky’s masterpiece “Crime and Punishment” appeared in it pages.)

Critical reaction was immediately and unanimously favorable, and the book has never lost its grip on readers despite numerous changes in literary fashion and hundreds of hugely ambitious fictions composed in its wake and under its influence.

Any summary of its plot is reductive and misleading. But it can be said that Tolstoy’s vast canvas gradually reveals events of the years 1805-1820, details of Napoleon Bonaparte’s failed invasion of Russia and the effect of the long war thus begun on soldiers and civilians, refined society and the general Russian populace.

These events occur during the troubled reign of Czar Alexander I and feature the armies of the two engaged nations and their leaders, and members and friends of three variously distinguished families that are part of Russia’s landed aristocracy: the sophisticated and somewhat imperious Bolkonskys, the increasingly financially strapped Rostovs and the perpetually excitable Bezukhovs.

The novel begins at a Moscow soire where the “Antichrist” Napoleon is properly vilified, and we are gradually introduced to the major figures Prince Andrey Bolkonsky, about to distinguish himself in an army career, and his impulsive, awkward friend Pierre Bezukhov, a bastard son possessed of neither sufficient means to support himself or marry nor even minimal social graces.

The focus gradually shifts among Napoleon’s French troops and their opposition led by wily veteran General Kutuzov, and the amiable Rostovs, whose radiant teenaged daughter Natasha excites the admiration of all (and considerable romantic interest).

Tolstoy creates brilliant sequences depicting the seminal battles of Austerlitz and Borodino, during which Andrey is twice (and, ultimately, fatally) wounded; Natasha’s feckless brother Nikolay’s progress from slothful indifference to hardened maturity; and Pierre’s zealous pipe dreams of both “reforming” the entrenched inequities of Russian society’s class system and ensuring Napoleon’s defeat, rudely disturbed when he undergoes a transformative purgation through suffering.

These and many other matters climax during the French occupation of Moscow, Napoleon’s realization that he has blundered into Kutuzov’s trap and the long retreat from Moscow that leads to the novel’s muted conclusion, when all passions are spent and adjustments to go on living have been submissively made.

The novel is crammed with unforgettable scenes. The aforementioned battles are depicted with the clarity and richness of detail of one who has experienced war and never forgotten it. The formal ball at which Andrey (who will be widowed when his wife Lise dies in childbirth) and Natasha meet, and sparks fly, deftly foreshadows the hard-won transformation of the bewitchingly ingenuous maiden into a compassionate woman of sorrows.

Images of the passing of an obsolete old order are unforgettably captured in a loving description of the death of Pierre’s prodigal father Count Bezukhov, and in a matchless account of a wolf hunt, which shows the Rostovs in all their innocent self-glorification and delusional sense of entitlement. And there are dozens more such scenes, most so lucid and gripping that we live them as much as we read them.

Tolstoy’s characterizations are equally compelling because we see his people think and feel as well as act, and both as sublimely complex individuals and as components of an embracing, shaping society. (Nobody rivals Tolstoy at presenting a multiplicity of viewpoints during a crowded scene, whether a ball, a battlefield, or a family conference.) Headstrong Natasha; underachieving yet well-meaning Nikolay; heroic, vainglorious, doomed Andrey; the blustering, frequently foolish do-gooder Pierre (surely as rueful an authorial self-portrait as that of Andrey is a wishful self-justifying one): These are the great figures. But they’re in many ways matched by the endlessly resourceful and patient Gen. Kutuzov (the “hedgehog” who outwits the hot-blooded “fox” Napoleon, in historian Isaiah Berlin’s famous interpretation of their rivalry); frail old Princess Marya Bolkonsky, who sees the bleached skulls beneath the sleek skins of Moscow’s ebullient partygoers; nave Cazr Alexander, who never really understands the historical forces that assail his country and lead to his abdication.

They’re all as real as we are, and none of them, once encountered, can ever be forgotten.

The single major blemish on this pristine tapestry is the concluding theory of history (40-plus pages, in Mr. Briggs’ translation) in which Tolstoy argues that even great men’s actions are determined by circumstances beyond their control, not by the exercise of their own wills.

It’s Tolstoy at his most didactic and humorless (even though the points thus made are quite skillfully related to the novel’s major actions) — and it seems quite reasonable that most readers will doubtless find themselves either skimming this “Epilogue” or skipping it altogether.

Fortunately, our memories of the novel’s characters and their experiences are so vivid and varied that even a lumbering lecture — perversely attached to this glowing narrative like a donkey’s tail pinned to a beautiful woman’s gown — seems nothing more than an afterthought. It obviously held great meaning for Tolstoy, but the picture of life that dramatizes its concepts far outshines it, and it is the brilliantly rendered world, not the argument of “War and Peace,” that grabs us, draws us in and will not let us go.

Bruce Allen writes for Kirkus Reviews, the Boston Globe, Sewanee Review and other publications. He lives in Kittery, Maine.

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